When I did my annual Refugee Week blog blitz back in June, I could not have imagined that by September every day’s news, my Facebook and Twitter feeds and email inbox would be about the ‘crisis’ of refugees in Europe. That every day there would be images that would sear their way into my soul – a mother trying to hold her baby’s head above water, a father weeping as he holds his children, and above all, a child lying in the surf, almost as if he’s just sleeping. That every day there would be headlines that both evoke and challenge the dark history of Europe – trains packed with desperate refugees arriving in Germany and Austria, to be met with welcome signs and stacks of donated supplies, football fans proclaiming that refugees are welcome, Czech police inking numbers on children’s arms, Hungarian police pushing a desperate woman with a child on the railway tracks in Budapest.
We keep hearing that there’s a crisis. Sure. But the crisis is what these people encountered in Syria, Eritrea or any of the other hellholes they are trying to escape. The crisis is what drove them to risk everything to get away, to try to find somewhere safe where they could establish some kind of life. The crisis is what led them to pack their few belongings and hand over their cash to the crooks who loaded them onto unsafe boats and into the seas to perish.
They are the ones who are in crisis. Not us.
We’re in disarray, which is somewhat different. A coordinated, compassionate European approach could get the immediate needs met – a combination of government action and grassroots support – and start to plan for the longer term.
And what’s kicking off now, all across Europe, is at least in part, because of Alan Kurdi. Because even for those of us who already cared and campaigned and donated, that photo was the moment when we moved up a gear, or several. I wrote this, for Refugee Week 2012:
‘It would be terribly easy to despair. But the other side of the picture is, as it always has been, the story of generosity and hospitality, of people giving a damn when it’s not their turn to give a damn, of the marginalised and spectralised finding a place in a community and people to listen to their stories.’
OK, if you read below the line on any newspaper report (and I wouldn’t recommend that you do), there’s the usual outpouring of bile and misinformation. But meanwhile, many many people are getting involved, because they see not threatening feral hordes but distraught parents, frightened kids, human beings. The Daily Mail’s attempt earlier this summer to generate outrage about Brits having their summer hols spoiled by proximity to the feral hordes backfired rather when some of those Brits spent their summer hols helping rather than cowering in their apartments or threatening to sue the travel agents. As a manager at Munich station said, “It seems the more they [other rail travellers and employees] have contact with them, the more empathy they have’. And just as public opinion shifted against the Vietnam war when we saw Phan Thị Kim Phúc running naked, her clothes having been burned with napalm, from her village, the picture of Alan Kurdi lying on the beach has shifted the public mood.
Back in 1939 Norman Angell and Dorothy Frances Buxton published a Penguin Special on that era’s refugee crisis.
‘There are some of the saddest scenes in the world from which we British people are forever spared, and of which the keenest imagination among us could hardly form an adequate picture. … In the darkness of night, or in the grey of dawn, desperate men and women, sometimes even dragging along a pitiful child, make a dash to get through that double line [of armed police] and risk the rifle shot. Some of them, like human tennis balls, are driven backwards and forwards, time after time, across the frontier.’
‘’There is a case, probably typical of many others, of a devoted father who succeeded in raking together 1500 francs and the price demanded by an English captain for the service of landing this refugee’s son (illegally) in England. The father saw his son embark; but he never heard of him again. Many and awful risks attend such illicit methods. The reader will hardly need to ask why human beings are driven to such desperate adventures.
The main difference today is that we can see these scenes unfolding, in real time, and we can look into the eyes of these desperate men and women hundreds of miles away, and recognise ourselves. And we can look at the small boy on the beach and, even as our hearts break, resolve to make things change.