The European Empathy Crisis

Europe’s moral conscience was shaken last September, by the tragic image of three-year-old  Aylan Kurdi’s body upon a Turkish beach. His death was a poignant reminder of the hardships faced by refugees in their quest for safety, begging the question… where is the humanity in Europe’s response to the refugee crisis?

Forced displacement due to conflict, violence and persecution is at an all-time high, and according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) over one million refugees and migrants* risked the deadly Mediterranean crossing to reach Europe by sea in 2015. Half of them were Syrians fleeing the ruthless Assad regime and ISIS brutality, one in five had come from war-torn Afghanistan, while others were escaping on-going conflict in Iraq, as well as enslavement and torture in Eritrea.

Due to rising tensions and poor encampment conditions in local refugee-hosting nations – including Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt, among others – many were compelled to seek safety elsewhere, in Europe. Sadly though, despite their bravery, at least 3,735 of those who attempted to cross the Mediterranean are believed to have drowned en route. Scale-backs in support for search and rescue operations, and a failure to crack down on illegal people smuggling, will surely result in further preventable casualties at sea in the coming year.

Europe may be considered a haven of hope and protection for incoming refugees and migrants, but all too often they are faced with further suffering upon their arrival. Amnesty investigations have revealed appalling detainment conditions, as well as the abusive treatment of refugees and migrants along the Western Balkans route, from Greece through to Hungary.

Overcrowded and underfunded immigration detention centres in Greece are sheltering thousands of people in unsanitary and unsafe conditions, while police at the Greek-Macedonian border have physically and verbally abused refugees – including children and the elderly.

Further along the route, Hungarian authorities recently constructed a razor-wire fence along their border with Serbia, where riot police have fired tear gas and water cannons at refugees and migrants. Female refugees have also faced assault and sexual harassment throughout their travels, at the hands of people smugglers, security officials and fellow refugees.

Furthermore, the tightening of border restrictions along the Western Balkans route has fuelled an increase in illegal push-backs and deportations, directly violating the Non-Refoulement principle that prohibits the forced return of refugees to circumstances that endanger their human rights. 

For those who are eventually granted legal entry and residence in Europe, their struggle is by no means over: integrating into a foreign society is a challenge in itself. Language barriers can complicate basic activities like shopping, making friends, navigating public transport and helping children with homework – not to mention applying for jobs and housing (and avoiding financial exploitation by employers and landlords).

On top of these practical challenges, refugees often struggle with the psychological impacts of uprooting their lives; leaving behind friends and promising careers, and adapting to a new culture, can lead to feelings of loneliness and identity loss, with anti-foreigner discrimination making life even more difficult. 

The harsh realities encountered by refugees and migrants might be difficult for us to imagine or relate to, but we mustn’t turn a blind eye to their inhumane treatment at many European borders (with the exception of Germany!) – we must demand more of our authorities to protect their safety and to promote inclusion.

These are people who have fled unthinkable violence and tyranny, and to greet them with further abuse and discrimination is shameful. A staggering 86% of the world’s refugees are hosted by developing countries, which have far less wealth and resources to expend than European nations; in light of this, Amnesty is calling upon European leaders to step up their collaborative efforts, to provide safer, legal routes into Europe, and to improve and scale-up resettlement and integration programmes. 

the term ‘migrant’ refers to both asylum seekers who are fleeing violence and have yet to be legally recognised as refugees, and to economic migrants who are seeking employment and a better standard of living.

Written by Amy Simon

This article is part of a Journal series, ‘Refugee Crisis’

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