Marching through the wake of a shadowy sunrise my roommate and I embarked on a twenty-seven kilometer journey of masochist torture, also known as hiking through the French countryside. Something about pushing one’s physical limits and that particular quiet of nature compels some of us to do things that would be by any other definition unenjoyable. As we left the quiet of Sunday in the small village behind us, we were encouraged by seeing all manner of people utilizing some of the well kept trails and roads that run though le Forêt de Haguenau. This would change after we left our first stop, le Gros Chêne, a park built around the site of a 3,000 year-old oak tree, felled by lighting in the early 20th century. From there our route turned drastically from paved road to forest trail as we carried on with eagle eyes for the small trails markers, our only assurance we weren’t totally lost. With each passing hour the late August day seemed to claw its way back towards the heights of summer, rather than sharing a few whispering breezes with us which could foretell, as the falling leaves did, of cooler weather. Eventually we were shoulder to shoulder with the trees, dripping sweat, drowning in the melodious hum of insects. A pain grew in my right foot as I monitored the sock position to slow development of a ripe blister. The rough plastic straps of the back-pack that I was carrying our food and water pinched and twisted at my neck while I repositioned a sweaty t-shirt underneath my shoulders to alleviate some of the discomfort. Feeling deflated and overwhelmed, I reminded myself that this was my idea. I wanted to be here. Small luxuries–whether they were of the sandwich I would have at our next stop, or the cold shower I would take when I got home–motivated me to push one sore blistering foot in front of the other. This discomfort would be rewarded.
But I couldn’t help but wonder what this journey would feel like without the promise these simple luxuries. As most people are now well aware millions of refugees have fled the conflict in Syria and we currently facing a humanitarian crisis. The UN estimates that 50% of Syria’s population has been displaced. Three million people have officially registered as refugees by early August and this extraordinary number still does not take into account many who have not registered with the UNHR. Europe’s high standard of living and close geographical proximity to the crisis has made countries like France, Germany, and Sweden strategic destinations for asylum seekers while Greece, Italy, and countries such as Bulgaria and Macedonia have become the gatekeepers. Many of these refugees have walked thousands of kilometers with little to no food and water, medicine, or other essentials. Many also attempted to make the dangerous passage by boat, where smugglers have been capitalizing on the desperate situation and collecting huge sums to send packed and decrepit boats into the Mediterranean. At last count 2,500 people have failed to survive this route. The body of a three-year-old boy recently washed up on the shores of Turkey has become the symbol for the crisis after he, his mother, and five-year-old brother drowned in an attempt to seek asylum in Canada; even though their sponsored application had already been denied. Between January and May 2015 the Turkish coastguard rescued over 42,000 people, and over 2,100 last week alone, trying to reach the Greek Island of Kos.
[They] may seem like mere political caricature, but they intensify and exploit very real fears and in the process people’s unfathomable and catastrophic struggles are turned into fodder for political rhetoric.
The perception of refugee issues has always been contentious and is often lumped together with arguments around immigration in general. On the one hand most industrially developed nations recognize the need for certain amounts of immigration, but when domestic situations become aggravated through economic downturns and security concerns like terrorism people have a tendency to dig in and become more polarized and nationalistic. Pegida in Germany, Le Front National in France, English Defense League and UKIP in the UK, are all examples in the extreme of this growing phenomenon of aggressive (if not yet violent) finger pointing. Donald Trump’s perspective on Mexican immigrants, Pamela Gellner’s unbearable anti-Muslim tirades may seem like mere political caricature, but they intensify and exploit very real fears and in the process people’s unfathomable and catastrophic struggles are turned into fodder for political rhetoric.
And as I took a drink from my lukewarm Evian bottle I thought of those journeys being taken by millions of people right now. Of the entire families walking towards destinations not a few dozen kilometers away, but a few thousand. I thought of what it would take to motivate me to be able to do this, not just day after day, but month after month, to continue beyond all conception of physical and mental limitation. What it would take to pursue a destination without promise, nothing more than a glimmer of hope, which they can only assume lies in the distance. On that journey one’s only luxury is necessity. It isn’t about ‘looking for a better life.’ Even less so about committing crimes or ‘burdening the system.’ A refugee’s journey is one of survival, fed by the desperate will to live. As human beings we begin and end by this very need.
This remains forever a choice, an active, complicated and nuanced one, and one that we ‘collectively’ have to continue to make ad infinitum.
But do we have a responsibility respond? Does our relative capacity to assist others oblige us to do so? And if so, how and to what extent? The difficulty with these questions is that in reality there is nothing so fundamental that it obligates us incontestably to provide for each other a life of dignity in the face of horrifically unequal circumstances. This remains forever a choice, an active, complicated and nuanced one, and one that we ‘collectively’ have to continue to make ad infinitum.
There was a time when people fleeing persecution still had a borderless word to exploit. Entire continents were founded by refugees who have forgotten through the generations what it means to be one. At this moment in time we have a tremendous opportunity to restructure some very problematic relationships between ourselves and other parts of the world and to counteract some of the circumstances which lend themselves to violence and terrorism to begin with. Nothing builds bridges faster than an outstretched hand to someone in need. Not because we can guarantee that there will not be those who will take advantage of it, but because it builds respect when we do so. Those escaping extreme poverty and conflict need no more reasons to suspect that this world is nothing more than a violent, uncaring place from which there is no escape. They need no more reasons to try and fight invisible enemies wrapped up in the enigma of conflict. Nor is it sustainable to continue to fight violence with violence and securitize and prosecute refugees like criminals. And as I looked around at the endless undulating forest of this safe and prosperous place, I just couldn’t imagine arriving on it’s border, hungry and desperate, and believing for a second, that there wasn’t room for one more.