Today is World Refugee Day, marked globally to commemorate the “strength, courage and perseverance of millions of refugees”. The people that I have been lucky enough to meet since co-founding Help Refugees have these characteristics in abundance and it has been a privilege to know and to learn from them.
Moments like World Refugee Day feel especially important in the current global political climate, a time where a rhetoric of hate and division seems to have found itself centre stage. Now more than ever, we need to push forward a narrative of love, acceptance and inclusion. Today has got to be about more than just platitudes, or hand-wringing about the challenges refugees face. This is an opportunity: to stand shoulder-to-shoulder as we demand that our governments do better.
The weather over the Mediterranean Sea was particularly bad last week. The waves were rough, the conditions difficult. Seven pregnant women, 123 unaccompanied children, 15 people with chemical burns, and some five hundred others - all of whom had spent twenty hours in a rubber dinghy - were stranded. But they weren’t shipwrecked, or lost. They were on board an NGO rescue ship, which had been turned away by the Italian and Maltese governments.
The ship, and the people on board, became the subject of a diplomatic dispute. Spanish authorities in Valencia eventually granted it safe berth, and decried the Italian decision as “completely inhuman.” This is certainly true. But the story is just the latest instalment in Europe’s ongoing “refugee crisis” - a situation in which refugees continue to suffer from a politically-created catastrophe.
In Greece arrivals are increasing, babies are once again sleeping on the floors in abandoned warehouses. Moria camp on Lesvos, an old prison surrounded by barbed wire with a capacity of two thousand, contains almost 7 thousand people (families included). In Calais, police violence is worse than ever with refugees and asylum seekers regularly having their belongings (even just one of their shoes) taken. Unaccompanied children are so afraid they bury their tent during the day for fear of having no shelter. In Syria, schools and hospitals continue to be bombed. European countries continue send assist the Libyan coastguard in turning boats back to Libya, knowing full well that people will be forced into slavery. Turn our backs, turn back the boats; it’s these abhorrent policies that mirror the atrocious approach of the Trump administration, that now separates children from their parents at the border and puts them into cages.
The term ‘refugee crisis’ may no longer be in the headlines but in fact, worldwide forced displacement is at a record high, for thefifth year in a row. These people continue to be let down by the rest of the world. The Aquarius’ story last week is a devastating reflection of current politics - not simply the Italian and Maltese governments’ rejection of the ship and the people onboard it, but their reasons for doing so. The lack of legal routes to safety forces desperate people on to boats - whether from Libya, Turkey or elsewhere - in order to reach safe soil.
As the boat finally docked in Valencia last week, people danced as they disembarked. They were greeted by a large banner - in five different languages - that read “Welcome Home!” They were met by civil society organisations and by civilians, all of whom had banded together to ensure that they would be supported. These are the same everyday people we continue to see at the front lines of the crisis, independent volunteers and grassroots groups, who Help Refugees are proud to support. That response, that welcome, is surely what we should be striving for - not because they are refugees, not because they have suffered, but because they are human. As soon as you come face-to-face with the people that have fled their homes, you simply cannot turn away. At once you are confronted with their humanity, and in turn, simultaneously confronted with your own.
Refugees are people, not labels. It is precisely because these people are human, because they could be our children, our parents, indeed it could be us, that we must Choose love and fight for a better world.
Josephine Naughton is the CEO and co-founder of Help Refugees. Support Help Refugees’ ongoing work and join the Choose Love movement by donating, volunteering or eating delicious Syrian food at Imad’s Choose Love Kitchen on Columbia Road (tickets available here)