Refugees are welcome here – seize the moment!

Turkey
Europe
Refugees
Syria
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‘Refugees are welcome here,’ shouted around 1,000 people in Oxford, Britain. by Vanessa Baird

Compassion for refugees is spreading across Europe. Could it lead to a saner ‘open borders’ policy? asks Vanessa Baird.

They expected 50-80 people to attend a hastily convened gathering in Oxford. Around 1,000 turned up, waving placards and shouting at the top of their voices: ‘Refugees are welcome here.’

This was one of the first cities in Britain to hold such a rally, in a country that has become synonymous with heartless parsimony in its shirking, mean-spirited response to the plight of thousands of desperate people seeking refuge from war and poverty.

But like growing millions across Europe, ordinary people in this historic but small city were saying: ‘We are human beings; we are not the government.’

Their message to Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron was clear: do the right thing. Rethink your policy. Saving lives has to be the priority.

But more than this, people are taking control. One speaker asked the crowd gathered outside the historic Sheldonian Theatre: ‘How many of you are ready to welcome and help refugees here?’ A sea of hands went up. ‘How many of you can put up a refugee in your home for a specified period?’ Scores of hands went up.

The opposition Labour Party local MP, Andrew Smith, sent a message saying that he had had ‘more representations on this issue in the last few days than on any other subject, ever.’

Home for Good, an agency that helps foster migrant children, has received 1,800 offers of help in 2 days, said a spokesperson.

The tipping point in public opinion came in the middle of last week, with the publication across the media of the pitiful image of Syrian 3-year-old Aylan Al Kurdi, washed up on a beach in Turkey. A picture that may prove to be as significant as that of a screaming girl running away from a napalm-bombed village during the disastrous the 1960s US war in Vietnam.

David Cameron’s refusal to admit into Britain more than a tiny proportion of Syrian refugees began to seem inappropriate, even to the rightwing press that earlier praised it.

Germany, Austria and Sweden have taken in thousands of refugees from Syria, Eritrea, Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere and are putting countries like Britain and Canada to shame. This weekend saw more than 10,000 refugees, who had been held up for several days in Hungary, being welcomed off trains in Munich to cheers and sweets. What’s more, a vast network of ordinary German people are hosting refugees in their own homes.

The need is urgent and desperate, but still the British government will not be part of European Union (EU) discussions this week to agree a plan to relocate 120,000 Syrians, Iraqis and Eritreans who have already entered the EU. It is opting out, offering just to take ‘a few thousand more’, a further sign of its moral bankruptcy.

But across Europe, compassionate citizens have lost patience with the shilly-shallying of politicians and officials, who count beans and votes as migrant ‘death boats’ sink in the Mediterranean.

This week there will be more talk in the EU of quotas and ‘burden-sharing’ and those that are not doing their share will be rightly censured and shamed. A co-ordinated European response to save lives and to offer refuge would be helpful. But if they can’t agree, lives still need to be saved. A lot more is needed. And as one refugee exclaimed: ‘Where is human rights? Where is the UN?’ Indeed. It’s been charities like Médecins Sans Frontières and many much smaller ones that have led the rescue of refugees.

What we are seeing today is people power, doing what their elected governments and official international bodies ought to be but are signally failing to do. Ordinary people seizing the humanitarian initiative.

The challenge for all of us is to keep hold of it, to keep drawing more people into a big tent of compassion, to save lives and to move the debate along.

In the clamour of growing racism and anti-immigration sentiment of recent years, the case for a sane ‘open borders’ approach to migration which we have made in New Internationalist, has appeared increasingly idealistic.

But the policy that German Chancellor Angela Merkel – dubbed the ‘president of pragmatism’ – is currently operating today is actually one of ‘open borders’ for refugees. The reason she is doing it is the complete failure of the closed borders policy of Fortress Europe in the face of a real world of war and poverty and growing inequality.

The refugee crisis is a consequence both of war and globalization of neoliberal economics that have deepened inequality, not only within but between countries. These are deep structural flaws that cannot be solved by building fences or allowing people to drown at sea. They may not be solved by opening borders either, in the immediate term. But migration will be more orderly, less desperate and dangerous, as we are seeing in countries like Sweden. Lives will be saved; compassion and humanity will have a chance to prevail.

And as we reach out our hands we may know what is to be human again – refugees and welcoming allies alike.

Vanessa Baird is a New Internationalist co-editor. See our related magazines 'Why are we locking up migrants' and 'Deported! What happens next?'.

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