In response to the worst refugee crisis since World War II, European governments are tightening their borders and preparing to escalate military targeting of so-called human smugglers. But many people within the European Union are modeling a different approach by holding rallies and opening their homes to welcome refugees of war and poverty who survive the perilous journey across the Mediterranean Sea.
Over 20,000 people marched through Vienna on Monday to protest the horrific treatment of refugees, the week after the bodies of 71 people were found in a truck on a highway between the Hungarian border and Vienna. In what was billed as a welcome rally, marchers carried signs which read: "I don't want Europe to be a mass grave." The crowd included numerous parents carrying children and erupted into Austrian pop songs as they were cheered by enthusiastic passersby.
According to media reports, trains carrying refugees from Budapest and Hegyeshalom to Vienna were met Monday with hundreds of people applauding and carrying a banner that read: "Refugees Welcome: Open Borders." Many of the people who greeted the travelers reportedly brought water, bread, and diapers.
Meanwhile, in Iceland, thousands of people have offered their homes to Syrian refugees in response to the Facebook group "Syria is calling," which was started by professor and writer Bryndis Bjorgvinsdottir. "Refugees are our future spouses, best friends, our next soul mate, the drummer in our children’s band, our next colleague, Miss Iceland 2022, the carpenter who finally fixes our bathroom, the chef in the cafeteria, the fireman, the hacker and the television host," states the plea to the government. "People who we'll never be able to say to: 'Your life is worth less than mine.'"
The Berlin-based organization Refugees Welcome is also working to connect people willing to share their homes with refugees in need of shelter. As of Tuesday, over 780 Germans had reportedly signed up and 26 people had been placed. In late August, thousands of people attended a rally to welcome immigrants and refugees in the German city of Dresden, organized by the Anti-Nazi Alliance following violent attacks on refugees.
And across Germany, soccer clubs—many of which are known for welcoming, supporting, and mentoring refugees and immigrants—have displayed banners declaring "refugees welcome" at their matches.
"No one leaves their country, house, or children to suffer. When someone leaves it is because of war and poverty." —Gloria Ekereuwem, Asociación Mujeres Entre Mundos
Many of those organizing support are refugees themselves, like Gloria Ekereuwem, who is originally from Nigeria and currently lives in Seville, Spain, where she works with the group Asociación Mujeres Entre Mundos. "No one leaves their country, house, or children to suffer. When someone leaves it is because of war and poverty," Ekereuwem told Common Dreams over the phone. "That is why people leave. They are looking for peace. If you can offer them that peace, please do it."
The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported in June that one out of every 122 people on the planet is a refugee, seeking asylum, or internally displaced. Displacement has increased four-fold over the past four years, with the conflict in Syria acting as the largest driver of this rise, and surging conflicts from the Central African Republic to Yemen to Ukraine also fueling these grim numbers.
As many have pointed out, wealthy nations including the United States play a disproportionate role in driving war, conflict, and global inequality, yet turn their backs on those who are displaced. Observers have argued that the refugee crisis, in fact, is a creation of the West, given the role of the U.S. and NATO in destabilizing North Africa and the Middle East.
Now, the EU is embracing a "military solution" by advancing plans to target boats transporting refugees. And Hungary is preparing to deploy the army to its borders and has started work on a fence along the border with Serbia to the south in a bid to stem the flow of migrants. Meanwhile, hundreds of refugees are protesting for a second day as Hungary blocks them from boarding trains to other EU nations.
Despite the efforts of some EU residents, many of the more than 300,000 people who have crossed the Mediterranean this year so far have received anything but a warm welcome. More than 2,400 have died in 2015 alone trying to reach Europe, according to the International Organization for Migration. The humanitarian failure of governments is accompanied by racist, anti-immigrant blow-back, from Germany to Hungary.
Ekereuwem of the Asociación Mujeres Entre Mundos argued that closing borders, attacking boats, and cutting off aid will not stem the flow of people fleeing war and poverty: "Everyone has the right to move. We should respect the law of human rights. We should extend our hands to our neighbors."