We all remember Alan Kurdi, the three-year old Syrian boy whose lifeless body made global headlines this September. We felt sad, outraged, helpless. The reported Canadian connection even brought the refugee crisis to the forefront of debates in the federal elections. And then we forgot. Social media has a tendency to make issues go viral, unite us to experience emotions collectively, and then move on to the next big thing in a matter of hours or days. It is as powerful a cycle as it is cruel.
According to recent UN reports, over 700,000 migrants (a significant portion of them children) have crossed the Mediterranean into Europe so far this year – that’s about the size of Mississauga, Canada’s sixth largest municipality. Over 3,200 of them have died; some like Kurdi we learnt about in the media, the majority of them nameless faces but no less tragic. In October alone, 120,000 new people became displaced in Syria, in addition to the nine million who have already fled or been displaced internally. Just last week 58,000 migrants and refugees (3.5 times the capacity of Rexall Place in Edmonton) entered Slovenia, a country with a population of two million.
The crisis did not start in the summer and it will not end anytime soon. With winter and harsh weather approaching, the UN High Commissioner has already warned about the likelihood of an impending humanitarian tragedy in the Western Balkans. It needs our continuous attention and a coordinated global effort, even if social media decided to move on. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said: “Countries affected should not only talk about and at each other but also with each other. Neighbours should work together not against each other.”
The crisis did not start in the summer and it will not end anytime soon.
Some of the operational issues have been addressed in last week’s 17-point plan of action that was agreed upon by the leaders of the 11 countries most affected by the crisis in the EU and outside its borders in the Balkans. Some of these issues include registration and identification. How can countries ensure they have the capacity to humanely screen and distinguish between economic migrants (up to about 40% of new arrivals according to UNHCR [the UN Refugee Agency]) and genuine asylum seekers? How do you reconcile the protection of the Schengen borders with international human rights law? How do you change a system and a 28-member institution that was not designed or prepared for the mass influx of immigrants?
Most of the above, and the many other operational questions, boil down in my mind to differences in culture, values, perceptions and attitudes. Perspectives differ and it is too easy to make a value-based judgment without trying to understand the whys and motivations of the other side. I have been following with great interest the events that unfold in a region I am intimately familiar with, but one that I am now removed from. Growing up in Hungary, but having spent the last five years of my life in Canada, the sensitivities around culture and values are just as apparent as they are fascinating to observe and compare — even if we do not always have answers.
How do you change a system that was not designed or prepared for the mass influx of immigrants?
It is the fine intricacies and complex interplay of social, historical, economic and — above all — cultural factors that rarely make it into social media which often tend to sensationalize or prefer to portray events as black-and-white.
Rather than pretending to have definitive answers, simplifying or passing judgment, the Kule Institute for Advance Study (KIAS), the European Union Centre of Excellence (EUCE) and the Wirth Institute for Austrian and Central European Studies have initiated a project on migration and refugees with a modest goal: to showcase diversity and invite the community to engage in an ongoing dialogue. We would like to give voice to anyone who would like to share his/her experience with refugees or reflect critically on the many facets of this issue – out of personal, professional or general interest. Once the website is published, individuals – including refugees – will also be able to directly upload and share their contributions as part of our growing collection of forced migration related experiences and reflections.
We hope that collecting a variety of viewpoints will ultimately help us broaden our perspectives and keep this important conversation alive on campus, in our communities and in the collective mind of Canadians. If at least one life can be touched or changed for the better through this project, it was already worth it.
To participate in this project, please go to the Call for Contributions website.
*Photo license: CC BY-SA 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/