There are stirrings of a popular backlash against the negligence shown by many European governments towards the thousands of desperate people who have fled their homes.
It seems to have taken the devastating photograph of three-year-old Syrian boy Aylan Kurdi on a Turkish beach, where his body was washed ashore this week.
Thousands of women, children and men have died en route to Europe this year. Last week, over 100 people drowned when a boat capsized soon after departing the Libyan coast, while in Austria, 71 bodies were found in a truck.
It is scandalous and unacceptable that it took so long and so many deaths for a wake-up call. Underpinning this negligence is a created sense of fear that could be summed up in the following: What will these migrants bring to our communities? Who are these “other” people?
There are energetic but misplaced sentiments about fence building, repatriation and the economics of migration.
A door to a safe haven
My overriding feeling is one of humanity remembered.
In 1978, I ran away from the brutal dictatorship of Idi Amin in Uganda to the United Kingdom via Kenya. My family and I chose Britain, knowing then – as I do now – that this was a country with a door open to people like me. As I arrived in the UK, this black, 18-year-old African refugee girl was not deported. I got the chance to stay.
This was a European country where I safely had a chance to fulfil my potential. I studied at the University of Manchester and, years later, have been brought full circle back to the UK to serve a great movement, which started in the UK, called Oxfam.
My story might have turned out very differently if a door to a safe haven was closed to me forty years ago. That memory quickly turns now into a calling.
Today, we are in the midst of a global and complex displacement crisis. To view this global crisis solely through the lens of Europe is to miss the bigger picture.
According to the UN figures, 59.5 million people fled from their homes at the end of 2014 – an increase of 63 percent compared to a decade ago – and the highest number since World War II.
The majority of displaced people are as young as or younger than I was when I fled Uganda for the UK.
Oxfam is well-placed to connect the dots between the sources and the destinations of displaced people. This helps us understand the reasons for displacement and to strive for solutions.
We witness the terrible human suffering that every day forces people into exile. We know this well because we work in nine of the top ten source countries for refugees.
It is clear to us that the broken politics of conflict weigh most heavily on forced migration. The UN recently found that the majority of people arriving in Europe by sea were fleeing from war, conflict or persecution – half of them from Syria and Afghanistan.
Yet, conflict is preventable. Critical questions must be asked of international political leaders who are initiating or prolonging these conflicts but are unable or unwilling to take responsibility for their humanitarian consequences.
Secondly, funding is central to meeting the day-to-day needs of those who have fled. In the short-term, this means aid for desperately underfunded refugee programmes; as I write this, only 37 percent of total umbrella funding for the Syrian crisis has been met.
In the long-term, it crucially means investing in lasting improvements that tackle the root causes of conflict, inequality, poverty and climate change, rather than building more fences and walls.
Balance is integral – developing countries are currently bearing the brunt by hosting 86 percent of the world’s refugees. This puts Europe’s dilemmas into sharp context.
Europe’s infrastructure is not at risk of falling apart because 340,000 people have sought haven here this year – they represent only around one-half of one percent of the EU population of 500 million.
While Europe squabbled over the resettlement of 20,000 refugees earlier this year, Turkey single-handedly was hosting well over 1.5 million. In Lebanon, a quarter of the population are now refugees, taking the country’s infrastructure and socioeconomic fabric to a breaking-point.
This is why we are calling for a commitment from rich countries to offer international protection to just five percent of Syrian refugees – approximately 200,000 people.
People who are “forcibly displaced”, such as refugees, importantly take centre stage in what we are seeing now. Yet, in our view, this does not in any way lessen the palpable plight of economic migrants who risk their lives fleeing from poverty or inequality.
The EU migration policy must place saving lives and protecting people as its top priority – regardless of where they have come from and why.
The warnings of the potential consequences of closing the Mare Nostrum programme initially went unheeded. After an estimated 800 people had drowned in April 2015, the EU reacted by tripling its resources in the Mediterranean, and more than 50,000 lives have since been saved as a result.
This underlines the effectiveness and need for such operations. We believe that Europe has a responsibility to ensure that the basic humanitarian needs of migrants – including refugees – are met and that their rights respected.
The value of human life
What troubles me most, however, is an anti-migrant language that seems to place a hierarchy on the value of human life, leaving migrants as unequal bystanders.
Something terrible is happening when political leaders and the media are able to drip disdain on unspeakable human suffering. Without this sense of common humanity, it is no wonder that policy interventions are so hollow.
At Oxfam, we believe – without blemish – that all human lives are of equal value and full of potential. A human life crossing the Mediterranean or through the Balkans carries no less value than a human life does in the wake of an earthquake or war.
We believe this is a tifor solidarity with migrants. Our main call is to people and to civil societies everywhere to join us in humanising the voices of migrants around the world and restore our collective humanity at all levels of society.
Share their human stories, promote the campaigns of humanitarian and civil society organisations, and stand firmly against any suggestions that undermine the protection of human lives.
The humanity we crave – I know from my own story – has not disappeared and is not out of reach – the far more tragic experiences faced by so many migrants today call for nothing less.
It is right to say that we must bring peace and security to the countries which are the primary sources for migration, but to use that as an excuse to close your doors is cowardice.
Winnie Byanyima is a grassroots activist, human rights advocate, senior international public servant, world-recognised expert on women’s rights, and currently the executive director of Oxfam International.
First published by Al Jazeera