By Sarah Edgcumbe

Since the beginning of the conflict in Syria in 2012, over three million civilians have fled the country. The vast majority are currently living in Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt and Libya. Afghanistan has been subjected to war for four decades resulting in Afghans comprising the second highest refugee population in the world, yet the vast majority of Afghan refugees live in Iran and Pakistan. This resettlement of Syrian and Afghan refugees in neighbouring countries is no anomaly: the majority of refugees around the world reside in countries neighbouring their own. These countries often have poor economies and fragility of peace and governance, yet they often accommodate millions of refugees.

syrian refugee infographic

What then is Europe’s excuse for forcing desperate people to drown in the Mediterranean, for forcing boats full of human beings back to Libya where young black men are beaten, tortured, sold as slaves and murdered, women raped and abused? Why is Europe, a continent with plenty of collective wealth and space, determined to force destitution upon refugees and migrants, preferring to see them die of exposure and starvation rather than extend a helping hand? Why the fuck is Europe starting to punish volunteer humanitarians by charging them with absurd criminal offences punishable by many years behind bars for saving lives at sea, or monitoring police violence and distributing food? What possible excuse can Europeans have for allowing ourselves to come to this?

solidarity is a value that cannot be bought and sold, as demonstrated by the dock workers in France and Italy who refused to load weapons and generators onto a Saudi ship bound for Yemen. We are losing sight of it in Europe but we desperately need to claw it back and reclaim it.

The refugee crisis has increasingly been viewed by many European politicians through the prism of securitization, with the media often presenting refugees as posing a threat to European “values” or resources. Our values, our worthless. Non-values. Shit. We have plenty of resources but they are in the greedy hands of the few. Gone is the European promotion of tolerance, acceptance and humanism. Our heroes are no longer the French Resistance, the International Brigades, the ordinary people who fought the fascist tide during World War Two. The pendulum has now swung to the far-right. We’ve forgotten the lessons that history has taught us at great cost to millions of innocent people. Fascists and ethno-nationalists are not just revered but voted into governments and given control of countries. We’ve collectively descended into a neoliberal hell in which it is perfectly acceptable to sell weapons or wage war for resources and geopolitical gain without any disregard for the human consequences. Human beings in this version of hell are boiled down to commodities or collateral damage, nothing more.

teddy in demolished Calais camp

Credit: Zara Jane Hermon RIP

In many European countries neoliberal governments give tax breaks to the rich whilst simultaneously imposing austerity measures and point the finger of blame for poverty at refugees and migrants. Refugees and migrants – let’s scrap the labels and call them what they really are – “people in need”, of whom northern Europe particularly has welcomed barely any. Developing countries have opened their gates to millions of people in need. In comparison and in relative terms, the UK has taken about twelve. Europe is becoming an increasingly volatile place for refugees. Violence against refugees perpetrated by State forces such as the CRS in France (and by extension the British government) and members of the public is alarmingly common, and refugees are often left to languish in inadequate, over-capacity official refugee camps, or the squalor of unofficial camps, prevented from reuniting with their families, hope stolen from them.

Feminist academic Marie Rose, when analyzing the refugee crisis in Europe, argues that ‘the primary purpose of the State is to ensure its own survival by whatever means necessary’.  This prevailing system of political realism is therefore limited in scope, and detrimental to feminism and inclusivity as it is ‘a worldview constructed primarily by men in positions of power… and views outsiders as a threat to the security of the State’. We need to deconstruct the ill-conceived and inhumane institutions that we have built around us and develop something new. We need to build a new kind of society which shuns hoarded wealth, xenophobia, patriarchy, endless war and consumerism, replacing these modern European “values” with those of egalitarianism, humanity, humility and importantly, solidarity. For solidarity is a value that cannot be bought and sold, as demonstrated by the dock workers in France and Italy who refused to load weapons and generators onto a Saudi ship bound for Yemen. We are losing sight of it in Europe but we desperately need to claw it back and reclaim it.

A Europe in which vigilante groups hunt refugees with impunity, where state policy legitimizes forced destitution, severe physical abuse by state forces, and sustained systematic abuse of refugees by state institutions is not a Europe any of us should want to be a part of. This Europe needs to be relegated to a page of a history book from which future generations can refer back to that dark time in which we lost the best of our human selves, and vow never to return. Volunteers who save lives at sea, distribute food, monitor police brutality and bear witness to the suffering experienced by so many should be applauded. These are the new European heroes. The unsung. The volunteers who refuse to bow to state pressure, who confront the right-wing norm of braying about “how we need to look after our own first” by unapologetically demonstrating that refugees are “our own”.

In memory of Zara Jane Hermon, a believer in humanity

Featured image credit: author’s own

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