What does it mean to offer humanitarian help? In an article, written by James Kennedy, we have recognized a care ethical perspective on those classified as ‘refugees’.
Kennedy’s article was published in the Dutch national newspaper Trouw on the 23th of January 2016. We were given permission to post his article in its original English version on our website.
What appealed to us is how Kennedy focuses on what matters most to those in need. Many political or journalistic accounts start from the ‘we-perspective’. We Europeans are confronted with ‘a refugee-problem’, or ‘a refugee-crisis’. From this perspective and writing in this manner, Europe is presented as a victim of the problematic situation in the world. Kennedy starts from the perspective of the many thousands of people called ‘refugees’ or ‘asylum seekers’. What have they experienced in so many instances of war, fear and loss that urged them to leave their countries? What do they hope to find in Europe, in the Netherlands? They have taken severe risks to arrive here in search of hospitality. Given their histories and experiences, what does humanitarian help involve?
Kennedy often refers to his wife who works as a volunteer in refugees and provides him with information directly from ‘the source’. Despite all our differences, the refugees appear to share one thing with all people; a deep need for humaneness and by extension love.
Practical provisions (bed, bath, bread) are of basic importance. But most important is a personal, warm, friendly contact between ‘us’ and those in search of hospitality. That is the common human ground where alleged and real gaps must be bridged. That is where commonality can be recognized.
Humane care is more than bed, bath and bread .
What does it mean to offer humanitarian help? What is now being decided in The Hague to what extent – and with which numbers – such help should be given to refugees and asylum seekers in 2016? But do the Dutch actually offer humanitarian help to those who have come into the country?
Most Dutch would probably answer: of course we do. We offer them a place free from war and violence. We give them food (admittedly the dinners are invariably TV-dinners), shelter and washing facilities. Later, if they are given status, they are also given housing, maybe also some schooling and training. Yet – if you ask refugees – these are not the most important things to them.
I asked my wife – extensively involved as a volunteer in refugees – what it was that they most wanted to see from Dutch society. Many of them in broken Dutch or English – they preferred to learn Dutch if they didn’t know either – but they expressed themselves nevertheless eloquently. All of them stressed what might be called human dignity. What they disliked least was being classified as a ‘refugee’ or being told, as they have, that they must remember that they are refugee. A refugee is nothing, has nothing. But above all, being termed a refugee denies them being anything else. They would prefer to be seen as what their deeper identities are: doctor, baker. Even bad refugees should be called what they are and not refugees: liars and thieves. It is maybe better to be labeled something bad than nothing: a refugee.
Obviously a lot of this has to do with maintaining a modicum of human pride and a modicum of dignity. These people don’t like being taught how to brush their teeth or taught basic rules of decorum as if they were savages and need to be condescended to. They also find the packaged food that they receive inedible; only when they prepare elements themselves, and eat it together, does it become a kind of food that strengthens and sustains them.
But above all, they seek love and friendship from ordinary people who are not paid professionals but who show genuine interest in them without some financial incentive. Unrooted as they are, these human connections are what they most crave, because it is precisely these connections that they have left behind. Without such contacts, being offered shelter is often an empty experience, leading at best to frustration and alienation, at worst the deepest sort of despair.
What all of this says is that the housing of those fleeing lands of violence is not in itself really an act of human solidarity, as if the Dutch have done their work for humanity simply by setting up centers which many of the Dutch actually oppose. These centers offer important services, but that’s where the hard work begins, the work of human contact, of friendship, of trying to remove the pain of tragedy and trauma and loss.
All of this indicates why the Dutch – and European – political debate is fundamentally about the wrong kind of accommodation. I don’t mean just wrong kind of “camp” size – through its penny-pinching the government’s choice for massive Asylum-Seeking Centers not only has created massive opposition to government policy but also meant a more large-scale and less human treatment of those seeking help. I also mean wrong in a heavy emphasis on only the material conditions for offering shelter – space, beds, housing – and far less on the human needs for which these people yearn.
Without a deep-seated and structural commitment to the warmth of welcome, the creation of ties of friendship, Dutch asylum policy, for all of its good intentions, is less than humane. Of course, there are many thousands of volunteers who spend much of their time reaching to asylum-seekers to make life more bearable, and this has made a difference to many. But the Dutch public should not imagine itself incredibly generous to others simply because it offers massive camps and TV dinners to people who desperately need more.
James Kennedy grew up in the United States and is an American historian. He has been residing in the Netherlands since 2003 and worked as professor of Dutch history at the Free University (VU) and the University of Amsterdam (UVA). He started as Dean in October 2015 at the Utrecht University College (UCU).
Kennedy’s research topics include social emancipation and inclusion.