16/12/2015 09:51 GMT | Updated 16/12/2016 05:12 GMT


I am a young mother, in my early 20s. I'm from north-east Nigeria, denied an education or access to economic opportunity, and I'm fleeing the horrors of Boko Haram. I am one of two million in my country who have been displaced.

I am a Yemeni man, terrified and traumatised in Taiz from the daily bombardment and air strikes. 80% of my country's people need humanitarian aid. There is no end to the conflict in sight.

I am a young woman from Syria, qualified as an accountant from the University of Damascus, unable to use my skills and education productively in Za'atari Refugee Camp in Jordan. After five years of conflict, I have lost all hope of returning to my country.

I could be any of the above people, but only by accident of birth, I am not. Instead, I work for Mercy Corps, a global humanitarian organisation, working in Yemen, Nigeria, Syria and many other volatile and fragile environments around the world.

The futures of the three people above, and tens of thousands more, will be on the agenda when European Union leaders meet in Brussels this week. EU leaders will debate who has the right to look for hope and a better life, who doesn't, and where and how they might reach their new lives.

While conversations could focus on the opportunity that refugees can bring to an aging Europe (86% of people fleeing Syria have a secondary school or university education, and 78% are under 35), many EU leaders seem set on a path towards the closing of borders, in belief that an enhanced FRONTEX agency and €3 billion in assistance will keep 'the refugee problem' outside of the EU's borders, over in Turkey.

I have been in Greece for the past week - I was in Athens when over 2,000 people were turned back from the Macedonian border, including, absurdly, those denied refugee status despite fleeing war torn Yemen. And I was in Lesbos where I found myself looking out over a mountain of thousands of fake life vests piled up a few kilometres outside Mytilene. While there, I reflected on European summit gatherings of thirty years ago, where discussion focused on 'butter mountains'.


I grew up in that Europe of thirty years ago, and following almost twenty years working in Africa, I have recently returned to a more prosperous, healthy and stable Europe than at any time in human history. Life expectancy in Europe is now on average 76 years, child mortality is the lowest in the world and GDP per capita has trebled in the last thirty years. With the recent economic slump, austerity measures and bailouts, it is all too easy to lose sight of the immense prosperity and breadth of freedom and opportunity open to us as Europeans.

However, the World Economic Forum has not, and this year highlighted growing inequality as a global risk. While global equality is an unrealistic aspiration, we believe a reframing of this as 'inequity of opportunity' is more productive. And it is this 'inequity of opportunity' we have seen play out on Europe's shores over the last year, with more than 800,000 people fleeing to Greece and ultimately northern Europe, in search of a better life.

And many more are planning their journeys. Tens of thousands of new passport applications have been lodged in Afghanistan. The conflict in Yemen is escalating and tribal fragmentation in Libya persists, whilst the war in Syria becomes increasingly complex. Faced with violence, persecution, poverty and a lack of opportunity, we should ask ourselves, what would we do in their place?

This week, ahead of the Brussels meeting and International Migrants Day on Friday (never has a UN-recognised international day felt so pertinent), I'm asking you to join me in asking European leaders #WhatWouldYouDo?

As these leaders debate the Schengen Zone, border patrols and freedom of movement, and countries begin erecting fences, let us unite in asking them, #WhatWouldYouDo? As described by Chancellor Merkel earlier this week, this is a 'historic test' - the largest movement of people since the Second World War, and they need our help. Your grandchildren will indeed ask you, 'what did YOU do?'

For decades, Mercy Corps has worked with refugee and displaced populations, we know that building walls does not work. Europe's Schengen Agreement must remain in place and we must avoid the simplistic pretence that fences can be placed at our borders to preserve our economic well-being and security.

With over 60 million people displaced globally and a plethora of protracted, complex conflicts remaining unresolved, closing of borders will not prevent an exodus towards Europe. It may well however create an escalation in tensions and a seething mass of vulnerable, desperate and discontented people at Europe's borders.

As politicians, civil society and private sector leaders, let's ask ourselves, what will we do?