Posts Tagged Refugees
We may be preoccupied at present with the refugee crisis that has brought so many thousands across the Mediterranean and across Europe, displaced by war in Africa and the Middle East. But looking back over the decades, this is really nothing new.
In 1936, refugees were escaping from flooding in Shantung, in China, and were fed and housed by the provisional government in Tsinan.
In the USA, the Dust Bowl and resulting drought forced tens of thousands of families to abandon their farms. Many migrated to California in the hope of finding better conditions. Meanwhile in Europe, the Spanish Civil War led many to flee, often heading across the border into France, which proved only a temporary haven, and in Germany Jews who had been subjected to anti-semitic legislation were taking whatever opportunities they could to leave before things got worse. CARA (under the name of the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning) was working to find posts in British universities for academics thrown out of their posts at institutions in Germany.
1946 saw displacement on a massive scale, across most of Europe. Germans were forcibly expelled from the territories that had been occupied during the war and now fell under the Soviet remit.
Many citizens of Eastern European countries were desperately trying to stay in the West. And the survivors of the concentration camps were making their way to the homes they had once known, or waiting for the possibility of passage to Palestine, or the US.
In 1956 the brutal Soviet suppression of the uprising in Hungary led to around 200,000 people fleeing the country, initially to Austria and West Germany.
In 1966 Vietnamese were fleeing ahead of the Vietcong advance. The New York Times reported that nearly half of the 10,000 inhabitants of the An Lao valley had chosen to leave, pleading desperately with withdrawing US troops for help.
In 1976 in Lebanon the civil war created a wave of refugees, around 900,000, or about one-fifth of the population. On 12 August 1976, supported by Syria, Maronite forces managed to overwhelm the Palestinian and leftist militias defending the Tel al-Zaatar refugee camp in East Beirut, and 1,000-1,500 civilians were massacred.
In 1986 the ongoing civil war in Sri Lanka generated thousands of internally displaced people as well as refugees, mostly Tamils. Many fled to neighbouring India and western countries such as Canada, France, Denmark, the United Kingdom, and Germany.
In 1996, the refugee crisis in the aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan genocide became increasingly unstable. Hutu militants in the camps were now well organised, and led attacks into Rwanda and eastern Zaire. In what became known as the First Congo War, around half a million people were herded by the militants into the border areas, and subsequently fled back into Rwanda, or further into Zaire. Tens of thousands were killed, or died of exposure or starvation.
Ten years ago, refugees came primarily from Sudan, DRC, Somalia and CAR, as they do currently. In addition, Cote d’Ivoire and Liberia generated significant numbers of refugees following their civil wars, and the ongoing crisis in the Great Lakes area added Burundi and Rwanda to the list.
2016 – more than 1,200 people have died of starvation and illness at an aid camp in north-east Nigeria that houses people fleeing the Islamist militant group Boko Haram, according to the medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières.
It goes on, and it always will. There will always be wars, and rumours of wars. There will be, increasingly, natural disasters as a result of climate change. There will be persecution and oppression and terrorism. People will leave because they have to, because home is the mouth of a shark. And we will have to find better ways of helping them, we must be braver, more generous, more open. Today of all days that seems a forlorn hope. But we must hang on to it, nonetheless.
Migration Matters Festival
Friday 24th June
To Walk in Your Shoes, by Rachael Munro-Fawcett
The Scar Test, by Untold
“I came to England, scarred for life.”
Deaths by Rescue, by SYMAAG with Dr Simon Parker
Film & discussion on the refugee crisis.
Iftar with Open Kitchen
Food and conversation!
One person in 113 worldwide is displaced from home due to conflict or persecution. That’s the highest it’s ever been. We’re talking about forced displacement, not people choosing to leave home because they fancy a better life somewhere else. Warsan Shire’s poem expresses this with immense power:
no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well
you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey.
The UNHCR says that Syria at 4.9 million, Afghanistan at 2.7 million and Somalia at 1.1 million together accounted for more than half the refugees under its mandate worldwide. Colombia at 6.9 million, Syria at 6.6 million and Iraq at 4.4 million had the largest numbers of internally displaced people.
Commentators have often shown an uncanny ability to scan the faces of the people in the boats or waiting at border posts and determine where they have come from, and then to use these conclusions to argue that they are not ‘genuine’ refugees but economic migrants. Better to turn to the data gathered by UNHCR.
These tell us that the countries producing the highest number of refugees are, in order,
One does not have to be an expert on world affairs to be aware that the majority of these countries are, and in some cases have been for many years, riven by vicious civil wars, often spilling over into neighbouring countries. The accusation that the young males amongst the refugees should be fighting for their country is nonsensical in these chaotic and volatile situations – who should they be fighting with, or against? An oppressive government or an extremist rebel force? Often both official and unofficial forces bolster their fighting strength by forcing boys and young men to join them. In Sudan and CAR there has been at least the threat of genocide, in DRC disease and famine as well horrific violence and rape on an unthinkable scale. In addition, IS and its affiliates are active in many of these areas.
Given all that, why do we even wonder about the motivations of those who flee?
The other accusation that is often made is that ‘they’ should have sought refuge in neighbouring countries – the nearest safe place – rather than heading to Europe. Most do. In all, 86 per cent of the refugees under UNHCR’s mandate in 2015 were in low- and middle-income countries close to situations of conflict. Worldwide, Turkey was the biggest host country, with 2.5 million refugees. With nearly one refugee for every five citizens, Lebanon hosted more refugees compared to its population than any other country.
But in these countries, those who have fled genocide, famine, war and persecution find themselves in refugee camps. These are, by definition if not in practice, temporary holding spaces, transitory, a stop along the road to a place to call home. They are likely to be desperately short of food and medical supplies, sanitation is often rudimentary at best, and there is little prospect of education for the children. Many of the countries that host most of the world’s refugees are barely able to support their own citizens. When we say we are full or that we do not have the resources to support a pitifully tiny percentage of the desperate displaced people who need our help, we are demonstrating our own complacency and ignorance.
Here in Europe we can afford to feed, clothe, house and heal our own AND more. The statistics tell us that we are not doing our bit, nowhere near.
Migration Matters Festival – Thursday 23 June
Verse Matters – a Feminist Arts Event (19.30 pm) An inclusive, supportive space for poetry, spoken word, storytelling, music and comedy. Performers include Khadijah Ibrahim, Rae Burgess and Chijioke Ojukwu.
Magnus Wennman’s heartwrenching series of photos, “Where The Children Sleep,” , shows what happens to the children fleeing the conflict in Syria. He says that whilst the conflict and the crisis can be difficult for people to understand, “there is nothing hard to understand about how children need a safe place to sleep … They have lost some hope. It takes very much for a child to stop being a child and to stop having fun, even in really bad places.”
The recent debate about offering sanctuary to unaccompanied child refugees was constantly and powerfully connected to the story of the Kindertransport. As the Nazi threat to the Jews of Europe became clear, a number of individuals, including Sir Nicholas Winton, negotiated and organised transport for children to places of safety. Their parents sent them onwards, with small suitcases or rucksacks packed with care and love, with the things they thought they’d need and the things that would remind them of home. Some parents managed to get away separately, and were subsequently reunited with their children. Most were too late, and perished.
The children who arrived in the UK were welcomed by a variety of organisations, Jewish and Quaker amongst others, and provided with foster homes. There was a brief window of opportunity – once war was declared, borders closed, and no more trains could leave Germany, Austria or Czechoslovakia. Other trains would take many of the children left behind to other, terrible destinations. Some children got no further than France or the Netherlands, and many of those were deported from the homes they’d found there after those countries were occupied. Gerda-Sophie Klein was born in Vienna in 1935, and came to the Netherlands early in 1939. She survived until 1944, when she was deported to Auschwitz and murdered, on her 9th birthday.
In the House of Commons, on 21 November 1938, Sir Samuel Hoare (then Home Secretary) told Members of Parliament:
I could not help thinking what a terrible dilemma it was to the Jewish parents in Germany to have to choose between sending their children to a foreign country, into the unknown, and continuing to live in the terrible conditions to which they are now reduced in Germany. I saw this morning one of the representatives of the Quaker organisations, who told me that he had only arrived in England this morning from a visit to Germany and a visit to Holland. He inquired of the Jewish organisations in Germany what would be the attitude of the Jewish parents to a proposal of this kind, and he told me that the Jewish parents were almost unanimously in favour of facing this parting with their children and taking the risks of their children going to a foreign country, rather than keeping them with them to face the unknown dangers with which they are faced in Germany.
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.
The children of the Kindertransport gave back, richly. Four are Nobel prize laureates, others have built distinguished careers in all branches of the sciences and arts, in politics and business.
One of the Kinder, Dame Stephanie “Steve” Shirley, explicitly linked her philanthropic work to her history: ‘I need to justify the fact that my life was saved.’
We can’t know who amongst the children currently stranded in war zones or in refugee camps might prove to be an outstanding scientist, writer, composer, or entrepreneur. We can only know that whilst they live the half-life of the refugee camp, deprived of stability, education and adequate healthcare, they cannot be the people they have the potential to be.
The last words on this are those of the late Jo Cox. who would have been 42 years old today.
We all know that the vast majority of the terrified, friendless and profoundly vulnerable child refugees scattered across Europe tonight came from Syria.
We also know that as that conflict enters its sixth barbaric year that desperate Syrian families are being forced to make an impossible decision: stay and face starvation, rape, persecution and death or make a perilous journey to find sanctuary elsewhere.
And who can blame desperate parents for wanting to escape the horror that their families are experiencing. The reality in which children are being killed on their way to school, where children as young as seven are being forcibly recruited to the front line and where one in three Syrian children have grown up knowing nothing but fear and war.
These children have been exposed to things no child should ever witness and I know I personally would risk life and limb to get my two precious babies out of that hell-hole.
Migration Matters Festival – Wednesday 22 June
Howl Yuan – The Invisible Guest (6.00 pm and 7.00 pm): A drop-in, one on one performance followed by a full audience show, exploring how we are changed by our names, the places we live, the languages we use
Eclipse Theatre Company & Amaal Sharif – Rather: A Work in Progress (7.30 pm): One man’s journey to understanding humanity and the bonds that tie us together more than land, blood, language or creed
Rachel Munro-Fawcett – To Walk in Your Shoes: a documentary exploration of asylum, giving a voice to the voiceless
What is it they want, all these people?
What do we want? What do we hope for, for ourselves and for our children? We may hope for prosperity, for a nicer house in a nicer part of town, a better job, for our kids to be successful as well as happy. But if what we have was taken from us, what then?
We’d want to be safe. If our home, our street, our place of work, the school our children go to, the hospital they were born in and where we go if we’re sick, are bombsites and warzones, we’ll take our chances to go somewhere that perhaps just might be safe.
We’d want to be safe from violence and the constant threat of violence, because we believe in the wrong god or in no god, because we love the wrong people, because we support the wrong political movement, because we are the wrong race. We’d want to be safe from rape and the constant threat of rape, from abuse, from mutilation in the name of tradition. We’d want to be safe from the constant threat of starvation and disease, the desperate quest for enough food to just stay alive, the desperate quest for help when we or our children are sick.
But we’d want more than that.
We’d want to have a place where we can shut our door and hang up our hats, and sleep without fear, and be with the people we love. We’d want the chance to work, to use our skills to earn enough to provide for ourselves and the people we love, to prepare healthy meals, to buy new shoes for the children as they grow, to be warm enough in winter. We’d want the chance to learn, new languages and new skills, and we’d want our children to go to school and learn all that they need to make their way in the world, and to make friends and play.
We’d want to become part of a community. Paying our way, making a contribution, chatting to our neighbours, free of the threat that there will be a knock on the door early one morning and we’ll be sent away, back where we came from, or just away, to anywhere that’s not here.
And with all of that we’d want not to be told in the headlines of the newspapers that we’re a threat, that we’re terrorists, that we’re spongers, that we’re liars, that we’re cowards. We’d want not to see in the eyes of the people we meet that they wonder whether that’s true.
We’d want to be welcome.
Tuesday 21 June – Migration Matters Festival
British Red Cross Refugee Awareness Workshop (2.00 pm): find out about their work, and how you can get involved
Displace Yourself Theatre – Free to Stay (7.30 pm): An exploration of life without nationality, through physical theatre and projection, telling the stories of individuals with first-hand experience of statelessness
This year things feel different, in the run-up to Refugee Week. When I started blogging about refugees it felt like a neglected topic – even though organisations like Refugee Action and CARA and many others were working incredibly hard to support refugees and asylum seekers, and to raise awareness of the issues, they weren’t making headlines.
Since the photograph last September of that small boy, who came to stand for so many other children washed ashore as their flimsy, overcrowded boats sink in the Mediterranean, refugees have hardly been out of the headlines.
That’s a double edged sword, of course. Whilst many, many people have been stirred to do something, moved by looking into the eyes of grieving parents, frightened children and traumatised young men and recognising that they are like us, that they could be us, others have used the same images to stoke up hatred and suspicion.
The theme this year is ‘Welcome’. The heady days when refugees were greeted with smiling crowds and flowers faded pretty quickly but the people themselves are still with us, and more are coming, because they have no choice. Those who are here already can’t go home because home isn’t there any more for them, just as those others who are leaving now, grabbing what they can carry, handing their money over for a hazardous passage to an uncertain future, can’t just say, well, you know what, perhaps we’ll stay put after all.
We have to keep pressing our governments to make them welcome. We have to keep challenging the miserable, hateful lies that are told daily about them. We have to keep telling their stories so that more people make that leap into understanding and empathy.
Over the next week I’ll be trying to do some of that. As in previous years, I’ll post at least one piece each day. If you like what you read, feel free to reblog/share.
Tonight at the Migration Matters festival in Sheffield, Ice and Fire Theatre present their Asylum Monologues, based on ten years of gathering and disseminating testimonies of asylum seekers and refugees in the UK. And they’ve a packed and varied programme throughout Refugee Week as well, including Ardi Mejzini’s one-man show based on his own experience as a refugee from Kosovo (Monday, 20.00). All events will take place at Theatre Delicatessen, 17 The Moor and are Pay What You Decide.
Europe is facing a wave of migration unmatched since the end of World War II – and no one has reported on this crisis in more depth or breadth than the Guardian’s migration correspondent, Patrick Kingsley. In today’s Guardian, Kingsley offers an impassioned overview of Europe’s collective response to the refugee crisis. This is how he begins:
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Once again I’m naming the dead. Listing the names of the latest victims of murderous fanaticism. But whilst the names of the dead in Brussels are emerging, gradually, and will be published in our news media as they do, I have trawled the internet in vain for the names of those who died at Grand Bassam, as I did for those who died in Ouagadougou and Bamako, in Ankara and elsewhere. I’ve found a few – usually those of foreign nationals – but only a few. I want to honour them too, they merit that as much as those who died in Brussels or Paris. But I don’t know who they are.
So if I list the names of those who died this week in Brussels, as I listed those who died in Paris, it is not because I think European lives are more important or that terrorist attacks on European soil matter more than atrocities in Africa, Asia, the Middle East.
What listing the names of those murdered in European cities does is to show the cosmopolitanism of those targets. The names tell their own stories of migration and mobility – those who travel freely for pleasure or work or family, as well as those who have travelled to escape desperate poverty, persecution or war. That’s exactly what Daesh hate, of course. That on those city streets those of every faith and none mix freely, travel together, work together, eat together, enjoy music together.
But whilst the attacks on Paris and Brussels are explicitly aimed at the western cosmopolitanism that epitomises the grey zone, ‘that place between black and white, where nothing is ever either/or and everything is a bit of both’, the majority of their victims are Muslim. After all, most of their murderous attacks take place in predominantly Muslim countries – Daesh hate those who espouse what they regard as the wrong type of Islam as much if not more than they hate those who espouse a different faith or none at all.
How we respond on social media to these atrocities does matter. It may be easy to retweet, like, share, sign and so forth but that doesn’t mean it’s worthless. It’s not enough, of course, but for many of us it’s all we can immediately do.
So what do we say? Do we change our profile pictures to the flag of the country where the latest murders have taken place? Do we assert that ‘je suis/nous sommes/we are all…’? Again, it’s important if we do those things that we do them for Mali, Ivory Coast, Turkey or Pakistan as readily as we do for France or Belgium.
Whatever we say, we need to say and keep saying that refugees are welcome. Because even before the names of the dead or the backgrounds of the killers are known, the usual suspects here and in the US are telling us that we’re to blame for letting ‘them’ in. Even before we know who died, and who killed them, we’re told that it’s the refugees fleeing war and terrorist brutality who are the cause of ‘our’ losses. We have to reject that othering which is, after all, exactly what Daesh want. In their world everything is polarised, and most of humanity is that Other that can be slaughtered without compunction. As terrorists they want us to fear and to hate, and governments to react with repressive and prejudicial legislation, to drive people out of the grey zone and into crusadership or caliphate.
Of course we may well be afraid, however much we assert otherwise to show our solidarity with each other against the murderers. We will be angry, we should be angry, that so many lives are being taken, that such brutality is being unleashed on so many. But alongside those emotions, we need to inform ourselves, to try to comprehend. As Jason Burke says, in his important and fascinating book, The New Threat from Islamic Militancy,
Trying to understand does not imply any sympathy. It simply means we need to set aside our very natural anger, disgust and fear in order, as dispassionately as possible, to learn. We need, above all, to avoid the trap that the extremists have fallen into: that of shutting ourselves off, of closing our minds, of succumbing to the temptation of wilful ignorance. In the aftermath of terrorist attacks, victims, the maimed and the bereaved, always ask a very fundamental, very human question, ‘Why did this happen?’ We owe it to them to make the effort it takes to find the answer.
We honour the dead by naming them, when we can. By refusing to shut our minds and our hearts – or indeed our borders. By asserting our shared humanity, that what unites us is so much greater than what divides us. By trying to understand.