Detractors of refugee assistance initiatives have often used this question to raise concerns about the genuineness of asylum claims by people camped in Calais, or those trying to board trucks or trains to the UK. The question’s premise hinges on the assumption that a refugee’s claims become less urgent, or important, and even inaccurate, as soon as the refugee reaches a location that is safe and where the immediate danger has passed.
After all, if all refugees pass through Turkey and if that country is a free, democratic and safe place to live, why is it that they continue their journey, using dangerous and sometimes even life threatening routes, to reach Europe.
To many critics, it appears that even upon reaching Europe, these refugees choose not to settle in Greece, or any other country enroute, even though these are some of the safest countries in the world and are in the European Union.
For the volunteers and organisations working to help the refugees, this is a question that is unrelated to their work; after all, all they wish to do is provide humanitarian assistance so people don’t die on Europe’s beaches. At the same time, this question does trouble many people sympathetic to refugees, as it ignores our collective responsibility as one of the world’s leading economies just by virtue of being geographically distant from troubled zones.
The detractors are right in questioning the reasons why refugees to continue their travel even after reaching a safe place. The supporters are correct to question the lack of empathy that asking this question appears to imply.
To take the case of Syria in particular, as we have written previously, refugees have escaped into neighbouring countries since the start of the civil war in 2011. Syria was a fairly well developed country, with industries, large business and profitable trade relationships with many countries. As one would expect, the country had a reasonably wealthy, confident and ambitious middle class. Syria was a Muslim country, but many were progressive. It also had a large percentage of Christians, who have played a significant role in its history.
Many millions of people from this Syrian middle class became either internally displaced, or relocated to sites in Turkey and Jordan that were set up refugee camps. These businesspersons, economists, scientists, computer programmers and artists were forced to give up their careers and comfortable lives, and forced to spend their time in a refugee camp where they were prevented from being economically active and fight for access to food and water.
They gave up their ambition, their hope – after all, they had managed to survive and escape a dangerous war. After several years though, as the exodus from Syria continued, these refugee camps reached bursting point. Many Syrians, those who could afford it, were already travelling to Egypt and from there to Algeria, Libya and Tunisia. Many lived there for several months, or even years, struggling to settle down. In many cases, the local authorities prevented them from working and they found it difficult to educate their children in local schools.
As conditions worsened in Syria and in these host countries, many Syrians started taking greater risks. All humans seek freedom – to practise their religion, to be economically active – these are basic human rights.
So what we are seeing in Europe, or in the UK, are people who fled war, persecution and have, for the past few years, tried to find a place where they can stay, live and achieve their ambitions.
The United Kingdom, being one of the original signatories of the 1951 Refugee Convention, has formally declared its obligation and dedication to supporting people fleeing such situations. So the country must acknowledge the declaration it signed up to and allow refugees to travel to without obstruction.