In the summer of 2015 Europe was in turmoil as thousands of refugees seemed to suddenly descend upon various crossing points in the Mediterranean in a perilous attempt to escape conflict in Syria or the social, economic and political strife of their home countries in predominantly Africa and the Middle East. Media reporters oscillated between using the term ‘refugee’ and ‘migrant’ as it was unclear how many of these individuals were what we refer to as economic migrants (seeking a better quality of life) or actual refugees (fleeing their homes in fear of their life).
This challenge still haunts us, a year on, as countries such as Sweden and Germany come to terms with the social consequences of a more open-door response to the crisis and the accompanying criticism while countries such as France and the UK who held a much tougher stance are still facing heavy criticism for their apparent lack of generosity. It seems a lose-lose situation for European nations and certainly, despite the decline in media coverage, the crisis has not been averted.
The latest debate over the fate of child refugees in the Calais ‘Jungle’ is the most recent development in a crisis that may have peaked in summer 2015 but has in reality been brewing for several years in Syria, and for decades and centuries across Europe and the wider world.
A major challenge is how one can reliably differentiate between the levels of genuine need without a coherent and accurate structure in place to validate the claims made by asylum seekers or refugees. The age, and therefore entitlement of the child refugees we received into Britain earlier this week has been called into question as Brits struggle to come to terms with how to justify who comes and who stays: How old is this migrant?
So what is the difference between a refugee and an (economic) migrant and to what extent does it matter? Quite understandably (and quite rightly) the tragic stories of families torn apart have made the headlines. So much so that we were initially given the impression that the wave of people arriving in Europe was largely a wave of desperate refugee families, women and children fleeing for their lives. And tragically this is the case for too many people. But the reality is that most of the victims of the Syrian conflict, its refugees, are actually struggling for survival in refugee camps on the Syrian border and not crossing the Mediterranean en masse. But this is not the case for all of them, and it is a crime against humanity that families are risking their lives trying to get to Europe.
However, if you look for example at the majority of the faces that arrived at German airports under the banner of ‘refugees’, most were young, single men and not women and children, men who looked rather more like economic migrants than refugees.
But when push comes to shove, the underlying issue is still the same. For me the ethical (and inevitably political) question goes far deeper than whether those seeking to enter Europe are in peril or in pursuit. For, even setting aside the harrowing reality of the displacement, homelessness and fear for one’s life that refugees have to contend with, there is a real and very deep reason why so many migrants seek to enter Europe and to leave their home counties behind. Because there is a gross disparity between prosperity, education, healthcare, quality of life and religious and social freedom between the continents of Africa and Europe, Asia and Europe, South America and Europe. And I cannot help thinking every time I read or hear about a migration-related issue that, but for the incredibly fortunate geography of my birthplace, any of those individuals could be me.
I have no special right to be born in a democratic, wealthy and safe country. I was just incredibly fortunate. I have no greater right to freedom of speech, free healthcare, equal employment opportunities and a democratic government than anyone else in the world. And yet I have all of these rights without any merit on my part, while millions across our globe do not.
It makes it very hard then to watch from the comfort of my own home the struggles and strife of those whose geographical misfortune has placed them in destitute, dangerous or repressive conditions. As a geography teacher I am rendered even more painfully aware of the disparities and inequalities within and between nations as it is my job to unmask and probe those issues and causes.
Geography has much to answer for, but it is the political geography that is to blame rather than our physical landscapes. Even the dangers of tectonic hazards, the ultimate physical forces outside our control, become much more dangerous depending on the wealth and stability of the host country. It is true that our economic and social structures in the UK cannot absorb a huge influx of migrants but, even if we must think on a micro scale rather than a macro-scale, individual communities within our country can (and do) work towards saving as many as possible. For every life saved, every family reunited is a step in the right direction and if we can’t damn the flood, at least we can shore up some of its leaks: families reunited