Since 2014, more than 1,750,000 refugees have arrived to Europe through the Mediterranean Sea, while the total number of first time asylum applicants (since 2011) reached the 5 million. The relocation scheme planned by the European Commission hasn’t effectively worked out, and many refugees are still waiting for a decision on their future to be made. According to the European Union, countries have fulfilled less than a third of their asylum relocation promises in 2017. Among those that have reached their destination, very few have been able to smoothly integrate into society. The majority of them have not been given real opportunities to integrate, thus they are living sad and miserable lives. It is worth acknowledging that poorly integrated migrant communities and terrorist attacks are real challenges. And while these definitely complicate the climate of each countries’ decision making, these do not change our obligations.
Responsibility towards refugees
Another question that may arise is the following: Do we have any responsibility to embrace those refugees? Well, the Dalai Lama (Our Global Family) would say yes, we do: we are all human beings, we are a global family and what happens in one part of the world affects us all. Thus, we have a universal responsibility toward the human family. Some may wrongly think that those refugees came here by choice, and that it is unfair that the westerners should take care of them. Also, much of the rejection toward refugees is driven by a fear that those refugees might be terrorists and by xenophobia. But we mustn’t forget the difference between a refugee and an economic migrant. A refugee is a person fleeing armed conflict or prosecution, and they are protected by international law (1951 Refugee Convention and other legal texts). Migrants choose to move in order to improve their economic situation and life conditions. That’s why each country may choose how to deal with migrants, but they cannot do that with refugees (which, again, are protected by international law). The problem is that the distinction between the two is a very blurry one, which undermines support for refugees.
It is vital to keep in mind that “migrants contribute economically to the development of their new communities through their skills and participation in local markets whilst simultaneously contributing to their countries of origin through remittances.” (WYA Declaration on Migration and Development). Europe, in particular, needs a lot of young people to alleviate its inverted population pyramid; nevertheless, endless migration is not a sustainable solution. Europe should improve its birth policies and make them “family-friendly”. This Declaration also emphasizes that “regardless of the migrant’s economic contribution into a community, governments should place the respect of the human dignity at the center of their migration policies, which will result in the development of the full potential of all persons.”
The issue of identity
What is the response of the population to this crisis? From my experience as a student, I see that young people are much more open to the reception of refugees and people fleeing from prosecution and violence (than previous generations). But there is still a strong tendency to dismiss refugees as dangerous invaders and to look at them with suspicion, especially among older generations. Nevertheless, we have to recognize that there are challenges to integration and security: many are understandably and justifiably afraid about whether those refugees are being adequately screened, especially in light of the poorly integrated migrant communities, the terrorist attacks and the reports of sexual assault of women in Germany.
The issue of identity plays a key role here: many worry that our heritage will be lost if people from different backgrounds become part of our society. But this should prompt a moment of reflection: should we place the idea of cultural heritage before human dignity? In the end, cultures are always changing. Through new inputs, they inexorably evolve (which is not necessarily bad). Openness doesn’t mean rejecting one’s values, traditions and past. Instead, the present crisis is an opportunity for us to progress and make our culture more conciliatory and humane.
I belong to group of students and professors from the University of Navarra called AUNOM. AUNOM literally means Agrupación Universitaria por el Oriente Medio, and it was founded in 2015. This student association tries to create a social conscience by focusing on 2 main fields:
First, to spread the knowledge on issues related to the Middle East with academic activities. This is done through conferences taught by geopolitical analysts, diplomats, experts on Islam and the Arab World, journalists, Muslims, natives from the Middle East, archbishops, etc. The Middle East is a very complex region, unknown to many. It is not uncommon to hear hasty judgments about the situation in the region without the proper foundations. Its unique mixture of ethnicities, religions, history, and natural wealth forms an explosive combination. That is why a strong understanding needs to be fostered, in order to counter mistaken and negative conceptions which can do a lot of harm.
This organization also works for the integration of refugees in Pamplona, which is done in many different ways. We students teach them Spanish in coordination with the Red Cross, we regularly organize soccer matches with men, volleyball games with women, leisure plans for young people (like having a coffee, going for a walk, visiting museums and doing hikes), we connect native families with families of refugees and a lot of other different activities. These activities are varied, and they aim at sharing memories, time and experience; that is, to create a contact network and to consolidate friendship between refugees and locals.
This is a story of one of the refugees I have interacted with. He was living in the outskirts of Damascus and, one day, the fighting reached his neighborhood. He and his family were given a couple of hours to flee, leaving everything else behind. They eventually arrived to another city, where they stayed for some weeks, living in awful conditions. A Catholic non-profit found him and brought him to Spain, but his family had to stay in Syria. When I first met him, he seemed very silent, but grateful at the same time. I could not imagine that he used to live a normal life, one where he was studying at the university back in Syria. He had been raised in a normal family, he had played with his friends in the street, he had gone to school, he had gone on vacation, he had learned to play an instrument, he had some hobbies, he had all his life figured out, and a brilliant future awaited him! But then war started, and all of his life plans were blown up. He lost almost everything overnight. When he was sent to Spain by the organization, he had to leave his family behind. He now lives with the anxiety that one day, his family might not respond to his phone calls.
It was very tough for him to start a new life from the beginning, with a totally different language. But then he met a friend of mine, and he was introduced to our group. It has been a year full of experiences: hikes, weekly get-togethers, soccer games, pilgrimages… Slowly, he has integrated into our group, and now he has found a community, a new family.
I feel that if everyone did something similar, most of the problems of integration would disappear, and refugees would feel happy and worthy. I am aware that this post doesn’t help much in solving the crisis, but I would like it to be a reminder for all of us: the next time we see a refugee we must understand where he is coming from, and all the suffering that he has endured. Nobody would simply leave all his life behind if it were not for a very important reason. That is why I think that we have a moral responsibility to help them integrate. This means that giving money to the Red Cross isn’t enough. A lot more needs to be done! Time, attention, care, love… they are human beings who need to be healed. We cannot wait for others to commit, YOU are the one who should get the ball rolling!
Written by Albert Vidal, a current Headquarters intern from Spain. Photo taken by Jesús Caso.