From the center of Greece’s largest refugee camp, you’re surrounded by hundreds of temporary housing units. The white, rectangular metal boxes are in precise rows, creating a grid that projects a sense of order. Many of the boxes are adorned with rooftop solar water heaters and television dishes. The United Nations, Save the Children and other international donor logos abound. Here, Syrian families wait for resettlement in northern Europe.  

By noon the center of the camp at Skaramagas Dock, on the outskirts of Athens, is lively. Young children chase one another around the boxes. Teenagers kick a soccer ball. Parents bring children to the library, or to the Red Cross Red Crescent health clinic. Volunteers — Europeans — traverse the cement-covered, unshaded center in colored vests that identify their organizations.

As you progress through the camp, you catch glimpses of a radiant blue sea to your right — the Mediterranean. Hidden behind rows of white housing units, it’s striking.

The view to your left, above the rows of one-story camp dwellings, leaves an even greater impression: hundreds, perhaps thousands, of steel shipping containers stacked six or seven containers high, waiting to be loaded onto vessels bound for ports across the globe. They’re labeled with the names of South Korean, Chinese, German and Greek shipping companies.

I visited the refugee camp in March, alongside other graduate students from the University of Michigan. We saw the boxes, the sea and the shipping containers through the windows of our van as we were arriving. While those sights weren’t immediately distressing, or emotionally taxing, a brief encounter minutes later altered my perception of what I saw that morning, and of Europe’s refugee crisis.

With my back turned to our guide, I stood in front of a young girl, likely no older than four. She was alone, staring at me — an outsider. I stared at her. Moments before, I’d seen her chasing friends around a nearby box.

She was dressed and acted like many young children across the world. And yet I couldn’t avoid thinking that she might be different. I asked myself: How would being displaced affect her? How would her life be different than those of Greek children in nearby neighborhoods? I wanted more questions answered, too. Where and when would her family move? Would she ever return to Syria?

I knew almost nothing about her, but in the moments she happily chased her friends, and stared at me, I saw glimpses of her life. I also began to feel my own inadequacy.

It doesn’t matter that Skaramagas Dock is orderly and well-run. (I’d been told before visiting that, because of this, officials typically take visitors there and not to more deprived sites.) It doesn’t matter that volunteers ensure it is clean and safe. It doesn’t matter that living conditions seem to be improving, with a new library and sewing workshop.

Placing people in boxes in camps, for months if not years, is a tragedy. We box up goods — olives, olive oil and feta cheese from Greece — in shipping containers and send them around the world. We’ve sheltered tens of thousands of refugees in similar boxes (and much worse, in tents during winter storms), leaving them thus incapacitated for months, or more typically, years.

This contrast, and the consequences, is clear. One makes people richer; the other leaves refugees—  including children like the girl I saw — stuck in time, in between places.

Earlier in the week I’d heard from prominent NGOs, politicians and researchers about how politics in the United States and Europe have failed. Skaramagas Dock is certainly evidence of that.

I’d heard how our foreign policy has failed to address the conflicts in the “origin countries” — Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria — that have forced millions up against, and through, Europe’s deadly borders and seas. I’d read, and now seen at Skaramagas Dock, how thousands have been left waiting in camps and “jungles,” amid the shadows of Europe’s “receiving countries.”

Experts from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, politicians and foreign policy advisers convincingly argued how outdated regulations, austerity and nationalistic voters in receiving countries have extended the crisis and impoverished our world. These conversations led me to think that my government’s policy response has failed, contributing to my sense of inadequacy. The refugees affected by politics and policy in Europe, and by the immigration ban I’d protested at the airport only weeks before, now had images and names in my mind.

Seeing the similarity between the shipping containers and refugee shelters, and knowing how differently we treat their contents, made me question our economic practices and public policy as well.

Shipping containers are one of the most visible symbols of our global economy today. Seeing them next to Skaramagas Dock suggested the crisis has had little impact on our economic world order or individual economic decisions. The containers should have been comforting evidence that Greece was finally recovering from a decade-long, severe economic depression. Instead, the sight of cranes shuffling containers around the port, and onto ships, imparted a disconcerting impression of normalcy — that the refugee crisis had had little impact on economic and business decisions.

It’s human nature that when something bad happens to others, you stop what you’re doing and help. It’s in law, too; when a ship is in distress, neighboring sailors must come to the rescue. Economists and businesses seem to behave differently. There are more refugees today than any time since the 1940s, but businesses haven’t altered what they’re doing, even when those in need are just next door.

I felt inadequate because I study economics and public policy, two disciplines that clearly haven’t done enough to solve the crisis to get refugees out of the camp at Skaramagas Dock. Economists and policy analysts have failed to persuade the public of the benefits of immigration and of welcoming refugees. Perhaps more damning is that both disciplines have contributed to the business-as-usual attitudes seen next door to the camp. Economists and policy makers may have tempered their enthusiasm for neoliberalism since the years of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, or even Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, but ideas like societies as markets and individuals as profit-maximizers still affect how we act and justify narrow-minded decisions.

I haven’t abandoned my belief in economics as a systematic approach that can lead individuals, and ultimately societies, to the best outcomes. Why? Economics tells us to make decisions using a set of rules — by thinking on the margin, by considering “opportunity costs” (the next best alternative to a choice) and by weighing costs against benefits. Together these rules explain how we (should) respond to incentives, whether social, legal or financial. But in the absence of public policy, using this recipe to dictate your behavior, without thinking seriously about how others are affected, can lead us all to undesirable outcomes. Isn’t it crazy to make decisions in a narrow-minded, cost-benefit calculating way when your neighbors are refugees (as in Greece), or living on $2 a day (as in much of the United States)? And yet many people and businesses regularly do this.

Our response to the crisis could be different. Before visiting the camp that morning, we met with Nadina Christopoulou of the Melissa Network.

The Melissa Network is a community organization led by immigrant women, including former refugees, for migrant women. From the first two floors of an apartment building in Athens’s Victoria Square, the Melissa Network provides classes, counseling and community for women in need. Artists and activists stop by each day. Several MacArthur fellows, including A.E. Stallings and Michigan’s Khaled Mattawa, have read and taught poetry there.

I left deeply impressed that morning. The community exudes generosity and empowerment. When introducing a teacher there, Christopoulou made sure we heard the teacher’s story: she was born in a refugee camp. And now as a young woman, that she has created and taught a hundred lessons to younger, newer refugees. The introduction was a small act, yet was visibly empowering; the young teacher spoke confidently to us. The Melissa Network is growing a diaspora of empowered refugees — throughout Athens, and as they are resettled, Europe. Many of them were once not much different than the girl I stood in front of at Skaramagas Dock.

Throughout the week in Athens, I had heard repeatedly that we must address the root causes of the crisis — the conditions and conflict in the origin countries. One foreign diplomat described “deep pools of suffering” in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. While this is certainly true, doing so may take decades.

In a lecture to the Ford School of Public Policy last month, Christopoulou proffered a different solution, one that can have an immediate impact, in the United States and Europe. We should work to build more integrated communities, connected by what we have in common and supported by small, healing gestures. Melissa’s approach is a noneconomic solution in a policy environment defined by economic ideas like austerity, efficient public management and entrepreneurial philanthropy. Instead of weighing the costs and benefits of serving those who have just joined their community, the Melissa Network welcomes them. And it’s clear that her approach is working — empowering young migrants, eradicating extremism and bringing the Athens community together.  

Visiting Athens in March led me to see the ways our government, and my disciplines, have failed. The Melissa Network shows what is possible.

Anthony Cozart is a graduate student at the Ford School of Public Policy.


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