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Crisis point (Nonesuch spring 2016)

Nick Ball

Nick Ball

Nick Ball

13 May 2016

Last year, film producer Samantha Chitty (BA 2008) travelled to the refugee camps in Calais to deliver and distribute much-needed supplies. She shares her experience with Dr Jon Fox, joint Head of the University’s Migration Research Group.

Samantha Chitty (SC) For weeks, I had been reading harrowing stories of refugees escaping war-torn countries and making perilous journeys across Europe, only to find themselves living in appalling conditions, without any guarantee of asylum. I felt compelled to help.

Dr Jon Fox (JF) The current refugee crisis has certainly grown in complexity and intensity since last summer. With no end in sight, the situation has become increasingly desperate, both for those remaining in conflict zones and for those leaving. And as more and more refugees flee, the conditions in camps like those in Calais will only become even more strained.

SC My experience was as shocking as I could have imagined, almost post-apocalyptic. I was with a volunteer who had basic first aid skills, and we were approached every few minutes for help. A teenage boy who had tried to commit suicide even asked if we could redress the wounds on his wrists. They’re hopeless and fearful: some of them have been at the camp for years, without any promise of asylum.

JF That’s true, and clearly the media and politicians play a huge role in what most people know about the situation. This was brought home by the images of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi in the press last August. Those images drew the world’s attention to the crisis, and not only influenced ordinary people’s reactions, but also the actions of governments. It was difficult for most people to be unmoved, though that doesn’t mean they feel ready to allow large numbers of refugees into their countries.

SC Especially when the media run stories about economic migrants ‘window shopping’ countries with the best social services. But I can’t believe anyone would leave the place and people they love to live on an inhospitable piece of land, where they’re only guaranteed one meal a day and have no access to medical care – not unless their alternative is much much worse.

JF Many people are either misinformed or simply uninformed. As academics, we certainly have a role to play in helping to paint a more balanced picture. We can supply the public and the media with unbiased factual evidence so they better understand the dynamics, causes and consequences of refugee flows, and help policymakers and NGOs make informed decisions on how to deal with them.

SC I do understand people’s concerns. Here in the UK, we’re not a big country and our social services are already stretched. But I don’t believe we can stand by while people freeze and starve to death. In my mind, as a democratic country, it’s our duty to protect people seeking asylum on our doorstep.

JF Of course, but receiving societies will always face important challenges in accommodating refugees. That’s partly because of policies that restrict employment and residency possibilities for asylum seekers: they place a burden on the state (and sometimes, local charities) to provide refugees with basic services, often at considerable cost and for a lengthy waiting period. But most refugees do have skills that can contribute to the local economy. One reason Germany has been more receptive than other European countries is that it sees refugees as one possible long-term fix
to their demographic problem: an ageing population that puts a strain on the welfare state. Refugees come from all backgrounds, but it’s often those with skills, knowledge and experience who are more likely to migrate. Those who are most socio-economically disadvantaged simply aren’t able to migrate, even when circumstances are dire. Integrating refugees is not without its challenges, but time and again countries have risen to those challenges.

SC Sometimes I think the press is more interested in printing stories than the truth. I read an article recently that said refugees in Europe were living the life of Riley. You only need to see photos to know that’s not true, and many of the people I met were suffering post-traumatic stress disorder after what they’ve experienced in their home countries.

JF There’s certainly been a shift in public mood since last summer, due to changing media coverage, political indifference, and events that threaten to turn the tide of opinion against the refugees, like the assaults in Cologne. But the basic problem will remain until there’s a place for refugees to go. What we need is a global, co-ordinated response with more equitable distribution of refugees not only throughout Europe but across the world.

SC Absolutely. The people helping in Calais are locals or unpaid volunteers: they just don’t have the experience or training to deal with a humanitarian crisis on this scale. But without their help, those refugees simply won’t survive.

JF My colleagues and I in the Migration Research Group have been working with Bristol City Council, the Students’ Union and Bristol STAR (Student Action for Refugees), to resettle refugees and their families here. The main challenge is providing sufficient support: not just access to housing and employment, but also legal assistance, language courses, education and psychological counselling. We’re also helping the University establish a refugee scholarship scheme to meet the higher education needs and aspirations of those we welcome to Bristol, and expect to have this in place by September.

SC I certainly hope to volunteer again: even for a day or two, you can make a real difference and it’s an incredibly rewarding experience.

Listen to the audio version (mp3)

Further information

Read more about Samantha’s volunteering with Help Refugees, or find out more about the work of the University's migration research group

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