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The West should offer a helping hand to migrants in Middle Eastern refugee crisis

By Austin Langdon, Guest Columnist

Gabriel Hill is a Swiss photographer who's having a pretty good year. She got engaged to her girlfriend, Rebecca, and saw quite a bit of success in the photography world.

In one of her latest projects, ImPORTRAITS, Hill was nominated for the 2016 Swiss Photo Awards.

ImPORTRAITS is a collection of refugees pictured with the sole possession they took with them on their flight from their war torn homes.

One of the subjects was a 23-year-old Eritrean named Ahmet, whose only possession was a piece of paper with a phone number. The caption for his portrait read, "I got on board of a ship in Libya which had to bring us to Italy. I couldn't take anything with me except the clothes I was wearing and a tiny little piece of paper with the phone number of my family on it."

Ahmet's family told him to call them when he reached Italy. Only, his ship overturned on his way and over 250 had drowned. He lost the paper amid the catastrophe.

Ahmet reached Switzerland months later and found someone who helped him contact his parents, who thought he had died on his way to Italy. He said, "The piece of paper with their number was the most important thing that I owned."

When we discuss the issue of refugees, we discuss them as problems. In the words of the British Sun Times columnist Katie Hopkins, "These migrants are like cockroaches."

While it is not common for politicians and pundits to use such language, the image of refugees as some sort of infestation is quite pervasive.

For Katie Hopkins, using "gunships to stop migrants" is a reasonable headline for a column.

This kind of rhetoric doesn't help discussion. Rather, it distracts anyone who wants to discuss accepting refugees from actually debating the problem.

Maybe there are problems associated with accepting refugees -- it's important to contemplate and discuss such questions. Anyone unwilling to do so on either side is an obstacle to finding a solution.

If both parties see the refugees in a humanitarian light, it's possible to genuinely discuss these problems, and art projects like Hill's go a long way in getting us there. There's plenty to discuss, too.

The most common concern with accepting refugees is the risk of terrorism.

Immediately after the tragic bombing in Brussels that took the lives of 32 people, the focus was directed toward the influx of migrants coming into Europe -- even before the identities of the terrorists were released. However, all but two of the terrorists were born in Brussels. And the attacks in Paris -- Charlie Hebdo -- and San Bernardino were committed primarily by European citizens, not refugees.

Closing borders to curb the refugee crises doesn't seem like a suitable solution to curbing terrorism in Europe, mainly because the refugee crisis is simply not to blame for terrorism.

Accommodation is another concern, and perhaps the most valid.

Marie Le Pen, the president of The National Front in France, has said that most migrants are economic migrants -- not fleeing war, but pursuing benefits. She stated as her reasoning the frequent images of men being taken in as refugees and the lack of images of women and children.

While this statement stands at odds against United Nations figures, the issue remains:

How can European economies handle an influx of nearly half a million migrants a year?

Many European countries have large welfare states, although accommodating thousands of refugees inflicts quite a burden on their economies.

But what's the purpose of economics? Isn't it to provide a better standard of living for the people? Clearly the most sensible solution would be to stop intensifying the conflict they are fleeing from, but that's unlikely. In the meantime, in my mind, the humanitarian scale shifts in the direction of accepting refugees while accepting the economic burden of an excessive welfare state. Private sponsorship could help alleviate some of these concerns, though it wouldn't absolve the situation of its many economic costs.

But as Amnesty International pointed out, "people are dying while governments spend billions on border control." I can think of a lot of government programs we can and should cut, with or without a refugee crises. Money can be allocated more effectively.

With Middle-Eastern, Asian and African countries taking in over 80 percent of the refugees, the West can do more. But the conversations we have aren't aimed at a solution, at least not for the people who really need one,

As long as we continue to have these conversations with the right mindset, a solution could be found.

Gabriel Hill's work could help give us some perspective on that mindset.