European Refugee Crisis – Embracing the Spirit of Volunteering

 

Athanasia Zagorianou, citizens rights watchAthanasia Zagorianou

Master of laws (LLM) in Human Rights Law, University of Strathclyde. Citizens Rights Watch (CRW) Researcher & Trustees’ Council Member & Researcher for the “IWB Refugee Project”

zagorianoua@gmail.com

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 Keith Peter KielyKeith Peter Kiely

PhD in Politics, Queens University Belfast. Issues Without Borders (IWB). Researcher/Peer Reviewer/ Grants Team.

kkiely01@qub.ac.uk 

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Papuc Patricia CasandraPapuc Patricia Casandra

President of Issues Without Borders

patricia_papuc@yahoo.com

www.issueswithoutborders.com

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Abstract: This joint paper was conducted by Issues without Borders (IWB) and Citizens Rights Watch (CRW), non-governmental organisations with aim to raise awareness on the ongoing European refugee crisis, inform the public about the “IWB Refugee Project”, the value of volunteering and ask you to join us and contribute to our efforts towards bringing a positive change and improve the human quality of life.

Keywords: Refugees, Refugee Crisis, Volunteering, Human Rights, European Union, Europe, Collective Action, IWB Refugee Project.

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Introduction

The rising number of people fleeing their countries to avoid war, violence and prosecution and trying to reach Europe seeking for asylum has brought to the surface the European refugee crisis. The refugee crisis has become a major issue of discussion among the European Union’s (EU) member states and Europe in general.   The past 6 months have demonstrated that a new and fresh approach to the problem of refugees is an essential component to the future of the European Union (EU) as we know it. The current ideological and political fragmentation across the EU has identifiable roots and causes. For over half a decade, Europe has struggled to construct a coherent or at least relatable collective Identity. As Carta and Morin (2014:1) point out:

“Waves of enlargement, institutional reforms, social and political unrest, economic and financial instability, both in Europe and in its immediate neighbourhood, have profoundly challenged the meaning and course of the European integration process.”

Perhaps one of the most high profile manifestations of this relatively recent shift in the “meaning” of European integration is the issue of refugees.

           The relative lack of a cohesive European collective identity, along with this change in course in the European integration project, has profoundly impacted the range of probable EU responses to this ongoing problem. Ripples of the recent financial crisis have helped to mould a very specific set of socio-economic and political factors which have seen the crisis deepen to alarming levels. Without knowing what it is, without broad agreement on what exactly it stands for, can the EU collectively solve this issue?

 

European Refugee Crisis, an Overview

With hundreds having lost their lives at sea and as a response to the 2013 tragic Lampedusa migrant shipwreck, where approximately more than 300 people lost their lives, the Italian government initiated the “Mare Nostrum” operation. “Mare Nostrum” was an Italian Naval search and rescue operation aimed to prevent more deaths of immigrant and refugees at sea. Even though the operation had significant results in rescuing lives, in 2014 it ended by the Italian government due to its high cost and the lack of funding and support by other EU member states.

           In 2014, the Mare Nostrum operation was replaced by the “Joint Operation Triton” which established by the EU border Force -Frontex-. However the Operation Triton was focusing mostly on border surveillance and not on saving lives.

           As the International Organization for Migration (IOM) noted “The large majority of deaths in 2014 occurred in the Mediterranean, accounting for an estimated 75 per cent (3,072) of all deaths this year”       (IOM, 2014, p.20).

           Coming from countries plagued by war and violence such as Syria, Afghanistan and Eritrea, daily many risk their lives through this perilous journey either by crossing the Mediterranean or through the Balkans (from Greece to Hungary) in hope for a better future.

IOM’s latest estimates suggest that in 2015 the number of immigrants and refugees that have crossed the Mediterranean and reached Europe is more than 700.000 so far while more than 3.000 are estimated to be missing or dead.

The necessity for immediate response to the refugee crisis has appeared challenging for the EU and Europe in general. And while many states appeared willing to help, others refused and struggled to cope with the ongoing crisis.

Under the Dublin Regulation, which defines the member state that is responsible to provide asylum to a refugee applicant in Europe and obliges that an asylum seeker’s application should be examined only by one state, one can apply for asylum in the first EU member state that he/she will arrive. And, even if the applicant then goes to another country, he/she cannot apply for asylum there but he /she should be sent back to the former country.

Many are those who have criticized Dublin Regulation as flawed supporting that countries such as Greece, Italy and Hungary are considered by immigrants and refugees a gateway to Europe, struggle to cope with the increasing number of asylum applications and have taken the entire EU burden.

With German Chancellor, Angela Merkel stating that “there is no legal limit to refugee numbers” Germany decided to suspend Dublin Agreement for Syrian refugees and process their asylum applications directly.

Even though European countries such as Germany and Sweden shared their responsibility on the refugee crisis and accepted a large number of refugees within their borders, others such as Hungary, FYROM and Slovakia failed to respond properly to their international obligations.

According to Article 33 (1) of the 1951 Refugee Convention:

“No Contracting State shall expel or return (‘refouler’) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social or political opinion”      

Until now, 142 states have signed both the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 protocol. Even though Hungary is one of the 1951 Convention’s signatories, it decided to deal with the flood of refugees by raising a barricade along its southern border with Serbia. In October, Hungary also stated that it would seal off its border with Croatia to prevent the entry of immigrants and refugees. Earlier this year, Slovakia’s handling of the issue raised serious concerns within the international community, with the country refusing to accept non-Christian refugees within its borders. FYROM on the other hand decided to stop the flood of refugees by using violence and through police crackdown.

As Antonio Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees noted in one of his latest statements, “[The] European Union has the capacity to manage the crisis, but implementation of its decision to relocate 160,000 asylum-seekers “has been far too slow,” and reception centers, registration and screening for tens of thousands of people are urgently needed.”

“IWB Refugee Project”: Can we bring a change?

In 2015, the Issues without Borders (IWB) non-governmental organisation initiated the “IWB Refugee Project” with the goal to bring a real change to the issue of refugees across the EU. The project has brought together volunteer researchers from all around the world with aim to conduct 28 reports regarding the situation of refugees, the asylum system and national laws in 28 member-states of the EU.

IWB is determined to document the treatment of refugees in EU countries by deconstructing dominant media caricatures and political sentiments which would seek to in some way justify denying these individuals their human rights. By examining the key factors in each EU member state which impact these socio-economic environments and, which in turn help mould policy and political sentiment, IWB seeks to highlight more than how well member states are aligned with European Union legislation on refugees.

           Our commitment to detailed research means that we endeavour to ask questions which might explain the failure of many member states to live up to their responsibilities and the degree to which the European Union as a whole is treating people that are being in vulnerable and desperate circumstances.

           Our researchers are working hard in examining the quality of life of refugees in their respective countries and how the legal processes in their member state impacts refugees. Further, our researchers speak with refugees, both to those already integrated and those new to Europe, in order to piece together detailed analyses of both the local and Europe wide situation.

           The question of responsibility is not restricted to policymaking but is also about the way in which specific political messages and media outlets exploit, objectify and dehumanise refugees to the extent that they are seen as a problem rather than people. As a research group focused on the issue of refugees in Europe we challenge the construction of crude media representations of refugees which encourage fear, hatred or misunderstanding. Our job is to give a fuller and more complete picture of how and why refugees as human beings entitled to clearly defined rights are being represented and described by those with influential voices in our societies.

           Based on this work IWB will draft a potential new law, which we will register as a petition at the European Commission. After this registration, the work will continue and we will have 1 year to raise 1 million signatures. Once these signatures are raised, the petition will be debated in the European Parliament. Once passed into law, it will be implemented and our team will be part of that implementation process. This project allows young, determined and talented researchers across Europe the opportunity to help shape the future European Identity.

Volunteering? Is this for me?

Individuals, human rights activists, groups and NGOs have united their voices spreading the message of humanity and solidarity. Others by offering their knowledge, language, research skills or food, clothes and emergency supplies and others by opening their homes and hosting refugees have shown us what the value of volunteering really means!

But what does motivate people to become volunteers?

We asked Keith, human rights activist and volunteer researcher for “IWB Refugee Project” to share with us his experience and reasons behind his decision to contribute to the organisation’s cause:

“Several months ago, rushing towards my bus stop in Sofia, I passed a woman begging. Not a rare encounter for anyone, anywhere in the world, sadly. What was rare in this case though was that this particular lady was quite elderly, crouched over and seemed to be very distressed, almost to tears. Despite no physical similarity for some reason she reminded me of my own grandmother when she was weak and reliant on others for assistance towards the end of her life. I cringed at the idea of someone I loved finding themselves in such a situation or circumstance. I began thinking that in all likelihood she was somebody’s mother or grandmother and that while I found an imaginary scenario upsetting that this was a reality for many people. I went back and gave her some paltry amount of money I had in my pocket.

I began thinking not only about what circumstances or events had put that particular woman on that street at that time but also I considered what had made me stop. Obviously, one plausible answer was almost certainly the very human ability to empathise with another, visibly fragile human being, who was having some difficulties. It seems to be true that our own experiences directly affect the degree to which we relate to another person on some basic level and deeply influences our willingness to act in one way or another. On a larger scale, such as working in the areas of politics, activism or social justice, this tendency is deeply intertwined with our desire to identify with a certain set of ideals, or a range of complementary identities.

So then the answer was simple, in the story of who I tell myself I am this was one of a range of possible actions. If anyone ever decides to ask me why I volunteer with IWB, this seems like as good an answer as any.

Undoubtedly, another crucial motivator for me was to work with people within an organization which espouses a perspective which I believe is complementary with my own.”

Once you have decided that volunteering might be something which interests you, it can be difficult to imagine how to go about finding time to do such work. It can be easy to find reasons not to. At various times, each of us have probably felt “I can’t get no” work satisfaction due to the pressures of juggling everyday concerns such as mortgages, cars, bills, family life, and career path development but volunteering work is a unique opportunity to feel as though you contribute towards something positive on a regular basis. There is satisfaction which transcends the individual in working with others towards a goal in a way which you personally see as ethical and which you believe aims to identify solutions to issues which contribute to contemporary human suffering.

 While we may drastically disagree on the causes and solutions to issues of poverty, social justice, gender equality, the refugee crisis or finding peace in the Middle East, the ability to understand and carefully consider an argument with which you disagree is the beginning of insight.

It is helpful to ask ourselves whether or not interacting and exchanging ideas with other people should simply be about some information we put out there or seek to impose on others. Without the ability to also be open to getting something valuable from the exchange, it is obvious that we lose what is essential to the process. By embracing and using this approach, we have the opportunity to gain some new understanding or insight into an issue which lies beyond the limits of our own personal value judgments and experiences.

Conclusion

Images of dead children on the Greek shores and people suffocated in abandoned trucks are daily news all over the media, shocking us and reminding us the value of human dignity, the value of human life. And even though European states’ leaders struggle to manage and act responsibly towards the crisis, people from all around the world have shown compassion by asking the European leaders to take action and by offering their help to those who need it most.In the celebration day of volunteering, IWB and CRW come together to ask you to join us in raising public awareness on the current European refugee crisis and in mobilising and engaging governments and communities to take collective action against human suffering.

We unite our voices and we call everyone who is interested in our cause to join the “IWB Refugee Project” and contribute to our efforts to make a difference on refugee issues throughout Europe.

References

“Europe’s response to migrant crisis is not working, warns UN rights expert” (2015) UN News Centre Available at: http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=51713#.VeWUAPlViko

Davies & Neslen (2014) “Italy: end of ongoing sea rescue mission ‘puts thousands at risk” The Guardian. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/oct/31/italy-sea-mission-thousands-risk

European Commission “European Commission Statement on developments in the Mediterranean” Statement/15/4800, (Brussels, 19 April 2015), Available at: http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_STATEMENT-15-4800_en.htm

Fantz et al (2015) “Genocide’ charged as boat capsizes in Mediterranean” CNN. Available at: http://edition.cnn.com/2015/04/19/africa/italy-migrant-boat-capsizes/

IOM, “Fatal Journeys Tracking Lives Lost during Migration” 2014 Report Available at: http://publications.iom.int/bookstore/free/FatalJourneys_CountingtheUncounted.pdf

UN General Assembly, Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, 28 July 1951, United Nations, Treaty Series, vol. 189, p. 137

UN General Assembly, Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, 31 January 1967, United Nations, Treaty Series, vol. 606, p. 267

UN News Centre (2015) “UN proposes ‘bold and innovative’ measures by Europe to reduce lives lost at sea” Available at: http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=50308#.VTQlk_nF-oM

This article was published on 5th December 2015, for the International VolunteerDay at Global Education Magazine.

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