Today You, Tomorrow Me: Why Can’t We Take More Action to Protect and Accommodate Refugees?

by: Heather Fawn

We are all capable of more kindness, more compassion, more willingness to stretch resources for others….


A friend of mine in Australia received a bit of flak from her Facebook friends when she re-posted photos of dead Syrian children. Their little bodies were wet. Their clothes were barely clinging to them. Their eyes were closed and their limbs rested in unnatural positions. They had washed up onto the beach after their plastic boat capsized. It was hard for me to accept that these pictures were real, that this was a tragedy happening in real-time. In this way, the photos acted as a slap in the face, one that was impossible to ignore. As I write this, small, hardly-seaworthy vessels are being pushed out into deep, precarious waters in the dark of the night, overflowing with families and those with nowhere else to turn. Other Middle Eastern countries, save for Jordan, won’t take them. So what choice do they have? The dangerous journey by boat is the only way these people have to seek a better life. Wouldn’t you be desperately searching for a way out of your unbearably high-risk situation if you were in the same position? The refugees either make it, or they don’t, and the rest of us can only look on with dread and respect.

When Humans of New York Facebook page started posting pictures and stories of refugees, I reposted everything. I took the time to read all their stories. And in doing so, I quickly became overwhelmed by the brand of horror these people have faced. We’re not talking about a few thousand people here. Antonio Guterres, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, declared this week that “the interlinked mega-crises in Iraq and Syria have uprooted 15 million people, and in the last twelve months, 500,000 people have fled their homes in South Sudan, 190,000 in Burundi, 1.1 million in Yemen and 300,000 in Libya. Tens of thousands are fleeing gang violence in Central America. And there has been little or no improvement in the crises in Central African Republic, Nigeria, Ukraine and Congo.” In total, 60 million people around the globe have been displaced by conflict.

The tragic war in Syria has huge and far-reaching consequences. Instead of what has happened in Iraq and Afghanistan, where people did not seem to stream out of those countries in such high numbers, Syrians are knocking on their neighbor’s doors, calling out to anyone who will listen, desperate for help and refuge. The impacts of this conflict are deep-seated and coming to us in a way that others in recent memory have not. We cannot ignore it. Of course, military families in America and abroad can never ignore any war – but civilians can and do. Not this time. With the help of technology, and the media, Syrians in crisis are at the forefront of our awareness.

Some people in Western countries where refugees are seeking asylum, have judged the look of refugees as somehow not pity-inducing enough to require help. As if all of the hurdles and life-or-death situations Syrians have already faced haven’t been bad enough, they are now being judged for having cell phones and decent clothing. As if a stereotype of a vagabond – dirty, barely able to speak a second language, missing most of their teeth, having traveled for months – is how you can spot a refugee. It is this brand of arrogant, presumptive, and ignorant of modern times thinking that exacerbates the problem, and presents just another hurdle to subjugate in an effort to formulate an effective plan to help those so desperately in need.

On top of all this prejudicial and short-sightedness, resides the trolls who use photos of train stations littered with garbage to illustrate that, somehow, this is the way refugees will treat everything they touch. When I come upon arguments of this nature I cannot help but recollect circumstances where Western tourists have completely trashed neighborhoods in alcohol-induced stupors. Refugees are in a much different mindset than those traveling for pleasure of course, and this probably explains the occasional mess. This feckless attitude towards people who need urgent and compassionate help, whose culture most Westerners don’t know the first thing about, is disheartening. These are not people who just felt like inconveniencing you. They hope you are willing to help in spite of the inconvenience. They are too hungry, too exhausted, too traumatized to care about your train delay.

Hollywood and the entertainment industry tend to romanticize World War II. But does anybody think anything they had to do was easy? Do you think no one, military and citizens alike, didn’t have to forego any of life’s conveniences to help each other? We reminisce about days when granddad saved “the enemy’s” children or great-grandma nursed an important French diplomat or whatever, but what about now? Now it’s too much of a inconvenience to help other humans? The situation has become so dire that the largest influx of migrants since WWII are being forced to navigating a strict line of bureaucratic red-tape in order to schedule an interview for asylum five years from now? In ideal circumstances, everyone would have filed into a neat little line, bought their plane ticket, and waited their turn. I would imagine that, due to trauma and pressing financial, immigration, and family matters, Syrian refugees have no idea what ideal circumstances even look like anymore. Ideal circumstances went out the window once bombs started being dropped on their families and their homes.

The United States has stated that it can only accept 10,000 people into their country. Seems like a joke, right? Why only 10,000? We have money. We have jobs. We have the need for skilled workers. Europe has had a large influx of refugees, yet it is not welcoming people with an organized, systematic intake program that should have been created for situations like this. Why wasn’t Europe ready, and why is the United States being so stingy? The fact that the world has wars means that all wealthy nations should be obligated to constitute policies of acceptance not denial, should there suddenly be a surge in asylum seekers. More than 350,000 migrants crossed the EU’s borders in January-August 2015 (compared with just 280,000 during the whole of 2014), and everyone is still scrambling to figure out how they’ll be accommodated. How did nobody see this coming? And furthermore, why are so many countries accepting so few people? These people have nowhere else to go.

I think the reason this bothers me, more than the enormous lack of pragmatism and foresight, is that it could happen to anyone – and still people don’t seem to care. Any country could collapse at any given time, meaning millions of refugees from any country at any time could need the kind of help that only a banding together of nations can provide. Not just the United Nations and its dreadfully underfunded refugee agency (UNHCR), not just the Red Cross or other emergency relief NGOs, but actual governments in wealthy countries where, during times of peace, it is normal to see a significant number of people applying for residency. Because if you’re relatively safe, a wealthy country is a haven in times of peace, and it is a utopia during wars. It is terrifying to think that hundreds of thousands of people might have no means of livelihood, no sense of belonging, no sense of peace or safety, because of current immigration policies that are barely budging for their needs.

As you may have guessed, I am not an expert. I feel I have only delved into this issue on fundamental, surface level. But most of us are not experts on foreign policy or government preparedness. Yet I would love to see more people involved in this discussion. Experts on the cultures these refugees represent. Peace and Conflict Resolution scholars. People who work with asylum seekers on a daily basis to help them settle in their new countries. We need to hear their voices to reassure the skittish among us, as much as we need to see real policy changes from politicians. Despite the fact that most people are not experts on this matter, we are all people, and we are all capable of more kindness, more compassion, more willingness to stretch resources for others. It is so easy, in this day and age, to see the damage being done to families, to individuals, to entire countries. Our governments need to do more for refugees of any conflict, be it global or regional. We are making post-World-War-II-nostalgia history, and each time we fail to reach out to others in need, the world changes for the worse, and we all become unforgivable hypocrites. We need to ask our governments to extend more goodwill, and if they won’t, then we need solid reasons why. Because if it’s us someday, who will we turn to when so many people are willing to say no?

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