Since mid-2015, war and poverty in the Middle East and Africa have forced record numbers to flee their homes, fueling Europe’s largest refugee and migrant crisis since World War II.
Launched in May 2016, I am not a refugee is a digital platform (iamnotarefugee.lu), an awareness- raising media campaign and a citizen initiative combining storytelling, journalistic research, interviews, photography and design. I am not a refugee intends to humanise the discussions about refugees; to allow refugees to speak for themselves; and to fight growing populism, fears, stereotypes and prejudice.
In the last two years, approximately 1.5 million people originating from the Middle East and Africa have headed to Europe through the Mediterranean Sea, triggering disputes between countries over how to handle this influx of immigrants. Populist groups across Europe have repeatedly abused the crisis to weaken the EU and inflame tensions against immigrants. Like many citizens in Europe, I am appalled by the “fortress approach” of some European countries. Despite extreme (and occasionally inhumane) measures, migration has not stopped. In 2016, at least 3,800 refugees died in the Mediterranean Sea while trying to reach Europe, making 2016 the deadliest year on record, according to the UN refugee agency.
History has been marked by migrations and will continue to be. Experts worldwide agree that poverty and wars will continue to make people leave their countries at any cost. Furthermore, migration experts warn that forced migration linked to climate pressures will dramatically increase the number of people displaced by natural disasters, including floods, storms and droughts.
Today, 1 in every 113 people globally is either an asylum-seeker, internally displaced or a refugee. This number will grow. We have to face this reality.
Considering migration as an anomaly or a threat will not bring us anywhere. Migration is what we make out of it. We have to get used to the idea that more people will want to enter Europe – and it is in our best interest to find a human way to deal with it.
On a per-capita basis, Luxembourg has one of the highest intakes of refugees in Europe. We have had a strong wave of solidarity (donations, funds) from the local population to welcome the refugees. The next step is to help the newcomers integrate and write their new stories in our country, to empower them. For this, we would need to go beyond offering clothes or donating money to charities – we will need to personally connect, spend time, open and share our worlds.
I am not a refugee aims precisely to connect the Luxembourgish community and refugees (cf. the e-mail connect button at the end of each online portrait). By trying to link the two sides, the campaign also counters the current retreat towards nationalism, which is noticeable in Luxembourg. Antagonism towards foreigners (including refugees) can be seen on social networks nearly every day.
Isn’t that rather surprising, given that Luxembourg has immigration in its DNA and that almost 50 percent of the country’s population is non-Luxembourgish (a unique situation in Europe!)?
With abrupt shifts in public opinion, identity-related fear and stoking of the extreme right that we have seen in the neighbouring countries, we have to remain on our guard. The welcome extended to refugees and to foreigners in general is fragile. As nationalisms are growing everywhere in Europe, we have the responsibility to create a true sense of inclusion and do it in a fundamentally innovative manner. Today, Luxembourg, one of the richest countries in the world, is struggling with its identity. Our ability to integrate foreigners, whether refugees or not, is essential when we talk about nation branding. This is how we will create the open-minded society that Luxembourg is so well-positioned to be.
If one country has the means, keys and political stability to foster true integration, it is Luxembourg. Provided we have the right attitude, a strong yet humanistic governmental vision and a well-concerted multi-layered integration plan, we can make it happen.
When starting this project, I had no idea how much despair, pain, insidious and emotional suffering I was going to encounter in the displaced people whom I would meet. The conflicts and persecutions refugees are fleeing from; the separation from their families; the living conditions in the refugee centres; the lengthy bureaucratic procedures; and the huge uncertainty about work, housing or education require a tremendous amount of patience, con dence, determination and resilience. New environments, different cultural codes and language barriers do not help, either.
Policy and administration processes address refugees as a homogenized group. Refugees, however, are individuals with their own complex stories.
Refugees live in extreme solitude. They are pretty much left alone with all the situations they have to face. Today, it is mainly civil society, NGOs and many volunteers that relentlessly and beautifully connect refugees to the Luxembourgish reality. During the last year, people from very di erent backgrounds met and connected. Today, many citizens support and encourage refugees through introducing the new arrivals to their new communities.
By offering and unfolding their competences, they have evolved to become bold changemakers who foster the social inclusion of the newcomers through innovative projects in the elds of housing, employment and education.
In this very complex matter, I have only one certainty: the arrivals who are thriving today or will be tomorrow are those who are connected to the residents of Luxembourg.
I have seen shattered minds awaken again because someone cared. I have seen refugees adjust to their new lives, overcome despair and thrive. I have seen new families rise and the magic of babies born in a country they would not have even visited in their lifetimes under different circumstances. I have seen Luxembourgish families open their homes to newcomers and, by doing so, open a new world to them. I have seen firms offer internships and jobs to the newcomers.
I have seen the true power of humanity, witnessing how humans, no matter where they come from, flourish when someone kindly watches over them. I have witnessed many persons who feel this support, deploy tremendous resilience and successfully start new lives from scratch. I know for sure that solidarity and empathy are incredibly powerful social drivers.
The dramas played out on the international scene and all the pressing social, economic and environmental challenges of today’s world enable and even oblige each of us to engage as active members of the community. The challenges can only be overcome by our concerted efforts – on top of the work carried out by charitable associations, NGOs and the state. Migration has and will shape the world.
To make sure it happens in the right way, we have to triumph over the general apathy, become indignant, refuse to take no for an answer, be agile and be ready for a change.
Founder of I’m not a refugee – Luxembourg