In December 2013 the United Nations Refugee agency (UNHCR) gave out a warning. It said that year showed some of the highest levels of displacement on record, mainly driven by the conflict in Syria. The warning was shrugged off, as this was a conflict happening far away from us. Was this really our problem?
The refugee crisis has now forced its way into the center of Europe. Almost two years after the UN issued its call, we have now taken heed…
Europe. In control?
As refugees continue to pour over EU borders, the debate rages. What is our responsibility? Can Europe cope with deprived millions? Do we have a choice to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ or are we confronted by a historical fait accompli? As the influx of refugees confronts Europe’s ageing demographic, the continent is forced to reinvent itself, questioning the very foundations on which it was formed.
For so long, Europe seemed to firmly control the forces of history, shaping global relationships, often in its own image. Science, slavery, industrialization, capitalist expansion, colonialism and world wars were all European productions, although World War 2 set the continent right back, forcing it to give up direct control over large parts of the world. As decolonization movements captured the imagination of millions, Europe clung to its legacy. Wealth, relatively open societies and welfare states seemed like lasting rewards, safe havens of peace and prosperity, firmly geared towards everlasting growth.
At the same time the ‘wretched of the earth’ were fighting their way onto the stage of world history, asserting their rights to be recognized as peoples, to be governing themselves, and to decide their own destinies. The 1960s and 70s were an age of hope, expectations and empowerment as independence swept the globe, although the power politics of the Cold War quickly absorbed some of these energies and transformed them into cynical power struggles between super powers.
Alas, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the ex-colonized have experienced only betrayal and broken dreams as poverty and conflict still soar in big parts of Africa, Asia and the Middle-East. Frantz Fanon’s ‘wretched of the earth continue their struggle to be seen, eclipsed as they have remained by the depths of poverty and deprivation.
WE have allowed them to suffer. We have accepted all the macro-economic statistics that have pointed towards global GDP growth, obscuring the real story: wealth is now ever more concentrated in the hands of few.
They were so far away. Hopeless images of starving children could temporarily awaken us, but they never fundamentally disturbed our realities. These things happened in the kingdoms of far-far-away, what could we do? Donate some money? Set up a charity? These were the poor miserable souls from that ‘other world’….
But now the wretched of the earth are here. They have come to our doorstep, breached our defenses and crossed our borders. They have stormed our citadels of privilege.
We are actually seeing them. And you know what, these alien beings from far-far-away look quite a lot like ourselves.
That festering divide, so neatly geographically divided in the Northern and the Southern hemisphere is now spilling over, piercing our bubbles, making it plain to see what has been brewing for decades now. The state of our world stands before us inescapably, its weight pushing down on us, confusing our politicians and populations, dragging us down into a web of misinformation and ill-informed judgements.
The ‘wretched of the earth’ have come to confront us. They have forced their way upon the world stage in a most dramatic way, holding up a mirror in which we see our past grinning at us, telling us: “I told you so…”
Hidden from view
Some of the biggest crimes in history were allowed to happen because they were hidden from view. They were perpetrated in far-away lands, its victims separated from witnesses in Europe by oceans, time-zones and lack of information. That spatial separation enabled our rulers to claim they were civilizing savages, acting for the greater good, while at the same time producing wealth on a vast scale.
The horrors of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade stayed hidden from the public. They happened far away and remained clouded in officially fostered racism. Was it not our moral ‘duty’ to civilize the sub-humans? The biggest crime in human history was allowed to continue for centuries.
Europe’s colonial adventures were entrepreneurial, innovative, scientific trading missions with philanthropic and even Christian values at their core. When the ‘natives’ resisted, we chopped off their hands, destroyed their villages or imprisoned their representatives. When they resisted en masse, we never hesitated to come down full force to discipline entire societies; the French in Algeria or the British in Kenya are examples of such operations.
Public awareness put a stop to these atrocities as they started filtering through. And, more importantly, the ‘victims’ of our overseas operations refused to be reduced to the status of victims. They fought back, forced us to retreat. They held up mirrors saying: ‘Where are you now with your high-flying ideals? Your universal human rights? Your civilizations? Are we entitled to these? Can we join humanity now?’
People are never just victims. They are living, breathing subjects who shape their own destinies, or at least aspire to do so. The French were forced out of Algeria. Just like the English were kicked out of Kenya. Independence wasn’t a ‘gift’ offered to grateful natives. Change was won through the directed, conscious action of people who had been ignored too long.
This is precisely my hope for the refugee crisis.
Making and shaping history
Refugees in Europe are NOT simply objects who depend on charity or the goodwill of the people now receiving them. Have any of the political debates now taking place actually involved representatives of the refugees themselves? While uncertainty rages, refugees have confronted Europe with a new reality. It is no longer a choice to engage with them. WE HAVE TO. They are here to stay. If we put up fences, they find a way through, if we shoot at them they pour in in even larger number. When we let them rot in giant camps without proper facilities, they construct their own structures and survive against all odds. We are dealing with a very resourceful, young and talented group of determined people here, who have endured far more than the hostility of frightened Europeans. Perhaps they have the power to shape Europe anew, to give it a new vitality, to remind it of its legacy and the debts it owes. Perhaps the refugees can awaken in us our humanitarianism, concern for our fellow human being and the fate of our planet. The presence of desperate, powerful souls from these faraway lands might give us the strength to accomplish the changes we want to see. After all, have we not been educated or even brainwashed by the ideology of ‘individual responsibility’, consumerism as we grew up in corporate Europe. We have even casually accepted the idea that we are destroying our own planet through climate change. ‘Would you want to give up your prosperity?’ is the question we ask each other when this issue is brought up. As if that is the choice…?
These refugees have a lot to teach us. About endurance, collectiveness, responsibility and care. They have seen horrible things, but have refused to sit back and let it consume them. They have fought and survived and now they are ready to take on a fresh challenge. Fortress Europe is struggling to keep them at bay, but won’t and we know it.
And anyway, citadels of privilige are never meant to last. They always crumble, eventually. Europe stands at the crossroads. If it doesn’t adapt very quickly, history will pass it by.