By Diya Dilan and Fiona O’Hara
On Sunday the 15th of November, Amnesty International Maastricht Students (AIMS) assembled on the Sint Servaas Bridge. The aim: to raise awareness of the struggle the refugees are facing today at the European borders. By creating a human border we kept people from crossing the bridge. This made the citizens of Maastricht experience a tiny part of the difficulties the refugees face when they try to reach Europe. Was it successful, you ask? We had anticipated bad reactions, but none of us was prepared for some people becoming violent. Even the elderly tore our hands apart and charged through us. In some extreme cases cyclists didn’t stop, assuming we would open the chain to let them through. One individual even threatened to call the police. So maybe our border was physically not as defiant as we had hoped for, but what truly mattered was that we did engage in some meaningful debates with the citizens of Maastricht.
Since the civil war has started in Syria back in 2011, there has been a vast amount of people fleeing the warzone. More than 750,000 refugees have arrived in Europe by sea. And this is only a small amount compared to the refugees who are travelling by land or have found refuge in neighbouring countries. Since the Paris Attacks, France has launched numerous airstrikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Iraq and Syria. “We are convinced that we must continue to strike ISIL in Syria. We will intensify our strikes,” is what the French President François Hollande said after the attacks in a joint press conference with UK Prime Minister David Cameron. Russia has stated that it is going to launch airstrikes against ISIL as well. This escalation of violence has caused more bad than good and has put the lives of Syrians in even more danger than before.
More children, like the 13 year old Ahmed, might lose their families. More children might be robbed of their childhood because of this senseless violence. After losing his father in an air strike, Ahmed was forced by circumstances to quit school and maintain his family all on his own. When you hear stories like that, it makes it easier to emotionally attach to the refugee crisis. To stop seeing people who flee as a mere number. This was something we, as AIMS, found a useful tool to help us appeal to the citizens of Maastricht. However, not everyone shared the same view on refugees with us.
One of the citizens we encountered believed that the borders should be closed to protect Europe. Bear in mind that this was just two days after the horrific attacks in Paris and Beirut. In hindsight, we can see that this argument is not valid since many of the suspected attackers have been identified as Belgian nationals and not refugees at all (if only Donald Trump paid attention to this instead of pledging to create a Nazi-style Muslim refugee database). We tried to emphasize the fact that the vast majority of refugees are fleeing those same people who committed the awful crimes in Paris. We tried to appeal to the citizen’s humanity and asked her if she was okay with the fact that people in the Middle East have to deal with the fear of a terrorist attack like the ones in Paris and Beirut every single day.
Although this self-preservation attitude is completely understandable, the idea that refugees are dangerous is fear mongering propaganda spread by conservative politicians and attention-seeking media outlets. These attitudes are putting innocent people’s lives in serious danger, not just the refugees but also the lives of all Muslims in Europe. With reports of a Muslim woman being pushed into an oncoming train at Piccadilly Circus in London, we can see that the rise of Islamophobia, particularly directed at the refugees but certainly not in all cases, is a serious problem that has to be stopped. It is good to mention here that ISIL, in no way, represents the Islamic religion. They have corrupted a peaceful religion and used it for their own means. According to a recent Pew Research Study, only 0.00006625% of the global Muslim community supports extremist activities. Moreover, a recent study of Interpol shows that only 2% of terror attacks in Europe are religiously motivated.
Something that should be reported seriously and frequently but has been nearly neglected, is that these refugees are ordinary people, who once lived comfortable lives just like our own. They had well-paying jobs and family homes. These same people are now searching for the security that has been unfairly taken away from them. These people are not the benefit-scrounging thieves or ISIL terrorists that many of the people who we encountered on the bridge believed they could be. By the end of our conversations with the public there were many who started sceptical but eventually either compromised with us or agreed completely. This just goes to show that once you forget the bigoted fear-mongering and political propaganda, you can see that more needs to be done to help and protect the refugees in Europe.
Anyone and everyone can do their part to make this change; Whether it’s by donating money and clothes to charity organisations like the Dutch Parcels for Refugees, opening your home to a family in need, or even simply signing a petition to put pressure on the government to help improve the current situation. If you are really keen you can of course block of your local bridge, annoying cyclists and people who are late for their trains, like we did. Amnesty International, in the end, believes that the borders should stay open. And we believe that you should too.