Solidarity Saturday: DIYism and refugees – because we can’t wait for governments to come around

In the aftermath of the international outrage over the drowning of three members of the Kurdi family, along with hundreds of fellow refugees seeking safety and an end to their own personal wars, a metric tonne of ink has been spilled on the question of whether our government is doing enough to address the massive international refugee crisis, particularly with respect to Syrian and Iraqi refugees.

While Prime Minister Harper insists that not only are we doing a lot for refugees, we’re punching way above our weight, so to speak, the facts indicate otherwise, pretty incontrovertibly. The NDP has called for Canada to accept ten thousand Syrian refugees by the end of this year, and Justin Trudeau, not wanting to be outdone ever, promptly piped up to pledge that a Liberal government would bring in 25 000.

Responses from governments across the West vary widely, from Hungary’s neo-Nazi Gestapo tactics to Germany’s (relative) generosity – Germany projects it will receive at least 800 000 asylum seekers this year alone. Germany’s position is, however, tainted by the EU’s response as a whole. When public concern over the refugee crisis flared up earlier this year in the aftermath of another boat sinking in the Mediterranean, this one carrying over 700 people, the EU’s official response, after a hurried conference of prime ministers and presidents, was to declare war on migrant boats:

The European Union is planning to take military action against refugee transport networks in the Mediterranean, according to leaked documents published by Wikileaks Monday.

“The documents lay out a military operation against cross-Mediterranean refugee transport networks and infrastructure,” Wikileaks said in a statement.

“It details plans to conduct military operations to destroy boats used for transporting migrants and refugees in Libyan territory, thereby preventing them from reaching Europe,” the whistle-blower website summarized.

In other words, the EU didn’t want to have to deal with ongoing controversies about their heartlessness towards refugees in the aftermath of repeated boat sinkings which were killing hundreds – so they figured they’d solve the problem by taking out the boats and avoiding the headlines altogether.

To say that this approach is lacking in compassion is a massive understatement.

It also underestimated the desperation of refugees, who are in most cases fleeing states which are collapsing in the aftermath of/as a direct consequence of Western intervention. As the words of a suddenly-widely-quoted poem boomingly point out, “No one puts their children in a boat/unless the water is safer than the land”. (And seriously, if you’ve read the quote but not the poem…you should read the poem.)

And so the refugees keep coming, packed into the flimsiest of dinghies, boats which persist in slipping under the Mediterranean, drowning hundreds, and still people judge the risk to be worthwhile. And I don’t know what they know, and I haven’t seen what they’ve seen, and I can only conclude that they’re right, that the risk is worthwhile, because truly, what parent would herd their children onto a boat like the one in this picture (look at their hopeful faces!) and set out for unknown shores with only what they can carry on their bodies unless it was the best option available?

So what are compassionate people in the West to do, faced with government responses ranging from indifference to outright xenophobia?

One solution that some have turned to is to help these people themselves.

And let’s be real – it would be lovely if governments around the world were to wake up tomorrow and come to their senses on this question, to suddenly find compassion and love in their hearts, to take decisive action to end these wars and help those affected by them – but we all know that’s not too bloody likely.

So concerned folks and organizations are left with the option of doing what they can.

So for instance we see Medicins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders/MSF) rescuing over a thousand people in the Mediterranean in a single day earlier this week – and shouting loudly to anybody that will listen that these refugees need and deserve safer and legalized routes to Europe. We seen Icelanders volunteering space in their own homes by the thousands after their government’s inadequate announcement that the country could only take in fifty refugees. We see the Sanctuary City movement organizing in cities internationally, unwilling to wait any longer for federal governments to end the inhumane and reprehensible deportation regime. We see doctors literally picketing in protest of the government’s appalling decision to deny health care to refugees (and no doubt providing some pro bono health care if/when they can).

These DIY efforts are not the solution, obviously. MSF can’t rescue all the sinking boats, and generous Icelanders can’t house all the refugees. But the difference they make to those who are saved, those who are housed, those who do live in Sanctuary Cities, is incalculable, and the momentum that these actions build towards a more just and open world is massive.

So by all means let’s press our politicians to do more to help the world’s refugees – but let’s not forget that there’s likely more that we can do ourselves, right now, today, whether it’s helping those already in our communities or working to assist those who are trying to come here.

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