The Refugee Crisis: Where to Begin?

In the wake of the recent attacks in Paris and Beirut, anti-refugee rhetoric has continued to grow in the British press and on social media. In this post, GJA Managment Group member, Dr Kasey McCall-Smith, reflects on her recent visit to a refugee camp in Serbia. Dr McCall-Smith is a Lecturer in Public International Law at Edinburgh, and Programme Convenor for the GJA’s LLM in Human Rights.

Many weeks ago, I had the privilege to visit a refugee camp in Belgrade, Serbia. The experience was double-edged because it was harrowing to speak to and move in and among individuals who were fleeing from horrors that I could never personally imagine. At the same time, there was courage among these people who were travelling thousands of miles, away from their homeland, towards an idea. That idea is something that is often hard to define but what I will simply refer to as hope.

In the Syrian man, who had been on the site for two weeks with his twin one-year old daughters and his wife, there was hope for a landing place where he could raise his daughters without fear.

In the Afghani teenagers that had arrived two days prior to myself, there was hope that they would have a chance to live up to their potential and one day return to their home country as engineers or teachers and help build a strong, conflict-free nation.  It is this eternal hope in the face of great diversity that made the experience a profoundly moving one. Particularly when the debate about refugees has become divisive not only in Europe but also across North America.

Many scare-mongering, closed-minded politicians and individuals are blind to the reality that 99.9% of these refugees have witnessed many things that we would never wish upon our worst enemy. One young Afghani man explained to me that he was fleeing his home because many people were being killed daily in his village. When I responded, ‘I know’, he said ‘how?’. How could I know what it was like to see a man, a friend, a family member shot, stabbed or worse right before my eyes? The truth is, I cannot and I do not want to know. To the Syrian whose wife was raped in order to force her to give false evidence against her husband, how could I know the scars that will never heal in either of them? Once again, I cannot.

But what I can do is be part of the solution, rather than part of the problem. I can share the truth that being a refugee or an asylum seeker is not a pursuit embarked upon by choice; it is a long, difficult and, most often, unrewarding road taken when there are no options left. To subject yourself to demonisation simply because of your religion or nationality and lack of options due to forces out with your control is no life anyone would choose. The refugee crisis should not be talked about from a religious perspective or necessarily from a country-of-origin perspective. It is about everyday people who want to watch their children grow into adults, about young adults wanting to become older adults and about the chance to be part of the solution to the problems that have created the crisis in the first place. False-facts and fear-mongering have no place in this debate.

From the comfort of our living rooms, where we can watch the media guide the refugee story line or read the attention grabbing headlines of the Metro, it is easy to pass judgement and reassure ourselves that the refugee crisis has nothing to do with us. There is no simple answer in law, politics or humanity to solve the current crisis. But perhaps if we all take compassion as a common starting point then we will at least have somewhere positive to go, rather than commend the vitriol that seeps from the closed minds of those who are too afraid to remember that many of our privileges have been built on the back of the deliberate suffering we imposed on others who were ‘different’ from us. As for me, I propose we begin with compassion and, just as the refugees I met, live in hope that a lawful, humanitarian solution can be found.