The migrant situation in Europe and the Middle East is an undeniable human crisis that we cannot ignore. Regardless of political standpoint, this situation has to be talked about and acted upon in a way that acknowledges the lives that have been put on indefinite pause. Let us at least give the dignity of recognition and dialogue to the human beings who have been forced to leave their own countries due to persecution, war, or a stagnant economic situation.
Our world is now experiencing the highest levels of displacement on record. By July 2016, European Union reports were indicating that more than 1 million refugees had arrived in the EU throughout the previous two years, having fled from oppression, conflict, or extreme poverty in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. There are unofficial camps from Lesbos to Calais, with transient populations of people seeking a better life, and looking for safety. Their lives feature small tents, charitable donations, and no clear or official way to find security. Yet, how much do we really acknowledge this reality?
It has been a month since I returned from spending 5 weeks at La Linière refugee camp near Dunkirk, and it is evident that this reality is so rarely discussed. Before the camp suffered a significant fire and was subsequently closed by local authorities, those living there were rarely reported on. Sporadic and, frankly, sensationalist reporting would comment on cases of rape and abuse, or on the fighting and fire that took place on 10th April 2017, leading to the immediate closure of the camp. Such reports were important, and highlighted significant events and social situations that absolutely should be discussed. However, their isolation in a sea of journalistic silence creates destructive problems that must be addressed.
Silence on migrants in our mainstream media is only broken occasionally with articles that focus on violence, abuse, and manipulation. This Guardian article addressed rape and domestic violence in the former camp, and this piece from Deutsche Welle addressed the violence of mafia networks within the refugee population. Such narrow journalistic focus on the very worst and most destructive stories depicts a migrant population that is violent and immoral, incapable of achieving the standards of western civilisation. In demonising the refugee population, their situation is thus exacerbated, as empathy for refugees evaporates with every new article that shows abuse and manipulation committed by a small number of refugees.
I do not mean to demonise these articles themselves, because in essence they are correct and well-intended. Undeniably, it is right of these journalists to give a voice to the women who would rather wear incontinence pants than go to the toilets at night for fear of being assaulted, or the child who is being abused by a parent whose anger is aggravated by the powerlessness of their situation. It is not the fault of the journalists who concentrate on these stories that their articles have such a devastating effect on the perception of migrants. Rather, it is the failure of the journalistic community as a whole that devotes so little of its website space to this human crisis, so that the only stories to make it through are the ones of such violence.
Of course, being a refugee does put you in a vulnerable situation, and we should be doing all we can to get people out of these circumstances. It is a tragic reality that, if you take a cross-section of any society, it will contain a minority of people who do not respect others. Amongst myriad parents, doctors, models, builders, and marine biologists, our world contains people who would harm others. The refugee populations are no different: amongst the majority of people just looking for safety and to be able to start living again, there is a minority who gain from the suffering of others. Yet, can we turn our backs on thousands for the sake of a few? By only breaking our silence on the migrant problem for the most devastating of stories, we reduce our conception of the migrant population to one of demonic qualities, and fail to recognise the majority of refugees as vulnerable people, looking to live real lives again.
Furthermore, forcing refugees to remain in camps significantly raises the levels of human suffering that emerge in the aforementioned news articles. Whilst migrants remain deserted in unofficial camps across Europe and the Middle East, there is no way to monitor who is being manipulated or abused. When you’re not being recognised legally, there is no one to even notice when a minor is being trafficked and beaten, or a family is being manipulated in return for safe passage, and no legal structure with which to provide protection for those at risk. Whilst volunteers can do what they can to identify those who would be considered most vulnerable, the transient nature of the migrant community makes these circumstances difficult to assess, and even harder to act on. Abandoned to a constant state of non-existence, no protection can be offered and no steps can be taken for the prevention of harm. In doing so, this causes us to disassociate ourselves from the refugee community and to fail to recognise the majority of people just looking for security, instead leaving them trapped in a life unacknowledged and unprotected.
Moreover, such sporadic attention allows us to forget that this is an everyday reality. These people are not living lives that are spotted with tragic moments, but are living lives that are continuously vulnerable. There is no visible light at the end of the tunnel. When our information about the refugee crisis only appears on our newsfeeds in violent and shocking statistics, we lose focus from the stories of isolation and displacement that would show us the unending and hopeless fatigue of never knowing when you will have stability again. With the closure of La Linière camp towards the beginning of April, even the little stability there was - living in wooden boxes, knowing that volunteers would arrive with donations of food at the same time every day - became lost. Migrants went from having nothing to having so much less than nothing. Your food, your hygiene items, your phone credit - each day is a reminder that you cannot sustain yourself or support your family. There is the hope that, one day, you will find asylum and be able to start your life anew, but until that day comes, each day is another day stuck in limbo. Being suspended with no right to protection, and no right to sustain yourself, each day is another day without rights, and without official recognition as a human being.
At the end of the day, the starting point of any further action relies on the recognition of migrants as human beings who fully deserve the implementation of their fundamental human rights. Human beings have a right to clean water and a roof over their heads, but also the right to education, and the right to be self-sufficient. Living in a tent, surviving on food and clothing donations, and being denied the right to have any more purpose to each day than getting up, eating, smoking, and then sleeping again, is not a life. We have to recognise that migrants should have the right to really thrive, and not just survive. As individuals, we can volunteer our time for short term aid, or support those who feel capable of doing so.
Yet it is obvious that the true power to change the damaging and bleak reality of the refugee situation lies with European governments. No, we cannot take full responsibility for the creation of this refugee problem, but we can offer safety to those who have been abandoned, and restore the rights of those who have been denied them. Every day that we do not even discuss this issue is another day that these people are reduced to a tragic-but-frozen mural on the wall. This is not a question of blame, but a question of the imminent needs of vulnerable people. This will not alter unless we keep the dialogue open, and acknowledge the daily reality of having been forced from your country of origin, and then had every other door slammed in your face. None of those now affected had a choice in the genesis of the migrant problem, but we do have a choice in how we respond to it. Regardless of political perspective, there is something fundamentally inhuman to not acknowledge these people. This is not a statistical problem to be solved, or a cloud of locusts to be wafted away; these are human beings to be recognised.