Here's What Europeans Are Doing to Help Refugees This Weekend
Across Europe, people are coming together for a day of action for refugees on Saturday.
With Europe in the grip of its biggest refugee crisis since Yugoslavia violently fell apart in the 1990s, this Saturday, September 12 sees a continent-wide day of action in solidarity with asylum seekers.
VICE asked correspondents from its offices in some parts of Europe affected by the crisis to give us the lowdown on the public mood towards refugees there, what the government is up to, and whether people will be getting active this weekend.
In the UK, that zeitgeist with regards to the refugee crisis seemed to change almost overnight, with the publication of the tragic photos of Aylan Kurdi, the now-famous drowned Syrian boy.
Newspapers which previously reported that the biggest problem with the refugee crisis was British people having their holidays ruined by selfish immigrants started demanding that the government do something to help refugees. In the case of Britain's largest tabloid, the Sun, that meant bombing Syria "for Aylan."
Under this pressure, the government went from saying that accepting more refugees is not the solution, to allowing 20,000 more to come—which is still pretty pathetic.
This weekend sees a massive demonstration descend on London, which seems to have been called by someone random and gone totally viral. The idea is to pressure the anti-immigrant Home Secretary Theresa May before she goes to an EU emergency meeting next week.
Arsenal has announced £1 [$1.50] from every ticket for their Premier League game against Stoke will be donated to victims of the crisis.
Meanwhile, in the southern port town of Dover, a bunch of racist far-right goons are going to gather to demand that the borders are completely closed. Of course, anti-fascist groups haven't taken to kindly to the thought of hundreds of racists stomping around somewhere that refugees might be, so they're heading down there to tell them to fuck off.
Related: Watch VICE News' documentary about life as an illegal immigrant in Greece
Had Aylan Kurdi survived his journey to Europe, he would have landed on the Greek island of Kos. His death shook many people in Europe, but the shocking reality isn't new for Greece; countries at the edge of Europe have been dealing with the tragic loss of refugees' lives by the hundreds for years now. But due to the worldwide outcry, some unexpected sympathy is now coming from unexpected places: far-right MP Adonis Georgiadis, known for his anti-migration agenda, and also for his cult following from when he was in the business of selling jingoistic books, tweeted to say that this photo can leave no one unmoved.
As we speak, tens of thousands of refugees fleeing war, rape, and violence are trapped in hellish conditions on holiday islands like Lesvos and Kos, often with no provision for food, water, shelter, or proper screening services. Solidarity in Greece has expanded from protesting this Saturday in Athens, to donating the basic provisions needed to survive that Europe and the Greek government have failed to provide. Despite this, on Kos and elsewhere, supporters of the neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn are organizing and attacking not only refugees but also activists.
During the recent pre-election debate among political leaders, the refugee crisis dominated but the answers offered by Greek leaders were mostly seen as inadequate.
Inger Støjberg, newly appointed Danish Minister of Foreigner Affairs, Integration and Housing shocked many on Monday by publishing what is essentially an "anti-asylum guide"—a list of reasons NOT to choose Denmark as your destination if you are a refugee—that appeared in several Middle Eastern papers. In fact, various Danish governments throughout the last decade have made it a point to brand Denmark as a destination for refugees to avoid.
For the most part, this strategy has worked as intended: Of the around 3,200 refugees who arrived in Denmark on Sunday, only 668 have chosen to seek asylum here, while the majority will go on to seek refuge in Sweden. This happened after the police stepped back to permit the refugees to travel freely through the country on Thursday, in effect making Denmark a transitory country.
This weekend will see hashtag-riddled pro-refugee rallies in Denmark's biggest cities. Of course, the question remains whether this newly found empathy will have any real impact on the widely criticized handling of the situation by the government. It remains uncertain how the government will tackle the crisis in the future, but so far they've rejected the idea of participating in an EU-wide quota system meant to re-house the 160,000 refugees currently in Greece, Hungary, and Italy in other European countries.
Related: Watch the 'Migrant Crisis in Calais: Britain's Border War' from VICE News
In France, pictures of the young Aylan Kurdi have managed to soften the people's attitudes. French newspapers, on the other hand, have had a slower reaction than their European counterparts. Some haven't published the pictures at all, and most front pages talked about the farmers' demonstration happening in Paris on that day.
Once the picture became widely shared, everyone was understandably shocked and they finally understood the refugees' real situation. French politicians and celebrities started reacting too. Most were sympathetic to Aylan and his family, except for the extreme right-wing parties. Prime minister Manuel Valls, who had earlier shown his opposition to migrants quotas expressed the need for a " European response."
On September 4, 56 percent of French people didn't want the country to take in any migrants. Today, it seems opinion has turned as 53 percent of them would agree to welcome the migrants. On September 7, François Hollande agreed to welcome 24,000 migrants to France under the proposal of the European Commission.
Unlikely sources have been speaking up for refugees. Even Paris Saint-Germain football club claimed it has "a duty and a social mission" towards refugees and has donated a million euros to help.
One day in May, Serbs woke up to the images of hundreds of refugees fleeing from violence in the Middle East, through its territory on the so-called Balkan route towards the EU. Serbia's capital Belgrade and its surrounding parks have become a sort of temporary break-spot for many awaiting smugglers to take them towards the first EU border in Hungary.
As the summer months went by and the state failed to offer assistance to the rising numbers of refugees, an unprecedented grassroots movement has begun to grow. While there's nothing in particular planned for the Europe wide day of action, people of all ages have been bringing food, clothes, and other basics to the refugees, while others started informal playgrounds for children or played mini-soccer with teenagers. Facebook has become the main meeting point for activists and willing helpers. Some went a step further and organized a symbolic "cutting" of a barbwire fence put up by the Hungarian government in a bid to prevent the refugees from entering the country en masse.
However we do have our share of creeps who wanted to make a quick buck, taxi drivers charging hundreds of euros for a journey worth ten, and others selling bottled water at ten times its normal price. The state has failed for months to offer any real solution for the refugees' passage, and they're not interested in staying in this country, with its unstable economy and low wages. There are still some right-wing nationalists, a hangover from the bloody wars of the 1990s, but thankfully they're not numerous enough to cause real problems.
Related: Watch Italy's Mediterranean Mass Grave: Europ or Die from VICE News
In Italy, the official debate on immigration still appears embarrassingly fixed on the most trivial aspects of the crisis. Even after the photo of Aylan Kurdi emerged, discussions centered around the use of the images: Italy's biggest media outlets debated whether or not to run the photo of the drowned Syrian boy, but no real political action was taken.
Italian Premier Matteo Renzi, who has long asked for a bigger EU commitment on the immigration issue, said that "Europe cannot lose face" over the refugees, adding that his government will never give on up "on saving a human life for a few more votes." However, this is the same government that shut down the rescue operation Mare Nostrum—a year-long naval operation that has saved more than 100,000 migrants—because it had become too unpopular and cost too much.
At the height of the hypocrisy, even Matteo Salvini—leader of the Lega Nord party, and one of the harshest critics of immigration in Italy—said he was willing to host a refugee in his home. He also made clear, however, that he would only accept "those who run away from the war" and that he can't fit many in his simple "two-room apartment."
But while politicians share their increasingly confused proposals, regular Italians are taking the matter of solidarity into their own hands. In recent months, grassroots initiatives have appeared throughout the country. In June, the temporary suspension of the Schengen open borders increased the pressure on Italy. Migrants were prevented from traveling north or west, so volunteers and activists increased their presence in Rome, Milan, and at the French border, providing migrants with food, medical, and legal assistance.
Nevertheless, the protests against refugee centers keeps making the headlines. Throughout the summer, tensions rose in both the north and south of the country. Last weekend, for example, militants of the far-right party Forza Nuova clashed with police in a small town in northern Italy, in front of an abandoned hotel housing 19 migrants.
Today, a "March of Barefoot Men and Women" is being held in cities up and down the country, calling on Europe to change its restrictive immigration policies.
Germany has been recognized as one of the frontrunners in the current immigration crisis. The government estimates they'll receive 800,000 asylum applications this year, but what's perhaps even more remarkable is a promise made by vice-chancellor Sigmar Gabriel on Tuesday, stating that Germany would be able to take in 500,000 refugees a year for the foreseeable future.
Tens of thousands of people have arrived in Germany in recent days (25,000 have arrived since last Friday), with 120,000 arriving to Munich in August. Chancellor Angela Merkel has now said that a much-debated plan by the European Commission to distribute 160,000 refugees among European Union states might not suffice. She has warned other member states that they will have to accept more than originally estimated.
That said, the mood within Germany has not been universally positive towards the refugees. Especially in former east German towns, large anti-immigrant protests have taken place as protesters and media question the country's ability to cope with the large influx in refugees.
As anti-refugee protests grow, so too do the solidarity initiatives. This weekend will see welcome picnics, demonstrations, and film screenings. And of course "Refugees Welcome"—the Airbnb of refugee housing, is still going strong.
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