Three weeks ago I was in Munich, a holiday that was planned prior to the refugee crisis in Europe that has unfolded this Summer. Hundreds of thousands of people fleeing war and oppression in places like Syria, Afghanistan and Eritrea and economic migrants fleeing poverty in places such as Pakistan have made the long and hazardous journey towards Europe. This is the largest movement of people since the Second World War.
The most distinct memory I have from my time there was of clapping. Crowds of people had gathered outside the railway station to clap refugees entering their country. It was an incredibly poignant moment. Germany is truly setting the example.
The response from the EU as a whole to this crisis, on the other hand, has been varied. Hungary has just finished erecting a fence along its border with Serbia to control refugee movements. Bitter arguments have engulfed Croatia and Serbia over their intake and outtake of migrants between their respective countries.
Even Germany a few weeks ago introduced stronger border checks with Austria, and the country has been home to at least 200 far-right attacks on refugees this year according to The Independent. Nevertheless, Angela Merkel’s government has budgeted €6 billion to cope with the expected arrival of between 800,000 and 1 million refugees this year. Although Germany will take in the largest total number of refugees, it is Sweden who has taken in the largest in proportion to its population. It is also the only country to have a majority approval rating for taking in refugees, between 71 and 77 per cent, according to a recent Eurostat survey.
I was only in Munich for three days but this mindset from Germany was obvious to see. Upon arrival at Munich Central Station we discovered that the main exit was cordoned off. The road directly outside the exit was being used as a checkpoint for processing refugees. Tents had been erected and there was a strong police presence. A large crowd, including at least four camera crews, had gathered to watch. Present were fellow tourists, German nationals and even those who had previously been granted asylum in the country.
Although this environment may sound quite intense, the feeling amongst those watching was one of excitement and anticipation. I didn’t sense anger or frustration from anyone in the crowd.
The refugees themselves were being directed to buses or trains bound for camps up and down the country. Whilst watching for only five minutes a whole bus had filled up and departed to Nuremburg further north. It was only 9.30am.
Seeing this response from Germany first hand made me realize the responsibility we as a University and a Students’ Union have with regards to this crisis. In the confines of York campus the issue of refugees might seem quite distant. We need to make sure we don’t fall into this mindset. All of us have a voice and all of us can speak out.
We can speak out to our MP, speak out to our University and speak out to each other. Three weeks ago there was a hugely well-attended demonstration (1.5K clicked attending on the Facebook event) hosted by Louisa Mallett and Hakirit Boparai in the city centre called ‘York Says Refugees Welcome Here’ to coincide with the main demonstration in London. The more people that are engaged with the issue, the more impact we can have.
YUSU is also in the process of deciding what practical things we as a student body can do to help. We will be announcing our plans over the coming few weeks so keep an eye out! One of our current ideas is to hold a clothing and food collection when term starts. This is such a good idea considering how much is left unused in student halls and houses.
Before confirming this though we need to coordinate with refugee action groups in York to establish whether this would actually be beneficial, and if so how we would best approach doing it. Two weeks ago however the University itself announced the launch of a £500,000 package of initiatives. Academics fleeing war-torn countries will also be given ‘scholar refugee status’ and three undergraduates a year will be provided with fee waivers and maintenance grants.
This comes after news last Monday that two human rights experts at York, Dr Simon Parker and Dr Simon Robins, have been awarded funding from the Economic and Social Research Council’s (ESRC) Urgency Call to conduct research with migrant and refugee populations who have entered Europe across the Mediterranean, as well as with the communities they have left in their countries of origin.
If you need any more inspiration to act on this issue a group of six York students have set the example for all of us. They have raised over three thousand pounds and drove down to Calais last Saturday with the supplies.
This issue is about so much more than politics, it is about humanity. As a student body we have a responsibility to respond to this crisis. Please don’t just sit back and watch events unfold.