Vidya Ram

Addressing Europe’s empathy deficit

| Updated on: Aug 19, 2015
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Perhaps, the greatest hope for the continent lies in widespread acts of individual compassion

Reports of the warm welcome that Sven Latteyer, the driver of the No 286 bus in the Bavarian city of Erlangen, gave to a group of asylum seekers who boarded his bus grabbed headlines in Germany and beyond in the past few weeks.

According to reports, he announced over the bus microphone: “Excuse me, ladies and gentlemen, from all over the world in this bus — I want to say something. I want to say welcome. Welcome to Germany, welcome to my country. Have a nice day.”

His simple but pointed message went against the grain of much of what has been happening in Europe, and particularly in Germany, where a spate of anti-refugee and asylum-seeker sentiment has been causing grave concern.

Government apathy

In the first half of the year the German federal government recorded over 200 attacks, including arson, against properties housing asylum seekers, as well as a sharp rise in personal attacks against asylum seekers themselves.

The crisis has triggered a massive debate in one of Europe’s most prosperous and stable countries, which receives the largest asylum applicants in the region (in 2014 over 200,000 people, largely from Syria, Serbia and Eritrea applied for asylum in Germany, against 64,000 in France and just under 32,000 in Britain, while 40 per cent of the 184,000 people who applied for asylum in Europe in the first quarter of this year applied to Germany).

It’s a situation that seems to have fazed even Chancellor Angela Merkel, usually able at handling crises with aplomb.

Her reaction during a television show to a sobbing teenage asylum seeker whose family was set to be deported — “You’re right in front of me now and you’re an extremely nice person. But you also know in the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon are thousands and thousands and if we were to say you can all come,” she told the girl — gained much criticism and attention in Germany. (The girl was eventually allowed to stay in the country.)

Shutting the door

Europe’s response to the migration crisis has varied hugely between nations.

Some governments such as France have sought to distinguish between refugees and asylum seekers and those it considers “illegal” economic migrants, insisting that while it will create shelter for over 11,000 asylum seekers and refugees it will continue to crack down on others.

Austria meanwhile has courted criticism over a dehumanising “deal” it had struck with Slovakia to move 500 asylum seekers to the country to help Austria cut costs (the deal eventually fell apart earlier this month after the Slovak town vote rejected the deal in a local referendum).

When it came to power, the Greek government promised a radical overhaul of its immigration and asylum system, including the end of detention centres.

Among the most concerning has been Britain’s response, where Prime Minister David Cameron earlier this month warned of a “swarm” of migrants attempting to break into the country from France, insisting they were doing so purely for economic reasons — a point firmly rejected by non-governmental organisations.

“We are in danger of shutting our hearts to the desperation of the people pleading at the door, refugees not economic migrants,” wrote Justin Forsyth, chief executive of Save the Children in a recent blog posting.

Some media coverage of the crisis has been equally concerning — portraying desperate attempts by some to enter Britain from Calais as a form of “invasion” and a threat to national security.

Handling refugees

Europe’s handling of the situation raises some important points.

Firstly, it has become clear through the crisis that economic conditions have little to do with a country’s willingness to support those in need.

The second is the gaping holes the crisis has revealed in the European project — while refugee organisations and some governments have been pressing for a more cooperative European approach to ensure that the costs of supporting refugees do not fall on the shoulders of just a few countries, their efforts have been strongly resisted by countries such as Britain.

The full consequences of a lack of cooperation are likely to become apparent in the next few months with a sharp rise in those seeking asylum.

An estimated 21,000 people arrived on the shores of Greece from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq in the past week alone, according to UNHCR figures, putting a huge strain on a country already deeply under pressure.

Refugee crises have never had an easy solution: India has of course had to deal with refugee crises several times in its history — the arrival of Tibetan refugees during the 1950s, and an estimated 10 million refugees in 1971 alone during the Bangladesh Liberation War.

While its track record has been mixed — “I am just going to send them back” Indira Gandhi told a group of journalists at the time, making it clear that the refuge provided to those fleeing the war was not permanent though, at the same time, she stressed that their return would happen in “safety and dignity”, a far cry from much of the language deployed in the discussions in Europe. Perhaps the greatest hope for Europe lies in individual actions — stories of communities and individuals stepping forward to welcome those seeking refuge.

Pro-refugee rallies in cities from Prague to Berlin, to a German startup that encourages people to offer accommodation in their own homes to asylum seekers, or the Bavarian bus driver, have begun offering a stopgap to Europe’s empathy deficit.

Published on January 23, 2018

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