Miriyam Aouragh salutes solidarity initiatives from below that counter the racist border policies of our rulers.
“I’m happy to look after children, take them to kindergarten, school and wherever they need. I can cook for people and show them friendship and warmth. I can pay the airfare for one small family. I can contribute with my expertise and assist pregnant women with pre-natal care.”
(An Icelander, posting on site ‘Dear Eygló Harðar – Syria is calling’)
For weeks we have seen people driving cars loaded with food and clothes to Calais and requests on social media asking us to contribute to help refugees stranded, prevented entry by one of the richest countries in the world. It’s important to remember and remind everyone around us that only a very small number make it to Europe – in fact the overwhelming majority are taken as refugees in the region itself, though many perish along the way.
These campaigns are grassroots and have epitomised the growing LET-THEM-IN! sentiment. For many, this demand has become increasingly urgent as images of suffocating families stuck in trucks trying to cross the borders and now the inhuman images of children bodies washed up on beaches and horrifying stories of refugees having to see their loved ones die as their vessels drift at sea, have all been added on top of previous harrowing incidents.
Especially the devastating disasters of sinking boats and shifts that have so far caused the death thousands of people – many ending on the bottom of the sea or in the stomachs of sharks – left a mental scar. Not to mention the awareness of thousands of nameless people who perish in the desert or are imprisoned and beaten by the gendarmeries of the selectively befriended states in North Africa or Eastern Europe – our European states reserve a special love for those who prevent people reaching us. Though Arab states carry a fair amount of this blame too, especially in the case of stateless Palestinian refugees who cannot even flee through their borders. It is precisely because these are not ‘incidents’ but structural problems that many of us can’t stand the old feel-good-ism of some commentaries. But some of the anger about these tragedies in the face of the outright hypocrisy is very real: its demand for humanitarian help is neither abstract nor guilt-tripping. Being flooded by news about ISIS on a daily base, yet seeing that many of the very people that are in fact double refugees – not only escaping these terrorists but also the terror barrel bombings by Assad’s regime –makes no sense.
Hence, these campaigns have come off in different countries – Britain, Netherlands, Germany, Austria – and are growing. Is this a rift in European consciousness regarding refugees? Something significant is going on: as if the cliché images of fathers crying or children quarrelling with border police have actually helped set in motion a parallel, people-managed, policy: one that decided to accommodates the huge migration flow and its crises situations on its own terms. While one way we could read the widely spread images depicting tragedy (such as the man holding a child and himself crying with wide open-mouth) would be as a form of media-porn, as the typical depoliticising victimhood framing; another would be to see the proliferation of this on social media as an opportunity that many are grabbing in pure desperation, sharing these with the last bits of hope that the deafening silence and maddening inactivity can be shaken up. And maybe, just maybe, all of this has added one way or another to the recent politicisation and self-activity. After all, some people are now taking matters in their own hands to rescue those drifting between continents.
There is a risk that humanitarian initiatives depoliticise political matters. Certainly, we will have to keep the debates political and argue for solidarity and political engagement with the struggles and policies that are responsible for these massive human flights. We will not let neither our own governments nor that of Assad off the hook and we will remember who or what caused these catastrophes in the first place. But this eruption of mass-relief activism and humanitarian politics manifests a genuine engagement that will help increase that necessity rather than limit it. This is why it is important not to demoralise ourselves by seeing everything through the prism of ‘white guilt’ when white Europeans rescue brown people at sea—it is not Angelina Jolie but working class peoples from varied multicultural and demographic backgrounds that are leading these campaigns. Here also lies the potential to link the events in Calais with the racist and economic hegemony in Britain. And we should not fall in the trap of analysing everything through a geopolitical lens either: this only obfuscates reality.
The unique case from Iceland where 11,000 ordinary people offered their homes and the help to pay for the journey, in response to the existing policy that blocks entry is very symbolic. This is a million times more uplifting than the tiresome ‘DONTBOMBSYRIA’ slogans that is increasingly becoming the sound of a stubborn anti-war left who is not willing to accept that our states are not enthusiastic about any war with the regime anyway while Assad himself has no qualms continuing his war on the Syrian people. This would have been clearer had these organisations actually been listening to Syrian activists themselves. This part of the left therefore lags behind the everyday rage of ordinary people about the impact here, on our own doorstep.
And imagine what all those Icelanders will be talking about with their new Syrian, Palestinian, Yemeni, or Kurdish friends at their kitchen tables and living rooms, what they will be learning, how it will make us all more politically engaged people who together will be connecting those dots; imagine what it will mean for all our political struggles when we join forces and dots. There is nothing depoliticised about this: on the contrary, this is what we mean by politics from below.