Refugees Welcome – Some thoughts on the current events in Europe

While I enjoy labor day weekend in Upstate New York, the news about refugees arriving in Europe are becoming overwhelming. It is strange to observe these historic events from a country, that tends to see itself as the center of the world and yet couldn’t be more away from the events that currently dominate the global news. Isolated by a huge ocean and the unwillingness to take responsibility for a crisis, that is not completely unrelated to American intervention in the Middle East, the US is merely a supporting actor in this plot, at best. To be fair, the US have their own issues with refugees and immigration. No western country has accepted more refugees than the US. And yet, the American willingness to help people escaping from war and political prosecution is very limited in comparison to the millions of refugees in the middle east.
But this article is not about the US, but an attempt to make sense of what is currently happening in Europe. I used to accuse Europe for a racist immigration policy, that willingly accepts thousands of refugees to die in their attempt to cross the border. And I don’t see much reason, or hope, to change my opinion anytime soon. When Merkel is now credited for her human stance on helping refugees, it is less her politics that have changed than it is the number of people trying to find a refuge in Europa. We read about the thousands of refugees that arrive in Germany or Hungary every day, but people continue to die at the borders.
And yet, the tracks of refugees across Europe points out a few issue I like to address:

  • The hundreds of thousands of refugees are a very powerful reminder, that much is messed up in this world. I do not like the term “refugee crisis”, as it implies that the refugees themselves are the problem. But framed differently, the term becomes useful. It is fair to say that every single refugee experiences a personal and a collective crisis. And refugees are a small, often privileged group that represent much greater crises. The war crises in Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia etc. cause misery and often death to millions who cannot or do not want to escape. Other crises, as the food crisis, the climate crisis or the poverty crisis add on top of that. While not officially recognized as reasons to seek asylum, they are experienced in a similar way, as a threat to life.  When refugees from these countries come to Europe to seek asylum, it reminds us, that these crises are our crises. Not in a way, that Europe should intervene wherever it can. But certainly in a way, that we rethink our legacy of colonialism and global economic domination, which impact that has on other parts of the world and how we can help each other to solve those crises that threaten us all as humankind. Because we’re all in it together.
  • Europe remains a popular goal for people in distress. Neither Europe’s politics of deportation and closed borders nor [growing numbers of attacks on refugees]() stop people from trying to get there. The degree of political stability and recognition of human rights in Europe compared to countries such as Syria or Afghanistan can’t be taken for granted. I find a lot to criticize and improve in Europe, but sometimes it’s useful to put things in perspective.
  • It is said that Europe (it’s a gross generalization, I know) is good at a few things. In disciplines such as economic power, individual wealth, education, health, even personal well-being, at least some European countries rank in the top tier. But when we see pictures of refugees walking on rail tracks or sleeping in tents or on the street amid the oh-so-wealthy Europe, we have to conclude, that Europe is terrible in being a good host and helper. Europe can built skyscrapers and high-speed trains, but apparently it is incapable of providing for people, that have lost everything and reach out for help.
  • There is growing divide among Europeans and their government(s). While the latter try to stop as many refugees from entering Europe as possible and try to get rid of those who made it, backed up by a to a great extend xenophobic electorate, more and more people take charity in their own hands and organize help to welcome and support refugees. About a year ago, we organized a small group of students at my university to support refugees, who have moved into a shelter right next to our school. When I now see hundreds of volunteers in Vienna (and elsewhere, like Munich or Hungary), who try to help where they can, it gives me hope, that humanity is not lost. It is great to see, how these idealistic and self-organized groups are so much more efficient in providing for people in distress than the officials.
    In a way, this is telling about the neoliberal course Europe is taking. Charity and humanity is privatized and delegated to a minority who has the time and means to provide social services. While I cannot thank those activists enough (and I almost feel guilty that I cannot be among them right now), their commitment is no justification for the government to reduce services. Rather, it should be a signal, that people in Europe are willing and able to support refugees and that their government should follow suit. So if anyone in Europe deserves credit for humanity and helpfulness, it’s the civil society, the activists and not the government(s) nor Europe as a whole.
  • In some way, this current period of flight reminds me of other historic events, when people tried to escape one country to get into another. Remember, when Europe was like the Middle East today and one crazy group called Germans or Nazis tried to dominate and extinguish other Europeans? Millions fled to countries close (like Jordan or Turkey today) and far (just like Germany today). When Merkel announced that refugees in Hungary could proceed to Germany without being stopped it remind me a lot of 1989 when East German refugees in the German embassy suddenly were allowed to move to Western Germany.  Every event is unique and history only repeats so much, but I think it is time to reciprocate the generosity Europeans have experienced during those times.

This entry is mostly an article about the grand scheme of things, of flight and humanity. And yet, we shouldn’t forget this isn’t only an arena of political struggle. It is the sum of million individual stories and destinies of people who risk their lives for a better future. I wish people in Europe keep that in mind when they consider their personal response to the current events.