Today marks the 65th anniversary of the 1951 Refugee Convention, the key legal document drawn up after World War Two that defines the term “refugee” and outlines their rights as well as the legal obligations of UN states to protect them. We put out a statement on this historic day that says:
The last time Europe faced challenges of movement on this scale, Churchill and other European leaders signed the landmark Refugee Convention promising to help refugees fleeing war and persecution. Today’s European leaders are ripping it up.
And ripping it up they are. The situation for refugees and migrants in Europe and in many hotspots around the world – their rights and their dignity - is an issue of massive concern for ActionAid. What is being called a ‘refugee crisis’ is in reality a crisis of leadership and a crisis of solidarity and one of mass amnesia. In the last couple of weeks, we have had the good fortune of having a volunteer with us here at the ActionAid EU office in Brussels, an asylum seeker from Syria, who is opening our eyes to the reality of refugees and asylum seekers here in Europe, here in Brussels.
Monaf from Syria has spent the last 2 weeks here working with us, thanks to the efforts of Tandem, a group of pretty fantastic individuals who are (rightly) concerned about the plight of refugees and asylum seekers in Brussels and beyond. Recognising the impact on people of being stuck in a refugee centre, without access to work or education, they have set up this initiative, aimed at restoring their dignity and autonomy through short-term volunteer placements at European-level NGOs. There is value for the host NGOs as they bring their own experience and challenges into EU level NGOs working (or beginning to work) on asylum and migration-related issues.
Monaf is 26, from Syria, an electronic engineer, modest about his English skills, a bit shy at first, very smart. He had started a business very young in his home town, but it got burned down and when he narrowly missed a bullet decided, like millions of others, that it was time to face the reality of leaving or getting shot. He had to leave behind his mother and sisters, but brought his sixteen year old nephew to Belgium. Their story, like many others, is the stuff of films. Horror films. They took massive risks to get here, relying on the goodwill of officers on the border of the Lebanon; being forced at gunpoint to get on a dangerously over-crowded boat in Turkey (they refused and fortunately got on one that made it intact to Greece). There was a lot of waiting. It was very cold in October in Serbia. But they made it.
Look how many times I said ‘forced’ in that last paragraph. Monaf, like many others, didn’t want to come here. And when he arrived, though he was safe, he was faced with the grim reality of isolation from community, from even the idea of being part of something. He says he is fortunate to be in a good centre where relations are peaceful and where they have language teachers volunteering and people coming to drop off food. But ultimately the worst thing is having nothing to do and no real way to be part of it all. That’s where Tandem has come in.
Monaf has helped us by giving his own opinion on what needs to be done to support refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants in Europe and beyond. He joined the crazy world of NGO skype conferences, often a bit like this, but without the suits:
The call brought together ActionAid colleagues from 12 countries – from Somaliland to Australia, Denmark to Bangladesh, the Gambia to Jordan and well beyond. On it Monaf heard a bit about ActionAid’s view of the crisis of solidarity and leadership we are experiencing globally and the alternative solutions to it. That analysis goes like this: the same set of root causes are forcing people to leave their homes around the world: unequal access to opportunities like jobs, education and decision making; the impact of neoliberal economic policies; climate change; conflict and violence. That whilst Europe struggles to ‘respond’ to the crisis i.e. the arrival of people on our doorsteps, few leaders are talking about tackling the root causes as well as Europe’s part in them, as well as the need for a truly global and responsible, long term strategy to guarantee their rights. That this crisis goes far beyond Europe. That people need to have the conditions and the right to remain as well as the right to move. In some cases, like that of Monaf, there is no other way.
Monaf gave his own opinion too: he wants to see a change in the story, in the poisonous narrative around refugees and migrants. He wants the movement of people to be seen as something essentially positive, depending on how it is dealt with. He wants people like him to have a voice, to be recognised, to have their situation understood and he wants to contribute. He is horrified by the violence erupting in Germany and France in the last days and how those incidents will be misconstrued to suggest that all refugees are terrorists. He has had enough of violence. We are eager to help Monaf tell his story, as well as those like him and the many millions who are stuck in situations where their rights are not being respected. A different world is possible and we hope to mark the next anniversary of the Refugee Convention with an entirely different story.
So what is next? Monaf is now waiting for the decision on his asylum application and we are hopeful for him. In the meantime, we will be involving him in training opportunities, interesting events, a Belgian beer or two. This has been such a good experience for ActionAid that I can only recommend other NGOs to contact Tandem and get involved. What are you waiting for?