openDemocracyUK

Turning point for Europe: humanity remembered

Both governments and ordinary people should respond to the humanitarian crisis with a renewed sense of humanity. 

Monish Bhatia Ann Singleton
14 September 2015
Syrian Refugees.jpg

Flickr/ Freedom House. Some rights reserved.

Last week the public and media became aware, through one image across Europe (and the world) of the plight of people fleeing for their lives. Within the UK this image produced an awakening after months and years of warnings about the consequences of policy failures, wars and discrimination against migrants. Evidence of the catastrophic failures of UK and EU migration policies, which are based solely on immigration control, borders and ‘security’, have been disbelieved or treated with scepticism by policy makers, officials and many academics.

Repeated reports of deaths in the Mediterranean were ignored or seen as someone else’s problem, the public having been fed a relentless ‘diet’ of poisonous ‘news‘ and rhetoric about migration in general. Institutional racism and discrimination was further embedded as asylum seekers (including children) in the UK were detained, portrayed as troublesome, instead of being welcomed and offered protection. Furthermore, the consequences of austerity are continuously blamed on migrants.

There is a crisis of democracy, as well as policy and a humanitarian crisis, which has been fuelled by the action and inaction of our government.

 What can be done? NGOs and activists, lawyers, local volunteers have been working hard for years to raise these questions, to defend people’s human rights, as successive governments have constructed a hostile environment both for migrants and all people excluded within the UK through poverty, disability, social and economic exclusion. It has seemed until now that things could only get worse and we faced a future of ever-declining democracy, an increasingly cruel and unjust society.

However there has now been an overwhelmingly negative reaction, not towards migrants, refugees, but towards governments, for not choosing to act compassionately, humanely and responsibly in solving the humanitarian crises. This has resulted in (a rather politically opportunistic) response from elected leaders, including the British prime minister, who was ‘deeply moved’ by the images of dead Aylan. Certainly, they were shocking and painful images to glimpse, but then one must pose the question: why are political leaders across most of the EU states not moved by images of children who are still alive, suffering and needing protection? Chancellor Merkel in Germany has shifted the approach of Germany, dramatically; the Prime Minister of Finland has offered his home to refugees, but there is a resounding silence from most other leaders.

Is it only dead children who are worthy of kindness? What about men and women who have lost their lives trying to reach safety in the EU? And those who continue to suffer in Calais, those who died in the Eurotunnel and while crossing the English Channel? Why now? What has changed in such a short time since we were told that these people were considered pests, ’swarms’ and/or migrants? Over the past few months, a distinction has been fostered, between refugees and migrants, the former deserving of sympathy and the latter of hate and disgust. Instead of offering protection to highly vulnerable human beings, politicians and certain sections of media have done exactly the opposite and been rather busy deploying exclusionary politics and creating misleading and criminalising labels, such as, ‘genuine refugees’, ‘illegal migrants’, ‘bogus’ and ‘real’ asylum seekers (whatever any of that means). ‘Migrant’ has now become a pejorative term and encompasses these negative labels. 

Desperate individuals who use clandestine routes to enter the EU for safety are by default considered as bad and trouble-making migrants, and consequently dehumanised. Of course, their lives don’t matter and their deaths are increasingly considered as the collateral damage of border control regimes.

We now live in an era where political leaders only respond to the image of a dead child if it is a ‘real refugee’, deserving of compassion. The rights of the dead and the bereaved are disrespected. Parents, siblings, children cannot find out what happened to their son, daughter, brother sister, mother, father or friends. What pain is caused to those left-behind, who have no way to find out what happened, where the body of their loved one might be, let alone pay their respects in the way they would wish to? Those alive are considered a menace and human waste arising from war, poverty and civil unrest.

The British PM has spoken about the moral responsibility to help refugees (not migrants) and also said that we are already providing sanctuary and will continue to do so. Let’s take a moment and analyze this statement. After great deliberation, Britain has decided to take only Syrian refugees directly from the refugee camps, not from those outside camps and not anyone from within the EU. This figure is miniscule compared to the scale of protection that resource-scarce developing countries are offering, while also playing a leading role in solving the humanitarian crisis. Despite the fact that Britain has the capacity and resources to accept more people, it continues to project itself as a small isolated island that is perpetually ‘full’ and closed for humans in need. The latest death toll of people suffocating in locked and abandoned vehicles inside the EU includes Syrians trying to reach countries that will offer them immediate protection.

The UK government needs to step-up, take urgent and courageous measures to stabilize the situation, accept more refugees (people outside camps as well) and share responsibility. The “only this, only that and only so many” logic is faulty and shows how fictitious the refugee-migrant distinction has been used. People in camps and also those who have made treacherous journeys to seek safety and security in the EU, both, are in real, genuine and urgent need of protection.

In March this year the UNHCR issued guidelines for dealing with Europe’s refugee crises. The EU must put in place immediate and adequate emergency reception and assistance capacity, so that refugee families that disembark in Europe after having lost everything are welcomed into a safe and caring environment. All EU member states must participate in a mass relocation programme, as solidarity cannot be the responsibility of only a few states (such as, Germany). The chief also cautioned that:

“… the only ones who benefit from the lack of a common European response are the smugglers and traffickers who are making profit from people's desperation to reach safety. More effective international cooperation is required to crack down on smugglers, including those operating inside the EU, but in ways that allow for the victims to be protected. But none of these efforts will be effective without opening up more opportunities for people to come legally to Europe and find safety upon arrival. Thousands of refugee parents are risking the lives of their children on unsafe smuggling boats primarily because they have no other choice.”

We need to unite and stand-up, and say NO MORE OF THIS. We need to demand our politicians to take progressive, tolerant and humane approach in solving this crisis and treat asylum seekers with respect, compassion and dignity. We can’t let another human die, while we sit behind the computer screen and shed a tear over image of a dead child. We have learnt lessons from World Wars but it seems they have been forgotten. We cannot let history repeat itself. We need to stop being passively tolerant and now wholeheartedly and confidently accept migrants as our friends and neighbours. Within the EU, Angela Merkel (as well as most German citizens) has taken a moral lead in key moves to address the current situation. Immediate action and a long-term policy is needed from the EU as a whole and from each of the individual Member States.

Our societies should be ones in which the happiness and safety of refugees is more persuasive than shocking images of their death, misery and suffering. Last Thursday, a petition was created, urging the British government to offer proportional asylum in comparison with European counterparts – it attracted over 400,000 signatures within the space of 3 days. Let us continue to put pressure on the government, by using peaceful means. We need to view the death of one human being as one too many – let us not waste time, while another human dies trying to reach for safety. Lastly, we urge people to respect the wishes of Aylan’s family and not share images of his dead body. He was once a happy and energetic child – we have been asked to remember him in that manner and to spend our efforts towards protecting the happiness of other children and vulnerable adults.

We have a real chance to turn this society round and to create a hopeful democratic future. The starting point is for all of us, for all our sakes, is to respond to a humanitarian crisis with humanity, with moral vision and open arms. After all, democracy and justice is in all our interests!

 

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