How the Refugee Crisis Has Already Changed Europe
"One thing is clear: Europe is a different place now."
During the winter of 2014, I worked on a project for the United Nations refugee agency, unhcr, on the Syria crisis. My brief was simple but heartbreaking: I was to focus on the stories of the Syrian refugee women who had lost their husbands because they were either dead or at home fighting. These women were alone with their children in new lands, homeless, with very few possessions or resources. They had trouble enrolling their children in school or even taking them to a doctor. Above all, they were struggling to find a new identity and a way forward.
My team and I interviewed more than a hundred women in Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt, and later I worked on my own with refugees in Turkey and Iraq and with displaced people inside Syria. I always asked them the same questions, and I usually got the same answers: At what moment did you decide to leave your home? What did you take with you? When, if ever, do you think you will go back?
Nearly all of them took the same items: keys to the houses they had left, often with the front doors still open; their passports and important documents; and a few photographs, usually of weddings. The latter were to ensure they did not forget who they really were or lose their true identity once they got to a place they did not really want to be.
As a journalist, I have spoken with refugees all over the world for more than 20 years—starting in Palestine, then the Balkans and Africa, East Timor, Afghanistan, Iraq, and now Syria. In all that time, I don’t think I have ever met any refugees who were satisfied with leaving their country, their life. They all wanted the same thing: to go home.
The women I met also told me their secrets of survival and resilience. Many of them had been simple, poor farmers. How did they pay for the buses that took them away from their beloved country? Their answers haunted me. They sold their wedding gold—the rings or bracelets or necklaces or earrings that they received as dowries or gifts—to pay for food and medicine or a bed for the night.
I was so struck by this image that when I finished my job, I took some of my salary and went to the gold market in Cairo. I bought the heaviest ring I could afford, thinking that wherever I was I would always be able to pay for safe passage for my son and me.
More than a million migrants have made their treacherous way into Europe since 2015, most via Turkey or Albania. The biting cold of winter has not stopped them, nor have the horrific images of the broken child washed up on the Turkish coast: more than 83,000 have voyaged by sea just this year.
One thing is clear: Europe is a different place now. Under the helm of Angela Merkel, who has been a moral authority, Germany has taken more than 476,000 asylum seekers, although estimates of newcomers arriving in the country are closer to a million. Hungary, Sweden, Austria (which capped the number of refugees it would admit), and to a lesser extent the U.K., France, Italy, and Belgium have all received refugees.
I live in Paris and travel frequently throughout the continent by rail and plane. While I have not noticed any quotidian changes, I have noticed an overarching political one. There is an existential crisis facing Europe, which is looking deeply at its own identity and wondering how much its borders can withstand.
As a result, echoes of World War II have entered public discourse, which the right-wing parties have used to manipulate the desperate plight of the refugees in an effort to get more votes. This to me is the most obvious and shocking change. Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban has suggested that the refugees are not welcome in his country because of their religious and cultural background, and has gone as far as saying, “The best migrant is the migrant who does not come.”
He seems to forget that World War II was a fight against such fascist ideology. “All terrorists are basically migrants,” he has said, which played into the hands of France’s extreme-right National Front, led by Marine Le Pen. In Britain, UKIP, an anti-Europe and anti-immigration party, is getting stronger as the country grapples with its own decision about whether or not to leave the European Union. The British press, never subtle, has inflamed the situation by referring to “migrant meltdown.”
This is a political and an economic crisis, but not one that so far has affected travel on the continent—except that you have to present your ID more often, and passport lines at airports move more slowly.
When travelers come here, they will likely not be using the roads or the routes used by the refugees, unless they are headed to the notorious Jungle camp in Calais. Train stations are not more crowded than usual. The Eurostar between Paris and London is the same. The Milan train station, where there were large crowds initially, is manageable. At Budapest’s central station, the source of many disturbing photos a few months ago, trains are running smoothly (though you might encounter—if you look for it, or ask about it—some nasty right-wing sentiment).
Greece, of course, is a different story. Refugees have been living in tents on Kos and Lesbos (along with lots of young humanitarian workers who have arrived in droves). Many are still coming.
The reality in much of Europe is that a traveler might not even see refugees, which in itself speaks volumes. Even those of us who live here sometimes feel sheltered from the crisis, for better or worse. A few weeks ago, a friend in my neighborhood and I were gathering winter clothes and toys for children to bring to a church in the 19th Arrondissement. After many phone calls and e-mails to find the location, we were told we would not be able to enter without a stream of bureaucratic permissions. A friend in London with spare bedrooms recently went to her local council in Hackney to put her name on a list of volunteers willing to host a refugee family. She was thanked, but told that her help was not necessary.
The question of where these displaced people want to go remains. There are 2.5 million of them still on the Turkish coast, and yet Greece and Turkey are, at the moment, only footpaths to get to northern Europe. What can Europe do to absorb them economically? The answer might be to finance the camps where they are now, so that they don’t need to go elsewhere to survive.
I am hoping that, if nothing else, this crisis will awaken a deeper compassion in all of us. Or at least provoke a surge of gratitude in those of us who have the good fortune to be able to travel for joy and pleasure—not out of misery, poverty, or desperation.