This collected work is about the “refugee crisis” in Europe in the years from the summer of 2015 to early 2020. Conflicts in Syria and crises in Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, Eritrea and elsewhere brought almost 2 million asylum seekers on perilous journeys to a Europe which, far from offering them safety and security, in large part proved unwilling or unable to accommodate them. With the notable exception of Angela Merkel’s Germany, the official line of most other European states ranged from indifference to open hostility. The new arrivals, having in many cases already faced war and violence, abuse by traffickers and near-drowning at sea, were met on arrival by closed borders, police aggression, the abuse of many of their human rights and a lack of the most basic food or shelter. Commentators have said that, especially for young people, the trauma many faced by their official treatment in Europe was worse than what they had faced in their home countries.
My own experiences of working with and filming refugees in the Calais “Jungle” and other parts of Europe have brought me into con- tact with hundreds of volunteers of a completely new order. Thus, I have come to understand first-hand that set against the generalised hostility has been a powerful new force, the flowering of what I call here the “activist volunteer” movement: a grassroots mobilisation of people of every age, skill and background, who as individuals or in small groups responded to a humanitarian crisis that neither governments nor the larger aid agencies seemed willing or able to address. Some were local citizens responding to people arriving at their coasts, ports, border- points and railway stations. Others travelled to the “Hotspots” from elsewhere in Europe and beyond. Yet more collected goods and raised funds to supply the camps, provided welcome and settlement support at final destinations, and campaigned for legal and civil rights. And many refugees themselves committed to support those arriving after them, to ease their way.
Between them, this mobilisation of over half-a-million people across Europe sourced hundreds of thousands of tents, trainers and waterproofs, baby clothes, sanitary towels and sleeping bags. They built huts and put up tents; they cooked thousands of meals a day and sourced clean water. They cut hair, charged phones and cleaned toilets. They gave legal and medical advice and support. They set up crèches, language classes, therapy, music, theatre and arts. When EU and member state rescue missions withdrew from the Mediterranean, they scoured the sea for shipwrecks, then faced arrest for saving lives. They were abused and tear-gassed by police in the makeshift camps. They listened to a million stories, and laughed and wept with each person who told them. They drank endless cups of tea with the new arrivals in cold, leaky tents, and when people got to some kind of permanent settlement they found them cots and pillowcases, played football with them, fasted and broke bread and prayed together. They battled the state for help and for refugee rights. They railed against governments for not providing all this aid, and they railed against themselves and each other for making mistakes, for not doing enough, not doing more. They brought corpses out of the sea so that families could have closure; they helped bury the dead and mourn with those grieving, and repatriated bodies back home. What they did, and continue to do, was and is in every way truly extraordinary, and demands to be documented.
As well as what they did, they bore unique witness to a crisis that is one of Europe’s most shameful episodes, and their testimonies hold vital knowledge that the world needs to hear. They continue to fight and campaign, and to feed and ferry people, even as states have begun to criminalise their actions. They do these things overwhelmingly not out of a grandiose idea of white-saviourism or do-good cliché, but because they believe that all of our humanity depends on how we treat those who need our help, especially when our own countries and governments may have contributed to the disasters in theirs. They seek to accept and support the new arrivals – and to do that, they argue that we must all dismantle the pernicious borders in our own minds, the “us and them”, the ideological walls that separate us as much as do the concrete walls, checkpoints and fences that have come to haunt this new Europe.
This book is for them and for our new arrivals, in solidarity.