Icelanders use Facebook to prompt government to welcome refugees

A Facebook campaign urging Iceland's government to open the country's doors to asylum seekers has become an example of social media’s amplifying power in the face of Europe’s worst refugee crisis since World War II.

Bernadett Szabo/Reuters/File
A Syrian migrant carries a child as she walks along a railway track after crossing into Hungary from the border with Serbia, at early morning near Roszke, Hungary, Aug. 29, 2015. A Facebook campaign urging Iceland's government to welcome migrants into the country has become an example of social media’s power in the face of Europe’s worst refugee crisis since World War II.

What happens on social media sometimes goes beyond social media.

On Sunday, Icelandic author and professor Bryndís Björgvinsdóttir took to Facebook with an open letter to the country’s welfare minister, Eygló Harðar, urging greater support for Syrian refugees, Agence-France Presse reported. Ms. Björgvinsdóttir, dubbing the page “Syria is Calling,” encouraged her fellow citizens to comment, share ideas, and press their government into helping mitigate Europe’s escalating migrant crisis.

By Monday afternoon, more than 10,000 people had responded, many offering to house migrants in their own homes. Ms. Harðar later responded that the government would reconsider efforts to expand Iceland’s refugee resettlement cap, which had been set at 50 people over the next two years.

The incident speaks to social media’s growing power to amplify a message, and cut "through the political noise and into the heart of a crisis where at least 2,500 refugees have died trying to reach Europe this year,” Nina Strochlic wrote for The Daily Beast.

The campaign comes as Europe experiences its worst refugee crisis since World War II. Millions of people from Africa and the Middle East are fleeing violence and poverty in search of a new life in a new continent; as of July, more than 4 million people had fled Syria alone, according to the UN.

The crisis has strained relations between members of the European Union and tested the limits of humanitarianism, revealing a “dark side to the continent: fences, tear gas, riots, and hate speech,” The Christian Science Monitor’s Sara Miller Llana wrote. “Much of Europe see the migrants as ‘the other guy’s’ problem.”

“Syria is Calling” represents the other side of that sentiment. As of Thursday, more than 16,000 people had responded to the page, many of them mothers, fathers, brothers, priests, all offering what they can to help: Shelter, clothing, plane tickets, friendship.

“I feel proud to see how many Icelanders are willing to open their homes and provide support and helping hand in these difficult times and I want to naturally do the same,” Fida Abu Libdeh, one of the commenters, wrote. “As a true Icelander I open my house for incoming refugees.”

The campaign has also drawn attention to existing efforts to house asylum-seekers, such as Germany’s Refugees Welcome, an initiative that connects Germans who want to volunteer their homes to migrants. Hundreds of volunteers from at least a dozen cities across Spain have also said they would welcome refugees into their homes, Spanish news outlet The Local reported.

A Facebook group in the United States called “Open Homes, Open Hearts” – patterned after “Syria is Calling” – went live Wednesday.

Which isn’t to say that the challenges of integrating migrants into a population should not be considered – letting thousands of refugees into a country promises to be complicated and costly, as some Icelandic officials have noted.

Still, the overwhelming response to Björgvinsdóttir's call showed that there is room for negotiation even amid growing anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe.

“Refugees are human resources, experience, and skills. Refugees are our future spouses, best friends, our next soul mate, the drummer in our children’s band, our next colleague, Miss Iceland 2022, the carpenter who finally fixes our bathroom, the chef in the cafeteria, the fireman, the hacker, and the television host,” Bjorgvinsdottir wrote on the Facebook page.   

“[They are] people who we'll never be able to say to: ‘Your life is worth less than mine,’ ” she added.

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