Syrian refugees: The civil rights movement of our time

 
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By Boštjan Videmšek

Rather than threatening Europe’s way of life, refugees are, through their struggle, helping to preserve the most precious of European values.

Photo: Jure Erzen/DELO

Photo: Jure Erzen/DELO

Monday 16 September 2015

Numerous segments of the mainstream and social media portray the Syrian refugees on their way to Europe as public enemy number one. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. Among them, one can easily find highly educated young people, most of them from the urban middle class, their cultural and historical references startlingly close to those of their European counterparts.

If Europe could whip up an iota of empathy or historical recall, these are the sort of people it should be thoroughly identifying with.

It has to be said: during the past few months, these brave and industrious souls have shamed an anaemic, drowsy continent with their courage and their dignity. They have demonstrated the importance and the immense potential of fighting for one’s human rights. With the help of little else than their wits and civil disobedience, they have managed to rattle the Schengen area’s complacency, to thoroughly shake up the Dublin II agreement and to spark a wide-scale public debate. All this, after mustering the gumption to leave their war-torn lands and risk the torturous march to freedom. For all these reasons and plenty more besides, I like to call the men, women and children heading for Fortress Europe the civil rights movement of our time.

On their brave desperate dash for Europe, the refugees are still headed for the Europe of tolerance, dignity and freedom of movement. In reality, this rather threadbare illusion of the Promised Land is increasingly ruled by a scourge of nationalism, xenophobia and open racism. For a long while now, these three blights of the modern and, indeed, any age have remained hidden behind the dangerous mask of political correctness. Now, fuelled by the ruthless opportunism of the paranoid and narcissistic European political elites, they are having one hell of a coming-out party.

While men, women and children are still dying in the Mediterranean – this year alone, the flight to Europe has already claimed 2600 lives, while the decade’s tally is now set at some 23,000 souls – the old continent is visibly caving in to fear. What we are witnessing is an epidemic of terror slowly gearing up for a collective panic attack. So many of the still quite comfortable citizens from Krakow to Newcastle seem positively elated in their dread of all the modern-day barbarian hordes, terrorists, Islamic extremists and generic monsters surging up from the South and the East.

The prevailing discourse – both in public and in private – grows uglier by the hour. It seems these latest developments have finally allowed the far-right to break free of its fetters. The views that, even two years ago, would have seemed batty and deranged are steadily creeping into the dominant narratives of the day. The distance between Europe’s ivory towers and its gutters has never been so small. While every soul still clinging to a shred of decency should be howling with alarm, the heart of Europe is polishing off its jackboots.

Men, women and children who have lost everything in the bloodiest conflict of our time are now being greeted as aggressors. Yet why would Europe, having done nothing to prevent or mitigate the war in Syria, start caring now? After all, the continent – Germany and Sweden serving as commendable exceptions – has already turned its back on the refugees in the early stages of the war, forcing some 4.5 million people to run for the neighbouring countries.

Now that the problem has become too huge to deny, Europe has opted to tackle it with a system of quotas. From the look of things, the individual countries will even be able to choose the refugees they want, evoking the image of a modern-day slave market. The profoundly cynical EU beaureaucrats must have known in advance of the Raft-of-the-Medusa effect this was sure to have on the migrants and refugees on the Greek islands.

In the coming weeks and months, the onrush is only likely to intensify. We are acting as if these men, women and children neither have nor deserve names, faces or any sort of a tolerable future. Even worse: Europe has chosen to treat these individuals pretty much as it does its nuclear waste. It seems as if, for us, collective memory is a luxury well out of reach.

Things are clearly out of control. The refugees who are crossing borders with their babes in their arms, swimming the Mediterranean straits, climbing walls, surviving police violence, protesting Hungary’s cruel and boorish policies to ultimately force the far-right supremo Viktor Orban to start transporting them to the border by bus… Right now, all that makes these brave and resolute men and women the only genuine mass freedom movement of our time. Just as, in the second half of the 1950s, African-Americans fought racial segregation with civil disobedience, protest marches, exemplary internal organisation and solidarity, the Syrian refugees have now taken on the inhuman anti-immigrant and anti-refugee policies of the EU. To put it in plainly, they have taken a stand against the racial segregation of our time.

The incomers from Syria are waging one of the most important battles of them all. It is the battle for the survival of the open and humanitarian Europe, indeed its very humanistic foundations. They are persisting in this conflict – which is also being waged for every freedom-loving European’s sake – armed only with their own courage, wits and steely resolution. At root, this is a profoundly revolutionary struggle, and one that actually carries the potential to change the continent for the better.

In 1964, Martin Luther King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. This year, my personal favourite by far is the unbroken caravan of Syrian refugees on its freedom-loving march to peace and dignity.

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