Pictures that say thousands of words

Eddy Adams

By Eddy Adams, on September 30th, 2015

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A good friend of mine grew up in Kampala, Uganda in the 1970s. An uncle of his owned the main cinema there, at the time. One day the uncle learned that the head of state, Idi Amin, had chosen the cinema as the venue for his latest wedding reception. This meant the uncle had to meet the expense for the celebration, as the lucky recipient of the President’s favour.

As a small boy at the time, my friend was drafted in to serve tables at Amin’s wedding. His account of this experience is both fascinating and terrifying. It is an almost filmic recollection, told from the perspective of a confused vulnerable child, wary of being so close to the source of power that was both absolute and unpredictable.

A few months later he, and the entire Asian community were expelled from the country, leaving everything behind as they fled the President’s Africanisation policy. Abandoning Uganda with all they stood up in, they arrived in the UK as refugees. There, the reception was mixed. Newspapers carried photos of bewildered families disembarking planes on wet runways. Racist politicians mobilised fear amongst those worrying that a Britain in economic crisis would struggle to absorb the 70,000 newcomers who eventually arrived from East Africa.

Fast forward forty years and the same discussion prevails. But now, images of those refugees have been even more instrumental in the debate.

In June, the cultural guerilla group, Center for Political Beauty used images and cat and mouse tactics to raise the refugee issue, and Europe’s role in it. Their campaign, Die Totten Kommen, brought the messages home about the impact of the war in Syria, by ‘repatriating’ the bodies of dead asylum seekers transported from the fringes of Europe.

Cadavers from morgues in Greece were smuggled into Germany and given an ‘official’ burial by the group. Their choice of burial sites – including the grass in front of the Reichstag – ensured plenty of police and media attention. The group used video footage of their shock tactics to reach a global audience.

A few weeks later another refugee image went viral. A photograph of the body of Aylan Kurdi, the young Syrian boy washed up on a Turkish beach, stunned the world and galvanized the search for solutions to the problem. In the same summer season, media pictures of European holidaymakers sharing Mediterranean beaches with washed-up refugees made it clear that this issue is right on our doorstep.

The summer closed with images of refugees behind razor fences in Eastern Europe, as some Member States looked for ways to close the door on this flow of human misery and suffering.

Throughout the summer, the response from the EU and its Member States has been mixed, to say the least. But several things are clear. Until there is stability in the Middle East – particularly in Syria and Iraq – the asylum seekers will keep coming. This requires a long-term political solution that seems far off right now. But we do know that, when a solution is agreed, Europe’s cities will be the key to it. Throughout history, it is cities that have had the capacity to absorb new arrivals and to help them integrate into the host society.

As the debate has rumbled on between the EU and Member States, many cities have taken the initiative and declared their support for refugees. In May, Eurocities set out a Statement on asylum in cities. This pragmatic document acknowledged the risks cities face from an uncoordinated approach to the refugee crisis.

“As cities, we have a lot to lose from policies that consign asylum seekers to deprivation and exclusion or that put them at risk of becoming victims of abusive employers and landlords, smugglers, human traffickers and organised crime.”

It also set out a series of recommendations for the EU and Member States. This included a plea for additional city resources to successfully integrate new refugees arriving across Europe.

Individual cities have also made a stance, while last weekend millions of citizens attended events in cities across Europe with a clear single message: refugees are welcome.

Despite the ambivalence of some Eastern European countries, cities in new Member States have also been proactive. On 7th September Gdansk, an active URBACT city (and Eurocities member), voted unanimously to welcome refugees and make city buildings available to them, becoming the first Polish city to do so. Piotr Grzelak, deputy mayor, said: “One million and a half Poles took refuge in the West after 1980, we have a duty of solidarity towards those in need.”

Within URBACT, one of the new networks kicking off at the end of September has a specific focus on the integration of migrants. Arrival Cities initially involves Messina, Riga, Roquetas de Mar, Thessaloniki and Vanta. It is led by Amadora, located within the Lisbon metropolitan region, and famous for establishing an orchestra for disadvantaged young people, based on the Venezuelan El Sistema model. It is appropriate that the new URBACT programme includes this focus on migrant integration.

And what of my friend from Uganda? After months in resettlement camps he moved to London and many years later now runs a successful business in Scotland. Over the years, the Asian diaspora from East Africa has been absorbed into the UK where it has made a significant economic, social and cultural contribution.

Refugees have done this wherever they have gone for millennia. Our duty, in Europe’s cities, is to open our doors and hearts to let that continue.

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