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So, is it a refugee crisis?

“Not really. It’s a crisis of everybody’s values and everybody’s solidarity, and how far they’re willing to go to ensure human rights for everybody.”

I’m Rocio Cifuentes. I’m director of the Ethnic Youth Support Team in Swansea and we’ve developed a project called “the Think Project”, which aims to educate young people and increase their resilience to racism and far-right extremism.

As everybody will be aware of, racism and xenophobia have been increasing significantly in the UK over the last decade, probably since 9/11 in America, and 7/7 in London. When the so-called ‘war on terror’ was instigated, it kind of became a war on Islam. That means that the very diverse communities that we have been living in, in the UK, communities including many Muslims, were increasingly targeted for their race and religion.

In Swansea, we have a small, but growing ethnic population, which includes a lot of Muslims and refugees and asylum-seekers. So, as a charity whose aim is to support ethnic minorities and young people, we felt that there’s a real need to do something practical about the increasing racism and xenophobia and Islamophobia that the young people we support are being subjected to. We looked around and realised that nobody else was really talking to young people in schools, or really challenging in any kind of practical sense the negative media narratives which are really kind of all around us.

In the context of increasing racism and in the context of the UK’s “Prevent” strategy, which was looking at how to prevent extremism from taking root within the UK, we’re already developing a project targeted at young Muslims and preventing them from becoming radicalised and becoming Islamist extremists.

So, we decided to develop a kind of mirror project, which targeted young white kids who might be at risk of far-right ideology and far-right extremism. The concept is very simple. It works through giving young people the facts but also giving them a very positive experience of diversity. The people who deliver the programme are themselves from diverse backgrounds. They are Muslim and they include refugees. That opportunity to speak face-to-face with somebody who is a Muslim or a refugee is very often, for most of the people we work with, the first time that they’ve ever been in direct contact with this category of person that they have previously feared.

And the programme completely changes young people’s attitudes, so through the formal evaluation that’s been done, through various attitudinal questionnaires, at the beginning of the programme we know that the vast majority of the people we worked with are very hostile to diversity.

This is the first time that they’ve ever been in direct contact with this category of person that they have previously feared.

They believe, for example, that asylum seekers should all be sent back to where they come from. They believe that most Muslims are terrorists, they completely overestimate the proportion of people from diverse backgrounds living in their areas. The rough estimate for most of the people we worked with – we worked with nearly 500 people over three years – so more than half of those people actually believed, at the beginning of the programme, that the diversity, the ethnic population of Wales was over 50%, which in reality is around 6%. It reflects the disproportionate messages that the media and some opportunistic politicians have been putting across.

Unfortunately, nobody is really putting those messages right. So schools, and other services working with young people have failed really to give young people the correct tools that they need to be positive citizens of society. They need to do much more to give young people the correct understanding, the correct facts, and to give them a positive experience of diversity, because we do live in an increasingly diverse world, and these are the tools of understanding that young people need if we are going to live in safe and cohesive communities.

Refugees on boat. Ggia/Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved. Refugees on boat. Ggia/Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved.I think Brexit was a shock to many people. But, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise, because of the strength of the feeling that was building against immigration and against Muslims – which was created and exploited by the media, together with politicians. And civil society failed to really realise the scale of that threat, and failed to counter it with an effective narrative and an effective education. So Brexit is just a moment on this journey, which as I mentioned is more than a decade old, commencing probably after 9/11 and after 7/7 in London.

And Brexit is the manifestation of a large majority of the population’s lack of understanding of the realities of migration, the realities of diversity, and combined with their very legitimate grievances around lack of opportunities, lack of housing, and their lack of social mobility. So the issues have been very much conflated, and it’s up to educators, and that includes formal education but also informal education through community groups, through local media, through online media, to really challenge that misunderstanding and get the real facts across.

I also think that we need to go beyond this idea of not being able to talk about diversity and immigration and the idea of zero tolerance to racism. I think that closes down conversations, and in order to really move beyond, and to make progress, we really have to enable and even encourage, particularly young people, to say how they feel in a safe and respectful environment, so that these views can then be carefully challenged and discussed.

We need to go beyond this idea of not being able to talk about diversity.

I think there’s too much emphasis, especially within schools, on excluding young people, or this idea of ‘no platform’ for racist ideas. Of course, there is a line, and when that line becomes inciting racial hatred, of course that should be treated as criminal. But there should be much more room in schools, and in organisations where we can work with young people, for discussions around the concerns around immigration. Most of the time the concerns can quite easily be responded to in terms of giving people the reality and the numbers of people who are coming in as immigrants or as refugees or as asylum seekers.

And when people get the chance to really understand the figures – for example today we heard that the refugee population is only 0.2% of Europe’s overall population, so is it a refugee crisis? Not really, it’s a crisis of everybody’s values and everybody’s solidarity, and how far they’re willing to go to ensure human rights for everybody. That is the crisis, it’s not about the 0.2%.

And we all need to play our part in changing that narrative. Human migration has always happened, it’s the history of mankind. Britain, America – you know the old empires – that was the greatest example of large-scale migration that we have seen. So there needs to be much more understanding and teaching within schools of the role of, for example, the British empire and how that happened, because I think, if there’s a lack of understanding, then unfortunately we’ll only repeat the mistakes that we’ve seen in history. 

About the author

Rocio Cifuentes is director of Ethnic Youth Support Team and the Think Project, Welsh specialist projects addressing Islamist extremism in vulnerable Muslim young people as well as far right extremism in vulnerable white young people.

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