Thursday, September 24, 2015

Challenging the status quo

Last week, during my address as part of the University of Newcastle 50th Anniversary Webinar on the Future of Construction, I offered this perspective,
'It is quite a significant step to be prepared to challenge the status quo. Just like the machine of perpetual war, the hegemony of global governance that we accept with so little critical discourse thrives on our indifference. Within all sectors of society, decision-making is too often based on ideology and agenda, rather than evidence, and dissenters are dismissed as naive, sheltered and unrealistic. There is a pervasive narrative that asserts that a dichotomy exists between the well-being of our environment and the health of the global economy. This false assumption successfully obstructs reason and fuels the ideological and agenda-based decision-making that we see all around us.'
As researchers and educators, how often do we really go against the doctrines that dominate our culture? Standing up for ideas that run counter-culture can impact how we are accepted by peers, perceived by funding bodies and respected by students. Not everyone has been willing to take this risk in the past. I would argue, however, that the age of dangerous ideas being mainstreamed is upon us.

As we see the popularity of political figures like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn soar, one thing is clear. People around the world have had about enough of the current hegemony. The establishment is not impressed. Ad hominem attacks against those desiring radical change is the most common response, with the Conservatives smear campaign an excellent current example of ideologues running scared. While the masses demand to be represented, apologists for the status quo grow more and more desperate. We must not pass up on the opportunity to destroy false narratives once and for all, in whatever way that we can.

In the area of disaster research, are there ideas that we have previously avoided that we might revisit? How about the oxymoron that is sustainable development?

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Refugees in Europe: a journey from Gevgelija (FYROM) to Budapest (Hungary)

In August, I spent two weeks in my hometown in Southern Italy. I also took a short trip with a friend of mine to Eastern Europe, along the way participating at the EUGEO 2015 Conference in Budapest (Hungary), where I organized a session and presented a paper. During my visit to this region of Europe, the refugee crisis was building. Things were becoming heated, not only in terms of (very) high temperatures, but particularly in terms of tension and debate within the European Union about how to manage what is rightly considered a humanitarian crisis.

Since we were travelling near to the Balkan area, which refugees traditionally use to try to reach their aspired destinations in Northern Europe countries, my friend and I decided to observe with our own eyes what was occurring. Of course, we did not do it for voyeurism purposes. We think that human beings have to recognize the often tragic and sobering power of History, which constantly happens around our everyday life and deserves direct observation when it is possible. We are also against the protectionist strategies of this European Union, setting itself up as an impregnable fortress. In the past 30 years we have been surrounded by news of tragedies constantly happening both along terrestrial borders and Mediterranean sea, as well as about the violence and ignominious treatments perpetrated on migrants both at borders and the detention camps in Libya and Europe. For these reasons, we decided to be an infinitesimal part of that History and to witness the biggest displacement of people to Europe since World War 2.

I am neither a photographer (actually, I just "do pictures"), nor a journalist or a political analyst. However, as an Italian and European citizen calling for a shift towards inclusive mobility rights and hoping that national and supranational borders finally collapse as spaces of militarization, surveillance and control perpetrating existing and new injustice and inequalities, I have attempted to narrate and to document in pictures what I have seen on those European borders. I have also spoken with some of the refugees, trying to be respectful to people that were there sleeping, washing clothes, or playing football, often in very precarious conditions (as in Budapest). I had several small chats with groups of guys or with families; some were tired or didn't want to be disturbed, however others asked us to take pictures and were happy to speak with me.

We arrived in the small town of Gevgelija (FYROM), located just 300 meters from the South-Eastern border FYROM-Greece. The situation was very difficult. The temperature so high that plastic shelters and gazebos under the sun were literally burning. A few volunteers were providing insufficient food and water. People were continuing to arrive from the border, passing through an unpaved way carrying limited bags and dusty clothes. Exhausted parents took children by the arm. On the border, a police cordon was struggling to prevent refugees from crossing the barbed wire which was used to delimit the border. Protests by the desperate crowds were mounting, pushing to enter FYROM territory. I saw also Macedonian police and frustrated people facing off.

The unpaved way from the FYROM-Greece border to the camp in the Gevgelija countryside. 

Refugees arriving from the border. 

Tensions between the Macedonian police and refugees.

After Gevgelija, we travelled (on our own) towards Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, located in the North of the country. We visited the central station in which refugees were recovered -also for days- after travelling on buses from Gevgelija, waiting for an opportunity to reach the Serbia-Hungary border. While the Gevgelija camp was located in the countryside, with just a few nearby houses and about three kilometres far from the small, rusty station of the town, the refugees' area in Belgrade was located at the side of the central station along the river Sava. It was a small, but very crowded green area, with travellers passing with their bags and suitcases throughout igloo tents, people sleeping on the floor, and children showering in fountains. There were also a lot of Serbians accessing the shops and bars outside the station. Therefore it was possible to see both people having a social drink alongside refugees literally assaulting volunteers bringing food packs, which were of course insufficient to cater for the needy. Being the main railway station of Belgrade, it was absolutely a mess. This de facto worsened the already difficult condition of refugees; there was a lot of traffic along the roads with high levels of pollution and noise at the crossing lights; cars were going into and out from the private parking close to the station. Some people were waiting for private buses operating along the route Belgrade-Kanjiža (the small town close to the border Serbia-Hungary). In order to pay for bus tickets, food and water, refugees went to change their currency to the Serbian dinar.

Drying clothes on a football net in the central station in Belgrade. 


Showering kids.

We knew refugees were also in Novi Sad, an important city between Belgrade and the border with Hungary, however we skipped it because we had to enter into Hungary that evening, and long queues for border checks were expected (in fact, we spent four hours for a passport and baggage check!). Before approaching the border, we visited the refugees' camp in the Serbian town of Kanjiža. The camp was located in a green area just outside the town and close to a railway track. The condition was relatively better than Gevgelija and Belgrade; the camp was monitored by the volunteers of a humanitarian association, and tents were provided for shelter as well as fountains and toilets. A Syrian family asked me to take a picture of their daughters, and this turned into an occasion for a short chat. They told me that they took one month to arrive there from Homs (Northern Syria). They wanted to reach Germany, where some relatives were waiting for them. They did not know what would happen when they tried to cross the Hungarian border, however that evening they were preparing to leave the camp, Inshallah.

The kids of the Syrian family I chatted with in Kanjiža. The youngest daughter was very reticent to pose. 

Washing clothes. 

The camp had humanitarian tents, which are more comfortable of igloo tents or the ground. 

After a few days, I took part in the EUGEO conference in Budapest, where refugees were gathered into the Kalati station waiting to take trains to Germany and Austria. The station was full of refugees in shameful conditions; however, the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán decided to prevent them from boarding the trains. The reason for this halt was the application of the EU directives on migrations. According to the Dublin III Regulation by EU, every application for international protection lodged by refugees has to be examined in the country of entry. Although the halt by Orbán was formally lawful and "necessary", it only served to worsen the already unsustainable conditions of the refugees in the station. Just a small water pump and few smelling toilets were provided for hundreds of people, as well as minimal food and no safe areas for sleeping. Refugees (probably around 500 people, but is a very roughly estimation also due to that other people came in the following days) were waiting for days in front of the station sleeping on the ground. They protested and claimed their right to travel. I spoke with some very young Syrian and Iraqi guys. They wanted to go in Germany and angrily waved their train tickets under my nose. A part of the ignominious conditions of the refugees, I was also ashamed for the silence on this issue during the EUGEO 2015 Conference. The Kalati station was just at three kilometres from the conference venue, the Eötvös Loránd University, in Buda side of the Danube. Nevertheless, it seems to me there has been no mention or condemnation, in formal speeches or key note lectures, about what was happening there. Nothing changes with a formal condemnation, of course, however a scientific meeting of geographers and social scientists must be aware of what is happening in their proximity and highlight injustices, particularly when global challenges knock on your door.

Underground passage occupied by refugees in the Kalati station, Budapest. 

Trying to rest. 

A man protesting against the police cordoning the station entrance. 

These guys show me their tickets for Germany. They were in the station since five days, and no food was provided. 

Refugees in the Kalati station. 

I do not know what has happened to the people I met, if they have been able to reach their destination and if they will be able to build a new life far from their home countries. In previous posts on our blog, Jason posed very interesting questions about the challenges migration and displacement pose to the concept of "place" and to the Western development models which provide benefits for the few and sufferance, bombs, and destruction for the others. In the Middle East and around the world, wars or terrorism threaten communities and institutions; this can be considered a disaster. Wars' consequences exceed the capacity of the population to survive, to regain a job or a wage, or to sustain their livelihoods. Local communities cannot cope with the disruption and destruction using exclusively their own resources. As disaster scholars, we are called to investigate the relationships among migrations, society, and environment for understanding pre-existing and new vulnerabilities and risks, for both people continuing to live in those countries and refugees. In this way, several researches are exploring impacts of wars, as well as climate change and hazards on migration trends and displacement. Also narrating and witnessing refugees' stories and conditions respond to this academic -and ethical- need, giving voice to excluded and marginalized people.

All my pictures can be found at my Facebook page (contents are in Italian, apologize for this), as well as pictures by my friend (he is an amateur photographer) on his Flickr.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

The Displacement Crisis Revealing our Humanity

The world is finally waking up to a global displacement crisis. While we debate what to call the displaced, refugees...asylum seekers...migrants...the number of people seeking a new 'place' as a matter of urgency is swelling like never before in history. What is 'place' and who deserves one to call their own? Do citizens of failed states have a right to seek another place? As we consider the cauldron of violence and instability that is the Middle East, are we asking questions about the underlying causes of displacement?

Photo by Giuseppe Forino

This crisis is only likely to grow. As Australia and the UK prepare to join the US-led bombing campaign in Syria, will the politicians making the decision to kill ever more civilians be held accountable for the impact? How has this strategy worked out before in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya? Violence is a lucrative pastime. The global arms trade generates massive revenues, and soaring military spending is justified based on the perceived risks posed globally, often as a result of intentional destabilization. Quite a business model.

However, it is not only conflict that creates displacement. Climate change is occurring whether you like science or not. Disaster impacts are evolving as societies urbanize and people adopt less sustainable living in the pursuit of 'development'. In many ways, people are become more exposed to disaster risk because of how they choose to live. The drive to 'modernize' and 'advance' inherently supports the incumbent economic system of our time. A devotion to market fundamentalism practically locks us in for whatever disasters will eventually befall our race.

Put it this way. Our economic and social order is built on the premise that limitless growth is healthy. Anything that might challenge this premise is dismissed as problematic, idealistic and unreasonable. Solutions that involve equality and justice for all are labeled socialist. This belief system taken to the extreme brings us humanitarian bombing and coal is good for humanity. Orwell was spot on; blind, selfish, self-absorbed consumers want to believe that 'war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength'.

It is great to see the outpouring of empathy for the Syrian refugees reaching Europe. It gives me hope that most of us really do care about others. Perhaps it takes a picture and the tragic story of a dead toddler to really wake us up from our busy, stressed out existence. My hope is that this crisis will create thousands of activists around the world. There are huge ethical and moral dilemmas to consider, but not a lot of time to take action.

The world certainly needs to come up with rapid and collective solutions to this humanitarian crisis, but we need to be careful not to apply a band-aid to a deep laceration. Increasing refugee intake is commendable, but are we prepared to interrogate the problem at its source?

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Mass Media and Disasters

Thank you to Eloisa Rozul, graduating from our Master of Disaster Preparedness and Reconstruction, for this excellent video and some interesting thoughts on media in disasters.


In today’s society, people are bombarded with constant exposure to mass media in different modes. These include television, magazines, books, radio, newspapers, movies and the most recent, internet. Media has proven to be a significant contributor of the people’s new ways of thinking, of perceiving and of interacting with their environment. Indeed, media has become an integral part of human existence. For instance, it provides an update of what is the latest fashion trend, new sports icon, the next political leader, the “perfect body” image, the upcoming celebrity star and all other events that arouse the interests of the public. Mass media has become a source of power and meaning.

Significantly, with the increasing number of global crisis and disaster occurrences, mass media has played a significant role in the entire disaster management cycle – from the pre-disaster phase (mitigation and preparedness) up to the post-disaster phase (relief and recovery). It has proven to be successful in fulfilling its strategic role in information distribution, mass communication and education of people in times of relocation, evacuation and relief assistance. Interestingly, mass media has seen to portray a new role – the linkage and emotional utility function. However, sensational portrayals of poverty and vulnerability, government’s shortcomings and helplessness of victims have resulted in inappropriate media stereotypes of the communities concerned. Although it has certainly helped in fund raising campaigns, it appears to have negatively influenced both victims and the concerned governments. As an example, the 2013 Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines showed the positive and the negative impacts of mass media coverage. This video presents a simple but clear illustration of the power of mass media, focusing on the case of Haiyan.

by Eloisa Rozul