“you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land”
Home by Warsan Shire
In makeshift camps on the French shores of the English Channel; in tents huddled under bridges in central Paris; in portacabin camps in the windswept valleys of northern Greece – scorching in the summer, freezing in the winter; on Turkey’s patrolled beaches; from Libyan ports through the hands of people-smugglers. This is reality for hundreds of thousands of people. This is home. This is fleeing home. This is seeking home.
Politicians in Europe have struggled to respond adequately to helping the largest number of displaced people since World War II, exposing a failure of asylum systems and a catastrophic absence of compassion. European governments have presented a series of half measures and stopgap solutions, bowing to electoral pressure from ascendant rightwing parties across the continent that has brought them up short in their aid and asylum efforts. These rightwing parties have exploited the global financial collapse, growing poverty and inequality, and the marginalisation of many people and communities throughout Europe. They have turned the blame for hardships onto migrants and refugees. From this, a dangerous myth has grown, suggesting that men, women and children from the Middle East, Africa and beyond are flocking to our shores to take our jobs, scrounge off benefits and warp our cultures.
you have to understand
At best, it is a failure of understanding that propagates this myth. It leads to ineffective political decisions that aim to stem the flow of people across the Mediterranean. This involves destroying smuggler boats, making transit harder, cracking down on smuggler rings, and withdrawing search and rescue missions and NGO funding. At worst, it amounts to the cynical outsourcing of responsibility, to politicians turning their backs on the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War. You have to understand.
The “pull-factor” of promised prosperity in the European Union is not why people put their children in leaking, rickety boats.
Withdrawing search and rescue missions from the Mediterranean doesn’t save lives, and doesn’t stop people from trying to cross the sea.
Destroying smugglers’ boats is impossible, and doesn’t save lives or stop people from trying to cross the sea. Many boats are chartered by smugglers from fishing fleets or other local sources hours before they sail. Destroying large boats forces people into less safe smaller vessels.
Putting up fences doesn’t save lives or stop people from trying to cross borders. The harder it becomes to reach a safe country, the more people die trying to make a crossing.
Cracking down on people-smuggling rings displaces exploitation as people fleeing danger seek alternative routes, or suffer in their homes.
European politicians often cite an economic pull-factor as one reason why asylum seekers come to Europe, though studies have shown this is seldom the case. Guided by this misconception, politicians condemn to death thousands of people, and inflict greater suffering on many times more. We must understand what drives people from their homes, and respond compassionately. We must offer people refuge, and work hard and long to address the root causes – conflict, persecution, violence – which are often themselves relics of a European imperial past. There is no quick fix, but action needs to be taken.
no one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land
Volunteering with refugee support groups in northern Greece and Calais, I met families from Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, Eritrea and beyond who had crossed the sea in unseaworthy vessels. Were they scared? Of course. Many couldn’t swim. They put their own children in these boats. Not because they wanted to. Not because they think the generosity of Europe will provide for them a more comfortable life. But because the choice of remaining where they were was worse.
It is not a question of ignorance on their part; people fleeing persecution, war and instability know the risks. They know people who have drowned in the attempt to cross the Mediterranean. They have lost friends and family.
Sometimes, the decision to cross the water comes many months or even years after fleeing their homes. Many Yazidis fleeing the horrors of IS in northern Iraq in 2014 went first to Kurdish-controlled areas, and then on to Turkey, where they stayed in camps for a year or more, with no prospect of returning home, settling in the country or being able to work.
There was no future where they were – only the promise of more of the same. Waiting, wasting away. Lives lost, years squandered. 10-year-olds who had never been to school. Students who had not been able to start their careers. Doctors, engineers, teachers, farmers, shop owners, policemen, musicians, actors, mothers, fathers; lives and careers on hold.
It is no easy decision to jump on a boat and head to the supposedly prosperous shores of Europe. Of course, people hope for a better life. They hope for treatment with dignity. They hope to resume careers and studies and play and normal family life. They hope that the European Union lives up to its promises of upholding human rights and the rule of law, of supporting hard-working citizens, of fostering opportunity. But sadly this is not the reality they are met with.
Many in refugee camps across Europe suffer severe mental health issues, both as a result of the horrors they have fled, and, tragically, as a result of the treatment and conditions they have endured in Europe. They are met with months or years of enforced idleness with no right to work, few educational opportunities and an opaque, bureaucratic asylum system.
But people do not put their own children directly in harm’s way for this, boarding unsafe boats to unknown destinations and destinies. Warsan Shire’s poem, Home, is powerful, cutting through the politics of the European asylum crisis and exposing the failures of creating a hostile environment for refugees, and the futility and cruelty of outsourcing border control to questionable regimes. Blocking flights of refuge across the Mediterranean can make the land even more dangerous than it already is. Patrick Kingsley’s investigation into the refugee crisis around the Mediterranean in his book The New Odyssey carefully documents the systems of abuse and exploitation that exist around refugees fleeing through North Africa. Many endure slavery at the hands of people smugglers in Libya, are held to ransom in prisons or are sold into forced labour. The UK steps back from its responsibility, opting out from the European programme of refugee relocation. Government talk of opposing modern day slavery rings hollow.
Shires’s poem sums up and explodes ill-founded popular arguments and misconceptions about the refugees and border crossings. It asks us what we value. What values define us? What is home?
For some children, home is a lifetime on the move, between war-torn villages, towns and cities, foreign countries, desert camps and dust, travel in dangerous lorries, crowded inflatable boats across the sea, tents in the snow and mud in the Balkans, fences, portacabins and abandoned airstrips.
A child sits on a buggy with no seat in the Jungle camp in Calais, a week before it is torn down, the makeshift buildings in flames. Another child plays with a stray kitten outside the makeshift porch of a container home in northern Greece, waiting years for an asylum decision. They are still not home, still not safe.
There are no easy answers. But understanding is a starting point. An appreciation of, and respect for, home and childhood, and a willingness to extend a hand of friendship and support. Until this happens, mothers and fathers will continue to put their children in boats, because the sea is safer than the land.
Musician Nick Mulvey weaves refugee accounts through his song Myela. One voice explains:
“Better to die once in the sea
Than dying every day you stay here with me”