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Europeans open their hearts, homes to refugees

Vidya Ram London | Updated on January 22, 2018 Published on September 06, 2015

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People’s efforts to help refugees gather pace across the continent



It was just a few weeks ago that Rachel Hattingh Marshall, a mother of five from the south eastern English borough of Thurrock, decided she wanted to do something to help the thousands of refugees who were waiting in camps in Calais.

She got in touch with local organisations and put out a call for sleeping bags, tents and other practical things desperately needed at the camp, as well as starting an online donation site. Since then the group she’s set up – Side by Side – has been inundated with offers of help, and goods, and has raised nearly £9,000 online – far more than she’d ever hoped for, ahead of taking a convoy of cars to Calais.

Though active in her local church community, it’s the first time she’d ever done anything on this scale. “It was just the image of people coming to Calais that really struck me – they are just like me – really suffering terribly. They need to be cared for side-by-side rather than treated like criminals,” she says.

Marshall’s campaign is far from the only one in the UK – with hundreds of groups dotted across the country – from Inverness in northern Scotland to Dover – offering drop off points for supplies to be taken to refugees, and crowd funding initiatives across the country. It’s a similar situation across Europe, where volunteer groups from Spain to Hungary have been collecting goods and funds to support refugees entering the country.

While the continent has been facing one of the biggest challenges in its history as thousands of people desperately flee war zones and conflict to its shores – over 300,000 people crossed the Mediterranean Sea to Europe in the first 9 months of 2015 alone according to UNHCR data – there has been a huge outpouring of humanity across the continent as hundreds if not thousands are taking steps to help in any way they can.

“There are all levels of things going on – from spontaneous local efforts to very coordinated national and international campaigns,” says Alice Jay, campaign director at Avaaz, the 42 million strong international campaigning community, which has been coordinating many support initiatives and petitions across Europe.

The support has gone beyond donations of money and items such clothing or tents, and social media solidarity groups (of which there are now dozens on websites such as Facebook).

In Germany, Fluchtlinge Willkommen “Refugees Welcome”, an initiative launched just months ago to help refugees find accommodation in private homes, has taken on a life of its own, with hundreds of Germans signing up to offer accommodation in their home.

An online initiative to provide refugees with the most basic general, medical and judicial vocabulary needed, launched by Berlin Refugee Help, has built up contributions from an online community in over 28 languages, with hopes that it can be printed and distributed widely soon. In Greece, METAdrasi has been building up a network of volunteers to help unaccompanied children who reach Greek islands and are unable to make it to the mainland without a guardian.

Last week hundreds of Austrians joined a campaign group volunteering to help Syrians stranded in Hungary to make the journey to Vienna by car.

People to people

“We’ve seen people donate in crises before but this is not just about people donating money, they are opening their homes – it seems to be something quite different and not necessarily organised through major charities. This is something happening from people to people,” says Hannah Jones, assistant professor of Sociology at Warwick University.

The extraordinary peoples’ efforts across Europe have largely been in contrast with those of European governments, whose approach to the crisis has often been infighting, and a refusal to shoulder responsibility. Among the worst offenders has been Hungary where last week Prime Minister Viktor Orban warned refugees against coming to his country. He insisted the country did not want large numbers of Muslims coming in. And in Britain just last week Prime Minister David Cameron insisted that taking more refugees was not the answer to the crisis.

“David Cameron and [Home secretary] Teresa May’s disgraceful portrayal of ‘marauding migrants’ hasn’t really been challenged by the political and media establishment in a meaningful way…now people feel that narrative is no longer appropriate but are left with little faith in the institutions,” says Avaaz’s Jay.

While the current outpouring of support appears to contrast with public opinion towards immigration more widely – polls have repeatedly appeared to show support for tougher immigration policy – it’s not necessarily, so simple, argues Jones. Qualitative research in particular has suggested public opinion is and has been far more nuanced than simple statements for or against immigration, she says.

“This seems to have taken the government by surprise – that empathy overtakes numbers… The government’s advisers have been telling them that people wanted a tougher line on immigration…but when people see a human face to the crisis they want to help.”

Policy impact

The big question will be whether the tide of public opinion will impact policy. A key date will be September 14 when home affairs ministers from the EU’s 28 member states are set to hold emergency talks in Brussels on the refugee crisis. Issues such as obligatory national quotas for refugees and asylum seekers to prevent European nations from shirking from their humanitarian obligations is likely to be on the agenda, as well as the future of the Dublin system, which requires the first country an asylum seeker arrives in Europe to take responsibility for them.

In Britain, a petition called for the country to take a proportionate number of refugees has already garnered over 410,000 signatories – well above the 100,000 needed to trigger a parliamentary debate on the issue, while a demonstration in central London is set to take place on September 12 in central London.

Cameron has been forced to back down on his bullish comments, now saying that Britain would provide settlement for thousands more Syrian refugees.

There are also hopes that initiatives at the local government level – often prompted by public lobbying – could help weaken the argument of national governments that the country can take no more refugees. In Spain for example, the radical Mayors of Barcelona and Madrid have been championing an initiative to create a network of cities where people are able to register to provide housing to migrants.

In Britain a number of councils, including Glasgow and Birmingham, have begun to do the same, in the face of heavy public lobbying.

“It’s a magical movement across Europe of people tapping into their deepest humanity and consciousness and connections and realising how the tragedy and suffering of other people is our pain too,” says Jay. “The key will be focusing this energy on very clear political asks of our leaders and demanding a refugee policy for the 21st century.”

(This is the second in a series on Europe’s migrants crisis.)

Published on September 06, 2015
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