Europe does not have a migrant crisis.

This may sound an unbelievable statement, given the recent images beamed across the globe, however the issue can be viewed and addressed differently when seen through an alternate lens – a refugee opportunity.

What Europe has, first of all, involves asylum seekers and refugees, not migrants. This is an important distinction and one made so deliberately by Al-Jazeera in their reporting of the issue. Most other media organisations are still to take this stand. Secondly, Europe should see that it has an opportunity, rather than a crisis. This important shift in language and thinking informs the reaction.

Syria has a refugee crisis. Libya has a refugee crisis. Eritrea, Nigeria, Iraq and South Sudan all have refugee crises. When someone can no longer live in their village, town or city because either their government is out to kill or persecute them, or any number of militia groups are trying to do the same, that is a crisis. A personal, communal and national crisis. That some of these people have made their way to Europe is not a crisis for the continent, rather an opportunity.

Crisis thinking breeds crisis actions and crisis response. A crisis is a problem, it requires an urgent response and a must be stopped – as soon as possible. A migrant crisis allows governments to build fences, turn boats around, close borders and to demonise those seeking safety. It allows them to be portrayed as unwanted, undesired and as others, them. Whereas an opportunity allows for creative thinking and positive enthusiasm. A refugee opportunity does not view people arriving as a problem, rather, as fellow men, women and children who need our protection and help to rebuild their lives. Their situation is seen as an opportunity – to assist, rebuild, participate, integrate, act humanely and find solutions.

Germany is seizing the opportunity
Germany is seizing the opportunity

Europe’s opportunity, firstly, is one to improve the lives of tens of thousands of people fleeing persecution and war. European governments routinely condemn the actions of Assad, ISIS, Boko Haram and so on. Europe is now presented with a chance to help some of these people affected and to rebuild their lives. The refugees have left a crisis, whereas Europe is dealing with an opportunity. Second and perhaps more importantly, it is an opportunity for Europe to reflect on its own actions.

There has been much discussion recently about the evolution of ISIS. The invasion of Iraq and toppling of Saddam Hussein is seen as providing the conditions necessary for their foundation. The absence of a rebuilding strategy in Iraq, coupled with the Syrian civil war, has seen ISIS grow and flourish. With many European governments active in the coalition that brought down Saddam, there is a moral argument of responsibility to protect those now fleeing ISIS. Europe also has an opportunity to reflect on their role in Libya and what they are doing help that country rebuild, four years after Gaddafi was overthrown, with NATO support. The list of conflicts and countries goes on and on. However, rather viewing those moving towards Europe as a crisis, see it as an opportunity and the thinking and response will shift.

Australia too, has an opportunity. A government that has built itself up by being ‘tough’ on refugees has an opportunity. A government which is about to join the US in dropping bombs in Syria, has an opportunity. Does Australia continue to attract international condemnation for the way it treats refugees and asylum seekers, or does it join the growing shift in thinking that is occurring in Europe? Australia has an opportunity to play its part in the largest refugee population since WWII and take more refugees from Syria. If it so important to the Abbott government that refugees arrive in Australia through the ‘correct channels,’ then they should open those channels and use the opportunity.

An important opportunity also exists for Russia and Iran. So long the allies and financial backers of the Assad regime – and in Russia’s case a veto for any UN action – both countries should also join in resettling refugees. Europe, in leading by example, instead of building fences and closing borders, could influence and initiate such a scheme. Iran, wanting to improve relationships with the West, is in the advantageous position of being a Shia majority country and could take Shia refugees from Iraq. The leadership has also recently considered working closer with the US to defeat Sunni insurgencies in Iraq. In the case of Russia, if Europe and the US have a moral responsibility for the refugees fleeing ISIS, then Russia has an equivalent, if not greater moral responsibility to be providing asylum for Syrian refugees fleeing the Assad regime. One of the main reasons Assad was able to survive being overthrown in 2011 and has remained in power has been through Russian and Iranian support.

Bashar al Assad with Russian president Vladimir Putin
Bashar al Assad with Russian president Vladimir Putin

The Syrian conflict began as a civil uprising, at the height of the Arab Spring. It soon descended into a civil war and has now grown into the largest refugee movement since WWII. ISIS have prospered from the Syrian war and the sectarian conflict in Iraq and have contributed significantly to the refugee population. Europe, the US, UK, Australia, Russia and Iran all played a role in these conflicts either beginning, the shape they have taken or their continuation and all have an obligation to assist. If the masses of people moving out of Syria, roughly half the population, are seen as a problem and their arrival in Europe a crisis, then the opportunities that Europe and the rest of the world are now presented with will be lost and wasted.