Europe is experiencing unprecedented mass migration of asylum seekers at a rate not seen since WWII. The Mediterranean, besides the Balkans, has become the primary site of a great exodus from Africa and the Middle East to Europe.
According to the July 1st press release of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) entitled “Mediterranean Crisis 2015 at Six Months: Refugee and Migrant Numbers Highest on Record”, so far 137,000 have crossed the Mediterranean this year alone, with refugees from Syria, Eritrea and Afghanistan topping the list as the majority of asylum seekers.
Melissa Fleming, Chief of Communications and Spokesperson at UNHCR, tweeted on July 30th the latest statistics on the Mediterranean crisis, which has seen an increase within the month of July to a total amount of 198,500 refugees and migrants. Further, since January, over 2,000 migrants and refugees have perished crossing the Mediterranean.
The month of April was particularly tragic, when a ship overcrowded with refugees launched from Tripoli capsized, causing over 800 deaths. By the end of April alone the total of deaths amounted to 1,308. The Mediterranean has become a “cemetery in the words of Pope Francis.
The United Nations consider this great exodus of refugees from Africa and the Middle East a “tragedy of epic proportions”. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said recently that “the migration question we are facing is the biggest challenge for the European Union that I have seen during my time in office”, which is a remarkable comment in light of the current fiscal crisis of the monetary union of the eurozone and the threat of Grexit. The identity and solidarity of the European Union is what is again at stake.
Clash Between European Principles and the Reality of the Refugee Crisis
Key concepts such as ‘principles’, ‘obligations’ and ‘responsibility’ are thrown around in public debate, conveying the underlying cosmopolitan attitude behind the speech of official European administration. Antonio Guterres, who is the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, says that “Europe has a clear responsibility to help those seeking protection from war and persecution,” and that “to deny that responsibility is to threaten the very building blocks of the humanitarian system Europe worked so hard to build.”
And Nils Muiznieks, who is the commissioner of human rights for the Council of Europe, has argued in The New York Times that, “the values of tolerance, acceptance and solidarity have defined the European project. We cannot abandon them now, over this.” Muiznieks admits that “Managing migration is not an easy task, but from its position of privilege, Europe must not use this difficulty as an excuse to trample on our obligations to protect those who flee wars and persecution. It is a matter of principle that defines our identity, which we must not betray.”
But is this cosmopolitan sentiment commonplace among the public? What is the common opinion among the people of the EU regarding the refugees from outside the EU?
The German Marshall Fund found in 2014 that across ten European countries, that six in ten of those European countries “disapprove of their government’s handling of immigration”, and that over half or more of the people in those countries are “worried” about the current influx of immigration, with the exception of Poland (which stands at a close 40%) and Sweden (27%). In particular, Greece and Italy, where migration has hit the hardest, “are the most likely to be concerned.”.
In addition, the Pew Forum found in 2015 that in seven EU countries (Greece, Italy, France, Spain, Poland, UK, and Germany), “very few wanted to seen an increase in the flow.” Is there a disconnect between what the officials plead for in the name of a principle and what the public wants?
Take Germany, for instance, which anticipates at least 400,000 asylum seekers this year. The German news magazine Der Spiegel recently asked the question: “so what is the state of the nation really?” Its answer: “when it comes to refugees, it’s a state of anxiety.”
One can argue that the growing number of arsons against refugee housing centers in Germany attest to this European anxiety. The German Marshall Fund puts Germany at 51% in support of the “disapproval” and “worry” of immigration from those outside of the EU.
And the Pew Research Center shows that although Germans generally are less prone to see migrants as a “burden” to their society – what Der Spiegel calls the ‘new welcoming culture’ of Germany– it is also true that 59% of Germans believe that immigrants from outside the EU “want to be distinct from our society”, or in other words, the immigrants are viewed as not wanting to ‘integrate’.
The authors of Der Spiegel are left wondering whether the incoming influx of refugees from those outside the EU will “put Germany’s new welcoming culture to the test. Can it endure? Can it survive?”. This remains yet to be determined.
Italian Refugee Center Goes Against the Current
The situation in Italy, where I recently worked at a center for refugees, is also quite challenging. Approximately 83, 000 immigrants have reached Italy this year. Italian public opinion regarding the immigrants can be summed in the comment of Lorenzo Lambardi, mayor of Campo nell’Elba: “local governments are being asked to help out the state at a time when we can’t give services to our own citizens.”
Protests abound, such as those from the political party ‘Northern League’ that is growing in strength by feeding on anti-immigration sentiment, as well as protests from the migrants themselves, as seen in the border dispute of Ventimiglia.
However, in the historical center of Rome, a witness to hope, hospitality and solidarity stands at the Joel Nafuma Refugee Center, which is an outreach of St. Paul’s Within the Walls Episcopal Church. The JNRC offers a broad range of services during the daytime to refugees.
I had the privilege of working at JNRC for the past 3 months teaching English and distributing clothing supplies. The majority of the hundreds of refugees served at the JNRC are Muslim, which makes it a testament to inter-religious solidarity between Christians and Muslims. D uring my work there I had the fortune to become good friends with Rakin, a refugee from Afghanistan, and one of the most inspiring people I have ever met.
Rakin, who has written a telling autobiography, was a psychologist and author who had written books condemning the Taliban. He lived a happy life with his family in his home in Afghanistan.
Then my life changed drastically. I was kidnapped for money. The kidnappers called my family and threatened to kill me if my family didn’t pay them. More than then ten times, the kidnapers sent pictures and videos of the beating and torturing me, to my family. After four months, I escaped.
Rakin’s kidnappers would go on to kill eventually his father and all his brothers and sisters, leaving only his mother alive. His mother convinced him to flee to Europe. He eventually landed in Rome. Yet life at his reception center in the outskirts of Rome has neither been congenial nor humane to Rakin. “I never imagined that I would face such problems in Europe. I always thought of Europe as supporting human rights and equality.”
Rakin eventually discovered the JNRC, and the hospitality offered to him brought him peace. “I know that this center is my home and these people are my family. I no longer feel alone.”
Rakin observed that, “in this center, Muslims and Christians eat, play and work together. Everyone welcomes newcomers as human beings, not according to religion, race or ethnicity.”
The plea of Muiznieks towards responsibility, principles, obligation and a common humanity is met in the outreach of the faith based JNRC. Rakin currently works for the Artisans Together Project at the JNRC, and still has hope of resuming his career as a psychologist and writer.
Rakin writes: “the Christians that I found at the JNRC helped make me alive when I was a dead person. Still a practicing Muslim, I underwent nothing short of a miracle, to find myself again. I was dead, but when I found this church and center that welcomed me as a stranger, I was given life again. Alhamdulillah! Or, as you might say in English, All praise is due to God alone!”
Joshua Ramos is an ABD doctoral student in the joint program for religious studies at the University of Denver and the Iliff School of Theology. His articles have appeared in Political Theology Today, The Other Journal, and The Encylopedia of Sciences and Religions. He has been a Young Scientists fellow at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Vienna, and recently completed several months of work and study on a special grant at the Joel Nafuma Refugee Center in Rome.