In a world where one in 200 children has the status of a refugee, it is of upmost importance to think of those who had no other choice than to move away from home. Today is International Refugee Day, a day that raises awareness about the issue among political leaders and civil society. Since the UN General Assembly decided in 2000 to make June 20 a day that would honour refugees around the world, members of society and heads of state have annually been reminded of the challenges that lie ahead. Thus, also today, nation-states must take into account the responsibility they face in terms of hosting and integrating refugees on their territory, while people like you and I must inform themselves of the challenges refugees face in their everyday life.
According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, 28,300 people a day are forced to flee their homes due to persecution and conflict, while the overall number of refugees on a global scale is as high as 22.5 million. Countries like Iran, Turkey, Pakistan and Lebanon, that are geographically close to war zones, are hosting a vast number of displaced families; and throughout the last few years the number has constantly increased. The war in Syria has led to a refugee crisis that forced many to cross borders and to settle down in neighbouring countries as well as striking out for Europe. We currently face the highest levels of displaced people on record. The number of refugees has almost tripled in the last decade, while thousands have died in the Mediterranean Sea on their way to a better life.
Marine Le Pen, leader of the French National Front Party (Front National), has launched her campaign to be the next President of France and she has done so with unflinching ferocity. At her rally in Lyon on Sunday she stated that “what is at stake in this election is the continuity of France as a free nation, our existence as a people”. She is asking the French people to not only prepare for an election, but also for an ideological battle against an imminent existential threat.
So, what could possibly be heralding in the end of freedom and French identity? According to Le Pen, “Financial globalisation and Islamist globalisation” together “aim to bring France to its knees”. Le Pen’s rhetoric of fear has struck a chord in the hearts of many disillusioned and disenfranchised French citizens. Indeed, the Front National is as close as it has ever been to holding power.
But are we really entering a new era of populism, heralded by Brexit and the election of Donald Trump? In much the same way as cliff edges are known to instil a desire to jump, this political precipice might just have the same mesmerising effect, so let us step back, and explore the most constructive options available to us.
There is undoubtedly huge change happening in Europe. Unprecedented numbers of refugees have fled from insecurity and conflict to Europe and indeed concern about immigration is the most common reason given for supporting Le Pen. French citizens are being implored by Le Pen to stand strong and fight against demographic change, but is it not more fitting in our present context to accept that human beings have moved and will continue to move across borders? Perhaps having acknowledged this we will be better able to work towards facilitating a peaceful, sustainable and managed internationalism.
Populations and other groups will naturally reimagine themselves and try to consolidate their identity, especially in challenging times. However, this can be balanced out through emphasis on our common human story. This is not to deny the importance of national and religious heritages but instead to view them within a broader context that perhaps better facilitates unity and empathy. Calls for change cannot be condemned. Instead we must condemn those who promise to liberate one group at the explicit expense of another.
In September 2016 the Danish high court upheld a verdict, which criminalised humanitarian assistance to refugees. A children’s rights activist was among the three hundred other Danes who were found guilty of breaching Danish law, and subsequently prosecuted for human trafficking.
Shockingly, there is no evidence of human smuggling in any of the cases presented in court. There was no exchange of money, nor were they clandestine in nature. Benevolent Danes merely picked up refugees after a train from Germany was stopped in the Danish border town of Rødby. At the time, the government was quiet with no proper policy position in place for refugee migration. This lack of clarity led to extreme confusion, particularly amongst the Police Force about the legality of helping migrants along their journeys. People simply did not know that helping another human in distress was illegal.
These prosecutions have resulted in large fines and prison sentences of up to two years being given. They have successfully deterred many European civilians from providing help to migrants crossing the continent. European civilians are now faced with a dilemma; either abandon their moral compass and remain on the right side of the law or risk breaching the law but maintain universal humanitarian values that connect us all. This is a unique situation in which the law is at odds with decency, empathy and liberty, virtues upon which the European project is predicated.
Unfortunately, there is also large confusion on the definition of migrant smuggling. The United Nations define the act as exclusively motivated by “financial or other material benefit”. This is in sharp contrast to the Council of the European Union definition which broadly stipulates that anyone who assists migrants to “enter or transit across” a country is in breach of national law and can be prosecuted. Discussing and debating the legality of civilian refugee aid becomes much more difficult when many contradictions are present. Uncertainty will continue to rise amongst the public and further indecision will continue from all parties responsible for tackling the migration crisis.
Whilst we must be wary when comparing recent events with the biggest genocide of the 20th century, punishing European civilians for aiding the persecuted is reminiscent of the punitive policies of Nazi Germany. The intent of this comparison is not to trivialise the Holocaust, indeed drastic measures such as death penalty have not been implemented, and over one million asylum seekers have been welcomed in 2015 alone. But it serves as a continual reminder that punishing civilian goodwill and outlawing instinctive humanitarian qualities will only compound mass humanitarian crises.
Photo credits to TT
People often talk about the dangers of progressive dehumanisation of refugees, but perhaps we ourselves are subtly undergoing a form of dehumanisation led by these faulty laws? Perhaps we are becoming increasingly desensitised to the refugee crisis? It is at moments like these, when we must remember that history is never repeated unintentionally.
Majed Tw 31/01/2017