At some point in 2017, travelling from Germany to the UK, via France, I made an overnight stop in Calais. This is my diary note, dated 24th August:
‘Two years since I last visited the ‘jungle’ camp. I don’t see migrants around the French Docks anymore, as the temporary camp was demolished. Bulldozers flattened down tents donated by NGOs, improvised kitchens, food distribution points, and the school built out of cardboard and polystyrene. Silence surrounds the old site. A silence I encounter in Calais, at the border check points, in the media. It measures our collective dissociation from tragedy, the anonymity of Syrian refugees’ stories, the anonymity of their predicament. Where have the Syrian people manage to settle? Far North, further South?’
The refugees came and went. In and out of history, their tragedy captured the West’s attention for as long as their presence disturbed the flux of goods and tourists at the French border.
But history is unforgiving and it does not forget. Diplomats, academics, politicians, strategists are currently gathered at the Munich Security Conference, taking place in Germany 14th-16th February. The conference’s agenda covers talks and debates around energy, food, climate and internet security, as well as travel, investments and foreign policies. It is an attempt to re-think the European priorities, at times marked by insecurities brought on by the Covit-19 outbreak and the economic trade volatility. I would have thought this is an important enough event to require British diplomatic presence, but unfortunately, the UK is missing the event altogether.
This morning, in an interview for BBC Radio 4, David Miliband, former British Foreign Secretary, currently CEO at International Rescue Committee, expressed his disappointment at the lack of vision in British politics and the inability to work towards a wider European / global scope rather than obsess over its own short-term goals. I can probably understand Miliband’s bitterness though Milliband is there to represent the interests of his own NGO, while I’m drawn to a debate item placed on the first day’s agenda: Human Security and Westlessness.
There is a strong sense that Western democracies are beginning to see their power and influence fading, overwhelmed by complex global issues which require solutions based on vision and multi-national collaboration. To put it plainly, the West has started to understand that ‘the cold reality is not that autocracy will triumph and democracy will fail, but rather that the 500-year-long era of Western global supremacy is coming to an end’ (Barber, 2019). One could go even further and say that the West has lost it’s power with the rise of populist nationalist ideas, based on hostility to immigrants and protectionist economic interests. Francis Fukuyama (2019) sees the current climate as a ‘fundamental mistake’ that facilitates abusive use of power and threatens the liberal order.
Populist nationalist ideology brushed under the carpet the tragedy of thousands (if not millions) of Syrians who find themselves displaced all over Europe by war, destruction and famine. Displayed and begging.
In Britain, for instance, 45,255 Syrian refugees are waiting for an initial decision on their asylum applications, and more than half have waited for longer than six months already (Refugee Action, 2019). This is a symptom of a diseased bureaucratic system which serves its purpose well: to keep powerful institutions away from the citizens that they are supposed to protect and serve.
Nonetheless, real power is not in institutions but in the people that support institutions. Real power is in the small action which makes a big difference. Real power is about remembering, not forgetting, tragedy; it is about engaging resources to support lives and communities, not bureaucratic interests. As the silence coming from top level politics reaches epidemic proportions, I begin to understand that forthcoming governmental priorities will ignore issues concerning people, and will concentrate on managing databases. And if nobody keeps on talking about it, if nobody keeps the pressure on the decisional factors, the Government’s job will soon be nothing but a walk in the park which serves its own interests. Silence empowers bureaucracy and kills people.
© Maria Stadnicka, 15 February 2020.
Published in International Times on 22 February 2020.
Barber, T. (2019) Rise of autocracies spells end to the West’s global supremacy. In: Financial Times, 6 November 2019. Available from: link.
Fukuyama, F. (2019) in: Spear’s, Arun Kakar: Francis Fukuyama on Trump, and why Brexit could be the end of Britain, 25th September 2019. Available from: link.
Munich Security Report 2020 is available as pdf. doc here.
Refugee Action UK (2019) Press Release. Available from link..