Syrian Refugees: Who Cares?

Europe is full of borders, borders that can no longer be assumed to be open indefinitely. Whilst Europe is arguing about these borders, they are struggling with their worst migration crisis since World War II, Richard Flanagan tells us the stories of the people behind the 5 million Syrians fleeing their home country, and it is my reading of Flanagan’s ‘Notes on the Syrian exodus’ from which this article was inspired.

This week I’ve heard that I might go to Greece for next year’s fieldwork. It would be a part of my honours year in London, and I am very happy as I’m intrigued by the geology of the Mediterranean. I only had to look at the Guardian today, however, to realise that the Mediterranean has entered into a dark chapter in its history. I’d heard about the refugee crisis, as anyone who follows the news will have, and I’ve known for a while that masses of refugees flood into Europe (more than 1.3 million in 2015 according to Eurostat).

I’ve known too, that smuggler boats sinking in the Mediterranean have been killing hundreds of the passengers on board seeking safety (over 1,200 in April 2015 according to the International Organization for Migration) and that these desperate attempts are the result of mercilessly patrolled, fenced borders in Bulgaria, and a Europe that aids war, but doesn’t want to host the refugees that follow from it.

So what? Donald Trump is campaigning in the US, the National Rugby league is on, and I’ve got to study…

On 5th March Richard Flanagan, Australian novelist and 2014 Man Booker Prize winner, published his notes on the refugees he visited in Lebanon, Greece and Syria, and they blew me away.

Flanagan paints a picture of people in camps, people who dream of their lives back home in a once peaceful Syria where they grew peaches, studied fashion and lived in safety in their own homes. Their nightmares are the sound of planes flying over, the bombings that turn their worlds black and red, Daesh severing heads in their towns, the cold sea taking away children. The inclusion of both these people’s stories, and of Flanagan’s own thoughts and feelings, with a lot of dialogue, will give you an insight into this crisis as no regular news article can. Flanagan says, these are stories of people, “… not like you and me. They are you and me.”

It was a big eye-opener for me and I invite you to read this article in the Guardian. I can’t help wondering though, why did it take his notes to make me care? I’m European, and know what’s been happening. I have been following the events as they unfold and hold an opinion. But this is not the same as caring. To talk , all you need is knowledge and an opinion, but to take action, you need to care. Does the rest of Europe care? Do politicians care about refugees as people, or as issues and policies? Can we blame them?

It is in an article in the journal ‘Science’ that Custers and Aarts review psychological discoveries on unconscious will. These challenge the human experience of making conscious decisions to take action, summarizing some compelling evidence that the unconscious prepares for these decisions moments before the conscious does.

In that light, I don’t think it is at all surprising that the statistics and reports published by a media culture, which is increasingly dependent on press releases, fails to convince us to take action against human sufferings, often alienated by differing nationalities, language and culture.

Now that Germany is taking the lead in hosting, it is clear that Europe seems unable to cope with the turbulent vast flow of refugees. Most causes of this inability are socio-economic, domicile political pressures, combined with a failure of a common European asylum policy.

The EU is about to allocate 300 million euros to a European aid plan and 6 billion for Turkey to host refugees, but is this enough? Is this too late? For some it will be undoubtedly too late and Greece certainly seems to need more, asking 500 million as their already dwindling economy struggles to cope with the nearly one million refugees it hosts. Turkey too claims that providing for refugees already cost them ten billion. We can make an honest attempt at solving this problem though, as some acts of kindness show.

Here, I give the example of Maria Androulaki, inhabitant of the Greek island Lesbos, who risks arrest and persecution by driving people from the remote beaches to town for registration, or the Austrian convoy of volunteers that last year crossed into Hungary to help in refugee camps.

These are the kind of actions we need: only empathy from us can forcibly drive politics higher up.

But to obtain that kind of social perception, to humanize the ‘migrant crisis’ you can’t describe it in two words, nor in numbers, policies or money. You have to read novels, journalist’s notes on dialogues. You have to listen to people’s stories and feel the human connection. That’s why I believe more novelists should work for newspapers and more people should read novels. Will you?