I wrote a draft of this post almost three weeks ago, feeling stunned by the reaction to the refugee crisis that I had seen in the UK media and even among people I knew and loved. But I didn’t publish it. I was angry, and worried that my anger would alienate the people I wanted to convince.
But now everyone has seen a picture of a drowned child named Aylan Kurdi and that, apparently, makes all the difference. Now the pressure is mounting on Cameron for a change of tack. Now a petition for the UK to accept more refugees can get 200,000 signatures (at the time of writing) in under 24 hours. And now maybe anger is something people will listen to.
Many awful things have been said about this crisis, and many awful ways have been found to say them. But somehow the thing that I can’t shake is a question that sounds so reasonable you might hear it coming from the mouths of people you know, good people, people who are kind and giving and compassionate. You might even find yourself saying it:
“But if we start taking people in, the problem is, won’t that just encourage more of them to come?”
Maybe my perspective has been changed by the fact that I count a number of refugees, from Syria and elsewhere, among my friends here in Sweden. Maybe a year ago I could have been the one to ask that question. Regardless, I wanted to give my response to that question in a public place, using whatever platform I have, because I can imagine any number of people I know asking it or nodding their heads along to it. And my response is this:
When you talk about “encouraging more of them to come”, you have no idea what you are talking about.
These are people who are fleeing war, terrorism, extreme poverty, and the constant threat of violence. They are not sitting idly at home, twiddling their thumbs, thinking, well, it might be rather nice to live in Europe, but I just haven’t been encouraged enough. They would not come if they had any choice. They would not come if their lives were not in danger.
The very process of trying to enter Europe illegally is a process that puts your life at risk. Think about people so desperate they would board a dinghy to cross an ocean. Think about people walking thousands upon thousands of miles, eating grass to survive. They do not need your encouragement. They would not choose this if they had any choice.
There are 50 million people in the world who have been displaced by war and conflict. That is an astonishing number. It is an impossible number to get your head around. But every single one of those 50 million is a human being like you and me. They are not insects who swarm. They are not cockroaches. They are not a national security threat. They are not problems. They are people, and the only difference between any one of them and you is that you were lucky enough to be born into a life of relative ease while they were dealt the shittiest hand life had to offer.
I think about my friends who fled to Sweden from the Middle East, and I think about their friends and family back at home, their lives at risk every day. I suppose those are the kind of people who will be encouraged to come if they see others being accepted and offered safety in Europe. Encourage them all, I say. What is the alternative? I do not believe that anyone deserves death just because they were born into a place of conflict. I do not understand how anyone could believe that and continue to look themselves in the eye.
(Of course, if your concern about encouraging people is fear that they will die on the journey, then that is another matter altogether. This video is edifying of the question of why refugees are forced to put their lives at risk to reach Europe; this one looks at how puny the EU’s existing plans to try and make the process safer are. There is no P&O ferry line between Libya and Italy, Katie Hopkins, but god knows there probably should be.)
If you want them to go home, if you want them to stay home, please try to understand. Poet Warsan Shire put it much more eloquently than I ever could: Home is the mouth of a shark. Home is the barrel of a gun.
The fact that anyone, anyone, has anything to say in response to this crisis that isn’t asking what we and our countries can do to help ease it, makes me despair. What kind of European Union are we when we are willing to let people suffer and die and not only turn a blind eye, but paint them as the problem?
Today, now that everyone has seen a picture of a drowned child named Aylan Kurdi, at last it feels like something is starting to happen. But I wrote this post almost three weeks ago and people have been drowning in the Mediterranean all year. It’s well past time for the UK and the rest of Europe to start making #refugeeswelcome and, quite frankly, encouraging more of them to come.
(Image: a sign painted by a refugee in Calais, stating: “We want asylum in Europe where we can get our human rights but we don’t want to go back home even if we die here”. Credit: Christopher Pledger)
What you (in the UK) can do: