As the flow of refugees into European are changing how we think of our role in the world and the role of compassion in our collective futures, I want to draw a line I’ve not seen commented on elsewhere. The flow of refugees are those people who are displaced by a war but also by a revolution that was thwarted by that war. If we look back to the Arab Spring many people have commented on the reasons – volatility in oil prices, drought in Syria particularly and the growing expense of basic foodstuffs. Few have moved beyond such a materialist explanation and looked at what people have actually said, and this is very clear.
Several of the people, who we have watched, step from the rubber boats on the beaches of Greek islands have said – we are humans we are no longer animals. Part of the Arab Spring was a revolt against the humiliations piled on people by dictatorships, from the petty humiliations of needing permits through to the horror to torture, mutilation and murder. We must not forget that it was the death of a child that sparked the protests which turned into the Syrian war. It is a bitter irony that a revolt against humiliation has in part sparked ISIS. Yet it clear that many ordinary Syrians are still searching for a life lived in dignity, free of fear and liberation.
They have clearly learnt the lessons of the revolution that gave rise to their search for refuge, as faced by provocation and stalling they reach for the protestors tactic of non-violent direct action. You won’t give me a ticket for a train – ok I’ll walk to where I intended to go, you are trying to get me into a camp I don’t want to live in – I’ll go to the gates and then turn away. You are forcing me to register in a country I don’t want to stay in, well I’ll walk on. Thousand, tens of thousands of people are demonstrating the power of collective action as governments flounder and policies struggle to cope with the new realities. This is matched by the people of Europe who have risen up to offer food, gifts, housing, assistance of all kinds and most of a welcome.
What the refugees are demonstrating is a cosmopolitan citizenship. They may be stateless but they know how to act as if they were the citizens of a contemporary democratic state, clutching their mobile phones, children at their feet or elders in wheel chairs they are creating a new politics. The lessons of the Arab Spring have come to Europe.