In this article Olivia Williams speaks about how the North East of England has reacted to the refugee crisis.
In an increasingly communicative, interconnected and pluralistic age, there happens to be a terrifying paradox going on. As we increasingly become dependent on one another across borders, across faiths and across cultures, suddenly the urge to draw back and return to our pre-cosmopolitan enclosed origins has entered the hearts of many right wing groups. Unfortunately there is a large group of vulnerable people affected by this sudden retaliation. The current number of refugees in the world estimates at about 65 million. As a result of economic crises, war, persecution and poverty to name just but a few these people are now reliant on the international community for their support. However, the overriding verdict in right wing circles is a cry of terror, anger and blame. It has resulted in walls being built, borders being patrolled and the deaths of 21.3 million refugees. It is hard to imagine this in the abstract, Donald Trump is miles away, Syria can only appear to us through a screen and the term refugee is so often tied to statistics it loses its significance. But, this negative attitude is much closer to home than we would like to think.
In August 2016 Durham County Council pledged to rehome 200 Syrian families as part of David Cameron’s initiative to rehome 20,000 Syrian refugees by 2020. However, when this pledge was released to the press the County Council received so many letters containing themes of hatred, racism and violent hostility they had to take down the press release after a mere two days. If this isn’t worrying enough, 57.5% of Durham’s populace voted leave to Brexit. Moreover, since Brexit the North East region has experienced a rise in hate crime by 110%, which is the highest increase in the entirety of the UK. But like I said previously, the term ‘refugee’ comes all too often accompanied by statistics that it begins to lose any salient grip upon reality. So, to demonstrate the hostile attitude that is eminent so close to home: in December 2016, a man in the center of Newcastle was reported to be wearing a tshirt emblazoned with ‘refugees, tell your families, go home’. It also appeared to show a man and a woman being chased by a crowd armed with sticks and dogs. If this isn’t appalling enough, in South Shields race-hate stickers were plastered on lampposts and bus stops throughout the town saying ‘Rapefugees not welcome’.
But, don’t despair just yet. Attitudes are malleable and people change. Moreover, the is an active surge of positivity, welcome arms and empathy emerging from the community. Within the university there are groups such as Durham for Refugees, Amnesty International, People and Planet amongst a whole host of others campaigning to change people’s attitude. Moreover, charities such as DISC are fighting to combat hate crime and the North East has a number of NGOs that seek to aid and support refugees in the area.
The stigma surrounding refugees has dehumanized them and made them into faceless statistics. However, if you want to change this, dispel the myth and recognize the common humanity we all share you can. Amnesty International’s worldwide campaign, Refugee Action Week will be taking place from the 20th February until the 26th of February. Durham Amnesty International, in conjunction with other university societies, is locally hosting a series of events ranging from film screenings to art exhibitions to petitioning, throughout the week. On Wednesday 22nd February there will be a silent protest across Elvet Bridge whilst numerous other universities simultaneously enact the same in their respective cities in order to illustrate our plea for ‘Bridges not Walls’. These are all activities that you can get involved in. To find the itinerary of events please search for the event on Facebook, “Durham Amnesty Refugee Action Week”, for more information. We can as a community stand up in solidarity to hate crime and recognize the right of refugees to be viewed as more than an anonymous statistic.