As a species we are capable of incredible things. We are also equally capable of terrible atrocities. What we cannot afford to forget, what we must not place above one another, is our shared sense of humanity. Each of us are human beings. If we are born in Europe, if we live in a comfortable home, if we can afford to feed ourselves nutritious food; that does not make us more human than anybody else. It makes us lucky; lucky that we were born, by chance, in an environment that allows us to live freer lives without fear of oppressive systems.
Over the past fortnight more than 1,700 people have drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean to reach European shores. The capsized fishing boat last week, in which over 800 people died, only 27 lives were saved.
The total Eritrean refugee population now stands at more than 321,000. Since the start of the Syrian crisis more than 220,000 people have been killed. The numbers are so incomprehensibly large that we cannot picture what that total number of people would look like standing in front of us. We are overloaded with an overwhelming surge of statistics and numbers that our brains understandably find it easier to shut down towards them.
The Home Secretary, Theresa May, and the Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, may well believe that increased search and rescue operations attached to the EU’s Operation Triton would create a “pull factor” which would lead to more deaths as more migrants risk their lives crossing the sea. I understand their position (though I do not agree with viewing refugees as wholly attached to “push and pull” factors), and it saddens me to think that David Cameron has only shifted his stance on the issue towards more pro-relief work off the Mediterranean shores due to a rise in voters viewing the situation as a humanitarian crisis. He may be listening to the will of the people but arguably for the wrong reasons. It seems he is only rotating his stance 180 degrees in order for his party to be re-elected in May, rather than seeing this as a tragedy that requires us to act upon our shared sense of humanity.
There are also the vocal and over-publicised minority that strip these refugees of their humanity by attaching derogatory terms to them. This is not an issue that should be intertwined with the negative immigration rhetoric within our country. These survivors are not risking their lives to reach Europe for a better life: they are doing so for a right to life. It is not a simple issue of sending them back to their own countries or even blindly taking in numbers of people without looking at the cause. The trauma these individuals go through is not relegated just to their countries of origin, it follows them along the perilous land journey to the coast, on unsafe boats packed to bursting and even when they arrive in Europe being placed within detention-like centres.
The solution is not simple or easy and I am by no means suggesting that I could even begin to fathom what can be done to solve this multifaceted problem, though I stand convinced that sticking our fingers in our ears and sending the problem away is not acceptable. Neither is military intervention or throwing foreign aid money at corrupt dictatorships, a diplomatic solution bolstered by our political and financial influence surely has to provide an attainable answer?
But to process the suffering on a more understandable level, I believe the answer lies in viewing these individuals as people and not numbers. Sofia, an Eritrean refugee who has escaped to Cairo, has shared her story in the Guardian. There are disappearances every day, unending conscription into the national service and no freedom of speech or expression. Her world in Eritrea is one consumed by suspicion, corruption and poverty. It is not a desire for people like Sofia to ‘sponge’ off a European state. She sees her life broken down into two distinct choices, “one is to die, the other is to live. If I die at sea, it won’t be a problem – at least I won’t be tortured”.
We hear scare tactics in the media and by politicians that Britain is full and that our future will consist of a continuous decline if we do not stop the flow of immigrants into the country. This rhetoric oozes from the same people that are sheltered by money and a comfortable lifestyle, while an ever increasing number of Britons are falling below the poverty line and individuals like Sofia are fleeing from oppression. Sofia’s future, along with the futures of thousands of refugees and their countries is ever increasingly “fleeing and drowning in the Mediterranean”. Our own future may yet be uncertain, but it is an indisputable fact that if we fail to act and do not try to save lives, then more refugee’s futures will be bound to the bottom of the Mediterranean sea.