Migration, memory and the refugee crisis

Luke Taylor, Features Foreign Correspondent, looks at efforts in the Netherlands to help support refugees and asks whether Britain should be doing more.


“When the hour of deliverance shall have struck at last, when our people can once again tread the soil of their free land, they will remember their English friends and will say: ‘they were good to us’.”

– Count De Lalaing, Founder of the Belgian relief fund in England.

“they were good to us”

These are the words that I read on entering the Museum aan de Stroom (MAS) in Antwerp, and led to a change in my perspective towards the current refugee crisis across Europe. I had walked around a exhibition entitled ’50 Years of Migration’. I had seen the individuals who had migrated to Antwerp during WWII, as well as other parts of Europe, and I began to consider what people would say in forty years about the current refugee crisis. Will the Syrian population be able to look back and say that the UK was “good to us”?

MAS, Antwerp. Image: Arend Vermazeren, flickr.com

It was a question that stuck with me throughout the visit, as I wandered around the exhibition and saw the photographs, souvenirs and lives that had been aided by the British. As I left the museum I realised something else – the reason the exhibition had been so moving was because it told the lives of individuals, not just the numbers. The problem is that we see refugees as facts and figures rather than as people. We talk in statistics and forget about lives. We sit behind computer screens, watch television and never come into contact with these refugees. These methods and discussions allow us to dehumanize and desensitise ourselves to them.

That’s why when a picture of a dead boy washed up by the sea hit the internet, the world began to take notice of the refugee crisis.

I have been inspired and encouraged by one particular place that has taken this crisis in its stride. That place is the city of Nijmegen. What is clear to me is that every country, certainly in the European Union, needs to do its bit. One of the basic human rights is that “every refugee has a right to protection”. Every country on entering the EU agreed to this term, but quite frankly I don’t think Britain is doing its bit. I’m hoping that we can become inspired by the city of Nijmegen and try to help these refugees.

So what is the city doing? Well, recently Holland agreed to accept 7000 more refugees in the last few weeks, with the country having already taken in 2000. Nijmegen, a small Dutch city, with the population of only about 160,000 people, is preparing to allow 3,000 refugees into the city and provide shelter for them. The central agency for the reception of asylum seekers (COA) has planned to construct a base that can provide shelter for 3000 refugees in an area where the four day marches camp is usually situated.

Syrian refugees hoping to cross Europe. Image: en.wikipedia.org

In response to the decision to house these refugees, the city did not spark widespread discontent or call for the enactment to be reversed. Instead, the city decided to help. All across Nijmegen people – and in particular its students – began to collect and donate their blankets, pillows, clothes, food etc. to try and support these refugees during this period. The University of Radboud also created a ‘Radboud Refugee Support Centre.’ This support centre provides a place where people can give ideas and begin to implement ways to help and aid this community. If a city of only 160,000 people can support 3000 refugees, imagine what Britain could do?

So let’s have some facts. 4 million refugees have fled Syria and over 1/3 of the Syrian population has been displaced from their home in the last few years. So where can they go? Well, Nijmegen is about 396 times smaller than the UK. Yet Nijmegen has accepted 3,000 people. The UK, in contrast, has officially agreed to accept 20,000 Syrians over the next five years. Other comparisons don’t help the UK either, with Germany agreeing to take in all Syrian refugees. The country is, in fact, currently preparing for 800,000 to arrive. Jordan, which has a GDP 78 times smaller than that of the UK, has taken in 600,000 refugees.

The UK should not be proud of the current attitude it has taken towards refugees. I believe that it is pride and fear that has prevented the country from taking real action. To overcome these things I think we need to see how other countries are responding to this crisis and act fast. Not only that, but I think we need to address some basic issues of our UK complexion. Firstly what have we done that entitles us to being born in the UK?

Refugees in Budapest. Image: pl.wikipedia.org

What made you British? What did you specifically do to influence the decision to be born into a privileged and secure country? We need to realise that we have a code of Human rights to adhere to, and this supplants any feelings we have towards our country or refugees. Refugees are people, and as a country we need to help them. Let’s stop dehumanising them and simply ask ourselves this – if I was born into a civil war, something that I could not stop or influence, something that I had no control over, would I seek protection? So, why are we allowing a British superiority complex to influence and prevent the offering of protection?

I will leave you with the inspiration for this piece and encourage you to help support the people that are currently fleeing Syria, in any way you can – whether by raising awareness, giving financially or offering up your time. My aim is for the UK to be able to look back in twenty years and have the Syrian people say the same as the Belgians about their friends in the UK – that “they were good to us”.

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