For me it was heart-warming to see the genuine displays of public support that followed. Just within my immediate circle of friends and family I have seen a fundraising gig, supplies collected at local children centres and driven to Calais, a “Refugees Welcome” banner made for a Premier League football match and a friend in Austria give up her summer to support incoming refugees at the central train station.
War is quite often the main cause of large scale refugee crises. This was the case with the exodus of Jews from Europe in the 1940s and is the case now in Syria and Afghanistan. Of course there are many other reasons why people up sticks and move around the world – love, study, better prospects. My own mother is a case in point. But when we experience large-scale population shifts it is usually because of war. Otherwise research shows that the vast majority of people would prefer to stay in their home country and make their life there.
That is, until now. Two new factors seem recently to have come into play. The first is the sheer ease of international travel, the ease of seeing and being attracted to other places. As a result, one estimate suggests that the number of international migrants will double by 2050, reaching a staggering 400 million people.
The second factor is environmental destruction. Many poor countries are extremely vulnerable to the impact of rising world temperatures and rising sea levels. Traditional fishing areas are becoming barren, undermining food supplies. Agriculture in many places will no longer be viable in its current form as drought spreads or rains become more erratic or more extreme.
One UN estimate suggests that this could cause up to 200 million climate refugees over the same timescale.
To put this into perspective, around 40 million people had to leave their homes in Asia and the Pacific in 2010 and 2011 due to floods, storms and heat waves. For many this was temporary, for others it will have been more permanent – not to mention those who lost their lives. (Closer to home for example, an estimated 70,000 people died prematurely in the 2003 European heat wave.)
So if we think that we are currently experiencing a refugee crisis in Europe, we may be in for a shock as climate change really starts to bite – especially if it results in conflicts over scarce resources, water or agricultural land.
This leaves me with a question:
Can we sustain the genuine, heart-felt sympathy and compassion of recent weeks, if and when large scale international migrations become a permanent, or more regular feature of life?
I for one hope we can.
To a large extent the current refugee crisis has given rise to a popular, self-organised response of the people, by the people, for our fellow people. It has been the making of us – demonstrating the power of compassion and our ability to organise effectively outside of state structures or traditional political systems.
This seems to me to show the potential for more spontaneous collaboration – borne out of our innate ability to organise and to support others when they are in need. This is what marks us out as a human race in the modern world. And to this extent it gives us a glimpse into a better world where we have more control over our affairs, more compassion for each other and more genuine collaboration.
Sometimes in adversity we see the true greatness of which we are capable. Long may it last.