By Shayna Plaut, Contributing Editor, Human Rights
We’ve seen the body of the toddler Alan Kurdi, who, along with mother and brother, drowned on the shores of Europe seeking safety.
We have heard the impassioned pleas of people from Syria and Afghanistan and Eritrea holding train tickets that are no longer valid.
We have listened in confusion as the Prime Ministers of Hungary, Germany and other Central European countries debate the politics of the European Union as people sleep on the street with neither blankets nor water.
The scenes being broadcast around the world are that of chaos and spectacle. This, unfortunately, is typical in our 15-minutes of fame and sorrow — short attention span news cycle. It is the crisis de jure.
Technically, people need to seek refugee status in the first European country they arrive at – so what does it mean when Hungary or Austria are used as transit zones? Should the law be upheld or is the law itself unjust? Can trains bring down the European Union’s Schengen Zone comprised of 26 countries that abolished passports and border control, created when there was still hope? The very policies that were supposed to ensure ease of movement coupled with security are presently threatening chaos in Budapest, Vienna, Prague and Munich. Places that produced refugees less than a century ago are now awash in refugees.
I lived in Budapest in 2002 and return fairly regularly. I used to walk to Keleti train station almost daily – among other things, the station was home to some of the best falafel and hummus in the city. Watching the news and scrolling the websites is almost surreal. Although the architecture is beautiful as always, I do not recognize the streets or the police in military formation staring down families seeking refuge. I refuse to stomach the eerie symmetry of tricking people onto trains and then, just a few kilometers away, storming the same trains to force people to register with authorities.
But within this despair I also see hope.
Unlike so many examples of journalists “helicoptering in” to chaos and upheaval, there seems to be a commitment by a growing number of journalists to remember the people in the story. Their stories cut against the sensationalism – the young Arab man being hoisted onto the shoulders of other young men saying, “what do we want? Germany.” And the children – so many children – silent with big eyes, curled up with their parents or, perhaps more frightening, all alone. It is heartening that there are journalists and media outlets committed to providing time and space for long-form narratives and for following the story after the headlines. There are interviews and profiles unraveling the laws, regulations, expectations and journeys that brought us to this point of chaos; stories that provide the insights of governments, refugees, citizens groups and even the lay people on the streets.
Hungary has a long history of people fleeing on trains and the turn to the right is not unknown. I wrote about it previously for Praxis Center. But this is not just about Hungary; it is about Europe. It is about people.
Hopefully, we are learning that there are, indeed, people suffering from the broken policies – and, ultimately, that refuges themselves can show us how to fix these policies.
Read more about the stories of refugees and their power to evoke change: “At the Border of People and Polices: Closing the Distance Through Storytelling” by Shayna Plaut