BLOG: Refugees in Europe: Whose Crisis?

by Annie Holmes

To answer that question with another: who shows up for a panel with this title? It turns out that a lot of people do. The largest lecture hall at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) was packed on the evening of 29 October 2015, for the latest in the series of Bloomsbury Humanitarian Debates, chaired by Ecohost director, Bayard Roberts.

Was this a case of preaching to the choir? While the event probably did draw a self-selecting audience, the speakers opened our minds as well as confirming our shared support for refugee rights and a common search for real solutions, immediate and long term, to Europe’s burning challenge.

Doctors of the World have provided medical services to refugees in the Calais camp (“the Jungle”) since June 2015 in the absence of any official health response there, as well as to sites in Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Greece, the Balkans and Germany. MDM’s Kim Harper clarified what the venerable group can and can’t do in this fast-changing scenario, as they face a new set of questions:

  • How to set up the basic infrastructure in time, when large groups may gather and disperse so rapidly?
  • How to raise funds when traditional donors only fund low-income (“developing” countries) and this situation is unfolding across a wealthy region?
  • How to attract the deluge of individual and community donations to an almost “establishment” body, when the volunteering public is moved, in large part, to more direct forms of support?

Doctors of the World reshapes its own process as fast as it can – creating its first mobile units in the Balkans, for instance. Meanwhile, its dilemmas exemplify the larger political conundrum of this crisis. Conflicts and deprivation once contained “out there” have come crashing into our own (Western) backyard.

What does the surge of volunteerism mean, here in Europe? Creative writer Olumide Popoola challenged all of us in the room to face up to our cosy liberal complacencies. (Full disclosure: I’m working with Olu on a collection of short fiction – titled breach – based on interviews with refugees in the Calais “Jungle”.) In order to understand ourselves as benevolent saviours, Popoola argued, we may fall into the trap of constructing “innocent victims” who deserve saving – rather than human beings with rights. Can there be such a thing as an “innocent bystander”? Or is our personal and social claim to neutrality another comforting and ahistorical posture? German-Nigerian herself, Popoola went on to challenge congratulatory claims of Willkommenskultur or “welcoming culture” following on Angela Merkel’s (unexpected and courageous) step of opening the country’s borders to large numbers of refugees during 2015.

At the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, Martin McKee is billed as Professor of European Public, with a focus on policy and health systems. Anyone leaning back in her seat in anticipation of a dry summary of legislative measures soon sat up straight and took notes as well as inspiration.

Essential as legislative measures are (of course), McKee’s presentation took a more dramatic form. Speaking both from the heart and from a deep well of knowledge, he reminded us that we’ve been here before – Haiti accepting Jews from Nazi Germany in 1938 (as compared with British reluctance), Denmark’s welcome of Hungarians in 1956. More recently, Malta, Spain and Italy have been absorbing numbers of refugees since 2010. Other European countries could learn from their legal and practical experience instead of starting from scratch. The symbolic bridge on the Euro note is under strain from both economic and refugee crises: where is the leadership that this moment demands?

Among the refugees and migrants themselves are doctors and health workers, but they are not credentialed in the European countries where they end up. Austria has found a creative way around these regulations: don’t professional football teams bring their own doctors? For the purposes of health provision, groups of refugees can be categorised in the same way. With this innovative example in mind, McKee challenged the +17,000 members of the UK Public Health Association to speak out and take action on the basis of solidarity and justice.

Aptly, the next and final panellist, Tanya Kaiser brought news about solidarity and organising by students at the School of Oriental and African Studies. Drawing on her field of study – Forced Migration Studies – Kaiser focused on the central question of protection. Provisions dating back to 1951 promise protection to anyone forced to flee her or his country – protection on departure, during the journey and at reception to a country of refuge – international commitments that are being breached all down the line. If ordinary people can respond with passion and in numbers, Kaiser asked, why can’t states?

Which brought the evening full circle: the crisis is political, with deep roots in the past and a long shadow looming into the future. European states, individually and collectively, need to catch up fast and sensibly. Reflecting on the evening’s discussion at the end of November, after attacks in Beirut, Paris and Bamako, and as winter sinks onto refugee tents, shelters and hope, the question seems ever more urgent.

So, whose crisis? All of ours.

Annie Holmes is a writer and filmmaker who works in strategic communications at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.