JEDDAH: With no safe and legal passage to Europe, refugees fleeing war, poverty and persecution in their home countries frequently encounter barbed wire, suspicion and outright hostility and simple when they arrive at the gates of the EU.
For several years now, the plight of migrants and refugees arriving in Europe has divided public opinion, sparking conflicting narratives about compassion and national identity, while raising concerns about security and the fight against terrorism.
These divisions were highlighted in 2015 when hundreds of thousands of Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans, Iranians, Sudanese, Eritreans and other nationalities made the perilous journey to Europe by land or sea, often with the help of traffickers.
Many of these debates resurfaced in the final months of 2021 after tens of thousands of people, mostly from the Middle East, arrived at the border between Belarus and Poland, camping at the bitterly cold forest border in the vain hope of going to Europe.
Earlier in December, Poland closed its borders by building a 115-mile-long fortified wall, which is expected to be completed by June this year at a cost of nearly $300 million.
Fortified border walls began to appear after the 2015 influx of refugees, mostly from the Middle East. The Hungarian wall alone cost the EU more than one billion euros.
Similar fortifications have sprung up in Slovenia, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Spain and France, all with the aim of keeping migrants out.
The EU has grown from just two walls after the fall of the Berlin Wall to 15 in 2017, the equivalent of six Berlin Walls. These new barriers reflect a general hardening of opinions against refugees in Europe.
Where once European leaders saw it as their humanitarian duty to welcome refugees, many of them are now taking political advantage of their harsh rhetoric on illegal immigration. In the process, the issue of migration became dissociated from the calamities that caused them to flee.
“It’s dehumanizing to say the least,” Wafa Mustafa, a Syrian journalist, activist and refugee living in Germany, told Arab News. “We cannot talk about refugees without talking about why they became refugees.
Mustafa’s father, Ali, a Syrian human rights activist, was arrested in July 2013 before disappearing into Bashar Assad’s infamous prison system. Around 130,000 people are believed to be held in regime prisons, where they face torture and sexual abuse.
“We cannot ignore the fact that there are forces that drive people to risk their lives, those of their children and loved ones, which are harder than being left to die at the borders,” Mustafa said.
“I think the way the EU treats people stuck at its borders is a crime. We’ve heard of illegal entry as a crime, but I think not allowing people to cross borders and letting them die is the real crime.
Mustafa thinks European politicians are refusing to engage on the issue because “they would have to face the fact that they failed in their job and the international community failed to solve the problem, in the case of Syria, the dictatorship of Assad”.
Witnessing this rush to fortify its borders, many could be forgiven for thinking that the economic and social burden of the global refugee crisis fell primarily on Europe. Nothing could be further from the truth.
As frequently pointed out by the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, 85% of the world’s 26.6 million refugees (as of mid-2021) are hosted either in neighboring countries or elsewhere in the affected regions. development.
Turkey, for example, has more refugees within its borders than any other country – more than 3.5 million, or 43 per 1,000 of its own citizens. Jordan has nearly 3 million, while tiny Lebanon hosts 1.5 million, or more than 13 refugees for every 100 Lebanese.
By contrast, around 2.65 million refugees live among the EU’s 447 million inhabitants.
After the Second World War, European states signed a series of treaties aimed at protecting the rights of refugees, including the 1951 Refugee Convention, the 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1980 European Agreement on Refugees. transfer of responsibility for refugees.
Despite these pledges, European leaders and sections of the media have instead created crude narratives of “worthy” and “unworthy” migrants to help justify the pushback of refugees.
“It’s a dangerous narrative,” Mustafa said. “We need to see them as humans, hear their stories and provide them with resources to deal with why they came to Europe.”
Abdulazez Dukhan, from Homs in western Syria, arrived in Greece in 2015 when he was just 17. It was there, while he was confined in one of the overcrowded camps in the country, that a volunteer offered him a camera.
What started as a hobby quickly turned into an illustrious career as a photographer when he finally settled in Belgium.
A photography exhibition by Dukhan titled ’50 Humans’, held late last year in Brussels, aimed to challenge the scapegoating of migrants and refugees, while demonstrating the positive contribution they make to multicultural societies.
“Their stories made them who they are, but I don’t dwell on their past,” Dukhan told Arab News. “I focus on their present, responding to moral arguments in the most subtle way. Forget wars and conflicts and focus on the present. These are their real stories.
Those who oppose taking in refugees often say they are burdening the economy, taking jobs and cutting wages or scrounging up state aid. However, studies have shown that societies with a shrinking working-age population tend to benefit from the arrival of younger migrants.
A 2021 IMF working paper titled “The Impact of International Migration on Inclusive Growth” outlined some of the longer-term benefits of welcoming immigrants.
“International migration is both a challenge and an opportunity for destination countries,” its authors wrote.
“On the one hand, especially in the short term, immigrants can create challenges in local labor markets, potentially affecting wages and displacing some native workers who compete with them. Their arrival may also impose a short-term budgetary cost.
However, the report states that “especially in the medium to long term, immigrants can boost production, create new opportunities for local businesses and indigenous workers, provide the capabilities and skills needed for growth, generate new ideas, stimulate international trade and contribute in the long term. balance the budget over time, by rebalancing the age distribution of advanced countries.
Nevertheless, there is still a widespread perception in many European countries that newcomers take more than they contribute. In reality, migrants receive little help from the state, forcing them to work hard to improve their situation.
“EU policies have made it difficult for immigrants and refugees, by sticking labels on them. But that didn’t deter them,” Dukhan said.
“Those arriving have work experience, degrees and were essential members of their old communities, and they want to do the same in their new homes. While their degrees may mean nothing in the new country, many won’t sit idly by. They will get up, study, do odd jobs and more.
Despite the potential benefits of immigration, many Europeans remain troubled by the influx of foreigners. Through her exhibition, Dukhan hopes to challenge myths and misconceptions about migrants and refugees, and show them in a more honest light.
“They are not miserable people,” Dukhan said. “The media has played a major role in portraying them and demoting them to a social experience, putting them in a bubble to scrutinize and ridicule them.”
As Europe strengthens its borders and anti-immigrant sentiment continues to gain ground, reversing these entrenched perceptions may prove easier said than done.