In 2019, the number of displaced people around the world will likely surpass 70 million, a figure that eclipses the population of the United Kingdom.
A tragedy arguably unmatched in human history, this poses an existential challenge to humanitarian agencies and governments alike. While the civil conflict in Syria and ethnic cleansing in Myanmar grab the headlines, drawing in huge amounts of international attention and support from humanitarian agencies, many crises go largely unreported, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. Indeed the longevity of conflicts is often an issue, the media’s desire for fast stories and to shock leading to ignorance over such conflicts as the one in South Sudan which has currently left 2.4 million people displaced.
It seems that the plight of refugees has become an integral part of the global system, to such an extent that we in the west have become numb to the suffering of others. We have begun to see conflict, persecution and natural disasters in far-flung corners of the world as accepted realities, with little discernible impact on our own lives. We forget that behind the sensationalist headlines, political rhetoric and misguided stereotypes lie individuals. They are individuals with hopes, ambitions and talents, but who are denied their rights and the dignity to fulfil these. They are not a faceless mass to be casually labelled as a burden on our society. Tackling the crisis not only requires meaningful action from governments, but it also requires a shift in public attitude and for people to stand up when governments fail to act.
While working in Serbia last summer, I was confronted with the harsh realities of the refugee crisis. I arrived with what I thought was a comprehensive awareness of the scale of the problem. I could recite official statistics and was up-to-date with the latest reports on the situation in the region. I thought I had arrived with the necessary knowledge to throw myself into the cause – what I experienced in the field set this assumption straight.
The numbers were staggering. The organisation I worked for, Collective Aid, was expected to provide up to 1000 meals per day to the nearby Obrenovac Transit Centre. On my first visit to the centre, I watched as man after man filed past me, each collecting their food, then sitting to eat as quickly as possible in order to make room for the endless numbers waiting their turn. But the scale of the problem was not what left the biggest mark. It was the diverse range of individuals I met, stories I heard and lessons I learnt that would be impressed upon my mind.
After finishing the lunchtime distribution, volunteers would eat any remaining food in the main hall with the men. At first, I was nervous, acutely aware of potential language barriers, but I soon found that most of them were eager to talk to us and to share their stories. Far from the images of despair served to us by the media, many of these men were imbued with an intense optimism for the future. We played basketball with them, one man even taught me how to play chess. I would return almost every day in the hope of winning against him – I never did. By far my fondest memory was playing Uno with a group who taught me the colours in Punjabi so I could play with them in their native language. Yet despite these positive encounters, when we drove out of the centre, I was always aware of the fact that we were leaving behind men who had nowhere else to go and little real hope for the future.
At no time was this contrast more visible than when men returned after attempting to cross the border into Croatia or Hungary. These countries, politically hostile to refugees and migrants alike, are routinely flaunting international human rights law by violently preventing border crossings.
They would often return with grievous injuries, physically and emotionally traumatised. I remember seeing a group of young men leaving one afternoon with optimism in their faces, only to return towards the end of my placement with their optimism drained and their bodies beat.
To me, this is symptomatic of the wider political environment that refugees and migrants are subject to. Despite their optimism, ambition and hope for the future, refugees and migrants are denied their rights by nations who purport to be bastions of hope and civility in an increasingly violent world. This hypocrisy has real, tangible consequences, as I was to learn during my time in Serbia, and I am determined that we must hold governments to account on this.
Where governments fail to uphold human rights and protect the dignity of the vulnerable, I believe it is up to civil society to rise up and make a change.
Organisations such as Collective Aid, comprised of volunteers from around the world, demonstrate what can happen when the human capacity to help others curtails the constraints of politics.
Now more than ever, we must challenge accepted realities, push for reform and, if necessary, commit ourselves to working to protect the rights that governments are failing to guarantee.
Image: Gigia via Wikimedia Commons