In 2016, 22 million people worldwide, over half of those children, registered as refugees, many crossing borders to flee war, famine and discrimination. Added to this figure are the 65 million refugees who have been living in refugee camps for years, sometimes decades, after having left their homes in search of safe haven. Now Ai Weiwei, the Chinese dissident and artist, has added his very personal perspective on this crisis to put a human face on this massive human migration. His documentary, "Human Flow," is impressive in its sweep, hauntingly beautiful at times and ultimately, devastating to watch.
With the help of a crew of 200, Ai traveled to 23 countries. He visited refugee camps all over the globe, including Dadaab in Kenya, the largest camp in the world, populated with 500,000 Somalis fleeing war in their country. He visited Israel, documenting a Gaza camp that houses 4.7 million Palestinians where the electricity goes off every afternoon. He made a visit to an Afghani camp in Pakistan which, after several decades, was closing down. The residents, some of whom were born in the camp 10 or 20 years ago, were being repatriated to their home country. In a heartbreaking segment they are seen packing up their few belongings and heading out in a truck caravan back to Afghanistan to villages that have been reduced to rubble and don't exist anymore. A tired UN worker sums up the move this way: "Well at least now they are living in the country their passports are from."
Services, homes, clean water and food may not be part of the picture. They will be forced to scrounge through the rubble to create a life yet again.
From the shores of the Greek island of Lesbos, where mountains of life jackets have created an altar to the memory of the individuals who crossed treacherous seas to land there, to the border of Macedonia where 13,000 fleeing the war in Syria waited only to be told they could not come in, Ai documents lives uprooted. The numbers are staggering: in 2016, 1.2 million asylum applications were filed in Berlin. Most recently, 500,000 Rohyinga have fled ethnic cleansing in Burma to Bangladesh and Thailand.
Camps meant to be a way station have become permanent installations to thousands, hundreds of thousands and sometimes millions, as memories of home recede. The film states that the average refugee spends 25 years away from home. Watching multi-generational families trying to cobble together a home made of tarps and sticks to start life anew with only what they've carried on their backs is heartbreaking. Children have no schools to attend. Food and medical care are scarce or non-existent.
The sweep of this crisis is illustrated again and again as Ai travels from country to country, sometimes letting the refugees themselves speak about their plight. One scene shows a Syrian women who becomes overtaken with emotion and cannot continue her interview. "I have been roaming aimlessly for 60 days with my son," she says. "How do I start my life again?"
As the UN High Commission on Refugees states, every day worldwide, 34,000 people leave their homes searching for safe haven. Trying to improve your life is a human right and should be recognized as a basic human need. No one makes the decision to take a perilous journey with an uncertain future and a family in tow lightly. Ai has used his ample resources to create what he calls a "celebration of human dignity and a plea for protecting those whose everyday dreams, loves and freedoms have been trampled by tyranny, war and deprivation."