Why it’s time to change the way we think about refugees

Written by Sanne Biesmans, ONE Policy Team 

Too often, refugees and migrants make headlines for the wrong reasons. We hear stories of sinking boats, refugees not being welcome, the closing of borders or migration policies dividing Germany and even the EU. When we say refugees, we think of a crisis – though migration and crisis do not necessarily go hand in hand. But these stories can obscure the reality for many people seeking a better life. After all, it is not the headlines, but the people that matter.

Take Mari Malek who fled Sudan and became a supermodel, or the many strong men and women who shared their experience as refugees at TEDx KakumaCamp, the first ever TEDx event hosted in a refugee camp. These stories are only a few of many showing courage, resilience and ambition.

In the midst of the football World Cup hysteria, Romelu Lukaku – whose parents migrated to Belgium from the Democratic Republic of Congo before he was born – has become one of Belgium’s national heroes. Yet in this interview with a sports magazine, he reveals how he grew up in absolute poverty in Belgium, and dreamt of a better life.

“When things were going well, I was reading newspapers articles and they were calling me Romelu Lukaku, the Belgian striker. When things weren’t going well, they were calling me Romelu Lukaku, the Belgian striker of Congolese descent.”

Success comes in many shapes and forms. For instance, when Nemah Morganeh and his wife came to Belgium for their honeymoon from Syria in 2009, he never thought that they would have to return as refugees in 2013 and that he would go back to university at the age of 40.

Ayham Salloum moved to Belgium in 2015, after studying and working in Kiev, Ukraine for seven years. Ayham is originally from southern Syria, close to Jordan.

“When I arrived in Brussels, I met many Syrians who were in need at the Maximilian Park, so I picked up a fluorescent vest and started to volunteer. After a few days, a Belgian woman offered my friend and I to stay at her home. We ended up staying a year and now I feel part of her family. I learned Dutch in no time, and today, I help newcomers – mostly refugees – integrate into the municipalities through a local NGO called “Partners in Integration”.

“I know I was very lucky to have met my host family, learnt the language, and found a job. Not everyone is as lucky as I am. When people hear my story, they like to tell other refugees, ‘look at what he has done. If he can do it, you can do it.’ But I know it is not that easy. When I stayed with a host family, I was not entitled to government support, my host family did not receive any support either. Without them, I would have never learned the language as fast as I did, or found a job that easily. I believe that the government could do more to help newcomers integrate, but I feel that the political will is not always there.”

Despite fears of the growing migrant population, data shows that the refugee population in Europe is small and stagnant. According to Eurostat figures, the total number of asylum seekers arriving in Europe in the last decade is around 1.1% of the population. Since 2015, the number of asylum applications also shows no visible trend upwards. The European percentage of asylum applications halved in 2017 compared to that of 2016. Furthermore, the latest UNHCR report reveals that 85% of the world’s refugees are being hosted in developing countries

Studies suggest that news media feed into an existing uncertainty and unease around immigration policies. There is more to say about refugees and migrants than the controversy that dominates the headlines. It is time that we change the narrative and look at the individual stories of courage, resilience and ambition.


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