Fire at Lesvos refugee camp in Greece

The refugee crisis is just beginning

We need to learn to share the boat, or we will all drown.

Last week, I saw a French-language production at Montreal’s Théâtre Prospero that had me troubled for days. Written by Romanian playwright Matei Visniec, Migraaaants is a deeply uncomfortable, darkly comedic, smartly written study of migration from a variety of unexpected perspectives. In a series of short vignettes, we see the cynicism of governments, the desperation of migrants, the opportunism of traffickers and the despair of those who have forever lost loved ones.

A few days later, I finally got around to watching Parasite, by Korean director Bong Joon-Ho. The movie, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year, was another dark study on human nature and the widening chasm between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” The movie, about a working-class family who somehow manages to infiltrate and take advantage of an affluent family, is dark, disturbing and terribly funny.

Without giving away too much, the parallel universes these families inhabit is depicted masterfully via their daily views outside their windows (the squalor of an alleyway for the poor family, the utopian serenity of a perfect backyard for the rich family), a juxtaposition that allows us a glimpse into what constitutes their lives. Like Migraaaants, Parasite relies on this contrasting mix of emotions, circumstances and visual realities to force the audience to confront uncomfortable truths it would much rather ignore.

Sitting in front of me during the play was a man who was visibly uncomfortable. He would occasionally glance over to his partner for validation or some sort of confirmation that they were equally disturbed, and I became so fascinated by his reaction I almost lost track of the play itself at one point. Art disturbs, and it mostly disturbs those in denial. Picasso may have been a misogynist jerk, but he was right when he said, “Painting is not done to decorate apartments. It’s an instrument of war.” Art exposes the world in a way that you can see yourself transposed in it, you can see both humanity’s beauty and ugliness staring back. It’s not pleasant to be confronted by the latter.

There’s a moment when one of the short vignettes in Migraaaants mentions the Greek island of Lesvos. We watch a Syrian grandfather frantically searching among the dead for his son and his two grandchildren. The Greek man helping him search mutters that the island is much too small for so many bodies buried here. This isn’t creative freedom; this is the here and now.

Only 20 kilometres from the Turkish coast, the island of Lesvos is the site of Europe’s largest refugee camp. Moria, as it is called, was originally built to house only 3,000 asylum seekers and migrants, but by this past October was overflowing with 13,500 people. That’s seven times its capacity. The Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights has called the situation “explosive.” So far this year alone, more than 47,000 people have arrived on the Greek islands, a country that is not equipped logistically or financially to handle the influx of so many numbers.

Charity workers who have visited the camp cite horrible, unsanitary living arrangements and a sense of desperation, danger and malaise that conditions like this inevitably produce. Even with some injection of financial aid, Greece, recovering from its own crippling economic crisis, has been essentially abandoned and left to fend for itself. An EU-Turkey agreement has forced Greece to require holding people on the islands until their asylum claims can be processed. Several NGOs are calling the situation “a policy-made humanitarian crisis” as they worry about Greece’s ability to absorb this many people. Thousands of unaccompanied minors are also in the country right now, and no one seems willing to take responsibility for them either.

In the latest issue of The Atlantic, writer Rachel Donadio describes Moria as a place “where Europe’s ideals — solidarity, human rights, a haven for victims of war and violence — dissolve in a tangle of bureaucracy, indifference and lack of political will.”

Faced with their inability or unwillingness to help this continuous and ever-flowing mass of desperate people coming to their shores, many European governments refuse to share the burden and have resorted to becoming increasingly hostile towards migrants and refugees. They criminalize humanitarian work and threaten human-rights workers who help save refugees from almost-certain death with people-smuggling charges. Many suspect the EU’s reticence to help alleviate the inhumane overcrowding in Moria is a deliberate attempt to discourage migrants from even attempting the trip.

Their tactics are not dissimilar to the Trump administration’s strict “zero tolerance” family-separation immigration policies, which primarily aim to deter asylum seekers from ever crossing the border. New government data has revealed that the U.S. government is currently holding an unprecedented 100,000 migrant children away from their parents. Imagine being a family fleeing dangerous and life-threatening circumstances, only to be treated with such cruelty by a country they are hoping to find asylum in. Government administrations continue to resist one basic and unavoidable truth: desperate people will continue to flock to safer countries, no matter how perilous the journey, no matter how inhospitable the welcome. We can either tackle this problem in a humane way or we can continue to perpetuate the cruelty and the inhumanity by ignoring it and punishing it.

“Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance. You have to work at it.”

—Margaret Atwood

I think about the amount of work and effort it takes to willfully ignore these global images that are at almost everyone’s doorsteps these days, how quickly we seek to brush everything under the carpet, to shove it away from our field of vision, to isolate desperate people in inhumane camps that are far removed from our daily comings-and-goings. If we don’t see them, they don’t exist, right?

“Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance.”

We know human beings are being forced to take unimaginable risks to escape danger, poverty, war — we know they will not be greeted with open arms once they arrive. We still pretend that we don’t see and, like clockwork, start reciting the other-choices-should-be made-we-can’t-save-the-world-it’s-not-our-problem-what-terrible-parents-they-are-why-can’t-we-take-care-of-our-own mantra. It’s the same song-and-dance every xenophobic nationalist knows by heart.

Desperate people doing desperate things are treated as a problem, a menace, a human leech, a parasite out to take from its host; as human detriment that someone else should clean up. We pretend that this could never be us, we insist on imaginary borders and want to punish, instead of provide comfort and help. We choose not to see, because to see is uncomfortable. It makes us fidget in our seat and look to our partner for confirmation and wonder when this damn thing will be over.

Playwright Matei Visniec had an alternative title for Migraaaants. It was On est trop nombreux sur ce putain de bateau (We’re too many on this damn boat). It’s an obvious reference to the overcrowded dingies making that dangerous journey from Turkey to Greece, and the thousands of people who have drowned in those seas.

But it’s also a metaphor. The boat is us. We’re all in it. And as the rising tides of an impending climate-change-driven refugee crisis threaten to drown us all, the ones with the means climb to higher ground, leaving the ones without simply to die. We could all be working together to actively make life more livable for everyone, but those more fortunate choose to hog what they have and look away at the human misery calling out for a helping hand. We aren’t too many on this damn boat. We just never learned how to share. ■