A Sea of Hands

A Sea of Hands – thoughts on displacement

The current United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimate for the number of forcibly displaced people worldwide is 59.5 million. To put this number into context, it is the equivalent of Italy’s population having to flee their homes. Comparatively, at the end of 2011 42.5 million people were classed as refugees, internationally displaced people or asylum seekers. The number of people is significantly increasing and will continue to do so as wars ravage the globe.

On 6th September 2015, the UNHCR estimated that there are more than 4 million registered refugees or ‘persons of concern’ who have fled Syria since the civil war began in 2011 – roughly a sixth of the country’s total population. This enforced exodus has led many to call the fighting and its effects the worst humanitarian crisis of the 21st century, with the world witnessing the highest number of refugees since WWII.

Despite the longevity of the situation and continued suffering, the terminology describing those fleeing war torn countries hangs in the balance. The media, particularly in the UK, easily alternates between the words refugee and migrant. By definition and situation, the nouns are not readily interchangeable, despite what the public has been led to believe. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a refugee is defined as a person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster. Whereas a migrant is defined as a person who moves from one place to another in order to find work or better living conditions. For good measure, an asylum seeker is defined as a person who has left their country as a political refugee and is seeking asylum in another.

Following a successful passage, refugees are able to apply to governments for consideration to change their status to asylum seeker. Thus refugees can subsequently find work and better living conditions than those they have escaped from, pending the approval of their applications. At least, in theory.

For some this is the dream, for most a matter of survival with a heavy price tag. For Syrian refugees, the imminent destinations are those bordering Syria, namely Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon (these three countries being top hosts for refugees) Jordan, Iraq and Egypt. As these countries have tightened borders and faced a strain on resources in the past five years, Europe is experiencing a trickle-down effect.

Currently, Germany and Sweden are popular destinations. Figures scoured from interviews with smugglers or successfully resettled refugees indicate the cost can range anywhere between under €1,000 up to €10,000 depending on a person’s country of origin and route taken.  The Migrant Files conducted extensive research to collate the costs spent depending on the route taken, confirming the disparity in pricing.

Smugglers

The Migrant Files go on to estimate that refugees and migrants spend a total of over €1 billion each year to get to Europe (€13 billion recorded since 2000) , and governments spend roughly that amount in deportation costs. The figures expended on detention centres, equipment for border guards and fortifying borders are much, much larger than this.

Aside from the substantial monetary cost, there is a higher threat to human lives. Many smugglers have turned the crisis into a cottage industry for human cargo, with little concern for their ‘goods’ once dispatched. The International Organisation for Migration estimates lives lost crossing the Mediterranean Sea stands at more than 3,000. This, of course, only accounts for one of the main routes into Europe, let alone civilian casualties in war zones, other lives lost in transit or people listed as missing.

There are a lot of statistics shared on the web about the capabilities of leading European countries to open their gates to those in need. The UK is far from bursting at the seams; the below statistics demonstrate that the UK processed/received the fewest amounts of applications for asylum:

Eurostat

Population size and land mass can be considering factors when governments quote how many people they will be able to host. Wired claims the UK “already has one of Europe’s most diverse populations and is set to become the continent’s most populous countries by 2060 due to fertility and immigration rates” compared to Germany, where the Federal Statistical Office predicts that by 2060 only half of the ageing population will be of working age, thus extra bodies will give the economy a boost.

One cannot help but feel that Europe’s numbers game approach is futile at this stage, particularly given the fact that 86% of refugees are hosted by developing countries (UNHCR Staff Figures) and the continent is not disproportionately affected by the crisis. David Cameron has pledged to take up to 20,000 over the next five years and has, thus far, pledged £1 billion to the refugee crisis.  A more detailed outline of aid provisions can be found here. This figure pales in comparison to Germany preparing for 800,000 incoming refugees. Greece, too, has received roughly 235,000 refugees despite being in the midst of financial collapse.

Jean-Claude Juncker has since urged EU member states to take in a further 120,000 refugees (bringing the current total to 160,000), to be distributed on a quota basis. The draft plans redistribute nearly three-fifths of the refugees to Germany, France and Spain. The UK, however, has chosen to opt-out and is exempt from these plans.

The story of war and its impact on civilians is nothing that the world, particularly Europe, has not seen before. Older conflicts have displaced 1.1 million refugees from Somalia and 2.59 million from Afghanistan. I caught a snippet of a recent BBC broadcast that saw a number of Afghans in a refugee camp. The presenter asked one man about his journey and why he was in the camp given the previous amount of aid donated to his country. The man would have surely laughed into the camera had he not been so visibly exhausted. His comments were measured, reminding both presenter and viewers of the impact of military withdrawal, regardless of the amount of aid donated, “The Taliban is stronger than ever”.  These destructive political situations are not in the control of those they affect the most.

As the situation continues to develop, EU states are becoming fiercer. Historic, haunting echoes of treatments of persecuted groups are conjured from Czech Republic labelling refugees with numbers, Hungary using tear gas and water cannons and detaining migrants in cages, throwing food parcels to a sea of desperate clutching hands.  Artist and political journalist Molly Crabapple reminded us of the unfortunate familiarity, posting a quote from Hannah Arendt, a persecuted Jew who survived the Holocaust and migrated from Europe to the safe haven of America.

Given that displacement and persecution is something humanity deals with time and time again, what is abhorrent, aside from the unthinkable affects on families, is the media guiding and beguiling public opinion. When the heartbreaking image of  Aylan al-Kurdi was splashed across front pages, a sympathy previously absent was invoked. The U-turn has been at breakneck speed. The New Statesmen was quick to point out this callous treatment by leading right-wing papers. Cameron’s biblical diatribe, and other media figures (Katie Hopkins’ infamous cockroach comment), against fellow human beings beggars belief.  The Prime Minister is now touring refugee camps, urging other countries to increase aid provisions having seen first-hand that the conditions are “not great”.

As more refugees desperately need assistance, it is life-affirming to know that the public seems to be growing wise to the media’s manipulation and political ignorance. Many independent groups, in addition to big charities, are uniting to provide aid. Humanity shines through, despite the previous absence of this by those at the top. The internet has opened its arms with hashtags like #RefugeesWelcome, #HumanRightsChain and #SOSEurope.

We need more people on the ground providing independent reportage, without a whitewashing political agenda, to share the voices that cannot be heard. Victims should not be vilified; they are human and should be treated as such.

[All figures are correct at the time of writing.]

Image credit: Adriatic Sea.

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