After venturing through seven European countries and travelling approximately 4000 km by boat, train and bus from Lesbos and Samos via Athens to Karlsruhe, the refugee crisis is perhaps more tangible to me, but still startling in its complexity and forever changing. There are so many borders, people, interests and politicians involved, so many powers at play and so many words: words of accusation, words of support, words of hatred, words of intolerance, and a noisy silence of indifference. One thing is the words or no words. Another thing is the individuals involved in the crisis, at the very heart of it.
I know it’s been said before, but the refugees are real people. Just like you and I. They worry about the future of their children; that their little ones can no longer sleep at night because they have seen and heard things children should never see. They feel embarrassed when their hair is full of lice because of the dire, unhygienic situation in the camps or non-existing camps. They show frustration because of the uncertainty they face for days, weeks and months. They apologise for not having had access to a shower for ten days, but still invite people like me into their tent for cups of sweet tea – because showing hospitality resembles some normality from home. They make friends along the route; they laugh, argue and cry. And the women … the women hide when menstruation blood flows and they have nothing to stop it with.
The refugees are like you and I, with the same feelings of pride, shame and love – and the same fears about the unknown. The only difference is that they are in exceptional circumstances.
Most Europeans outside the narrow corridor of Europe that the refugees travel through will not have met any of them. Subsequently, outside the Greek islands of the Eastern Aegean, Athens, Idomeni (Greece), Presevo (Serbia), Sid (Serbia), Slavonski Brod (Croatia), Sentilj (Slovenia), Spielfeld (Austria) and Münich (Germany) it is so much easier to close ones eyes to the refugees and the crisis. But the people in the corridor have no choice. They are faced with the refugees on a daily basis, and whilst neo-Nazi groups march and others moan or vote for ever-more right-wing politicians, many others have reached out and shared what they have. In Greece and in the Balkans this is sometimes very little, but it makes the generosity so much more touching, extraordinary and remarkable. Would you do the same or just turn the other cheek? I don’t know if we would ever know before we were actually faced with the choice. What we can decide from our sofas and the comfort of our homes in Northern Europe or elsewhere, is whether to read and hear the news stories and follow what is going on through social media or whether to shut the world out and pretend that this humanitarian crisis, or more precisely catastrophe, is not happening. It is happening, and I would call it a catastrophe when in this year alone more than 3500 people have died crossing the Mediterranean. It is 3500 more than the Ahmad’s, Sidra’s, Yasmin’s, Sarah’s, Housam’s, Boushra’s, Aziz’ I have been so fortunate to meet on this trip. It is also 3500 more than you and I … And this is just the number of corpses found and tallied.
If we don’t start opening our eyes, ears and borders to the suffering elsewhere in the world, the number of bodies will increase. Many more will perish, at sea, in the cold, under electrical train cables, in lorries. In Europe. In 2015.
What we have to remember when we bemoan the fact that hundreds of thousands of people turn to Europe for help and safety is that we meet the most resourceful refugees here. We see the ones with money, knowledge and dreams of a better life for themselves and their children. Their poorer neighbours are left in camps in Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Egypt or just in their home countries. They are left to war, poverty, unemployment, uncertainty, persecution and a host of other undesirable conditions, each of which would most probably make you or I think of relocating. It is a huge task for these countries to accommodate them – as it is for Europe – but while there are four millions refugees in the Middle East and Turkey according to Amnesty International, so far 1.4 million have made it to Europe, at most. And whilst the EU countries and the Balkans have a population of approximately 515 million, the same Middle Eastern countries and Turkey have around 201 million citizens. If we call it a crisis here, what should we call it there? And whilst we in Denmark have a per capita income of €40,500 (Germany has €42,000 and Austria has €42.300), Greeks – who have seen more than 740.000 refugees arrive on their shores this year – earn on average €23.500, the Turks approximately €17,900, the Lebanese €16,400 and the Jordanians €10,900. So where is the crisis really? And who is best equipped to deal with it?
However hard it is to keep digesting the news and no matter how inept the media is at showing a nuanced picture of the refugee crisis in Europe and elsewhere, I ask you to keep your TV’s, newsfeeds and radios tuned in – to keep your eyes open. And react to what you see and hear. React by being grateful that it is not you or your family on the move. React by supporting the local individuals, groups and NGO’s out there fighting to make the refugees’ first meeting with Europe just a bit more humane, safe and dignified. React with understanding, but also an answer, should you meet someone who is scared of what is happening in Europe right now. React by being aware and react by writing to your local politicians. Without your voices and opinions it is too easy for people and politicians to be irresponsible, close their eyes and just focus on the near because, as for all of us, it is a daunting prospect to focus on the far. Ask the politicians to travel the route themselves. To experience and see it because it is only if they have been there, felt it, smelt it, sensed it that they can make informed decisions.
In the coming years Europe will change because of the refugees. No doubt about it. But it will mainly happen in the narrow corridor and the few countries the refugees most desire to settle in. Here, the demography of the cities and societies will change. It may be hard in the beginning, but the beginning will be so much longer as long as we resist it. With the change however – comes also new opportunities. Maybe the newcomers will add new ideas to an old continent. Maybe they will help re-energise Europe and even bolster to the stagnant economy. Of course it won’t be a smooth ride, but the influx of highly skilled people and different backgrounds cannot but bring new innovations and new markets. It will also bring challenges because of course we are scared of terrorists travelling along the refugee path. But closed borders won’t keep out evil. It will only create more evil, and hence, though I agree that Europe cannot take in everyone knocking on its doors, it may be about time to look not so much at nationality, but more on the reasons people want to escape from a country. It may also be time to accept that borders in a globalised world are a thing of the past. We can build fences and erect barricades, but the only ones those will aid are human traffickers and criminal gangs cashing in on human misery. There needs to be legal ways in which prospective refugees – be they Syrians, Afghans or Iraqis (those Europe at present accept as refugees) or Yeminis, Iranians, Somalis, Moroccans or Palestinians (who are currently not accepted) – can apply for asylum and visas. A way that enables each and every one of them to feel, at the very least, that their pleas and applications are heard and treated fairly. And with dignity.
No matter how we see the refugees, we are not in their situation. Hopefully we never will be, but that makes reaching out so much more important. It can enrich our lives and make theirs easier in a time of crisis. It can also send a powerful message to the people who have a responsibility to come up with solutions and answers to this crisis – the politicians – that we the people wish and expect them to behave humanely and show compassion rather than closed doors and apathy.
If we don’t act, more people will die. And not next year or next month. Today. Already, EU’s deal with Turkey has made the refugees more desperate and hence more dependent on smugglers. It has forced them to take additional risks in bad weather, and the death toll has already begun to rise in the Eastern Aegean. Furthermore, just this week, the EU demanded that Greece guard their external borders more carefully otherwise the Greeks risk being excluded from Schengen. Translated, does that mean – as evil voices would have it – that the country is being asked to “push the boats back”? Back to where? Or does it mean more people stranded in unsafe camps as winter sets in? How many deaths are the EU willing to accept, before they come up with sustainable and dignified solutions rather than panicked exercises in keeping people out and appeasing xenophobes? How many are just like you and I? Ask your politicians this question and keep asking because otherwise more people like Ahmad, Sidra, Yasmin, Sarah, Housam, Boushra and Aziz will lose their lives along the 4000 km trail I have followed for the past 6 weeks, and Europe will shamefully lose its humanity.
Please don’t forget the refugees or the people at the heart of this crisis. Merry Christmas and let’s hope for a fresh start to Europe 2016.