On World Refugee Day, Jenny Proudfoot sits down with founder and CEO of The Worldwide Tribe Jaz O'Hara for a reminder that the problem is far from over...
It has been six years since the body of a three-year-old Syrian boy, Alan Kurdi, washed up on a Turkish beach, prompting an outpouring of international concern for the refugee crisis.
Now in 2021 however, a lot of the attention has died down, with too many of us assuming that the lack of media coverage means that the problem has been solved.
This couldn’t be further from the truth.
Right now, there are over 70 million individuals worldwide who have been displaced by conflict, violence or persecution, according to the UNHCR.
It remains to be the biggest humanitarian crisis of our time and it is our duty to keep talking about it.
The online community-turned-global movement raises awareness of the refugee crisis and runs aid projects across Europe and the Middle East.
‘It began with a Facebook post,’ Jaz told me back in 2016. ‘After reading about the refugee crisis in July 2015, I jumped in my car and drove to Calais to find out what I could do to help. I was shocked by the devastation I found there, so I wrote about it on my Facebook page to share with friends and family. The next morning, it had been shared 65,000 times, reaching millions of people.
‘Within weeks I had quit my job in fashion designing for an underwear brand, and created an online movement that has rallied together hundreds of volunteers from all over the UK, filling warehouses across London with donations of food, clothing and tents. Our initial target was to raise £100 to cover travel expenses, but it became Just Giving’s biggest crowdfunding campaign ever.’
Noticing that the conversation around the refugee crisis had dried up, I caught up with Jaz again to get some insight.
‘Since 2015/ 2016, I’ve seen a massive decrease in mainstream media coverage of the refugee crisis and general understanding and awareness,’ Jaz told me. ‘People often ask me, “Oh, there are still refugees in Calais? I thought that was over. The jungle was demolished.” But I always wonder if they think about what happened to the people. Yes, the jungle was demolished but the people are still there. They were dispersed but there’s still a real situation in Calais.
‘Less people are successfully making the journey because there are not rescue boats working in the mediterranean anymore,’ she continued. ‘Many people are still dying in the mediterranean today.’
I caught up with Jaz to find out why the conversation around the crisis has withered and what we can all do on an individual level to help.
Why do you think people have stopped talking about the refugee crisis?
There seems to be a bit of a fatigue. People have read about it, they have cared about it, they were talking about it, it was in the media, but now things have moved on as they do naturally. New things have come into the media, Brexit and climate change for example, and all sorts of things that seem closer to home right now are swallowing up people’s attention. What I am trying to do constantly is link these things together. Climate change for example is going to be a massive driver of an increased amount of refugees. The UN predicts that by 2050 there will be a billion refugees due to climate change so it is all part of a bigger story and it is really important to still be talking about it. Things haven’t changed.
What is the most common misconception about the refugee crisis?
I think the most common misconception is that refugees are poor. I’ve met doctors, lawyers, economists, engineers etc. Often refugees are the most well off in their society because especially in Calais and in France, to get that far along your journey is pretty expensive – you have to pay people smugglers along the way, you have to have resources available to you to get that far. Refugees are not poor, they are just leaving because they’re being persecuted. They’re fleeing persecution not poverty.
What do you wish people knew about the refugee crisis?
I wish that people knew it was still ongoing. But do you know what I really wish? I wish people had a real understanding of why people were leaving their countries and making these journeys. I think we need to bring it down to basics and understand the definition of the word refugee. There is a huge difference between being an economic migrant and a refugee. My mum is an economic migrant – she moved from Holland to England, but a refugee is leaving their country because they have no choice – they are fleeing war or persecution or death in some way.
How can people help on an individual scale?
There are so many varying levels to this so it really depends on you as an individual and what you have to offer. What are your skills? What are your talents? What do you believe in? What do you enjoy doing? What is your offering? This could look like lots of things. For example, you might be a hairdresser that wants to cut hair on the ground, you might work in social media strategy and can help a group like The Worldwide Tribe with their social media strategy (because we definitely need that). You might be a yoga teacher that wants to give mindfulness or meditation offerings to people that have arrived in your own community. Even if you’re just a listening ear, there is something that each of us can do. We all have access to the same amount of time and the choice of what we do with it. We can all help in an infinite number of ways.
What inspired you to launch a podcast for The Worldwide Tribe?
I’m always looking for new ways to get these stories out there. We’ve done a lot of writing, visual photography and films, but I think podcasts really enable people to tell their story. It’s very difficult to get people to sit and watch a film for an hour – especially if you’re spreading it through social media. People don’t have the attention, but podcasts can really amplify the voices that have been previously going unheard.
What can we expect from The Worldwide Tribe’s Podcast?
You can expect to be inspired, uplifted, encouraged but also informed and educated about the situation. It will be an emotional roller coaster. You’ll travel across the world without leaving the comfort of your train seat or sofa. It will be informative and inspirational in equal measure and you will hopefully get a real insight into each of these stories – why people were leaving, what their journey was like, what happened to them, who they are as an individual and as a result of that, we will hopefully change some opinions and overturn some negative stereotypes that people might have about immigration or judgments they might hold.
This interview was conducted in 2019.
The Worldwide Tribe podcast is available on iTunes, Spotify, Google Podcasts and all the main podcast providers.