The Migrants’ Fifteen Minutes of Fame

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On 2 September – just a month and a half ago – the world was horrified by the mass publication of a graphic yet undeniably honest image of a Syrian toddler’s body, washed up on the shores of Turkey. Already bogged down by the incredible influx of refugee migration, world leaders were pressed to find a solution – and fast. Global media, often sensitized to publishing images of dead bodies, was swamped with images of the migrants’ struggle, from being lost at sea, to threatened by authorities, to arriving off the trains in Germany with rounds of applause.

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Fast forward to mid-October, media has undoubtedly slowed down on the uptake of this imagery, with snippets of updates on policy decisions, or migrant shootings and deaths. For global news media, the story held a shocking appeal for selling out newsstands that lasted several weeks. But for the subjects of this story, the tragedy that peaked in papers was just the beginning of a lifelong struggle.

 

As an avid engager in international relations and media (as should be abundantly clear by this blog), the migrant crisis immediately caught my attention, but it became a much more personal and connected story for me when I came across an Afghan refugee. He was my cab driver on a long trip from Heathrow, and when he told me he had a refugee status here in the UK, I couldn’t help but spark a profound conversation on his experience. The man told me of how he came to the UK stuffed in the back of a truck (funny enough, this didn’t seem to phase him at all and was in fact a more mundane part of the story for him). He told me of the interview process he experienced with British authorities – ten hours in a room being questioned everyday, a formality that landed him with a diagnosis for depression. Having worked in government in Afghanistan, it was ruled that his life was in danger should he return, and the man had now held refugee status in the UK for eight years. He told me about his citizenship test and showed me the book he was studying in preparation. I glanced over it, noticing chapters on ‘How to interact with your neighbors as to be a good member of a community’, or details of British history (something I am fully willing to admit I know nothing about despite my own ability to live and work in this country as an immigrant). Even with the hardship this man had endured, he was unbelievably optimistic about his future. He could not wait to get his passport, so that he could once again travel, and even return to Afghanistan to help his country. He told me about the value of education, how he wanted his children to go to school in the UK. All the while, I couldn’t help but reflect on the monumental difference between our experiences as immigrants in this country.

Meanwhile the political battle of how to manage the nearly 600,000 migrants who have reached the EU so far this year continues – an ongoing saga of Eastern European leaders tightening up borders with Western European leaders balancing an image of diplomacy with conservation. According to the BBC, The EU has now backed an action plan with Turkey, agreeing to re-energize talks of Turkey joining the EU (a debate which I predict will slowly whither away yet again). And though attention has been predominantly on the effects in Europe, countries closer to the battlegrounds have seen far greater numbers: NPR reports that 1.9 million refugees have gone to Turkey, and 1.1 million to Lebanon. But while these talks occur in the offices and conference rooms of the world, what happens to the hundreds of thousands waiting in limbo for someone to seal their fate? Are there prospects of hope for the future, or are they doomed to be lost in the flood of headline stories soon to overshadow their plight?

Unfortunately policy outcomes tend to work off political agendas, and so often function in the short term – not the lifespan of the migrant community. It is therefore essential that policymakers and global leaders establish a solid groundwork to build off of into the future. After all, the fate of this generation of migrants is bound to set new standards and make a strong statement for those affected by the wars and tragedies of the future.

An article on the story of a Syrian refugee in Lebanon:
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/01/31/syrian-refugees-lebanon_n_4568617.html

A newscast demonstrating the continual movement of war torn populations:
http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2015/09/02/europe-migrants-crisis/71562286/