I have a tendency to cry watching marathon runners. I’m not sure why but I think it is something to do with witnessing the achievements of ordinary people and the support that comes from the strangers who line the streets to watch them. It moves me
The powerful scenes of Syrian refugees marching from Hungary to Germany evoked a similar response except I didn’t just get a bit teary, I sobbed. Heartfelt sobs that came from a deep place in the pit of my stomach.
These people are not ordinary but extraordinary. Their marathon had begun in a place they had previously called home, and has ended being welcomed in a place they will have to learn to call home.
These people had been through a sort of endurance that those of us who have nothing more to worry about than facing another Monday morning commute couldn’t comprehend. Nothing other than sheer desperation and courage could have prepared them for their life-changing journey.
They have abandoned their homes, friends, and neighbours to flee conflict, death and destruction. They’ve sold belongings, borrowed, begged and saved to raise enough money to give to unscrupulous traffickers selling them a passage to Europe, across treacherous waters. And once they’ve finally arrived on European shores almost alive, they have found there is nowhere to go, and no-one to turn to.
So they have marched with babes in arms, and with babes growing in their wombs. Men, women and children, who have finally found some reason to smile; their exhaustion momentarily eased by an overwhelming relief that their journey was reaching an end and safety was finally in sight.
And when they have finally arrived somewhere where they are welcome they are greeted with cheers. Outstretched hands offered sweets, refreshments and much needed support.
This was their moment, and it has been a rare moment of joy in what has become and will continue to be a humanitarian crisis of an unprecedented scale.
My tears were for all of that and more. But I also cried with despair for our own country.
Why weren’t our people joining them in that moment?
When did Britain become a country in which people asked “why do people deserve our help?” before “what can we do to help?”
It’s an attitude that creeps into the words of the man on the street, is spread over the front pages of some of our bestselling newspapers and underpins every speech delivered by our political leaders.
That Tory notion of the deserving and undeserving poor has become entrenched in our culture.
It’s why we’ve become comfortable judging the poor among us, those who claim benefits and live up to the image of cider-swilling, fag-smoking layabouts. We’re so busy resenting how they might choose to spend their time and their meagre benefits pay, we no longer question how they got there.
And it’s why we are more concerned about opening up the floodgates to the whole of Asia and Africa looking to sponge off our state than helping people in genuine need rebuild their lives after conflicts that we have interfered in.
The world’s problems have come to Europe’s doorstep and we can no longer run away from them. We need to take responsibility because it is the right thing to do morally, first and foremost.
This is not the time for squabbling over who is genuinely a refugee and who is a so-called economic migrant. With statistics indicating that 85% of people arriving in Europe are Syrian, then that leaves a smaller group who may have wide-ranging motives for making that high-risk and costly trip to our continent. But Eritreans, Somalians, Libyans, Iraqis, and Afghans have plenty to run away from too.
David Cameron’s media-influenced U-turn, pledging to take 4,000 more refugees is a step in the right direction, and hopefully it will encourage others to do the same but it does seem like too little, too late for a crisis that has been building for many months.