What divides us pales in comparison to what unites us

I was truly touched and humbled to receive the McCall-Pierpaoli Humanitarian Award in Washington, D.C last week, and I wish to thank Refugees International for this kind gesture. I want to share some of the words I spoke on the night about the refugee crisis here:

Over the years, I have tried to use my voice, resources and media following to shine a light on the plight of refugees everywhere. This began in the early 1990s, when my friends Queen Noor and the late King Hussein of Jourdan drew our attention to more than 100,000 refugees who had crossed from Iraq to Jordan during the first Gulf War. With the help of the Virgin family, we were able to mobilise great support and soon a shipment of urgently needed supplies was on its way to Amman.

25 years later, it feels as if there hasn’t been a year since when the world wasn’t faced with a refugee crisis – be it in Burundi, Bosnia or Somalia, in Kosovo, Afghanistan or Darfur, or now, Syria. In all of these situations, those who really deserve to be celebrated are the remarkable men and women who give every waking minute to ease the suffering of those forced to leave their homes and their communities because of war, terror and bloodshed. I am talking about the humanitarian workers caring for tens of thousands in refugee camps in Kenya; the coast guard personnel lifting children out of the Mediterranean’s choppy waters; the doctors treating the sick and the wounded along the Turkish border; the volunteers distributing aid in Calais and Dunkirk; or the lawyers fighting bureaucracy and red tape to secure asylum for unaccompanied children. They all deserve our praise. They all deserve our support.

But the crisis continues. As we gathered in Washington, thousands stranded on Greek islands face the tough decision to move on or return to Turkey. Off the coast of Myanmar, refugees from the Rohingya minority are clinging to small boats by the hundreds, trying to escape from marginalisation, oppression and violence. In South Sudan, scores are on the move as their young nation tethers on the verge of collapse. When refugees become a commonplace occurrence, the greatest danger is indifference. Just last week, at least 400 refugees from Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea were reported to have drowned in the Mediterranean when the boat ferrying them from Egypt to Italy capsized. Their gruesome death was a fleeting item in the international news cycle. Their story had no faces, their suffering no narrative. What does it say about us when this immense tragedy at Europe’s borders isn’t even breaking news anymore?

Surely, this is not an isolated occurrence. Latest figures suggest that more than 60 million people across the globe have been displaced by civil war, terrorism and natural disasters and we now face a humanitarian crisis on a scale not seen before. How we deal with this crisis and the social upheaval created in both the East and West will define our generation. And it requires that we all take a good look at the bigger picture. Refugee crises don’t just appear out of nowhere, they are the symptoms of greater social ills and challenges – from climate change to global terrorism and poor governance. We can all do much to ease the suffering of refugees - provide care, shelter, safety, and new opportunities. But I’m sure we’d all be much happier living in a world where no one is driven from their home in the first place. That’s why tackling the underlying issues is of such great importance.

On a different level, I have long felt that how we treat refugees is a crucial test of how open and progressive our societies are. Over many centuries, immigrants brought diversity, the will to succeed and boundless creativity to build better lives in their new home countries. The desperation of the two World Wars created waves of immigration that reignited the development of America, Australia and beyond. Unfortunately, in many places that welcoming spirit has given way to fear and xenophobia. I worry the anti-refugee and anti-immigrant rhetoric is gaining support in many of the richest countries. It seems all across Europe, politicians are pandering to anxiety and prejudice, casting respect for basic human rights into the wind. No question, this is not just a humanitarian crisis, it is also a moral one.

It can be hard to remain positive when so many face hardship all over the world. But we must continue to use our energy to fight on their behalf and against inhumanity and injustice. That’s what I’ll do, anyway. That’s what Refugees International, and many others, do so remarkably well. As Ted Kennedy put it, “what divides us pales in comparison to what unites us”. Let’s build on that. Openness and tolerance may prove the strongest forces we have. To find out more about Refugees International and support this wonderful cause, head over to the website.


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