Team Refugee: a Catalyst for Compassion?

In September, the EU resolved to relocate 160,000 refugees, from a current total of sixty-five million worldwide. Despite this, but in line with Britain and Denmark’s decision to abstain from the resolve, there has seemingly been more hostility than compassion towards those displaced. Indeed, the UN refugee chief has remarked upon the ‘climate of xenophobia’ sweeping Europe. Thus, at a point where representations of refugees are negative and numerical, the humanisation and positivity created by their Olympic team offers some much needed respite. Whether this group of athletes can inspire real political change once the competition is over remains to be seen.

Currently, there is a reluctance to deal directly with the crisis. A group of Conservative MPs, following a recent visit to Greece, were shocked by the disorganisation and suffering within refugee camps there. The experience prompted them to reassert their support for the monetary aid Britain currently provides for refugees, as well as to express a need for greater specificity in deploying that funding. And yet, this altruism is less abundant in the party when considering helping refugees within British borders. In 2015, David Cameron was noticeably reluctant to accept any refugees into Britain at all. Lobbying had him concede a five hundred person quota, although there was no urgency in fulfilling it. When the issue flared again in the media, he raised that number to one thousand, despite exceptionally slow progress being made towards the five hundred goal. By September, he had increased that figure dramatically; he now claimed to be open to accepting ‘up to twenty thousand’. However, the prefix ensured that figure is not absolute, or perhaps as progressive as it might appear. Indeed, through all of this, he dodged UN and EU schemes which might bind Britain to following through on its goals. And, this is not the only suggestion that the UK government wishes to avoid inviting refugees to stay. Parliament voted against accepting 3000 child refugees into the country in April. Despite a close result, with Labour, the SNP and the Liberal Democrats backing the amendment, naysayers triumphed. Arguments to keep the children out included fears that accepting them might encourage more people to head for Britain. And yet, Britain has a low proportion of asylum seekers to local population. There are just 60 asylum applications per 100,000 locals. The EU average is 260, and the highest is 1799 per 100,000, in Hungary.

Elsewhere, there are similar patterns. German Chancellor Angela Merkel received a letter from her own party requesting that she stem the flow of refugees into Germany that has occurred courtesy of her ‘open door’ policy. Indeed, this policy is thought to be a primary reason in Germany’s desire to oust her at the next election, an assertion supported by the dramatic rise of anti-immigration party, the AfD. In the U.S., despite pledging to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees, only 1285 have been accepted so far, with some states fighting legal battles to block refugee resettlement. It is clear that there is a growing tendency to look inwards, to consider with greater regard the ramifications of increased population and diversity, than to extend empathy and welcome to those who need it.

Simplified, the issue amounts to a greater degree of perceived problems with refugees than benefits. Perhaps they will take jobs and welfare, perhaps they will struggle to integrate, perhaps they will commit crimes, and perhaps – worst of all – they will be terrorists. Perhaps. Perhaps the Western world will be flooded with more displaced people than it can possibly cope with.

The Refugee Olympic Team (#TeamRefugee) offers a different narrative. These are ten athletes who have overcome huge difficulties in order to compete in a world class sports tournament. Syrian swimmer Yusra Mardini competed in the 100m butterfly after swimming for three hours in open water to ensure the safety of her boat as it crossed the Mediterranean Sea. Half of the team is comprised of South Sudanese distance runners, discovered in a refugee camp in Kenya by activist Tegla Loroupe. Such camps, designed to be temporary, can house refugees for years, or even generations, stripping them of their dignity and self-sufficiency. As President Obama tweeted, this team can “prove that you can succeed no matter where you’re from”. ‘Success’ is the key here: they are not victims or aggressors: to be either pitied or feared. They are athletes; they are to be admired.

Nonetheless, the Olympics is an event that disappears as quickly as it materialises. As soon as the closing ceremony finishes on August 22nd, perhaps these ten athletes will disappear too, and with them, any hope for generating positive action to help the millions still displaced. Monetary aid to camps is not a permanent solution, but perhaps rich countries like the UK will never truly feel comfortable in allowing an influx of new people. Or perhaps they will. However reluctantly, the Conservative government did respond to public pressure on the issue before, and the visibility of #TeamRefugee might just inspire a fresh wave of popular compassion.

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