Migrants, we're told, present a crisis for Europe—untold thousands trek over dusty trails from Syria, or put themselves at the mercy of the Mediterranean as they set out from North Africa on rafts and other uncertain craft. I don't much care for the term "migrant," though: it implies something like choice, that the sufferings of these people are somehow their own fault, and reduces the moral urgency of the situation. Journalist Barry Malone gets at the truth of the matter when he writes:
The umbrella term migrant is no longer fit for purpose when it comes to describing the horror unfolding in the Mediterranean. It has evolved from its dictionary definitions into a tool that dehumanises and distances, a blunt pejorative. It is not hundreds of people who drown when a boat goes down in the Mediterranean, nor even hundreds of refugees. It is hundreds of migrants. It is not a person – like you, filled with thoughts and history and hopes – who is on the tracks delaying a train. It is a migrant. A nuisance.What we really have is a crisis, not of migrants, but of refugees. What can poetry do, in a time of such crisis? The question probably seems absurd to the more practical-minded, but it haunts poets at times like these. W.H. Auden addressed an earlier era's troubles in "Refugee Blues," a poem about Jewish refugees in the time of fascism, and Chinua Achebe's "Refugee Mother and Child" spoke to a crisis closer to our own time.
My own poor, best effort, came from the Yugoslav wars of the nineties, when I was living in Europe:
I am a great believer in poetry, and know what it has done for me and for others I care about. But I am also a believer in these words, from an anonymous editorial in the Arab American News:
The United Nations has a fund for aid to refugees. Help if you can.
The photo of Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian child who drowned and washed on the shores of Turkey, has inspired volumes of poetry and sympathy. But words and tears will not help the people of Syria. Actions are needed by all governments— including ours— which considers itself the leading force in the free world.