OXFORDSHIRE, United Kingdom — In a world choked by violence, conflict and disaster, more than 65 million people in the world today have been forcibly displaced from their homes — the highest number since World War II — and are seeking safety wherever they can find it. In “Human Flow,” a debut documentary by Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist is telling some of their stories.
“These people spend 26 years on average as a refugee. That’s a lifetime. The situation has gotten even worse since we finished filming,” said Chin-Chin Yap, a close collaborator of Ai Weiwei for over 15 years who helped produce the film, of which a short preview was shown at VOICES, BoF’s annual gathering for big thinkers.
Human Flow, she explained, began in modest fashion. After Ai Weiwei’s release after three years of house arrest, he visited the Greek island of Lesbos on holiday. But the scenes he witnessed there rendered him speechless. “He started producing the film almost immediately. He felt that it was important to [share] as it was a timely issue,” Yap said.
“In the summer of 2015, when the European refugee crisis began, people were dying every single day. They received no [protection] and they just wanted somewhere to be safe,” said Amed Khan, who left his career in private investment after seeing the rough conditions in Lesbos, having travelled there from Mykonos — a glitzy, tropical paradise in comparison.
“These war refugees are exactly like us. They once had jobs. They moved from being a productive member of society into a group of people, who we don’t care or even think about. They don't know where their next meal is coming from,” he explained.
“The problem with our current system is that it’s archaic. It was founded in World War II and doesn’t work today. The US, the EU, all the governments in these countries are funding projects that don’t work,” he continued. “It’s been three years since refugees arrived in Lesbos. Tens, if not hundreds of millions [of funds] have gone into Lesbos, but there’s no sign of it due to corruption and bad projects. There are still 8,000 people living in tents built for the summer, when it’s freezing and raining.”
The problem with our current system is that it’s archaic. It was founded in World War II and doesn’t work today.
There are plenty of non-governmental organisations worldwide, he said, but “the problem with NGOs is that most of their money comes from governments, so they have to carry out government agendas.” Khan argued that the conditions in Lesbos remain terrible to serve as a warning to prevent other refugees from coming to Lesbos, or more broadly, Europe.
In other cases, more developed nations are adding fire to the problem. “Leaders in the US and abroad are selling weapons without due diligence,” he said, pointing to the Obama administration for further fuelling the crisis. Under Obama, sales of weapons to Saudi Arabia ballooned to $115 billion — meaning that Obama sold more weapons than any other American president since World War II. Experts are now concerned that US president Donald Trump will sell even more.
“Our leaders are addicted to war. It’s off the charts,” said Khan.
In response, he created a home for refugees in 2016 called the Elpída Home Project. “At Elpída Home, people are safe and have control over their own lives. It allows people to live a dignified life. We find out what happened to them, what they need, and get them reunified or resettled into Europe,” said Khan, but calls for leaders of other industries to engage with these issues and use their influence to improve the situation.
The $1 trillion fashion industry, for one, has a huge impact on lives, economies and the environment. Thus, it has the capacity to engage with the serious issues affecting these areas. “International humanitarianism is an insular system that has failed us,” said Khan.