We live in a small world where budget airlines and satellite television have helped turn our world into a global village. However to many of us, the daily explosions that rock Syria and Iraq might as well be taking place on a far-away planet. We know the horrors of every-day life in Syria are but a few hours away from the economic centers of London and Paris or the bustling markets of Dakar and Nairobi. But somehow these problems, because they are happening over there, remain for the most part ignored as we go about our lives relatively unperturbed.
We live in a world where Facebook and Face-Time render border checkpoints and visa requirements obsolete as they connect people from different corners of the Earth. But apparently only when it is convenient. When it isn’t so convenient we would like to pretend that Damascus and Berlin are a million miles away. Businessmen turned politicians lay out their plans to literally build walls to separate ‘our’ country from others in order to keep the problems out. And we are able to continue believing the fantasy that the problems in one part of the world are only their problems and not ours.
But for a brief spell I felt hope that recent events might be forcing us to think differently. Last September, the shocking image of a three year old child lying lifeless on a Greek beach drew our collective attention to the influx of refugees and migrants arriving in Europe from the Middle East and other parts of the world. In a very short amount of time, tens of thousands of refugees and migrants from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan arrived in Europe, passing freely through several European borders on their journey. Some European citizens trudged out to train stations to welcome them as they arrived, offering them food, drink and a warm smile. Others less graceful, shook their heads and took to social media to complain about the beginning of the end of European identity. But either way, whether these refugees were greeted with a smile or with scorn, Syria’s troubles were no longer a world away. The casualties of Assad’s regime and Daesh’s brutality had arrived at Europe’s doorstep.
I hoped that the increased news coverage and social media chatter that this brought about would translate into an increase in solidarity and empathy for the plight of these refugees. And the initial response I saw was encouraging. In September 2015 Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel committed to welcome 800,000 refugees and migrants in 2015 alone. Articles appeared on the internet about ordinary citizens opening up their homes to asylum seekers and websites were set up to match those willing to share their homes with refugees needing a place to stay. When I saw so many people passing freely through the borders on their way to Germany and Austria and heard these heartwarming stories of how they were being welcomed, I allowed myself to believe that we might just be witnessing the beginning of something special. That perhaps the façade of a divided world was stripping away to reveal the truth that all of our walls, borders and differences do nothing to negate the fact that we are one humanity- no matter where in the world we may be from.
But it didn’t take too long for all of this optimism to fade. Right wing leaders soon pounced on the opportunity to demonize and vilify the refugees in order to score cheap political points. Fences went up and border checks points were reinstated. The public mood towards the refugees soured over the New Year’s Eve festivities as reports arose that the perpetrators of the Cologne sex assaults were of North African and Middle Eastern origin. And finally a few days ago the Danish parliament voted to approve a plan to confiscate assets from arriving refugees following similar legislation in Switzerland. The fact that these two nations with such strong humanitarian legacies would approve this unfair legislation demonstrates better than any other incident the shift in public sentiment towards refugees and migrants.
The hope that arose at the peak of the crisis drowned as quickly as the thousands who lost their lives at sea trying to get to Europe. It appears that the artificial barriers that exist in people’s hearts and minds separating ‘us’ from ‘them’ remain even more impermeable than the walls, fences and borders that divide nations. And it remains unclear what it would take to change this.