By Evangelos Ntontis
Following the news the past few months, one must have noticed for sure the issue with the Syrian refugees trying to reach Europe due to the ongoing war in their country and the imminent threat to their lives. One might have also heard about the thousands who either drowned because their boats sunk in the middle of the Aegean Sea or were luckily rescued and made it alive ashore.
Currently I am doing a PhD that focuses on solidarity among people who have been affected by natural disasters, and I am using self-categorization theory to try and understand the processes. So in this blog, I will address some points on the current refugee crisis and show how the ways that we categorize the refugees can make a difference to how they are treated, while drawing from the perspective of my research.
This year, Greece has received an unprecedented number of refugees from Syria and other countries. More than 9.5 million Syrians have fled their country due to the raging war, seeking refuge for themselves and their families in European countries. A main way for the refugees to reach Europe is by paying smugglers to transport them to the shores of Turkey, where boats will be waiting to carry hundreds of people at a time to the nearby Greek islands. However, it is not guaranteed that boats will be waiting for them, and, even if there are, it is not certain that the refugees will reach the Greek islands alive, mainly due to the boats sinking. As a result, more than 3,000 people have died trying to reach Europe and hundreds of others are still missing. Overall, more than 160,000 immigrants have entered Greece up to August 2015, compared to 45,000 in 2014.
Citizens and the media have received and represented the refugees in various ways; they have either alienated them as “others”, or accepted them as parts of “us”. In social psychological terms, this can been explained through self-categorization theory. In summary, this theory states that people can be defined in terms of the groups in which they belong (e.g. Greeks, British, refugees, football fans) and those groups can vary in terms of their inclusiveness (the group of humans can include more people than the group of Greeks). In addition, discourse analysis can show that rather than being neutral, words can do things (accuse, justify, avoid blame etc.), which can have consequences for the ways that people are categorized and therefore treated.
Currently in Greece there have been instances where the refugees have been defined and treated as alien others. Characteristically, we have seen this on the news, where Giannis Pretenteris, a journalist, claimed that “It’s not our country’s responsibility if there are thousands who in January take their children, get on a boat in the Aegean and obviously get drowned”. Such statements that position the refugees as “others” can be unintended or they can be strategic, and they can have political as well as practical consequences for the ways that immigrants will be perceived and treated, also keeping in mind the influence that the mass media might have. For example, they ignore the political reasons for which the refugees were forced to abandon their houses in the first place, putting the blame on the victims rather than the perpetrators. Furthermore, such constructions might negatively affect the provision of help towards them, or might even urge others to take advantage of the refugees (as it has often been the case with some locals selling essential commodities at inflated prices). A worst case scenario though is when such situations are used by nationalist and fascist groups to rise and gain popularity in areas where the situations are harder, as it has often been the case at certain islands.
However, it is more noteworthy to refer to instances where the refugees have been treated as some of us and as fellow human beings in need of help during times of hardship. In almost every town in Greece, people have collectively set up refugee centres where supplies are gathered and sent either to islands or in refugees in any city. Also, closed and empty spaces have been opened, occupied and offered as shelter to the refugees. In general, activists, rescuers, doctors and ‘ordinary’ people have taken action in refugee centers and the islands, where they help people who might have fortunately washed up ashore alive. My main point here is that those acts of solidarity and support would not have been possible if it wasn’t for the perception of the Syrian refugees as people like us in need of help, rather than them as different from us, with whom we share nothing in common. One can see in recent photographs older women taking care of a refugee baby, while its mother is resting, a woman crying while holding the body of a dead child in her hands, and fishermen jumping into the cold waters trying to rescue hundreds of people drowning. Similar acts are not novel though; for example, during WWII, Bulgarian people mobilized against the deportation of Jews saving them from the Nazis, because they considered them as their own people.
The Greek government and the EU have shown considerable apathy towards the Syrian refugees, and basic actions like opening the borders, bringing down the fence or sending forces to assist in the rescuing of people from sinking boats have not been taken. Thus, the basic and most crucial acts of solidarity and support towards the refugees come from ordinary people. These people treat the refugees as people like them in need of help rather than as alien others and decide to take action because of the state’s apathy and often harmful attitude, as well as because of realizing the power of collective action in achieving some positive change.
For the moment, one should be suspicious toward the ways the mass media and politicians talk about and act toward the refugees, since such formulations can often have important consequences. More importantly, one should remain skeptical when refugees are blamed for their situation and governmental policies are either justified or ignored, and hopefully more people will engage in acts of practical solidarity toward the refugees, while also preventing extreme-right groups to rise. And for those who keep on accusing the refugees for their condition rather than the policies followed by the West, an extract from the poem “Home” by William Shire can be used as the answer: ‘You have to understand, no one puts their children in a boat, unless the water is safer than the land “.