When that boat with 800 people sank in the Mediterranean in April this year I was in Burundi. Burundi is a small country and both a source of and a destination for refugees. Over that last few months more than 80,000 are estimated to have fled to neighboring states. What shocked my Burundian friends was not only that 800 people died in the sea, but also where they died. They lost their lives just a few hours away from one of the wealthiest parts of the world.
Europe chose not to save them. That's what shocked them.
It is perhaps time to ask what kind of a society Europe is, and in what direction we want to move in. The political climate in much of Europe and the UK, having historically been open, is now harsh towards refugees and at risk of shutting its doors even more tightly.
The common labeling of those who cross the sea as "migrants" may help cloud the often terrifying circumstances they come from. Many of them were from Syria, Somalia and Eritrea. They are hardly migrants looking for a better-paying job. They are more often refugees fleeing for their lives to avoid threats and persecution. They have a legal right to protection and to seek asylum.
Ahead of World Refugee Day, a day when we remember the millions of people forced to flee their home, especially children. Too much and too long we seem have seen displacement as something that doesn't concern us. In a world of increasing displacement where disasters and wars last longer, we must rediscover our humanity to help people in need, both here and there.
I have in my job with World Vision had the chance to meet and try to help people who have fled from their homes due to fear and conflict and ended up in refugee camps in Lebanon, Burundi, Mali, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic. A few things stand out.
First, there are many refugees and internally displaced people in the world today, far too many. The current number at close to 60 million is higher than at any time since World War 2. The number of protracted crisis in the world like Syria, South Sudan and the Central African Republic means the number of people in need has double in ten years. There needs to be a concerted effort to reach peaceful solutions for these countries or the numbers will simply continue to increase.
Second, no one chooses to become a refugee. You become one when you have no other option and have to flee for your life. These crises may now last so long we become used to them, but I have yet to meet a family that feels at home in a tent in a refugee camp. As the debate in Europe on how to handle refugee flows becomes a more common feature, we must remember that all those statistics each represents a human being on a terrifying journey.
Third, these people do need assistance. They need help with basic provisions of food, water, shelter and protection in their camps or temporary accommodation. They may need help getting to Europe or other safe havens and they need our help to restore normal life in their home countries. We must also support long-term efforts to create peaceful societies around the world from which people do not need to flee.
We need to ask ourselves what kind of world we want to live in. What does fairness looks like for a family that has fled 2,000 miles from Syria across North Africa and is now asking one of the wealthiest areas in the world for shelter and food? Around four million Syrians have fled abroad, of those two million children. Less than 2% are estimated to have left the Middle East. Only 183 have been given protection in the UK.
Surely we who live in abundance have a moral obligation to support those fleeing for their lives, both over there and over here. Then instead of shocking the world with our apathy we can meet them with compassion.