Last year, in the throes of the so-called ‘refugee crisis’, I imagined that perhaps we were about to see something unique in the history of humanity; almost an entire nation of people reaching safety and a war playing out with next to no civilians left to be used as targets. I was sorry that the Syrian people were being forced from their homes but was hopeful that if the dictator, Bashar Al-Assad, had no people left to control, he would cease to be a dictator.
Of course, living in Germany, I was able to see the ‘positive reaction’ to the influx of people seeking asylum and I hoped that other European countries would follow suit. Sadly, the positive feelings faded fast and people gave into their fear of ‘the other’; borders were closed as feelings of humanity gave way to Islamophobia and racism.
The safe passage to Europe I had hoped to see never materialised and the number of deaths in the Mediterranean and Aegean Sea began to rise. Certain celebrities, journalists and politicians began referring to refugees as ‘cockroaches’ or ‘swarms’ and when a tragic terrorist attack was committed by European citizens in Paris in November 2015, people began pointing the finger at the Syrian people. As if those who had risked their lives and spent most of their money reaching safety did so only to come and cause chaos in another part of the world.
Populist ideology and hatred, the likes of which I have never seen before in my lifetime, was on the rise and all the while the finger was being pointed at refugees. But when people on my tours in Berlin asked me where ‘all the refugees were’ I realised that it was hardly surprising that people were scared; the media by now had led people to believe that we were overwhelmed by newcomers and that they were taking over our country, no one seemed to be stopping to fact check. One million new arrivals in a country of 80 million is like a drop in the ocean and, had the situation in Germany been dealt with in a less chaotic fashion, the so-called ‘crisis’ here wouldn’t even have made it into the headlines.
It was at this point that people like you or myself should have taken to the streets, camped outside of government buildings, chained ourselves to the entrances of embassies. We had a chance to take a strong stand. We had a chance to show the people who were afraid that what they feared was a media fabrication. Those with spare rooms could have opened their homes and shown that there’s space enough for everyone on our privileged continent. We may have helped those who eventually managed to reach safety last year but we let the people down who were still stuck under the bombs.
The European Union made a mockery of itself when it failed to unify for the sake of humanity and instead stood divided with the sentiment of ‘not in my backyard’. All talk turned to money, with politicians arguing that we simply didn’t have the resources to help everyone. But if we look at it realistically, in 2013 the population of Syria was 22 million and the population of the EU was 510 million. Realistically, not every Syrian would have fled to Europe so surely, if we could have found a way to spread those people who chose to leave out evenly, we would barely have noticed a change to the demographics of our countries. But populism isn’t a fan of logic and the European Union, fueled by fear and greed, turned their backs on the situation and closed the door to those trying to find safety.
The United Nations has also continuously let the Syrian people down by failing to impose its own international laws. According to the UN’s own Refugee Convention, refugees should be given a safe passage; refugees should not be treated as criminals; refugees should be given equal opportunities to work and education. So where are the UN now when people are sleeping in deplorable conditions from the Tempelhof shelter in Berlin to the Amygdaleza children’s refugee camp in Greece? Where are they when people are drowning in our seas trying to reach safety? Where are they when refugees are being arrested in Hungary simply for seeking asylum?
Let’s not forget that, Russia, one of the main culprits of the violence against civilians in Syria sits on the UN security council and that the brutal Syrian regime is also still part of the UN. Bashar Jaafari, the Syrian ambassador to the UN, a man who laughed when asked about two hospitals that had been bombed in Aleppo, was recently honoured by Ban Ki-moon for 10 years of service. Ban Ki-moon has said countless times that he is ‘worried’ or ‘concerned’ about the situation in Syria, but war crimes are being committed, international law is being broken so when is the UN going to stop just being worried, stop collaborating with the Syrian regime and start being more active in the fight to protect and save innocent lives?
As the war escalates and is now turning into what can only be described as a war of annihilation for the people who stand against the Assad regime and the innocent families trapped in the middle of it all, it seems that indifference towards the 5-year conflict is growing. At a critical time in the conflict when the world should be watching, when innocent children are being slaughtered in Eastern Aleppo, the main headline seems to either be the latest tweet from Donald Trump or smaller tragedies like the recent plane crash in Colombia which, though worrying or sad, seem to be the top news stories simply because those stories are easier to process than mass murder. We failed the Syrian people when we closed our borders to them, let’s not fail them again by turning our backs on their suffering now.
As a tour guide in a concentration camp memorial people often ask me how such inhumanity could happen and I’m reminded of the Edmund Burke quote ‘all it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing’. Now is the time to demand an end to the violence; now is the time to force the institutions who pledged to protect innocent lives from war to follow through on the laws they themselves implemented; now is the time to understand our responsibility to the people of Aleppo and other cities in Syria, which have already suffered or are about to suffer a similar assault. Recently during a panel discussion about the White Helmets, a Syrian friend of mine said ‘please save the light in our lives now, don’t just wait for us to die and then light a candle in sadness’. As the death toll continues to rise, we must act. Write to the UN, take to the streets, scream outside of Syrian and Russian embassies, stay informed using reliable news sources. Let’s not wait for the war to end and then build a memorial to its victims when we have the chance now to fight to save those who are still alive.
Lorna Cannon is the founder of Refugee Voices Tours, a tour guide in Berlin and a Europe-wide tour manager.
How can I get active?
SPACE.org has provided useful tips about how to get active:
FIRST – Send a letter to your MP:
Call and write to your representatives in the parliament and ask them to stop the bombs on Aleppo in whichever way they can. Ask them to #StopPutinsBombs and denounce Russia’s grave human rights violations because #NeverAgainIsNow. Use and adapt the text available here:
SECOND – Facebook check-in:
Check in on Russian embassy’s Facebook page in your country and post a picture from Aleppo. Find the Facebook page of the Russian embassy in your country and pictures to use here:
THIRD – Contact the Russian Embassy:
Call and write to the Russian embassy in your country and ask them to stop the bombing. Find the phone number and email of the Russian embassy in your country here:
FOURTH – Tweet to politicians:
Tweet to politicians around the world. All you need to do is click on “TWEET NOW” next to the politician’s name on this page:
Join the Civil March for Aleppo: https://www.facebook.com/events/979588475478509/
Please feel free to post in the comments about demonstrations in your area and we will share them on our social media.