…when the so-called hyper-power and super-power countries in the world meddle in the internal affairs of other countries only to feather their nests, the consequences can be dire indeed. This is what we are witnessing in Europe at the moment. History has taught the world this lesson many times but it seems that the world, with its deficit of wise political leaders, has failed to learn the lesson, or has failed to learn it properly.
The Spanish philosopher, George Santayana, in his essay, “The Philosophy of Travel”, asks rhetorically: “What is life but a form of motion and a journey through a foreign world?” He submits that “locomotion, the privilege of animals, is perhaps the key to intelligence.” Unlike plants, condemned to suck up whatever sustenance may flow to them in a particular spot even when there is a richer soil or a more sheltered and sunnier clime nearby, animals can migrate to better places. And because of their privilege to migrate, animals don’t live where there is no life. They constantly aspire to enjoy “the luxury of blooming and basking and swaying in the light” of an enabling environment. Santayana observes that the power of locomotion changes all the dull experience into life of passion. Travel, he argues, lends meaning to life. It sharpens the eye and expands the mind. “All tourists are dear to Hermes, the god of travel, who is patron also of amiable curiosity and freedom of mind. There is wisdom in turning as often as possible from the familiar to the unfamiliar: it keeps the mind nimble, it kills prejudice, and it fosters humour.” He goes on to remind us that if possession of hands has given man and other animals their superiority, they certainly owe their intelligence to their feet.
I find Santayana’s position on migration even more incisive and convincing: “The most radical form of travel, and the most tragic, is migration. Looking at her birthplace the soul may well recoil, she may find it barren, threatening, or ugly. The very odiousness of the scene may compel her to conceive a negative, a contrast, an ideal; she will dream of El Dorado and Golden Age, and rather than endure the ills, she may fly to anything she knows not of. This hope is not necessarily deceptive: in travel, as in being born, interest may drown the discomfort of finding oneself in a foreign medium: the solitude and liberty of the wide world may prove more stimulating than chilling. Yet migration like birth is heroic: the soul is signing away her safety for a blank cheque.” Human beings will continue to leave the known calamities for unknown tragedies. As they do so, they will fail and succeed, they will meet friends in the forest of demons. Wanderlust may be one reason for migration but as Albert Einstein, said on August 29, 1948 in a press statement, titled “A message to Intellectuals”, “While mankind has produced many scholars so extremely successful in the field of science and technology, human beings have been, for a long time, so inefficient in finding adequate solutions to the many political conflicts and economic problems which beset us.” For that reason, war, terrorism, communal clashes, poverty and natural disasters will remain some of the major factors for displacement, dispossession and migration of people all over the world.
In a detailed report published by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) last year, more than 170,000 refugees landed in Italy in 2014 by boat from Syria, Eritrea, Somalia, Mali, Nigeria, Gambia and Palestine before they travelled to other countries in Europe. Using ill-equipped boats to journey across the Mediterranean has led to thousands of deaths. In 2013, up to 700 refugees perished near Lampedusa, off the coast of Italy. Desperate migrants and refugees no longer wait to cross the Mediterranean in warmer months; they now do it all year round to seek for asylum in Europe. Refugees don’t only pay to be smuggled across the sea, they do other dehumanising things just to run away from the boiling cauldron or impending doom in their countries. Home is a problematic idea to all those who are hopeless in it. To echo Kofi Anyidoho, home is not the meeting point of nightmare and undying plague. Home is not where you stand permanently stranded amidst invisible poisons of hatred and fears. Yet in history, legends, literature and real life, men and women are regarded as heroes or villains because they defended or failed to defend their homes and homelands – including imaginary homelands.
Slowly and steadily, the world is rising to the challenge of the refugee crisis. But is it also willing and honest enough to tackle its root causes for the sake of humanity? It makes a lot of sense to emphathise with innocent victims—whether they are black, white or brown—because when we do that we are saving our own lives too. These people should not be treated as mere figures. They are human beings who have been cut off from their means of livelihood. We are talking about trauma patients.
The high level of migration flows, and the problems associated with it, have become a burden to several countries in Africa and the European Union. For instance, Italy’s Navy, at a very high cost, runs Operation Mare Nostrum (OMN) to save refugees lives. Established by the Italian government on October 18, 2013, Operation Mare Nostrum, in accordance with the 2004 Italian national law, has been patrolling sea lanes, combating human trafficking, improving maritime security and tackling the Mediterranean human emergency in the Sicily Straits. The International Organisation for Migrants’ records show that migrants’ deaths occurred along the US-Mexico border, Africa’s Sahara Desert and the Indian Ocean. What about the increasing number of Internally Displaced People? In June 2014 according to UN’s High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), Syrian civil war displaced about 3 million people, 2.7 million people were displaced in Afghanistan, 1.1 million were forced to leave their homes in Somalia, 670,000 left Sudan, 509,000 fled South Sudan, 480,000 were displaced in Burma, and 426,000 fled Iraq. Countries like Lebanon, Pakistan, Turkey, Jordan, Iran, Kenya and Chad bear economic pressure of hosting the displaced refugees.
In Nigeria, for example, an estimated 3.5 million people have fled their homes in the North-Eastern part of the country as a result of the Boko Haram terrorism, not just to other parts of Nigeria, but also to Cameroon, Niger and Chad. Right now, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCVHA), the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the UN Population Fund, the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) and the State Emergency Management Agency (SEMA) are helping to cushion the pains of the victims. According to the figures published by The New York Times of September 10, 2015, Germany has agreed to take 500,000 refugees per year, US to accept an additional 30,000 refugees next year, France to accept 24,000 refugees over two years, Britain to take 20,000 Syrian refugees over a period of five years, Norway to accept 8,000 refugees by 2017 and Finland to accept 1,050 refugees this year.
Slowly and steadily, the world is rising to the challenge of the refugee crisis. But is it also willing and honest enough to tackle its root causes for the sake of humanity? It makes a lot of sense to emphathise with innocent victims—whether they are black, white or brown—because when we do that we are saving our own lives too. These people should not be treated as mere figures. They are human beings who have been cut off from their means of livelihood. We are talking about trauma patients. It is about thousands of children who cannot go to schools. It is about thousands of people who have lost their loved ones. It is about people whose social and political lives have virtually been put on hold. To the eternal shame of all decent people in my country and the rest of the world, Boko Haram abducted 276 Nigerian girls from their secondary schools in Chibok while they were writing their final exams. One agonising year has passed, and these displaced girls have not been found.
Why is it Angela Merkel’s Germany that is ready to accommodate 80,000 migrants in the forefront of showing kindness to strangers now? Why is the Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban insisting that his country would embark on tougher law enforcements against refugees? Why is Hungary not demonstrating tremendous generosity and hospitality like Germany?
Since the refugees crisis in Europe became an open sore of the world, humanity has shown its best and worst sides. On September 9, 2015, a Hungarian TV camerawoman was seen on camera deliberately tripping a fleeing refugee carrying a child. That powerful image went viral on the Internet because it resonated with the deep feelings of a lot of people. The TV station where Petra Laszlo worked had to sack her immediately in order to retrieve the image of that station from the stinking gutter. Before Laszlo was sacked, she and her TV station were vast becoming international symbols of hatred and racism. The camerawoman has apologised. But hundreds of commenters on the website of The New York Times are still railing against her. The most professionally rewarding for me, of all those comments, was the one that asked a very simple question: why did Laszlo not use her camera to make her point instead of using her leg? If she has done that, some of those people who disagreed with her images, would still have defended her right to take those pictures. Laszlo and other Hungarians like her don’t know that Hungary benefitted from the kindness of others when their country was invaded by Russia in 1956. All those who want to exterminate other human beings today because they are refugees should have a change of heart because they may well become migrants tomorrow.
Powerful images can change the world. The refugee crisis in Europe began to command necessary attention when the photograph of Aylan Kurti, a three-year-old Turkish boy, who drowned at a Turkish beach, went viral on the World Wide Web. It did what millions of words could not have done instantly. The positive, haunting effect of that image reminds us of Kevin Carter, the South African photojournalist who won the Pulitzer Prize for feature photography in April 1994. You will recall that in March 1993 at a feeding centre for refugees in Sudan to where he had gone with the UN workers, he took the photograph of a starving female toddler about to be preyed upon by a hooded vulture nearby. He sold the picture to The New York Times which published it on March 26, 1993. Many other media outlets later used that moving, powerful image which graphically depicted the 1993 famine in Sudan. The conscience of the world was pricked. And men and women of goodwill rose magnificently to save Sudan from that tragedy. Kevin’s work still lingers in my mind. That iconic image has inspired other artists profoundly. The documentary, The Death of Kevin Carter, two novels, House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski, The Distance Between Us by Masha Hamilton, plus some songs, were all inspired by that stunning image. It was a pity that Kevin Carter committed suicide on July 27, 1994 at the age of 33. He said, among other things in his suicide note: “I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings and corpses and anger and pain, I am haunted by memories of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madman, often police, of killer executioners.” He was a photographer with a huge emotional intelligence pursued to the very end by some incurable demons.
When we deepen our knowledge as artists and intellectuals – both traditional and organic – humanity in its various forms will be better served.
But creative artists need more than their talents and emotional intelligence. They need to be well-informed too of the subject upon which their works are based. For instance, how much of the story of internally displaced people and current migration do we pay adequate attention to? We know that the war in Syria has lasted for four-and-a-half years but why is it difficult for the world to put an end to it? Why is President Bashar al Assad still in power? When President Barrack Obama said America can only take 10,000 refugees and migrants for now, what is responsible for that policy? Why is it Angela Merkel’s Germany that is ready to accommodate 80,000 migrants in the forefront of showing kindness to strangers now? Why is the Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban insisting that his country would embark on tougher law enforcements against refugees? Why is Hungary not demonstrating tremendous generosity and hospitality like Germany?
The refugees’ crisis is the biggest challenge to Europe since World War II. And as Angela Merkel keeps saying, the integration of the Syrians and other refugees will certainly change the social and political configurations of Europe in the next 30 years. When we deepen our knowledge as artists and intellectuals – both traditional and organic – humanity in its various forms will be better served. Finally, when the so-called hyper-power and super-power countries in the world meddle in the internal affairs of other countries only to feather their nests, the consequences can be dire indeed. This is what we are witnessing in Europe at the moment. History has taught the world this lesson many times but it seems that the world, with its deficit of wise political leaders, has failed to learn the lesson, or has failed to learn it properly.
Kunle Ajibade is Executive Editor and Director of TheNEWS/P.M.NEWS.
This keynote address was given at the “Spaces of Displacement: Negotiations of Migration and Refugeeism in Mass Media and Visual Arts” conference held September 21—25, 2015 at the Goethe Institut, Lagos, Nigeria.