“Refugees are Human” – Humanitarian Narratives and Strategies

In a recent conference held at the Leibniz Institute of European History international scholars discussed in an interdisciplinary dialogue the history of European concepts of humanity in practice. However, as matter of fact the relationship between concepts and practices of humanity is not only one of historical research, but is also most relevant in our days. Confronted with the tremendous humanitarian crisis of hundreds of thousands of children, women, and men trying to escape from disaster, war, and persecution – many of them drowning and dying on their perilous journeys to the alleged safe haven of Europe – voices are loudly raised appealing to common humanity and demanding appropriate action by the international community.


Syrian refugees strike at the platform of Budapest Keleti railway Station, 4 September 2015, Picture by Mstyslav Chernov CC BY-SA 4.0

Horrified by the loss of thousands of lives in the Mediterranean Sea and on the concrete occasion of the appalling discovery of 71 dead refugees asphyxiated inside an abandoned lorry nearby the Austrian-Hungarian border the UN Secretary-General Baan Ki-Moon launched an urgent appeal on 28 August 2015: “A large majority of people undertaking these arduous and dangerous journeys are refugees fleeing from places such as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. International law has stipulated – and states have long recognized – the right of refuges to protection and asylum. When considering asylum requests, States cannot make distinctions based on religion or other identity – nor can they force people to return to places from which they have fled if there is a well-founded fear of persecution or attack. This is not a matter of international law; it is also our duty as human beings. […] I appeal to all governments involved to provide comprehensive responses, expand safe and legal channels of migration and act with humanity, compassion and in accordance with their international obligations.”[1]

In his statement, the UN Secretary-General purposely referred to the relief for refuges as a common, fundamental duty of all human beings in order to counter an emerging notion which regarded fleeing people merely as a growing problem without acknowledging the true human tragedies involved. Instead of acting with humanity as demanded by the UN Secretary-General States started to erect new barbwire fences to seal off its borders pushing back people desperately seeking asylum. Rightwing politicians across Europe started to refer to refugees merely as statistical numbers without any human attributes or even worse as an unwanted, anonymous swarm approaching Fortress Europe and thus endangering health, prosperity and security on the continent. A dangerous tendency of deliberately dehumanizing refugee and degrading them to annoying problem has started and is still gaining strength. Accordingly, the current crisis is becoming more and more a serious challenge of Europe’s humanity and its ability for appropriate humanitarian action.

In this context Owen Jones, journalist of the British newspaper The Guardian, reminds the public in one of his articles of a simple, but fundamental fact that seems to be forgotten in our recent days: “Refugees are human”[2]. Owen indicates that migrants are not just statistic numbers. He strongly argues for a strategy of humanizing faceless refugees and showing their true human nature by pointing to the fact: “It is only when we strip the humanity from people – when we stop imagining them as being quite human like us – that our empathic nature is eroded. That allows us either to accept the misery of others, or even to inflict it on them. […] we need to show the reality of refugees: their names, their faces, their ambitions and their fears, their loves, what they fled.”[3] This notion of a 21st century journalist closely resembles to the humanitarian narrative and strategies of abolitionists fighting the slave trade in earlier centuries; both humanitarian cases in different epochs and on different issues ­ such as fighting for the cause of slaves and for the relief of refugees ­ rested upon the common idea to mobilize humanitarian practice by showing that those who suffering are the same human being as we are and thus deserve our immediate action.

This crucial notion is more important than ever especially when radicals around Europe seek to dehumanize refugees and even demonize them as a threat to security in Europe. These people are obviously unwilling to acknowledge a fundamental fact: refugees seeking asylum in Europe are human beings like us, who try to escape the terror of the same criminals who recently killed innocent civilians in the streets, bars, cafes, and clubs of Paris. Thus people, who are seeking to escape this kind of atrocities, deserve our protection and immediate help regardless their ethnicity, religion and nationality!


[1] Ban Ki-Moon, Statement attributable to the Secretary-General on recent refuge/migrant tragedies, 28 August 2015, in: http://www.un.org/sg/statements/index.asp?nid=8938 (last accessed on 23 November 2015).

[2] Owen Jones, Refugees are human. This simple fact seems to have been forgotten, The Guardian, 28 August 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/aug/28/migrants-humans-drowning-suffocating-safety-statistics (last accessed on  23 November 2015). For a similar argument see: David Marsh, We deride them as ‘migrants’. Why not call them people?, The Guardian, 28 August 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/aug/28/migrants-people-refugees-humanity (last accessed on  23 November 2015); Refugees have to be dealt with as human beings, stresses senior UN official, 8 September 2015, http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=51820#.VjEVpE2FOUk (last accessed  on 23 November 2015). See also Ban Ki-moon’s statement on 20 June 2015: “Refugees are people like anyone else, like you and me. […] On this World Refugee Day, let us recall our common humanity, celebrate tolerance and diversity and open our hearts to refugees everywhere.” In: Ban Ki-moon, Secretary-General’s Message, World Refugee Day, 20 June 2015, http://www.un.org/en/events/refugeeday/2015/sgmessage.shtml (last accessed on 23 November 2015).

[3] Jones, Refugees are human.

One thought on ““Refugees are Human” – Humanitarian Narratives and Strategies

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