The refugee crisis isn’t about refugees. It’s about us | Ai Weiwei

I was a child refugee, writes the Chinese artist and activist. I know how it feels to live in a camp, robbed of my humanity. Refugees must be seen to be an essential part of our shared humanity

I was born in 1957, the same year China purged more than 300,000 intellectuals, including writers, teachers, journalists and whoever dared to criticise the newly established communist government. As part of a series of campaigns led by what was known as the anti-rightist movement, these intellectuals were sent to labour camps for “re-education”.

Because my father, Ai Qing, was the most renowned poet in China then, the government made a symbolic example of him. In 1958, my family was forced from our home in Beijing and banished to the most remote area of the country – we had no idea that this was the beginning of a very dark, long journey that would last for two decades.

In the years that followed, my father was sentenced to hard labour cleaning latrines in a work camp in north-west China. He was also forced to criticise himself publicly.

From my youth, I experienced inhumane treatment from society. At the camp we had to live in an underground dugout and were subjected to unexplainable hatred, discrimination, unprovoked insults and assaults, all of which aimed to crush the basic human spirit rooted in my father’s beliefs. As a result, I remember experiencing what felt like endless injustice. In such circumstances, there is no place to hide and there is no way to escape. You feel like your life is up against a wall, or that life itself is a dimming light, on the verge of being completely extinguished. Coping with the humiliation and suffering became the only way to survive.

I share this personal background because it sheds light on my emotional connection to the current global refugee condition, which I documented in the film Human Flow. My experience clarifies why I identify so deeply with all these unfortunate people who are pushed into extreme conditions by outside forces they are powerless to resist.

During two years of filming, we travelled to 23 nations and 40 refugee camps. Some of the camps are relatively new, coping with those who have fled from the war in Syria. Other camps – such as the Ain al-Hilweh camp in Lebanon – have existed for decades and have now sheltered three generations of refugees.

In the months since the film’s release, some of the areas we covered have deteriorated even further. The Rohingya refugee situation in Myanmar, for example, has erupted in a wave of more than half a million newly displaced people, adding to the already existing 65 million refugees worldwide.

Observing and researching recent and historical refugee events makes some conclusions abundantly clear. Not a single refugee we met had willingly left their home, even when home was impoverished and undeveloped. The promise of economic prosperity is not more important than place. People left their homes because they were forced to by violence which caused the deaths of family members, relatives and fellow citizens. Often it is not just a single house that is destroyed, but entire villages vanish under indiscriminate bombing. There is simply no way for them to stay. Fleeing is the only choice they have to preserve their own lives and the lives of those they love.

A common argument is that many of the people who try to reach the west are economic migrants who wish to take unfair advantage of its prosperity. However, this view ignores the contradiction between today’s physical borders and the real political and economic boundaries of our globalised world. Also implicit is a refusal to acknowledge that through globalisation, certain states, institutions and individuals have greatly profited at the direct expense of those in many parts of the world who are vulnerable and increasingly exploited.

At this moment, the west – which has disproportionately benefited from globalisation – simply refuses to bear its responsibilities, even though the condition of many refugees is a direct result of the greed inherent in a global capitalist system. If we map the 70-plus border walls and fences built between nations in the past three decades – increasing from roughly a dozen after the fall of the Berlin Wall – we can see the extent of global economic and political disparities. The people most negatively affected by these walls are the poorest and most desperate of society.

Ai Qing and his family in 1962.
‘Because my father, Ai Qing, was the most renowned poet in China then, the government made a symbolic example of him.’ Ai Qing with his family in 1962. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

In nature there are two approaches to dealing with flooding. One is to build a dam to stop the flow. The other is to find the right path to allow the flow to continue. Building a dam does not address the source of the flow – it would need to be built higher and higher, eventually holding back a massive volume. If a powerful flood were to occur, it could wipe out everything in its path. The nature of water is to flow. Human nature too seeks freedom and that human desire is stronger than any natural force.

Can physical borders stop refugees? Instead of building walls, we should look at what is causing people to become refugees and work to solve those conditions to stem the flow at its source. To do so will require the most powerful nations in the world to adjust how they are actively shaping the world, how they are using political and economic ideology – enforced by overwhelming military power – to disrupt entire societies. How do we think the poor, displaced or occupied can exist when their societies are destroyed? Should they simply disappear? Can we recognise that their continued existence is an essential part of our shared humanity? If we fail to recognise this, how can we speak of “civilised” development?

The refugee crisis is not about refugees, rather, it is about us. Our prioritisation of financial gain over people’s struggle for the necessities of life is the primary cause of much of this crisis. The west has all but abandoned its belief in humanity and support for the precious ideals contained in declarations on universal human rights. It has sacrificed these ideals for short-sighted cowardice and greed.

Establishing the understanding that we all belong to one humanity is the most essential step for how we might continue to coexist on this sphere we call Earth. I know what it feels like to be a refugee and to experience the dehumanisation that comes with displacement from home and country. There are many borders to dismantle, but the most important are the ones within our own hearts and minds – these are the borders that are dividing humanity from itself.

• Ai Weiwei is a contemporary artist, activist and advocate of political reform in China

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Ai Weiwei

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