Held every year on 20 June, World Refugee Day marks a moment to honour the strength, resilience and courage of millions of refugees. Since 2015, when the refugee crisis exploded on the global scene, it seems like not a week has gone by without news of the latest migrant tragedy at sea. And the death toll isn’t easing off. This year alone there have been over 1000 deaths as people continue to risk their lives to escape war, persecution, and extreme poverty. Yet the response of Europe’s political leaders has been chillingly indifferent according to the UN’s human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein. In a period necessitating that European countries and their leaders act with humanity and compassion there has been a collective failure to see beyond the statistics. Statistics which, while shocking, can often lead to a dehumanised understanding of the crisis. For these numbers represents represent the lives of individuals; children who dream of going to school but cannot, young men and women seeking a better life who find themselves trapped indefinitely in camps; families fleeing danger who are met with hostility and persecution upon arrival in Europe and mothers left wondering if their children are still alive.
While the war in Syria rages on and conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan continue to flare up forcing people from their homes, European political leaders that should be stepping in to provide support are instead tightening their asylum regulations and effectively turning their backs on those who so desperately need their help. In February 2017, the British government quietly announced that it would end its commitment to provide a safe haven for thousands of lone child refugees, meaning that only 350 rather than the initial estimated figure of 3000 children would actually benefit from the Dubs scheme. In Hungary, a country where the narrative regarding inward immigration and asylum has been particularly vitriolic, the parliament has recently approved a law enabling all asylum seekers to be detained and forced back into neighbouring Serbia. The new legislation, which will see refugees detained in border camps made of shipping containers while their cases are decided violates Hungary’s obligations under international and EU laws; no doubt also exerting terrible physical and psychological impacts on people who have already endured enormous suffering. The inhabitants of these camps will add to the thousands already trapped in dire humanitarian conditions across Europe; conditions which have been rapidly deteriorating since the Balkan migration route was closed in early March last year and the EU-Turkey accord drawn up a few days later.
While the political response in Europe has been plagued by indecision, distinctly lacking compassion and forgoing the basic human standards that it claims to uphold, individuals and civil society organisations have stepped in, providing support to refugees in their community. For example Volunteering Matters’ Ipswich based programme Learning Matters is supporting young migrants and asylum seekers to settle in Ipswich. Nearly 70 migrants and asylum seekers are enrolled on a full-time study course learning English, maths, arts, sport, and employability skills. As well as education, these lessons build their confidence and support them to feel comfortable in their new community. When speaking to the BBC, 17 year old Ahmed from Sudan who has participated in the Learning Matters programme said “I want to help people in Ipswich because these people have helped me.”
Elsewhere in Europe there have been countless inspiring initiatives and individuals who have gone above and beyond to support refugees and help them integrate into their new community. Some of these initiatives were celebrated at this year’s European Citizenship Awards, organised jointly by Volonteurope and European Civic Forum which this year aimed at rewarding initiatives that contribute to combating the root causes of extremism. The Laureates for 2017 include the Taste of Home, a social cooperative bringing refugees, migrants and Croatians together through the medium of cooking to share culinary skills and life stories. This extremely valuable initiative has served as an opportunity form migrants and refugees to explore their memories of home while forging new relationships within their new communities.
These projects show that even when the political elite seem more concerned with closing borders, erecting fences and criminalising innocent people who seek only sanctuary, there is still hope for a better Europe. As long as we as civilians hold on to the idea that together we can make a difference no matter how small or large the scale, people like Ahmed will continue to benefit from the kindness of individuals, and begin to repair their lives and make a positive contribution to society. So sign a petition, volunteer with a local charity, or initiate a discussion to show your support for refugees, do your bit to change the narrative in Europe and help make it the sanctuary that refugees have dreamt of.