Juan de Dios Ramírez-Heredia: Hunger and fear are stronger than barbed-wire fences
The following opinion piece by Juan de Dios Ramírez-Heredia, former Member of the European Parliament and current President of the Spanish Romani Union, was first distributed through the Roma Virtual Network on 17 September 2015 and is reprinted here with permission.
This morning when I saw the photographs of Aylan Kurdi, the small Syrian child that drowned on a Mediterranean beach in Turkey, I felt in my throat the kind of lump that prevents you from breathing normally. I knew, just like everyone else, that this was happening. That there are thousands of bodies turning the bottom of the Mediterranean into an infernal grave, just as we also know that before Aylan Kurdi many, many other innocent children have perished together with their parents when their boat of death or nutshell of a vessel that they had been put on by some cursed traffickers without human souls sank. We knew it, but we hadn’t seen it. We had imagined it, but we hadn’t received the slap in the face that is seeing this three-year-old child lying in the sand on this Turkish beach. We’ve seen his photo but we haven’t seen that of his brother, Galip, who was five, nor that of his mother, both drowned in this diabolical event.
Why does this happen? The answer is so simple that it’s frightening: It happens because of the ego of those of us who have everything and want to protect it no matter the cost. Obviously I’m not talking about you, who are kind enough to read my article; but you and I form part of the selfish society that finds a thousand arguments to justify our uselessness by telling ourselves, “And what are we going to do? There’s not enough room for everyone here.”
One day, when in the European Parliament the governments were discussing whether to place the army at the outer perimeter of the countries of the European Union to prevent the entry of migrants, someone with ample authority told us, “This is not the solution because hunger is stronger.” And they were right. The data speaks for itself: Every 30 seconds a child dies of malaria. / 2,000,000,000 people lack essential medicines. / More than 1,800,000,000 people don’t have clean drinking water. / More than 1,000,000,000 people live in extreme poverty. They survive on one euro a day. 70% of them are women. / And half of the world’s population - this fact really surprised me when I found out- have never made a phone call.
These are the bleeding causes that push populations from Africa and the Far East to search for a decent livelihood. And it’s not strange that it’s like this when we realize that 84% of the world’s wealth is in the hands of 20% of the population. A few years ago, the richest countries on the planet allocated 0.25% of their gross domestic product (GDP) to fight poverty. Meaning that they allocated a tenth of their defence budget, which was millions of dollars. Okay; now, if they only doubled their support in combating the lack of food, they would eradicate hunger completely. That’s to say, it would be enough to go from 0.25% to 0.44%, which would be a fifth of the defence budget.
Endemic hunger has joined the scourges of war and terrorism
Since the destruction of the Twin Towers, the world has known a new form of destabilization brought on by fundamentalist, religious, and political terrorism from societies anchored in a past that is today unacceptable for newer generations. The clumsy policies followed by the West in the Middle East, in the countries of Asia, and especially in those countries where jihadism has the largest presence, have been the cause of the out-of-control situation that the world now lives in. Aylan and Galip Kurdi’s parents fled from Syria because life was impossible for them there. Surely the Kurdis were a modern family, but they were afraid. They lived in Kobanî, a Syrian city on the border with Turkey, a city that for months was the sight of cruel clashes with the Islamic State. And they preferred to flee, at any cost. To flee from an impossible life or an assured death. And they found it. Unfortunately they found it because Canada - it could just as well have been us - raised the border and denied them refugee visas.
My Rroma testimony
One day it was proposed to give Europe a decisive step in the construction of a political, social and cultural unity that would represent the old continent. Spain and Portugal had just entered the exclusive club, which allowed me to participate in the development of the Single European Act that revised the existing treaty with very important contributions. Spain joined this new treaty after ratifying the document on 3 July 1987. The act says in article 8A, “The internal market shall comprise an area without internal frontiers, in which the free movement of goods, people, services and capital is ensured in accordance with the provisions of this Treaty.” Here it’s important to point out that in 1990 the Schengen Agreement was signed to promote the definitive removal of borders.
I remember the day that the European Parliament voted for the removal of borders between states. That was a very solemn session. The visitors' gallery at the Strasbourg headquarters was riddled with television tripods. More than 50 TV channels wanted to broadcast the act and the moment of voting. When the President of the Parliament declared that the act had passed, all of the Members of the European Parliament stood up and broke out into a very long, satisfied applause. Then they opened up for speeches, so that we could explain the reasoning behind our votes. I don’t have the minutes on hand but I remember very well that, among other things, I said the following: “I am also joining in the celebration that we are all expressing for the very important moment that we were just involved in. Once more this parliament has taken an irreversible step towards the removal of the cultural and physical barriers that for so long have divided, and continue to divide, Europeans. But today, dear Members, before the shows of happiness that you are displaying, let me tell you, as a Roma, that this discovery that we are so proud of has already been discovered by all the Roma of the world since the beginning of time. Borders are artificial barriers whose principal function is to separate us. Those who cling to borders are short-sighted and are unable to see that the world is much more beautiful when we can move about it freely. So I congratulate all of you and I congratulate myself because today, all of you, without knowing it, have learned a beautiful lesson that the Roma people have always practiced: That the only borders are the natural ones imposed by the height of mountains or the depth of riverbeds. Today, dear Members, Europe has become a little Rroma.”
That is about what I said on that solemn day. I want to mention that (I don’t know if pushed by their euphoria) the Members rewarded me with a vigorous round of applause.
But is the solution to lock ourselves up tight?
Aylan Kurdi´s entire family left Kobanî fleeing in terror. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has stated that 174 civilians were murdered in cold blood by fundamentalists from the Islamic State, and medical sources from the city have announced that several hundred more dead and wounded have passed through the semi-destroyed hospitals.
We know that there are bastard politicans that blame Aylan’s parents for their own tragedy. And in the meanwhile, our leaders argue about how big the bandage should be to alleviate the flood of deaths caused by racist wars, religious intolerance, or the national fascists and Nazis of whom the world has such painful experiences.
But I’ll save that comment for tomorrow. Today, I feel that I should continue suffering and thinking about the image of this innocent angel that reminds me of my own small children when they were playing at Victoria Beach in Cadiz, or at the beautiful beaches of Barcelona.
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