Every year I try to post about some aspect of the situation faced by those who flee their homes due to violence, famine and persecution, each day during Refugee Week. I emphasise ‘try’ – this year I have been struggling with a bit of writers’ block: I have at least two pieces partially composed in my head but can I get them actually onto the page? Can I heck as like. Still. Whilst the commitment to honour Refugee Week in this way is entirely self-imposed, that doesn’t make it any easier to just say, soz, not in the mood right now, quite the opposite. So I will try.
And to begin, I want to remember some of the people who sum up this year’s theme, ‘You, me and those who came before’, which invites us to explore the lives of refugees – and those who have welcomed them – throughout the generations.
Refugee Week, since 2016, has been inextricably linked in our minds with the murder of Jo Cox, an outspoken advocate for refugees, for kindness and compassion. We remember her assertion that immigration has enhanced our communities, and that we have more in common than that which divides us.
She was murdered because of her values, because of what she said and what she represented. When I heard of her murder, I thought that this must change things, that the toxic rhetoric of the EU Referendum campaign must, surely, be at least reined back. I thought that those who use the language of hate carelessly would be horrified that this language had been turned into brutal action. I was sadly mistaken. All the more reason, however, to remind ourselves of what she said, and what she represented and to assert the values that we share, the things we have in common with each other.
Judith Kerr lived a long and happy life. But she so easily might not have done, had her parents not found a way to escape Nazi Germany (and subsequently France), just in time. Her autobiography is dedicated to “the one and a half million Jewish children who didn’t have my luck, and all the pictures they might have painted”. Her parents saved their children from the horrors that would have faced them had they remained – but both parents were, in her words, ‘destroyed’ by their exile. The children were young enough to adapt, to accept the changes in their lives and to embrace the new possibilities, even before they could understand what their fate might have otherwise been. The parents took on all of the fear, all of the horror, all of the vertigo of exile, and the weight of it all was too much for them. Like so many who have had a narrow escape, they could never shrug off the fear that the hatred they had fled from would catch up with them somehow, at some point, that the escape had been illusory.
Pia Klemp is a 35-year-old ship’s captain from Bonn, Germany, whose ship, the Iuventa, is believed to have saved 14,000 people in total, working closely with the Italian search and rescue services. Klemp herself skippered the boat on two missions, saving up to 3,800 people in distress in just one day. But the political climate has shifted in Italy, as it has elsewhere. Her ship has been seized, she’s been accused of cooperating with human traffickers, and she currently faces 20 years in prison in Italy. In her words, the Italian government’s approach stigmatises refugees, and criminalises solidarity with them.
She is unrepentant.
“There is no way I am going to prison for saving people in distress,” Klemp said. “It is the most ridiculous thing on so may different levels. And I will never accept anything else but acquittal.”https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jun/15/captain-of-migrant-rescue-ship-says-italy-criminalising-solidarity
You can find out more about what’s happening across the country during Refugee Week here. And if you’re lucky enough to be in Sheffield, don’t miss the Migration Matters Festival, with events and exhibitions happening every day at various venues, between now and Saturday 22 June.