The war that no one talks about
I wasn’t there, but the morning after the Paris attacks was difficult. I was already heavy with the disappointment of how refugees were being treated in Europe. What happened in Paris filled me with fear — not about my personal safety, but about the world being created with attacks and counterattacks and the reign of ideology over humanity.
Something about it felt momentous — an ominous sign of a conflict working itself up to a crescendo, reinforcing divisions.
Comment after comment followed, debating whether Paris was tied in with a war of civilisations and values. The UK’s decision to join France for an offensive on Syria certainly points to the very real war that has been ongoing since 9/11.
But there is another conflict unfolding before our eyes that is less obvious: that between the humanity of ordinary citizens and the ideology of those who govern. Call it humanitarian ideals vs political cynicism, or even love vs fear.
This is at its clearest and most brutal when it comes to ISIS and Syria. But is it not there too in the way European governments are choosing protectionism and turning a blind eye to the rights of people who lose their lives on a daily basis trying to reach their shores, or live in unacceptable conditions along their borders?
Denmark adding border checks is a recent example. There are so many signs of UK, France and other countries turning their back on the crisis that I don’t know what to link to. And although Germany has been more open, admitting a million refugees last year, it’s unclear how practically and politically sustainable this can be.
That’s on one side of the ‘war’.
On the other — the humanitarian side — are, of course, the hundreds of thousands of people fleeing violence and destruction to roll the dice of survival in choppy waters and cold shores. On that same side are also the ordinary citizens who have stepped in to help.
From Calais to Lesvos, official humanitarian aid has struggled to keep up with needs while volunteer efforts have grown over the past months. Although this is changing as big NGOs step up their involvement in some places — and creating frictions along the way — the fact is that volunteers have filled that response gap for a long time. People like you and me have crowdsourced money and specialist knowledge with energy, humanity and whatever else motivates each person who makes that journey or loosens their purse strings.
I recently returned from a week’s volunteering in Lesvos and saw this first hand. Hundreds of people have continued arriving on the island each day, even in the harsh conditions of winter. Thirty-four people died in a single day earlier this month, washed up on Turkey’s shores; and more than 40 just this past Friday, all adding up to the deadliest January on record according to the International Organization for Migration.
The volunteer effort is far from perfect but it serves refugees’ basic needs, and so it is necessary. What it also does for everyone involved is affirm faith in a diverse society where people acknowledge each other’s humanity.
And then in some parallel universe, not just in Europe, there’s the political discourse of fear and racial or religious profiling that conflates people fleeing conflict with terror or Islamic fundamentalism. Donald Trump is the iconic star here — caricatures likening him to Hitler may seem extreme but speak to a truth about where ideology and fear of ‘other’ can lead. Others are not far behind: the anti-Muslim and anti-immigration stance of the Czech leader Miloš Zeman and the Front National in France are just two examples.
This is a defining ‘war’. There is a chasm that continues to grow between politics of fear by governments and acts of humanity by citizens.
Perhaps it’s to be expected, in times of economic austerity, that some will guard their corner of the world more staunchly, adopting a hardened stance against the ‘outsider’ that seems to be threatening to take a share of the pie.
But this is where leadership can make a difference. A good leader shows us the world we should be living in. Barack Obama has done that with simple gestures in recent weeks: inviting a Syrian refugee to the state of the union address, and leaving a welcoming comment on a Humans of New York story of a displaced family. The Canadian leader has done the same by personally greeting refugees. Just PR, you might say. It is certainly that — but these gestures also signal the values of empathy, diversity and openness that should and can prevail over fear.
The conflict between cynical and human responses also plays out in countries outside Europe that have dealt with the crisis for longer (Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan). But, quite apart from the availability of resources, there is an expectation that Europe will set an example. As migration expert Peter Sutherland and IRC’s David Milliband have said, this is about what’s right as much as it is about politics.
Our politicians could take a leaf off the best of human instincts, and recognize that it could easily be us struggling for life in another time, another place, asking for our lives to count.
It’s not by accident that I was moved to make the journey to Lesvos. Growing up in the island of Cyprus after the war in 1974 I soaked up the reality of refugee camps and the struggle for survival in a society overshadowed for years by fears and insecurity. There are similar connections for many — history is full of conflict.
It’s only decades later that I’m discovering how those experiences shaped me — a realization that happens to coincide with this crisis — and I recently had a conversation with my mother about her experience of displacement. She told me: “After the second world war, I read a lot about the destruction that happened in Europe; it was distant though. Now we were living it, in Cyprus. And I understand the extent of what happened then, with so many killed in Europe and so many countries that suffered with refugees. That’s why I’m very angry with the leaders of powerful nations that aren’t doing something about this issue [with Syrians], that they are indifferent.”
If there was ever a time for politicians to put people and humanitarian ideals first, this is it. Decisions that undermine the value of human lives by extension undermine peace, in both Europe and the Middle East.