Archive for June, 2018
I don’t want to do that whole ‘as a parent’ thing. It’s offensive to all the people who aren’t parents but who do give a damn (most people, I’d like to think, though it’s harder to believe that some days than others) to suggest that if you’ve never given birth or fathered a child you could contemplate with equanimity cruelty against the most vulnerable people, the people we are all, parents or otherwise, programmed to protect, the people who are our collective future.
It’s the 80th anniversary this year of the Kindertransport, when parents in fear of the future sent their children off into what they could not know would be a safer future, into the arms of strangers. Most of those children never saw their parents again. That window of opportunity was open so briefly – from the point where enough people realised the danger to the point when the borders slammed shut – and those who missed it, in many cases, were murdered. The children were undoubtedly saved, but they were not unmarked by that early separation (even those who were reunited with their parents post-war found themselves and their parents irrevocably changed by what had happened in those years).
I wrote about the Kindertransport in a previous Refugee Week blog. I’ve returned again and again to the vulnerability of children and to our shared responsibility to protect them.
Children are resilient, they’re tougher than you’d think, as all parents remind themselves on a regular basis. But how do those early experiences, that exposure to death and danger and horror, affect them as they grow? We can draw upon the stories of an earlier generation of children whose parents entrusted them to strangers, to be transported across Europe and to be taken into the homes of other strangers, to be kept safe, in the hope of a reunion that for many was never to happen. We know of the confusion that many of them felt, about their past, their identity (not all Jewish children were fostered in Jewish homes); and of the trauma of separation from parents and family, and in so many cases, of the discovery post-war that parents and family had been swallowed up in the barbarity and were lost to them for ever.
No one claims an exact equivalence between the circumstances in Nazi Europe and those we face now. But equally no one would doubt that in desperate circumstances children are the most vulnerable, least able to defend themselves, most open to abuse.
It is often asked, below the line, what kind of parents would abandon their children to such a fate. Firstly, it is a huge assumption that these children have been abandoned. Many will be orphaned. Many will have become separated from their parents in the chaos of flight. And some parents, faced with the desperate choice to save some but not all of the family will have chosen to send their children on to at least the chance of safety, as those parents did 80 years ago.
It’s also often claimed that the children are a sort of Trojan horse – if we allow our hearts to soften and give them sanctuary here, their parents and older siblings will then emerge from the shadows and demand to join them. Or that they are not in fact minors, just young-looking adults. It takes a particularly determined brand of cynicism to look at these children in such need and see only threat and deceit.
Most of us will see instead both vulnerability and potential. If we take them in we can both protect them from the dangers they currently face, and allow them to fulfil the potential they have, to contribute to the country and the community that gives them sanctuary.
And today, how can we even talk about the children of the Kindertransport, the children crossing the Med in flight from war and terror, without talking about the children whose parents have tried to cross the border in hope of a better future and who are now caged, terrified, comfortless?
Don’t tell me those parents are ‘illegals’, lawbreakers. Lawbreakers can be dealt with humanely. Children are not lawbreakers. And no human being is an alien, an illegal. It’s not so many steps from that approach to the approach that condemned Native American children, Tutsi children, Jewish children to death because of their heritage. And the rhetoric from the White House takes us ever closer. Animals. Vermin. Infestation. We have to call this out, all of us. And especially when brutal policies are justified by quoting the Bible.
I know these children are unlikely to meet the legal definition of refugees. But how we treat the most vulnerable surely must define our values as a society. There is another, better America. There are other, better ways of dealing with migration and asylum. We have to find them.
To quote Sir Nicholas Winton, who himself was responsible for saving around 700 children from Nazi Europe, ‘If it’s not impossible, there must be a way to do it’.
With the resources we have, collectively, it’s not impossible. It can’t be.
Playing today: Russia, Japan, Egypt, Senegal, Colombia, Poland
Russia since the late nineteenth century has contributed massively to the forced migration of peoples. From Jews driven out of Tsarist Russia by pogroms, to political refugees from Stalin and his successors, and the displacement of populations due to civil and world wars, Russian refugees have made a significant cultural impact on the countries in which they found sanctuary. Writer Vladimir Nabokov and artist Marc Chagall both fled to Europe and then had to seek safety in the USA as the Nazis took over. In France, Irene Nemirovsky established a successful literary career but was deported to Auschwitz where she was murdered. In recent times, Russia has seen an influx of refugees from Ukraine and from Syria.
In 2011, a catastrophic earthquake and tsunami struck Japan, killing over 15.5k people, causing a serious nuclear accident, and creating over 300k internal refugees.
Japan accepted just 20 asylum seekers last year – despite a record 19,628 applications – drawing accusations that the country is unfairly closing its door on people in genuine need. Since 2010, Japan has granted work permits to asylum seekers with valid visas to work while their refugee claims were reviewed, a change the government says has fuelled a dramatic rise in “bogus” applications from people who are simply seeking work. According to figures released this week, the number of applicants in 2017 rose 80% from a year earlier, when 28 out of almost 11,000 requests were recognised. … Recent changes indicate Japan is getting even tougher. In an attempt to reduce the number of applicants, the government last month started limiting the right to work only to those it regards as genuine asylum seekers. Repeat applicants, and those who fail initial screenings, risk being held in immigration detention centres after their permission to stay in Japan expires.
Eri Ishikawa, head of the Japan Association for Refugees, said the new regulation was part of a wider crackdown on refugees under the conservative prime minister, Shinzo Abe.
Egypt is a destination and transit country for refugees and asylum-seekers, most of whom live in urban areas. According to UNHCR, currently, 208,398 refugees and asylum-seekers of 63 different nationalities are registered with UNHCR Egypt. Over half are from Syria.
But refugees in Egypt also face similar dangers compared to the perils reported from other North African countries. In September 2016, a ship capsized off the Egyptian coast, with more than 400 migrants on board. The boat had Egyptian, Sudanese, Eritrean and Somali migrants on board and was believed to be heading to Italy. 168 migrants were killed. This tragedy, however, did not slow down or stop the flow of refugees trying to make it to Europe. According to Mada Masr, an Egyptian news outlet, Eritrean refugees, for example, are staying in Cairo’s Mohandiseen district, waiting to get on boats to Europe. Eritreans are increasingly using Egypt as a transit country instead of going through Libya.
According to the EU, 7 percent of migrants who came to Europe in 2016 came through Egypt. The UNHCR explains: “limited livelihood opportunities and a lack of prospects for integration, coupled with a loss of hope to be able to return to their country of origin have contributed to the steady rise in the numbers of refugees departing irregularly by sea.”
Dangers lurk not only at sea but also in the desert. Between 2009 and 2014, hundreds of refugees were held hostage by Bedouin tribes in the Sinai. The refugees, coming from countries like Eritrea and Ethiopia, would be abducted to demand bribes of $20,000 to $40,000.
Meanwhile in 2012, Israel constructed a fence on the border with Egypt to keep out African migrants.
2004 marked the beginning of the most significant violent conflict in Senegal’s recent history. The province of Casamance has been seeking independence from the Senegalese government since 1982. Civil unrest came to a head in 2004, with instances of violent conflict being documented well into 2014. The conflict has displaced thousands and taken a serious toll on civilian life. While a ceasefire was signed in 2014, smaller scale fighting continues today, albeit at a much smaller scale. According to the most recent figures, there are an estimated 62,638 internally displaced people (IDP) in and around Senegal as a result of this civil strife. Senegal also hosts refugees from CAR, Ivory Coast, Gambia and Mauritania.
In March 2018, Colombia hosted 277 refugees, 625 asylum-seekers and 11 stateless people. There are 7,671,124 internally displaced people, Colombians who have been forced to flee their homes but have not sought safety in another country, the second highest total worldwide (only Syria has a greater number).
The peace agreement between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) is being implemented and the former guerrilla group has officially laid down its arms. However, clashes with other armed groups have persisted and forced displacement is expected to continue in some areas.
Whilst refugees from Colombia’s own conflicts have headed to Ecuador, Venezuela or Panama, at least one million people have entered Colombia from Venezuela since President Nicolás Maduro’s government descended into crisis last year.
Later in Refugee Week I will be posting the story of Barbara Szablewski (nee Czerniajew) and her life as a refugee during World War II.
Poland’s history is of invasions and partitions and displacement of peoples. Before Hitler turned on his ally Stalin, they had divided the country up between them, and Poles suffered under both regimes. Some found sanctuary in the UK where many joined the fight against Hitler and after the war settled permanently rather than return to a country which had replaced one tyranny for another.
Poland today, like so many European nations, is resisting the call to welcome refugees. The government has refused to meet the EU’s mandatory refugee quota and take in refugees from the Middle East. The country is one of the most homogeneous in Europe, partly as a result of the Holocaust’s destruction of its Jewish population and the post-war relocation of its large Ukrainian, Belarusian, German and other minorities.
Bishop Tadeusz Pieronek, from the more liberal wing of the Church, told the Rzeczpospolita newspaper that accepting a few hundred asylum seekers isn’t much of a problem for a country of 38 million. “Not accepting refugees practically means resigning from being a Christian,” he said. “I’m ashamed of those who don’t want to do their duty not just as Christians but as human beings.” Critics also point out that Poles were massive beneficiaries of refugee policies in the past when thousands of people fleeing the military regime in the early 1980s were allowed to settle in Western Europe.
But the government, whose top officials are ostentatiously pious and which finds strong backing from the conservative wing of the Church, is no more willing to listen to the admonishments of Rome than of Brussels.
One of my first Refugee Week blogs, back in 2012, explored the double jeopardy experienced by people who were seeking sanctuary because their sexuality put them at risk of violence, imprisonment or murder in their homeland.
So, if the gay asylum seeker conforms to the norms of mainstream society, they may not convince officialdom that they are genuinely in need of asylum because of their sexuality. If they conform to officialdom’s expectations of gay identity, they put themselves in even greater danger should their claim fail and they be deported, and they expose themselves to prejudice and aggression here – most poignantly, the communities which for many asylum seekers provide a vital support network, their compatriots in exile, may be the most hostile. Double jeopardy.
It would seem that, not only have things not significantly improved for gay asylum-seekers in the last six years, but that they have worsened. The culture of disbelief is such that even those who are ‘out’ here may have their claim doubted because, for example, back home they married and had children. The level of risk that they might face back home is trivialised (they used to be told that they just had to be ‘discreet’ – maybe they still are…). And the fact that being ‘out’ here, being part of LGBT activism and campaigning, means that not only will they be at risk from the family members and neighbours who drove them out in the first place, but from anyone who knows from social media or the press about their case, is disregarded. Nonetheless:
According to Home Office figures released last year, of 3,535 asylum claims related to sexuality over a two-year period, a staggering two-thirds were rejected.
Things may have progressed here in a way that would have been unimaginable when I was a teenager in the 70s. That’s true, and wonderful. But LGBT people are still subject to random violence and public hostility, as this recent blog by Justin Myers pointed out:
So it is back, the self-consciousness of my youth, the reluctance to be myself, because being myself is not enough for some and not allowed by others. I can be visible, sure, but I can never be effervescent, or extra, or take up too much space, make too much noise. In a world where you can be abused in a pub for just being, what hope do we have?
And this is the fear I fear the most, because it’s the most powerful, merciless and controlling. When you take away my feeling of comfort and safety, I have nothing.
Imagine how that is amplified if you’re black, if you’re far from home, if your accent or your unfamiliarity with the language and culture here betrays your foreignness every time you venture out. Imagine living with that fear, if the only alternative you have is to go back to a place where violence and hostility are not just a risk but a certainty.
Owen Jones‘ piece in the Guardian is powerful and essential:
The architects of the British empire helped construct anti-gay laws across the globe that still endure today. The victims of such persecution need our support. Instead, they are being terrorised. It is a national scandal – and the silence over it must end.
Playing today: Sweden, South Korea, Belgium, Panama, Tunisia, England
Panama hosts thousands of refugees seeking asylum from nearby countries such as Nicaragua and Venezuela. However, the majority of refugees in Panama come from Colombia. Over more than 50 years of drug-related conflict, 6.6 million Colombians have been forced to leave their homes. An estimated 370,000 Colombian refugees live in countries near their own, and Panama is a major hub.
Sweden has a reputation for generosity when it comes to asylum. But, as with many European countries, the mood is now less welcoming, and a recent poll suggested that 60% of voters want the country to take in fewer refugees. The most populous country in northern Europe, Sweden received 22k asylum seekers in 2017, and granted protection to 26.8k. Its reputation as a place of sanctuary goes back to World War II, when as an officially neutral nation which in various ways worked with both sides, it became a place of refuge for many who were fleeing Nazi persecution. Nearly all of Denmark’s 8,000 Jews were brought to Sweden as were Jews from Norway and Finland.
The Korean War caused a massive displacement of people in both North and South that left many thousands of Koreans in need of new homes. The close military, political, and economic ties between the United States and South Korea’s government during and after the war facilitated the immigration of large numbers of Korean war refugees, war brides, and war orphans to America.
South Korea is currently one of the few countries in Asia to be a party to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. However, it continues to reject the vast majority of non-North Korean asylum seekers entering the country.
Since 1994, the government granted refugee status to approximately 2.5 percent of non-North Korean asylum applicants it screened. Between January and October 2017, 7,291 applied for refugee status; the government accepted just 96 cases, or approximately 1.31 percent of applications. North Koreans do not apply for asylum through this process, they are granted South Koran citizenship through the Promotion and Resettlement Support Act for North Korean Refugees.
The number of North Koreans arriving in South Korea has decreased significantly, because of heightened security on both sides of the border. Some arrive in the South via China or Mongolia. 85% of North Korean refugees are women. Upon arrival all North Korean refugees have to go through lengthy interrogation. Many are traumatised, and find the process of integration painful and difficult.
Tunisia has seen the number of refugees increase greatly since 2011, and then decrease to a much smaller number today. The country’s location attracts both migrants and refugees. It has promised to adopt a national asylum law soon, which will take the burden away from the UNHCR as the sole entity conducting refugee interviews.
After the invasion of Belgium in the First World War, somewhere between 225,000 and 265,000 refugees fled to Britain. They received substantial popular support, in part due to the reports (in part true, in part exaggerated for propaganda purposes) of atrocities by the invading German army. Fewer civilian refugees made it the UK in WWII (around 15000) and public opinion had shifted. Rather than ‘plucky little Belgium’, the country was now seen as having betrayed the Allies by surrendering. In 1960, as what had been the Belgian Congo gained its independence, around 80,000 Belgians were evacuated as tensions and violence escalated.
At present, Belgium, like other European countries, has seen an influx of refugees primarily from Syria. Whilst the numbers are much smaller than in many other parts of Europe, the response has been, in some quarters at least, hostile.
The mayor of a swanky beach resort near the port city of Zeebrugge called for a “camp like Guantanamo” to house them. And on February 1, Carl Decaluwé, governor of the Province West-Flanders, urged Belgians not to feed refugees “otherwise more will come.”
On the other hand:
Volunteer Ronny Blomme, who has been helping migrants by giving them food, drinks, sleeping bags and warm clothes at the church since they began arriving in November, says he is wants to make up for the failure of officials to deal with the problem humanely.
“Trying to scare these people is useless — they traveled 8,000 kilometers [4,970 miles] to get here and they have already lost everything,” he said. “What we need is a humanitarian solution.”
If we think that the notion of a ‘refugee crisis’ is recent, it’s salutary to look back over the last twenty years since Refugee Week has been a thing. The twentieth century was designated the Century of Refugees – as if there was the remotest possibility that mass forced migration would be something the twenty-first century would escape.
What follows is the tiniest fragment of the overall picture of forced migration around the world. These are examples which, I hope, will illustrate not only the geographical scope but the multiplicity of reasons why people leave their homes and everything they know for an uncertain future in a strange land.
In 1998 refugees fled from Lesotho after rebel conflicts with the South African army. There were attacks by the Myanmar army on Thai border refugee camps housing Karen people. And the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide continued to have a major impact in central Africa, as the conflict and genocide in the former Yugoslavian territories did in Europe. A national emergency was declared in June as a result of the Kosovo War. Over 250,000 Albanians had been displaced from their homes, and many were without warm clothing or shelter as winter approached.
In 1999 the Kosovan exodus continued. As the civil war (1975-2002) continued, Angolans fled into Zambia.
And a new civil war in Liberia forced thousands into Ghana, where the Buduburam camp was set up to accommodate them. It’s still there, one of a number of refugee camps which have become permanent settlements, and is home to 42,000 people.
In 2000, the so-called Century of Refugees came to an end.
You don’t see them run, because they aren’t on the nightly news shows. But in the last few weeks, tens of thousands of hungry Afghans have been moving toward Herat, near the border of Iran, driven by civil war, bad government, winter and the worst drought in decades.
They aren’t alone. A continent away, renewed fighting in the Congo has people on the run again, this time into Zambia, where Angolans are also seeking shelter. In West Africa, the small nation of Guinea, with three million people, is being overwhelmed by hundreds of thousands of people fleeing a cruel government in Liberia and a civil war in Sierra Leone.
In 2001 Afghanistan became one of the major sources of refugees. Many fled the harsh rule of the Taliban, but more were displaced after the US invasion, prompted by the attack on the World Trade Centre. Many went to Pakistan which had received its first wave of Afghan refugees during the Soviet war in the late 1970s. By the end of 2001, there were over four million.
In 2002, Afghans continued to seek refuge, in Pakistan and in Iran.
In 2003, Human Rights Watch reported on the difficulties facing Serb refugees in Croatia, and the obstacles to their return home. The Central African Republic experienced the latest in a long line of coups and uprisings, resulting in around 42,000 refugees fleeing to neighbouring Chad, as well as 200,000 being internally displaced.
In 2004, MSF appealed for aid as around 110,000 refugees from Darfur crossed the border into Chad. North Korean refugees fled to Mongolia, which was trying hard to maintain good relations with both North and South Korea, and resisting opening a UN-administered refugee processing camp.
In 2005, whilst the Bosnian war had been over for more than three years, the vast majority of refugees had not returned home. The crisis in Kosovo had created around 1.5 m refugees and displaced persons. More than 400 Uzbek citizens sought asylum in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan following the 13 May 2005 uprising in the Uzbek town of Andijan. They remain in refugee camps in southern Kyrgyzstan awaiting a decision on their future. Around 38,000 refugees fled Togo to Benin and Ghana after political violence triggered by a disputed presidential election.
In 2006, the UNHCR resumed its voluntary repatriation programme for Congolese refugees in Tanzania. As many as 50,000 refugees from Lebanon crossed into Syria at one single border point, to escape Israeli airstrikes. Syrian authorities report more than 140,000 people have entered their country from Lebanon since the crisis started. Iran was the largest refugee haven, mainly for Iraqis and Afghans.
In 2007, nearly 2 million Iraqis – about 8 percent of the prewar population – fled the country, mostly to Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. The refugees included large numbers of doctors, academics and other professionals vital for Iraq’s recovery. Another 1.7 million had been forced to move to safer towns and villages inside Iraq, and as many as 50,000 Iraqis a month were fleeing their homes.
In 2008, nine refugee camps stretched along western Thailand’s border with Myanmar, with the largest, Mae La, housing 43,000 people from the Karen ethnic group who had fled their homes due to violence in Myanmar (military attacks by the Myanmar army, forced labor, destruction of homes and food crops, and enslavement). Another of Myanmar’s ethnic groups, the Chin, fled into neighbouring India and settled in the Mizoram hills.
In 2009, returning Afghan refugees found the country’s institutions ill-equipped to meet their needs. The UNHCR faced mounting pressure from Iran and Pakistan, the main refugee hosting states, to maintain high repatriation figures. The prolonged refugee presence and the persistence of unchecked cross-border movements increased Pakistan’s and Iran’s leverage over their neighbour.
In 2010, Brazil hosted refugees from 72 nationalities, including Angola and Colombia, whilst Ecuador housed 300,000 Colombian refugees.
Iraqi refugees were proving reluctant to register with the UNHCR, often because they feared being repatriated.
The reasons are mixed, but clearly include the deep reluctance of refugees to envisage returning to a society profoundly marked by war, insecurity, civil conflict and economic uncertainty. Some Iraqis say they fear involuntary repatriation to Iraq if they formally register with the UN agency (while only 273 Iraqi families returned to Iraqi in 2010 under the UNHCR’s voluntary-repatriation programme). Many, with greater reason, are reluctant to go back to a country no longer characterised by mixed religious and ethnic communities and the legacy of Ottoman tolerance for ethno-religious differences. The emergent Iraqi state is clearly an “unmixed” one under which many Sunni Muslims are uncomfortableand Christian communities endangered and in flight.
In 2011, Colombia had around 3.5m internally displaced people, with 500-700k seeking refuge in neighbouring countries. It was the seventh largest refugee population in the world. Colombia has been torn apart by conflict for over 40 years. The war between the government, guerilla groups such as the FARC and ELN, paramilitaries, and narco-traffickers has killed up to 200,000 people and has displaced millions of others.
The island of Lampedusa, part of Italy but closer to North Africa than to Europe, had long been the first port of call for migrants from North Africa. This escalated with the events of the Arab Spring, the collapse of the regime in Tunisia, and conflict in Libya. The UN estimated that in 2011 around 1,500 died trying to make the crossing. In good weather, the island may see up to ten boats a day, bringing in over 1,000 refugees.
Here at Pauktaw refugee camp in Rakhine state – home to the inhabitants of five Rohingya Muslim villages who fled intercommunal conflict in western Burma this year – there are no schools, no work and no fields to cultivate – because no one is allowed to leave. When a helicopter lands, they hope it will bring either more supplies or some end to a way of life that has been unchanged for six months. Since June Rakhine state, on the border with Bangladesh, has been ripped apart by violence between the majority Rakhine Buddhists and minority Rohingya Muslims, sparked by the rape and murder of a Buddhist woman. Thousands of homes have been destroyed, 200 people have been killed and more than 115,000 displaced. Communities that once co-existed peacefully have been sent to segregated refugee camps all around the state, the majority of them filled with Rohingya – a population of roughly 800,000 who claim to be rightful citizens of Burma but whom the Burmese government widely calls “Bengali immigrants”, denying them citizenship and placing restrictions on their rights to travel, attend higher education and even marry.
It started with thousands of people on the streets. It has resulted in millions of people on the move. Syria’s civil war has generated the world’s gravest refugee crisis in a generation, with close to 2 million people fleeing the country and perhaps twice that number uprooted and homeless within Syria itself.
By the end of this year, there will be one Syrian in Jordan for every six Jordanians. This stark figure is just one example of the impact the civil war in Syria is having on neighbouring countries, where an estimated 1.7 million Syrians have fled, with more seeking safety every day. It is a figure that should spur the international community into action.
The 26-year civil war in Sri Lanka created many thousands of refugees. But whilst it ended in 2009, four years later, people were continuing to seek asylum in Australia.
In fact, the flow of refugees commonly increases, not decreases, after the end of a conflict. This happened after the wars in Vietnam and Bosnia-Herzegovina, after conflicts across Africa and South America, and even after the First and Second World Wars. The million or so people who left South-east Asia after the wars in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos were not fleeing straightforward oppression: they were leaving behind sites of trauma and despair that had become too painful. The flight of Sri Lankan citizens — Tamil, Sinhala and Muslim — after the conclusion of the recent civil war largely fits this pattern. The alleged autocratic nature of the regime, continuing human rights abuses and threats to democratic processes, the freedom of the press and the independence of the judiciary may well exist, but they are not the reasons why thousands of people are prepared to risk their lives to leave their homeland. They do not see a future for themselves there. They are leaving because their hope, depleted by decades of conflict, has not been restored by the cessation of hostilities and the restoration of some level of material wealth.
In 2014, as Syria‘s civil war continued, the UN was struggling to support more than 9m displaced people, a third of whom had left the country. Lebanon was taking significantly more Syrian refugees than any other country, with more than 1.1m refugees – almost one in four people are now refugees from Syria. Outside of the region, most countries were reluctant to formally resettle any significant number of Syrian refugees. Germany, however, had already accepted 6,000 Syrian refugees and has pledged to take up to 20,000.
In 2015, the front page photograph of a small boy called Alan or Aylan Kurdi brought the latest phase of the refugee crisis to world attention, prompting a massive volunteering effort to provide support and resources for refugees in Europe, and to help the refugees who were risking their lives on unseaworthy boats across the Mediterranean. Some refugees found themselves at Keleti railway station in Hungary:
After days of squalid limbo, the refugees of Keleti station square, armed only with desperation, forced the hand of a government they saw as jailers. Despairing of ever escaping the increasingly squalid station, barred from boarding trains and buses without papers, they simply set off to Austria on foot, a 125-mile journey that seemed better than staying put. … Ever larger crowds of desperate, penniless, homeless people milled around, unable to go on to the countries they dreamt of, unwilling to go back to the countries they had fled, trying to hang on to dignity and hope. It was not easy, as a refugee camp took shocking shape in the heart of a European capital. Hundreds were camping out on a metro underpass and a small plaza in front of its entrance. Among them were many children, cut and bruised, hungry and frightened.
Nearly 35,000 people have made the journey southwards across the [Bab-el-Mandeb] strait (which translates as Gate of Tears) [from Yemen] to the tiny authoritarian state of Djibouti since March 2015, when Houthi Shia rebels overthrew the Yemeni government and Saudi Arabia responded with a relentless bombing campaign. Just over half are Yemeni. According to the regional mixed migration secretariat (RMMS), which monitors movements between the Horn of Africa and Yemen, the rest are Somali refugees, Djiboutian returnees and other nationalities.
In 2017, the numbers entering Europe had dropped since the peak of 2015,
but a new question has arisen. They are here now, so what do we do with them?
The answer may lie on the tiny Greek island of Tilos, close to Turkey. Tilos has a population of only about 500, but it is now hosting over 50 refugees, 100 over the course of this year so far – 20% of the population. And, thanks to a few simple initiatives, the refugees have not only been integrated but enabled. They are making a positive social and financial contribution to the island. …. Tilos can teach us several things: above all, that integration, even on a large scale relative to population, is possible; and that refugees can be a boon not a burden. The key is inclusion. More money needs to be given to similar programmes, not to funding large camps that do nothing but mire their occupants in a squalid limbo. For integration to adequately happen, NGOs and the private sector must take the lead: government alone – overly bureaucratic, risk-averse, fickle and unwieldy – is not up to the task. As it stands the UK and European governments are catastrophically failing to deal with refugees, with many saying it’s simply not possible. This tiny Greek island shows us that it is. We must learn from Tilos’s example.
Rallies took place across Australia protesting at the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees on Manus Island. Papua New Guinea authorities had closed the detention centre and forcibly removed the remaining refugees, who were refusing to leave, fearing for their safety and wellbeing. Médecins Sans Frontières was denied access to the refugees, despite having been granted approval earlier in the week.
In 2018, we are now witnessing the highest levels of displacement on record. An unprecedented 65.6 million people around the world have been forced from home. Among them are nearly 22.5 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18. There are also 10 million stateless people who have been denied a nationality and access to basic rights such as education, healthcare, employment and freedom of movement.
Three ships, the Aquarius, operated by the charities SOS Méditerranée and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), an Italian naval ship and an Italian coastguard vessel arrived in Valencia, carrying 629 weak and exhausted refugees, including pregnant women and over 100 unaccompanied minors. They had been refused harbour in Italy and Malta.
Spain’s foreign minister has described his government’s decision to take in the hundreds of refugees and migrants aboard the Aquarius rescue ship as a “highly symbolic act” intended to jolt Europe out of its “ostrich politics” on the issue of migration. The 629 people … were rescued by the French NGO SOS Méditerranée from waters off the coast of Libya on Saturday, and the Aquarius was caught in a standoff over the weekend in which both Italy and Malta refused to allow it to dock. Spain’s new prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, stepped in on Monday and said the ship would be welcome in the port of Valencia, insisting his country had a duty to help avert “a humanitarian catastrophe”.
Outside the warehouse hung a huge banner, reading, “Welcome home” in Valencian, Spanish, English, French and Arabic. Staff from the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, will be present to help passengers fleeing war or persecution claim asylum, while 400 interpreters will be on hand to ensure proper communication. The operation is being overseen by Valencia’s regional government. It also emerged on Saturday afternoon that the French government had offered to take in any of the Aquarius passengers who wished to settle in the country once the necessary procedures had been followed. Spain’s decision to accept the migrants and refugees comes amid rising tensions within the EU and calls for a fundamental reappraisal of the current migrations system.
Refugee Week celebrates its twentieth birthday this year. Twenty years of reminding us all that refugees are people – people like us in circumstances that some of us can barely imagine. Twenty years of celebrating the contribution that those refugees have made to the communities in which they have found sanctuary. Twenty years of drawing our attention to the needs of desperate people who have been forced from their homes by war, famine, persecution.
I’ve been blogging for Refugee Week only for six years. When I look back at what I’ve published previously, it can be discouraging. Has anything really changed (for the better)? Can we hope that things will, in the next six, or the next twenty years, change for the better, given the shift to the right, to nationalism and nativism and xenophobia, across Europe and across the Atlantic?
In a sense it doesn’t matter whether we think there are glimmers of hope. We have to carry on saying what needs to be said, whether or not. We have to carry on arguing, campaigning, telling the stories that need to be told, whether or not.
So this year for Refugee Week I will as usual be posting something every day. I’ll be revisiting some topics I’ve written about before – the particular hazards, indignities and injustices faced by LGBT refugees, the story of the Kindertransport and its messages for our times, the life of the refugee camp (Goma, or Zaatari). It also happens to be the year of the World Cup, and (as I did in 2014) I’ll be looking at the countries who are competing this year, at the people to whom they give refuge and at the people who seek refuge from them.
This Refugee Week, if you are in the vicinity of Sheffield, don’t miss the wonderful Migration Matters Festival. Kicking off on 19 June, it’s a five day celebration of migration, belonging, sanctuary and community, featuring performance, film, workshops, music, food and much more. Check out the website for the full programme and book your tickets in advance.