Refugee levels have increased significantly recently due to conflicts globally. Today a total of 65.3 million people around the world have been forced from their home; among this figure are 21.3 million are refugees of which half are under the age of 18. The MEDMIG project found that 88% of those arriving in Greece said they left their homes due to persecution, violence, death threats or human rights abuse. In recent years there has been confusion between the terms refugee and migrant, the confusion is problematic for both groups. Refugees are persons fleeing armed conflict or persecution, whereas a migrant is someone that chooses to move not because of a direct threat of death or precaution, but rather to improve their lives through finding work, education and other things. There is a difference and it does matter, as it means that those are in the most need are not properly protected. Confusing the two also implies that those who are refugees did it out of choice.
The narratives and perceptions of refugees are important here. The perceptions are diverse and often poorly understood and this is where I believe there needs to be greater awareness. The othering of these people, often the most vulnerable in society, repeatedly means that they are the scapegoats of society. The consequences of which can be disastrous, establishing divisions and entrenching the dehumanisation of a group of people. Language plays a large role, as negative perceptions to migrants seen to be a corrosive part of a society is often placed on refugees too. Language assists people to solidify categories between ‘them’ and ‘us’, when we really need to be seeing these people as human and put the cost of saving human lives first. The case of Syria and other conflicts suggests we have yet to reach this stage yet.
The system, in and of itself, is broken. We can see this clearly by the fact that 10 of the world’s countries are harbouring some 50% of the world’s refugees. There needs to be a greater effort to resettle all refugees across the board. The question then comes to capability. The case of the refugee crisis in Europe has suggested that either Europe doesn’t have the capability or the will to deal with such an influx of people. Efforts are indeed limited and often self-vested; take the case of Hungary sealing the border with Serbia or Germany deciding to close its borders and countries in Europe not being able to handle the sheer amount of people arriving (those in the Western Balkan route). This then leads on to the question that there needs to be more support, especially for groups which are most vulnerable who have not become refugees as a choice. Refugee children are most at risk and protocols dealing with them have been extremely lacking. Europol, the EU’s police intelligence unit estimated that over the past two years around 10,000 unaccompanied children have gone missing in Europe.
Ultimately as a collective, we (the international) aren’t willing to what’s necessary to stop the plight of refugees globally. If we were, we would be doing much more, including providing mechanisms for relocation, having safe humanitarian corridors in times of escalating conflict and more funding to the UN. There is a current attitude of let’s just see how it goes and not take responsibility. There needs to be more understanding and more engagement to disband the negative perspectives that surround refugees. We need to be saving lives first with good standards, granted this needs to be genuine refugees. However it seems like we are not ready for this yet, look the former purgatory that was in Calais. Charities stated that at one point someone-thousand minors were housed in temporary shipping containers as the camp was demolished; where some of those sent to ‘safe’ welcome centres, were in fact forced into unpaid labour. A recent study by Harvard University has warned of a “growing epidemic” of sexual exploitation and abuse in Greece of refugee children: where a four-year-old girl is among those raped in camps that were supposed to afford them protection.
Some efforts, like the creation of the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants and the British Prime Minister’s comment on steps for ‘uncontrolled migration’ controls are good steps. But they lack collective immediate application and could be seen as ‘fillers’ to react to the problems facing the world currently. Realistically it also doesn’t help those in the system now, nor does it assist with taking down the narratives, which are often negative, around the word refugee. Declarations, statements and promises are all great for PR campaigns, but it does very little for those who are on the ground living in the reality.
In the wake of the Holocaust, the phrase of “never again” gained prominence, we haven’t even begun to say it about Syria. The repeating the phrase ‘never again’ is, in itself, a sign of sustained failure and also the broken system. We are repeatedly hearing statements of falsehood, of promises which will never actually be fulfilled.