The situation of the refugees is what bothers me the most deeply, and by “the refugees” I really mean all of them. I don’t think it’s a story best told through anecdotes, although there are of course so many. You can reach into this topic, anywhere, and find one. It doesn’t need to be conventionally dramatic. It can even be something like the story of the picture below, which some unknown child, sheltered in Germany in an abandoned big-box store, drew on the railing of his or her bunk bed. The drawing was noticed by volunteers who disassembled the rows of bunk beds once the refugees had moved on.
Photo: M. Conrad, Regierungspräsidium Kassel
Of course, in this case, we haven’t got any details about this child’s story, but I dare you to tell me that the picture isn’t enough. What more do you need to know?
According to the United Nations, there are 41 million “internally displaced persons” and 20 million “refugees” (meaning they are outside their home countries). We are now talking about a group of people nearly as numerous as the entire population of France. This is the largest cohort of human beings with nowhere to go ever recorded in human history. What should enrage us is not the suffering of any one of the individuals who make up this massive new nation of the dispossessed. What should enrage us and, frankly, terrify us is the fact that we can watch this happen to this many people without doing anything to solve the problem, without doing anything meaningful to help.
In fact, the situation is getting much worse. Just since Christmas, nearly a million more people, 80% of them women and children, have fled their homes in northwestern Syria. Many of them have been sleeping outside in freezing temperatures. In Turkey, where there were already 3.7 million refugees from the Syrian war, the Erdogan government last week was busing people to the Greek border and encouraging them to enter the EU. We have seen dreadful things happening there as a result: Greek civilians, vigilantes, coming out to stop the refugees, the authorities deploying tear gas. Refugees shot with rubber bullets as reports that live ammunition has been used are being denied. Video of a speeding coast guard vessel creating waves to harass a pitiful raft full of people. European countries announcing, in blatant disregard of their own laws, a moratorium on the acceptance of asylum applications.
The phrase “never again,” which for a long time was believed to undergird somehow, in some intangible way, things like “the European project” or “the postwar order” or whatever else you want to call it, is being exposed for the hollow platitude it really is. For “never again” did not just refer to the gas chambers; it very much was supposed to refer also to exactly what is happening right now: the displacement and consequent dehumanization of millions and millions of human beings.
This is why I think that the best way to understand the refugee problem is with big numbers and not “humanizing” stories about individuals. Those stories can be powerful and important, and we should tell them. But they mustn’t turn us away from facing the truly terrifying and overwhelmingly big reality the refugee crisis exposes about our world, namely, that our ability to deal with even the most terrible international problems, the ones we promised to deal with after the Second World War, is essentially nil.
Thanks for reading, and please share with any friends or colleagues who might be interested.