The refugee crisis has put us face to face with our values, our fears and our role in the world. But most of all, it has underlined our greatest shortcomings. Read Andrew Connelly’s impressions as he travelled the long road to Europe alongside those who now make our daily headlines.
At any given moment currently there are Syrian families sneaking across the Turkish border in the dead of night, some of them will get caught up in exchanges of fire between Syrian rebels and Turkish police that occur regularly, if not shot at directly.
Days later, in the gloomy, trash-strewn alleyways of the Basmane district in the port of Izmir, a once powerful father will cloak his sleeping children in blankets as they lay sprawled on pieces of cardboard with open sewage running nearby. He will then walk along the main streets where all the brightly-lit shopfronts are festooned with the necessary materials for a perilous maritime trip. Lifejackets, rubber rings, and money belts are essential for refugees who board dangerously crowded rubber boats setting sail across the Aegean Sea to Greece. At nearby stands, children sell pre-inflated balloons (to wrap your mobile phone) and selfie sticks (to document your arrival on dry land, if you make it).
The instructions on the children’s lifejackets inform that they are designed solely for swimming pools.I write this on 22 September, the eve of Tuesday’s summit of EU interior ministers. By the time this article is published something will have been decided. Without pre-judging the outcome, it seems inevitable that the world’s largest trading bloc is destined for a dispute over the most contentious issue of signing up to a quota system to accept a piddling fraction of refugees.
Some ex-Communist countries are putting up fierce resistance despite themselves being recent exporters of their own refugees and subsequently, economic migrants. After two months on the road meeting those desperately scrambling to reach Europe from Budapest to Bodrum, the creaking, cumbersome mechanisms of the institutions seem very far away. But one observation stands out like a beacon, a fact that may haunt Europe for many years to come, most of these people should never have been abandoned to make this dangerous journey in the first place.
Speaking of supply and demand economics, the exodus into Europe is extraordinarily expensive and only the minority of world’s refugees can afford it, as indeed only a fraction of the global refugee population are moving to Europe. The sheer volumes of cash changing hands on the western Balkan route are staggering. The refugee business is booming, and everyone is getting rich from the bloodsucking taxi drivers, the corrupt policemen, national train and bus companies, hotel owners right up to the international money transfer agencies.
A common critical observation from xenophobes is that photos of refugees seem to reveal that the majority are men. Almost every photo of a crowd that I post on Twitter inevitably prompts a cry of ’where are the families?’ There are numerous reasons for this, a major one being the evasion of mass military conscription in Eritrea and Syria, the latter of which traps many young men into essentially killing their own people. Another reason is the exorbitant cost. I met a Syrian-Palestinian man in Macedonia travelling with his wife and two children who claimed he had spent already around $20,000. This is all money that refugees could use to support themselves starting a new life in their European country of choice, without being a burden to the state.
Instead it is squandered on their fraught odyssey through Europe’s troubled back door. Do some refugees look rich? That’s because some of them are, or were, and many sold every last thing they could before fleeing. What use is property or furniture in a smouldering city of ghosts?
Why don’t refugees just stay in their neighbouring countries and we will support them there? The fact that they pass through several countries means that they are choosing where to live and that makes them economic migrants. So goes the argument from the European hardline governments such as Britain and Hungary.
Firstly, numerous people I have met tried to make their lives work in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan – there are serious issues for refugees to gain proper work permits, enjoy any kind of rights and earn enough to feed their children in all three countries. Turkey, burdened already with around two million Syrians, is a country whose coast guard has been documented deliberately trying to sink refugees’ boats. I would not so easily rest in a country that was trying to drown my people.
Secondly, solving conflicts in the middle east and providing even basic sanctuary to families running for their lives are not mutually exclusive approaches, one can and should do both.
Thirdly, people are coming, inevitably and inexorably, risking sickness, bankruptcy and death, to Europe. You cannot theorise on what people should do and completely ignore what people are doing.
I have spent time with a vast array of students and professionals, the kind that European economies would only benefit from. If their countries were not killing fields, most would have happily stayed at home, but instead they attempted to get legal entry to Europe, and were denied. So, they walk and they die and our shores and highways become graveyards. Any country that had a shred of conscience would right now be talking about issuing humanitarian visas, forming humanitarian corridors and conducting military airlifts. The hosts of the vast majority of the world’s refugees are poverty stricken nations in Africa and Asia. If Europe cannot escape from its collective paralysis and self interest over the definitive issue of protecting the children of conflict then all of its ideals and principles turn to dust. The words of Martin Luther King, quoted to me by a Syrian friend as we crept through the moonlit woods one night from Serbia into Hungary still echo in my mind.
“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
Cover photo: Andrew Connelley