You must run. You only have a few days, perhaps only minutes, to pack all the things you can take with you. You don’t know whether you’ll arrive at a safer place, or whether anyone will welcome you, or whether you’ll ever return home.
Currently, more than 70 million people around the world live out this nightmare situation, having been forcibly displaced. Out of these, 26 million are refugees (they have been displaced outside the borders of their native country). In recent years, the refugee and migrant situation has become one of major interest due to the increasing numbers and the dramatic situations intensely covered by the international press.
One rarely encounters a clear distinction between refugees and migrants. Confusing these terms may have serious effects on refugees’ lives and safety. According to the 1951 Geneva Convention, refugees are those fleeing from an armed conflict or from persecution. Migrants, on the other hand, are people who choose to move to improve their lives by looking for a job abroad, in some cases for education purposes, or for reuniting with their families. Although the situation of migrants is not as tragic as that of refugees, countries have a great responsibility of care for both categories. However, in the case of refugees, the responsibility is much greater, because one has to abide by the principle of non-refoulement—those whose lives would be endangered by being deported should not be returned to their country of origin.
Countries fulfil these responsibilities to the best of their ability, with some acting more empathetically than the others. Recently, authorities in certain countries have become more and more militant when it comes to restricting the number of asylum seekers they accept, irrespective of the situation. Migrants and refugees are regarded with distrust, given the difficulty of integrating into a new community, and are therefore considered to be a problem that must be avoided. There are, however, dedicated groups that do everything they can to offer migrants and refugees hope and to help them regain their dignity.
One of these is Humanitarian Corridors, a partnership between several religious organizations in Italy. Moved by the fate of the 300 refugees who died near the Italian island of Lampedusa on the 3rd of October 2013, a number of churches united their efforts to avoid tragedies like this happening in the future. The organisation also helps to integrate those who have already suffered far too much into the Italian community.
The first thing these organizations do is collect money for airline tickets for refugees. They thus try to avoid those terrible journeys by sea. They then meet them at the airport, where the refugees receive a warm welcome and are helped to file their requests for asylum. They look for places where the refugees can live, and they pay their rent for one year. They offer legal help, and organise language courses and cultural integration meetings. More than 2000 refugees have thus been integrated in Italy, and 300 in France, the organisation having expanded to other European countries as well. “Through this programme, we aimed to promote solidarity among people, sharing responsibilities with institutions. We strongly hope that safe pathways become the norm and no longer the exception,” said Oliviero Forti, head of Caritas Italiana’s migration policy and international protection office.
Simone Scotta is 33 years old and works tirelessly for Humanitarian Corridors. She is personally involved in the selection of the most vulnerable people in the refugee camps and accompanies them to every flight. Some refugees have lost their family members, others have been tortured, and still others are gravely injured.
One of the families she brought to Rome is made up of a 43-year old father, shot in the chest in Syria, a mother, and their 4-year old boy. The woman was pregnant when her husband was wounded. Their child was born in the refugee camps in Lebanon. “It’s not easy to restart life at 43. But these people (the organizations) gave me their trust. I have to repay that trust and be a good person in this new place”, he said. “I was afraid before I arrived here. I didn’t know people. Maybe they would be unfriendly … When I came in [at the airport] and saw people smiling and the welcome, I was no longer afraid”, confessed his wife.
This year, Humanitarian Corridors received the prestigious Nansen prize, offered by the UNHCR, the international organisation which deals with refugee protection. They recently signed an agreement allowing another 600 people to be brought to Europe in a safe and organized way.
Reunited by altruism
Another organization, Help Refugees, started their activity with a group of friends in Great Britain and a hashtag on Facebook. These friends wanted to fill a van with donations which they would take to Calais, where one of the largest refugee camps in Europe is located. They gathered what they aimed for in just one week. They did not, however, expect what was to come. More than 7 000 products were donated daily. Therefore, they had to set up an organisation that, in just four years, managed to gather around 30 000 volunteers and help over one million refugees.
The way the organization functions is simple: donations are collected and offered through minimal bureaucracy to local organizations dealing with refugee assistance. More than 100 humanitarian organisations have partnered with this effort, together with 30 000 volunteers from around the world.
Help Refugees also created a platform for donations, so that people from countries who are not confronted with big migration waves can help too. On their website, they even created an online shop where things can be bought for refugees. To keep the costs to a minimum, the organization does not have a hierarchical structure, and to keep its independence, it only receives donations from private citizens, not companies.
The way in which Help Refugees understands its own role provides an answer to the question we should all ask ourselves: What is my responsibility towards everyone suffering all over the world? “We are not delusional. We know we are confronted with great challenges. If there’s one thing we’ve learned as a charitable and community organisation it is that each of us can play a role in creating the world we want to see. And choosing love seems like a pretty good starting point.”
Andreea Irimia teaches computer science and technological education.