I’ve never visited a refugee camp, donated heavily to a refugee charity or volunteered to work with refugees in any capacity. The only times I’ve come close to the reality of being a refugee on foreign shores were a couple of holiday drives in Malta, one of the islands where refugees end up (some for years) in temporary housing while waiting for their future to be decided. The first time was when we were driving around La Valletta, admiring the city at night, going down the tiny winding roads around the port, looking for a cool wine bar to finish off a great day of sightseeing and excellent food tastings. And then we took a wrong turn onto a little one-way street, and suddenly the landscape changed. From the luxury yachts and chic seafront restaurant quarter, we somehow ended up in a dark, squalid port-side open camp where black silhouettes (not necessarily black people) were roaming around increasingly narrower side streets, up and down barred-up and poorly illuminated buildings, hanging at street corners or in the middle of bridges, smoking impassively out windows in dilapidated buildings. I still remember that shameful feeling of being suddenly horrified that my holiday mood has been swiftly erased as I angrily and warily ordered my husband to make a u-turn while watching the black silhouettes turning around to look at our lonesome car making a screeching stop in front of them. And so he did make a u-turn – in three painfully long takes –, and we drove away; fast. We were safe. We did not speak for a good few minutes until we reached the blinding lights of the elegant La Valletta districts. In fact, I don’t remember having a conversation about this at any other time afterwards either. The second time I saw those silhouettes was when we were driving towards M’dina, through an arid, desert-like coastal area, and saw kids and their parents walking on the side of an unpaved road towards an isolated building in the distance; we later found out it was a refugee shelter, safely away from civilisation (which, in Europe’s most densely-populated country, where you can walk from one town to another, is quite something).
I’ve also visited the Mosney asylum seeker/refugee accommodation camp in Ireland (a former children’s holiday camp, no less), for professional reasons, while working for an NGO. Not a pretty sight. Children playing on muddy playgrounds under the Irish drizzle, adults with weathered faces and resigned expressions, waiting for their fat asylum application file to be returned to them with a big red NO stamp on it or a green YES stamp. Some would receive letters inviting to make an appeal or avail of some other “permission to stay” options. I have friends and acquaintances who struggled with asylum application rejections and immigration formalities that left them dehumanised, poor and hopeless, and, in many ways, relieved when it was all over.
A lifetime ago, I briefly worked on the fringes of the asylum process in Ireland, and it was an experience that left me sadder and more cynical than any of my other pseudo-professional endeavours. I’ve seen real cases of authentic refugees fleeing life-threatening situations in war zones who cried when talking about the families and friends they left behind, and I’ve also come across people smugglers, illegal goods traffickers and economic migrants who were abusing the asylum and refugee system in Europe, repeatedly and in several countries, on their self-entitled quest for a better financial situation for which they did not want to work hard. I’ve watched Western European, entry-level, single and childless civil servants with limited education, lack of knowledge about things outside their immediate world, and who had travelled widely, but only to countries as rich as their own, make life-changing legal decisions on the future of people who were older, more educated, visibly desperate, genuinely in fear of their lives if returned to their countries of origin, and who had only travelled once in their lives – to make the journey West – resigned to their fate but concerned for their childrens’. During my International Relations studies, I’ve learned that some Western feminist female scholars (and my own fellow students) do not believe that intervention is appropriate on behalf of their Eastern counterparts whose human and gender rights are breached by a dictatorial, non-elected misogynistic sovereign state, and that that in itself should not be a reason that entitles them to seek refugee status. While working in policy for a large multinational, I’ve learned that it is legally defamatory to accuse a state of being racist in its internal immigration policy or external security foreign policy.
All of this was in the last decade, before the unprecedented refugee and migrant crisis enveloping the EU’s southern shores and causing concerns on their northern ones. News images and videos of people bundled up on trains heading towards unknown destinations (referred to as “camps”) in the Hungarian countryside, large groups of people sitting/lying down in the middle of cities and on train station platforms, hundreds marching on foot along the motorway with just the clothes on their back, under the gaze of riot soldiers are reminiscent of certain ghetto and camp images from the Second World War. No, I don’t think this analogy is too much.
We in the West lament the situation of the Rohyngia, the Taliban atrocities, gasp at ISIS’ horrific acts, just as we have condemned the now dead Apartheid in the past; conflicts in the Middle East, Africa and farther away have been going on forever; we grow up hearing about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, protest at anti-Israeli marches and sport Che Guevara t-shits – but do we really understand someone who has experienced life in the West Bank or Cuba? The Irish – a byword for emigration in the modern era – were investing considerable energies and funds campaigning for an total amnesty of undocumented Irish migrants in the US some years ago, while deporting undocumented failed asylum seekers back to war-torn Iraq. During the Cold War, people in Western countries deplored the fact that Eastern Bloc citizens were locked within the borders of their murderous dictatorships, but were quick to support closing their own countries’ borders when the Soviet Union and its satellites crumbled. These same satellites are behaving in the same way they were once themselves treated. What the Hungarian government did over the last week was shameful – having insisted on processing the migrants, and thus enforcing European law, was right, of course; everything else wasn’t. Eastern European Union states have quickly forgotten what it is to be the poor desperate sod knocking on the gates of Fortress Europe.
There is always some story about people fleeing a particularly violent situation, breaking down doors and breaking laws in the process. And there is not one person on this planet, who, at some time or another, is not illegal or doing something illegal. In most cases, the extent of that illegality is not a life-and-death situation for those running away. In most cases, it all boils down to that old dilemma of compassion vs pragmatism for those who are in the position to provide help.
So what is new about what’s happening now? Nothing other than that THEY are now HERE.
In very basic terms, it’s all about numbers – the unexpected mass migration over Europe’s southern sea, and circumstances: this is happening in countries like Greece, itself a bankrupt country and Italy, which has scarce resources at the moment. In very complex terms, this is a domino-effect situation involving historical shifts caused by wars raging and states collapsing in already unstable regions in parts of the Middle East and Africa. In very specific terms, people fleeing bullets and bombs in Afghanistan, Syria, Sudan, Somalia, the Congo, Lybia are breaking down gates in Turkey, Greece, Italy, Hungary, on their way to the quiet, safe shores of North-Western Europe.
And what exactly is happening? Reports say Germany expects 800,000 asylum seekers this year, and does not plan to turn away Syrians. 11,000 Icelanders are inviting refugees to become their future friends and spouses. That all sounds great. But what do these statements really mean in pure logistical terms? How are refugees going to get past Hungary or make it through the Balkan forests, for instance? There are some people waiting for refugees at German train stations with water, food, clothes and open arms – as long as the refugees can get there on their own. There are other people in Western Europe who hunt down and kill immigrants (this really happened). Many migrants die at sea; some of them are children.
Children die all the time. How’s this for a statement? Children die in the West: from accidents, diseases, natural disasters and through murder. Children die in the East: from accidents, diseases, natural disasters, through murder, from starvation and in war. Children die in the limbo between East and West from desperation, callousness, indecision and laws.
Adults can take care of themselves; they can make decisions; they can choose to risk their lives and are able to somehow cope with extreme situations (until they can’t), so, in my own callous and cynical way, as a not particularly well-to-do bleeding-heart European Union person, I am not overly concerned about those strong, young lads attempting to flee those countries above. When I’m watching the news, I’m looking for women, old people and the children – the weaklings, the first to go under the force of the waves, the first ones to run out of air in an airtight abandoned lorry – and (just to remind ourselves, because we tend to forget) the first ones to be sent to camps, to torture and/or death in war situations anywhere from Nazi Germany to Revolutionary China, the Soviet Gulag, the Balkan conflict, the Japanese POW camps, African war zones, etc.
But these images are just elements and factors in the complex and legalistic reality of state-to-state migration in a (post-)modern world. Decisions about the lives and futures of a family on a dinghy somewhere in the middle of the choppy autumn Mediterranean are made behind closed doors in large metal-and-glass buildings of the (supra-)national European and other Western governments, by legally-trained, career civil servants and elected representatives, who are politicians first and humans second. Most days I don’t even blame these men and women in dark suits for coldly analysing human lives in terms of housing availability, financial cost and political losses/gains; this is the world they live in and this is their job.
But what of those children then? Who is going to save them? Do they know what paperwork they need to provide IF/AFTER they get across the sea? Do they know they are threatening Europe’s Christian roots and social stability as soon as their parents lift them up onto the boat?
To be continued …