Why I swam across the Mediterranean in solidarity with refugees

Turkey refugees drowned. (AP)

Turkey refugees drowned. (AP)

Last Friday, I swam from Turkey to Greece in solidarity with the refugees who are making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean into Europe. I crossed from Kaş, a Turkish resort town where European tourists flock in the summer, into Greek waters near Kastellorizo, a Greek island 5km kilometres off the coast of Turkey. The crossing is near where many refugees have crossed the Mediterranean in recent months. The situation here is tense. Earlier in August, refugees were locked in a stadium on Kos and the Greek government sent riot police to deal with refugee protests.

So why did I do this swim? I was motivated, first, by a deep concern that thousands of people are drowning off the coast of Italy and Libya, being tear-gassed in Macedonia, blocked by razor wire on the Hungarian border. I am concerned that many European governments are responding with force to people who have risked everything for the sake of survival.

Many have faced brutal conflict in Syria or repressive governments in Eritrea. I talked with a Syrian refugee in Berlin who described getting on a small, overloaded boat in the Aegean last August. He left at midnight, and during the crossing the boat filled with water and there was no way of bailing it out. Those on board were saved by Greek authorities. Thousands of others have not been so fortunate.

I am also driven by my own research on the evolution of global refugee and migration governance. In times of great need for Europe, the rest of the world was willing to take European refugees and migrants. Let’s rewind 70 years, when Europe was devastated by war and had massive refugee populations. What did the world do? In 1950, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was created and the Refugee Convention was established the following year; thousands of European refugees were then accepted on to the soil of other states. 

These institutions oblige states to offer protection and assistance to refugees. A lesser-known fact: the Refugee Convention was meant only for refugees fleeing persecution in European countries; it was created to help Europe. In fact, it was only in 1967 that the limited geographic scope was removed and people from Africa, Asia and the Americas could also be considered refugees. Today, the Refugee Convention legally obliges Europe to offer protection and assistance to all those entering its territory. Refugees cannot be returned to their country of origin.

After the second world war, Latin America, North America, Australia and New Zealand also accepted European migrants. In 1951 the US established what became the International Organisation for Migration, which helped people migrate from southern Europe to Australia and the Americas. In fact, European migrants have for centuries benefited from being able to move offshore. 

In the 19th and 20th centuries, waves of migrants left the United Kingdom, Ireland, Italy, Spain and Greece. Some fled persecution or famine – think of the millions of Irish people who emigrated after the potato famine. Some looked for better job opportunities in cities from Sydney to Chicago. What is overlooked in current debates is how much Europe benefited from the creation of global refugee and migration institutions after the war and the openness of other countries to accept refugees and migrants. Europe should do the same today.

I am driven by a hope that those of us living in Europe will view refugees as beneficial to society. European leaders should view this “crisis” as an opportunity to benefit from refugees’ skills. Europe needs workers, skilled and unskilled (migrants and refugees often do the jobs that no other locals want to do), and the people coming to Europe today have many assets. Research suggests that migration generally has a positive effect on economic growth.

The Syrian refugee I met in Berlin had studied English literature and was planning to pursue tertiary studies at Wing’s, which offers online university courses free to refugees . His brother is a dental technician and last week began working in Berlin.

My swim from Turkey to Greece was only a few kilometres long, and nothing compared to the distance, uncertainties and challenges that many refugees face on their way to Europe. European leaders should realise that refugees are far from being just a burden to taxpayers, but bring great benefits. European governments also have a legal and moral responsibility to assist refugees. They are legally obliged to do so by the Refugee Convention and by the historical record. Europe and its people once benefitted enormously from others’ openness – now it’s time European leaders stopped using force, opened up Europe’s borders, and all of us living in Europe welcomed refugees. – © Guardian News & Media 2015



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