There are stirrings of a popular backlash against the negligence shown by many European governments toward the thousands of desperate people who have fled their homes. It seems to have taken the devastating photograph this week of three-year-old Syrian boy Aylan Kurdi on a Turkish beach where his body was washed ashore.
Thousands of women, children and men have died en route to Europe this year, 2015. Last week, over 100 people drowned when a boat capsized soon after departing the Libyan coast, while in Austria 71 bodies were found in a lorry.
It is scandalous and unacceptable that it took so long and so many deaths for a wake-up call. Underpinning this negligence is a created sense of fear – what will these migrants bring to our communities? Who are these ‘other’ people? There are energetic but misplaced sentiments about fence building, repatriation and the economics of migration.
My over-riding feeling is one of humanity remembered.
In 1978, I ran away from the brutal dictatorship of Idi Amin in Uganda, via Kenya, to the United Kingdom. My family and I chose Britain knowing then – as I do now – that this was a country with a door open to people like me. As I arrived in the UK, this black, 18-year old African refugee girl was not deported. I got the chance to stay.
This was a European country where I safely had a chance to fulfil my potential. I studied at the University of Manchester and, years later, have been brought full circle back to the UK to serve this great movement – started in the UK – called Oxfam.
My story may have turned out very differently if a door to a safe haven was closed to me forty years ago. That memory quickly turns now into a calling.
Today, we are in the midst of a global and complex displacement crisis. To view this global crisis solely through the lens of Europe is to miss the bigger picture. The UN says 59.5 million people fled from their homes at the end of 2014, an increase of 59% from a decade ago and the highest number since World War II. The majority of displaced people are as young as, or younger than I was when I fled Uganda for the UK.
Investing in solutions
Oxfam is well-placed to connect the dots between the sources and the destinations of displaced people. This helps us understand the reasons for displacement and to strive for solutions. We witness the terrible human suffering that every day forces people into exile. We know this well because we work in nine of the highest ten source countries for refugees.
It is clear to us that the broken politics of conflict weigh most heavily in forcing migration. The UN found recently that the majority of people arriving in Europe by sea were fleeing from war, conflict or persecution, half of them from Syria and Afghanistan. Yet, conflict is preventable. Critical questions must be asked of international political leaders who are initiating or prolonging these conflicts, but are unable or unwilling to take responsibility for their humanitarian consequences.
Secondly, funding is central to meeting the day-to-day needs of those who have fled. In the short-term this means aid for desperately underfunded refugee programs; as I write this, only 32% of total funding to the Syrian crisis has been met, for instance. In the long-term it crucially means investing in lasting development that tackles the root causes of conflict, inequality, poverty and climate change, rather than building more fences and walls.
Balance is integral – poorer countries are currently bearing the brunt by hosting 86% of the world’s refugees. This puts Europe’s dilemmas into sharp context. Europe’s infrastructure is not at risk of falling apart because 340,000 people have sought haven here this year – they represent only around one half of one per cent of the EU population of 500 million. While Europe squabbled over the resettlement of 20,000 refugees earlier this year, Turkey singlehandedly was hosting well over one and a half million. In Lebanon a quarter of the population are now refugees, taking the country’s infrastructure and socio-economic fabric to breaking point. This is why we are calling for a commitment from rich countries to between them offer international protection to just five percent of Syrian refugees – approximately 200,000 people.
People who are ‘forcibly displaced’, such as refugees, importantly take centre stage in what we are seeing now. Yet in our view this does not in any way lessen the palpable plight of economic migrants who risk their lives fleeing from poverty or inequality.
Respect for life
EU migration policy must place saving lives and protecting people as its first priority – regardless of where they have come from and why. The warnings of the potential consequences of closing the Mare Nostrum program initially went unheeded; after an estimated 800 people drowned in April 2015, the EU reacted by tripling its resources in the Mediterranean and more than 50,000 lives have since been saved as a result.
This underlines the effectiveness and need for such operations. We believe that Europe has a responsibility to ensure that the basic humanitarian needs of migrants – including refugees – are met and their rights respected.
What troubles me most, however, is an anti-migrant language that seems to place a hierarchy on the value of human life, leaving migrants as unequal bystanders. Something terrible is happening when political leaders and the media are able to drip disdain on unspeakable human suffering. Without this sense of common humanity, it is no wonder that policy interventions are so hollow. At Oxfam, we believe without blemish, that all human lives are of equal value and full of potential. A human life crossing the Mediterranean or through the Balkans carries no less value than a human life does in the wake of an earthquake or war.
Time for solidarity
We believe this is a time for solidarity with migrants. Our main call is to people and to civil society everywhere to join us in humanising the voices of migrants around the world and restore our collective humanity at all levels of society. Share their human stories, promote the campaigns of humanitarian and civil society organizations, and stand firm against any suggestion that undermines the protection of human lives.
The humanity we crave, I know from my own story, has not disappeared and is not out of reach; the far more tragic experiences faced by so many migrants today call for nothing less. It is right to say that we must bring peace and security to the countries which are the primary sources for migration, but to use that as an excuse to close your doors is cowardice.
This entry posted by Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director, Oxfam International, on 5 September 2015. Originally published on Al Jazeera.