When it was recently reported that Spain decided to accept a rescue ship carrying more than 600 people after it had been turned away from Italy and Malta, it evoked a sense of relief in me, but also sadness and disappointment. Such displays of human decency and basic regard for the plight of those fleeing war, violence and persecution should not have to be applauded in 2018. Yet, here we are.
A quick glance at the comments section underneath articles covering this story reveals the true feelings of so many; bigoted trolls spewing vicious anti-immigration, ‘Us vs Them’ rhetoric and insisting that such boats should be sent back to where they came from and that those on board are nothing more than illegal bodies attempting to worm their way into European nations. Three years after a group of African migrants were hatefully referred to as “cockroaches” in Britain’s biggest selling newspaper, how have public perceptions of refugees and migrants changed within a European context?
Looking at recent headlines across mainstream media, it would be easy to believe that many migrants, refugees and asylum seekers are setting their sights on Europe and risking their lives trying to cross the Mediterranean sea to make it there. These narratives would undoubtedly contribute towards feelings of hostility and contempt for some of the world’s most vulnerable people. How much truth do such narratives hold? Earlier this month, the UN’s Refugee Agency stated that considerably fewer migrants and refugees attempted to cross the Mediterranean sea in 2017 compared to 2016, and that “more solidarity is needed within the EU to ensure protection, including through efficient and speedy family reunion and relocation.” At this moment in time, that solidarity seems to be in short supply.
Just days ago, Malta and Italy refused to let a rescue ship carrying hundreds of migrants dock at its ports while civilians in Italy and Spain who offered help to refugees could be facing prison sentences. The rise in far-right, anti-immigration sentiment is enabling the demonisation and criminalisation of not only refugees themselves but also those who want to help and support them. It’s almost as if the Western world forgets that nobody becomes a refugee by choice, and suddenly, basic human rights are up for debate and deliberation when the people in question are hailing from so-called third world countries and happen to be black/brown.
According to the UN Refugee Agency’s latest Global Trends study, published yesterday, the total number of people forcibly displaced worldwide at the end of 2017 was a record 68.5 million, with 25.4 million of those being refugees (2.9 million more than 2016).
It’s simply not good enough for European nations to continue to ignore the plight of refugees, especially when that plight happens to be a result of some of the EU’s actions. In terms of what the future holds for refugees, asylum seekers and migrants, we will probably have to wait until next week’s European Council to find out what EU leaders intend to do about current migration policy as well as the Common European Asylum System (CEAS) reform.
In the meantime though, the 20th annual Refugee Week is underway, and there are many, many things we can all do to support refugees and celebrate their contributions to society as well as their creativity. For instance, this evening (June 20th) sees the launch of Shatila Stories, a new novel written by nine Palestinian and Syrian refugees. Tomorrow, you can enjoy a “sensory installation and performances centering LGBTQI+ refugee experiences” at Platform Southwark.
Finally, you can now buy tickets to see ‘The Jungle’, a play about the Calais refugee camp that is showing at the West End’s Playhouse Theatre until November 2018.
This World Refugee Day, let us remind ourselves of the resilience and bravery of millions of refugees around the world, past and present. Refugees witness and experience things that most of us could never imagine and it’s time they were given the compassion, support and protection they deserve.
This article is written by Tenelle Ottley-Matthew. Tenelle is a freelance arts journalist based in London and is also our social media assistant.