Some two weeks ago, in the aftermath of Aylan Kurdi’s death, I was writing about those boats, about how the refugees are coming and why, and wondered what was going to happen to them and with us all, once they are here. A lot has happened since then. Lots more people died, including lots of children among them, dozens of thousands of people crossed Eastern seas, Central Europe countries and Western borders in their flight. People, nations and governments continue to agonise on what is the best response and the optimal strategy to cope with the influx of refugees arriving. Between moral duty, Christian charity, personal obligation and individual compulsion to help, the responses are as varied as human souls are. What to do with people who are orphaned of a life, orphaned of a country for sure, orphaned of their family in many cases, orphaned of a future of their choice and at the mercy of decisions made by anyone but them.
Why did the Kurdi family risk and lose the lives of their children when they were in no immediate danger in a Turkish holiday resort? Because they lived under the permanent threat of deportation back to Syria and knew that they had no claim for asylum if/once they reached Europe (refugee and asylum legislation all over the world states that you have to flee a recognised and verifiable life and death situation in a documented unsafe part of the world where you are in immediate danger). Their request for family reunification through the the Canadian system would have been a long, arduous process with little or no guarantee of success. Nevertheless, the survivor father will ask himself for the rest of his life whether the danger involved in putting his family in a small boat on a choppy sea was not the same as remaining in their house in Kobane.
By now tens of millions of people have been displaced by the Middle East wars, conflict zones in Iraq, Afghanistan and parts of Africa, in addition to people fleeing repressive regimes all over the Asian and African continents. They cannot all be transported to, supported by, accommodated and integrated in the West. Regardless of what we may think caused this mass displacement (according to the various opinions out there, the root cause of the current situation can be blamed on a single decision by George W. Bush, the American foreign policy of the last half a century, the legacy of the invariably bloody French, British, Dutch colonialism, the Western states’ most recent interventions in Lybia, etc.).
Irrespective of what caused whatever refugees are fleeing from, there is always a wildfire period in every conflagration which forces open the floodgates and will quicken consequences for everyone involved. Today, it simply does not matter anymore – it will be the job of researchers and historians to sort out that mess and attempt explanations. Dealing with its consequences is a much more urgent priority since world governance bodies such as the UN or NATO, due to their limitations in both scope and mandate and the weak and ambiguous international public law they operate on, are proving perennially unable to either prevent or cope with the global repercussions of international conflagrations.
There are so many precedents of mass migrations and refugee crises. People forget. Even young, educated people in European universities and eighty-year olds who may have experienced wars in Europe first hand, do not think about this enough. Meanwhile, their governments are extremely worried about creating precedents, which will expose the vulnerability of their states and the naivete of some of their politicians. A little more than a half century ago, in a less politicised international community, the French who received the Spanish Civil War refugees or the Austrians who opened the gates for the Hungarians fleeing their country in 1956 may not have thought that they were setting a dangerous precedent (some argue they did). Back then, repression and war were much more poignant, infinitely closer and sadly familiar. No one now questions the right of the Armenians to flee and “invade” the whole of the Caucasus and beyond after the Ottoman genocides. Most of the Jewish population in Britain at present are descendants of European refugees or Holocaust survivors. Indeed, even without wars, mass-migration had always happened due to religious repression or economic poverty, including from Europe: the flight of European Protestants to the US and the large-scale migration from Ireland also to the US come to mind. These were mostly penniless refugees, mostly women and children survivors.
Meanwhile, we are dealing with real-life events in real time. So what can the Western states do about the current, seemingly unstoppable wave of migration? Definitely more than what they are doing now; but not much more, that is also clear.
Back when I was a student, and everything had rather more certainty, myself and friends from my literary circle, a cosy intellectual bubble that afforded us freedom to debate everything that did not directly affect our immediate lives and surroundings, a question arose: “What would any of us do if given the option to take in an orphan – a parentless ward of the state living in an orphanage, that is – for the weekend?”. Did we think that it would help the orphan get a glimpse of the real life out there and maybe instill hope that a future beyond the barred windows of the orphanage is possible? We debated what they would gain from this: hope and life experience and human kindness. We also debated whether these occasional acts of kindness would help them cope better with life on the inside or equip them better for life on the outside. We asked ourselves and each other whether charity is useful long term, or whether, by making people dependent on others’ kindness, in time, disables their already limited capacity to overcome their condition.
Extrapolated to the always current issue of how effective Western foreign aid strategies and programmes are in underdeveloped countries, this above happens to be the eternal debate on whether charity actually helps long term. Despite decades of aid and hundreds of billions of Western currency sunk in developmental aid for Africa, for instance, significant overall development in a sustainable, consistent way is still not being achieved. Similarly, after decades of hosting peace talks between various Middle Eastern players and opening refugee resettlement programmes across the world, Western countries are now debating whether direct intervention – the big no-no of international law – and setting up on-site aid and assistance mechanisms, such as temporary camps in the proximity of conflict zones, are a better option. Conveniently, one might notice, it would also keep them out of Europe.
It is notable that oil-rich Middle Eastern countries and the Emirate states will not accept refugees as they more likely see them as a source of destabilisation. Having worked so hard to unite tribes, factions and political clans in order to create peaceful countries (though it may be argued that they maintain that artificial stability mostly through dictatorial means) they do not want to deal with someone else’s problem. They prefer to send money. The Saudis donate billions, an Egyptian billionaire offers to buy an island. Meanwhile, Lebanon and Jordan, with their limited resources and their own internal problems, and Turkey, a developing country itself somehow ended up with the bulk of the displaced millions.
In the early days of hardball international politics when decisions were made over cigars and cognac on some holiday resort, transmuting entire peoples was discussed – setting up the state of Israel in Canada was briefly considered. Indeed, large tracts of unused territories in any of the large Western and Eastern countries could be used to accommodate millions of displaced people, instead of them flooding densely-populated cities in a continually stretched-to-the-limit little Europe. Except that this is not a civilisation-building video game, nor has this been attempted successfully before, on such a large scale (dropping a large Jewish population in the heart of the Middle East is an experiment that clearly failed). In any event, one doubts that Canada, Russia, Mongolia or Kazakhstan would be happy to donate portions of their states to the humanitarian cause. The US’s population density is too high and there is no way millions of Muslims are to be welcomed there.
Then there is Europe, with its even higher population density and dangerously ageing populations. Despite that, offers have been made and taken: Germany simply has vast resources and opportunities, from surplus capital to unfilled job vacancies. It can afford it. Same for other Northern Europe countries. It is admirable that they have sorted themselves so beautifully so that they can help others in return; at the same time, it is arguable that this is a solution to be considered whenever a conflict displaces people anywhere in the world. Even these welcoming, well-prepared countries are finding it hard to cope with some of the arrivals at their train stations and what becomes an asylum-seeking strategy that they will eventually need to counter. Many desperate people in conflict zones and asylum seekers stranded in Europe people engage people smugglers to take their children directly to Germany and Sweden, whose strong family reunification schemes offer better odds. There, unaccompanied children will be well taken care of, maybe even given refugee status, at which point their families can apply to join them. As always, smugglers are ahead of the game and are probably the only ones benefiting from this phenomenon.
Meanwhile, other countries struggle to comprehend the refugee crisis, let alone cope with its consequences. In central and eastern European states, alongside Russia and the Near East, the experience of most ordinary people with interacting with foreigners or Muslims of any kind is between limited and zero. This is not an understatement – enclosed within their repressive Communist regimes for decades, inward migration was limited to a few hundreds foreign students coming to study medicine and engineering every year. Entire generations have been living in complete cultural isolation from the world in these countries, and their knowledge of Muslims specifically comes the painful legacy of centuries-long Ottoman occupation they read in their school history books, and images of wars, terrorism and extremism they now see on TV. Their societies are not multicultural – indeed, they have failed to integrate the Roma people for centuries and they were relieved when these slowly started to make their way to Western Europe. As a result, their monochrome and – for the most part – mono-ethnic societies are not prepared to welcome or integrate “The Other”.
This is not necessarily a Huntingtonian “clash of civilisations” scenario, but for many on the ground, it feels like it is. Without justifying these attitudes, fear, racism and xenophobia are but natural consequences of these countries’ own recent history. In addition, their relatively recent inclusion to the European Union family as the poor relatives means they are in the process of overcoming their own limitations in economic, political and societal terms. Surveys and polls show that ultra-nationalism and xenophobia are the strongest in eastern European Union states, having quickly forgotten what it is to be the poor desperate sod knocking on the gates of Fortress Europe.
Their reaction to being confronted with what some of their politicians call “the Muslim invasion” is both understable and reprehensible. Forgetting their own experiences and somehow by-passing the most basic impulses of human and Christian charity, their response to the arrival of the refugees has been of almost overall rejection, while trying to blindly and aggressively implement some EU law that had suddenly become almost irrelevant, and which had not been written to account for situations like these.
What the Hungarian government, among others, did over the last weeks is shameful – having insisted on processing the migrants, and thus enforcing European law, was right, of course; everything else wasn’t. On one occasion, when Hungarian authorities finally relented and bussed migrants towards the Austrian border but failed to deliver them there, leaving them to walk in the rain for 2 km to the dismay of Austrian border officials, it was because they knew they would be breaching EU law if they shipped undocumented migrants all the way to or across the border, having already ignored the Dublin Convention, even at the behest of the receiving countries. When Serbia, which is far from a shining light in the human rights debate, calls you barbaric, you must know you’ve gone too far.
Meanwhile, civic groups and many ordinary people in these countries have acted with great resolve and kindness, in stark contrast with their government’s’ actions and statements, but they seem to be in minority. While educated, worldly people come out to help, others remain locked in their houses, where the TV and the Internet report of Muslims coming to invade our peaceful countries, enslave our women, bomb our churches and slit our throats in the middle of the night.
The same attitudes are found in Western European countries – such fears exist everywhere; in its extreme forms, it brings about murders of teenagers on Norwegian islands. Letters sent to newspapers and comments on social media channels reveal two distinct responses – enthusiastic welcomes and angry rejections; hardly anyone at this point has no opinion on this.
For the first time during our lifetime perhaps, the migration crisis will affect almost everybody in the EU and the Western world, whether directly or indirectly. People in the big cities as well as the small villages of Europe will deal with the experience first hand – they will queue alongside newcomers in shops, their kids will go to the same school…
Turning on the news to see people boarding trains towards their countries and then seeing them arrive in the middle of their cities must be at least a little unsettling. People are not necessarily shocked because it happens, they are shocked that it happens today, in our age, in a peaceful Europe, which knows no large-scale violence. Though the western world has its own native, home-grown violence – in most cases, they are isolated incidents, at the root of which is mental instability and access to guns, while sadly, most recently and quite significantly, there is an increase and a consistency of murderous events due to socially unintegrated, misguided Islamic fundamentalists, whose actions are by a violent and misinterpretation of the Q’ran. What they most hate about it is that perhaps it reminds them of what violent, shameful place Europe used to be.
Analysts never fail to note that, if Muslims cannot find a way to live in peace with each other, they will not be able to live in peace with others either; and this why their arrival is feared so. What the Muslim refugees bring with them are reminders of ISIS decapitations, stonings of women, missiles launched by mere kids from the Gaza Strip, kidnappings in Somalia, mass rapes in the Sudan. Indirectly, they are associated with with the Charlie Hebdo attacks, the Madrid and London bombings, unrest in French and British urban areas, the European born and bread teenagers leaving to join anti-West terrorist organisations. After centuries of peaceful cohabitation in the highly secularised Western world, religious strife and murderous governments is not what this generation of Westerners can easily understand. People cannot help themselves wondering whether these refugee children might become radicalised and bite the very hand that fed them in a couple of decades. It is estimated that thousands of ISIS and Al Qaeda operatives might have infiltrated the refugee crowds heading to Europe, just as Nazis had fled inside Jewish refugee convoys. All host states can do is to remain prepared. If ISIS and Al Queda and other terrorist organisations are not piggybacking on the refugee train, they will find, and have found, other ways to reach Europe. All host states can do is remain prepared to counter the Islamist danger within.
Of course, the fleeing refugees are no Islamists, and large numbers of them who heading or already here are not only Muslims. A lot of the fleeing Syrians and Africans happen to be Christian. But for many people in Europe, they are still just Syrians and just Africans. And, much as Western Europe is doing its best trying to assuage that age-old self-imposed colonial guilt and its own incapacity to comprehend the foreigner knocking at its doors, there is only so much you can ask of people. Having seen multiculturalism happening and failing all around them in Europe, many people here doubt any good can come from the arrival of hundreds of thousands of foreigners at once.
Moreover, there is a Western-style pragmatism that comes from the understanding of how the system works and how limited resources are. Because despite economic prosperity, there is widespread poverty across the whole of Western Europe, and health, education and social welfare systems are stretched everywhere. And then you have very first world problems to deal with: examples of extreme frivolousness and callousness, such as when a British prime-minister commiserates with British holidaymakers, whose trips were disrupted by migrants dying under trains and trucks headed towards Britain.
As always, whether it’s to do with simple economic strategies or citizens’ equal rights, the EU is asking for reasonable commitment and consistent action – easier said than done, and their own governing bodies are struggling to make peace between differing European political groups and countries. The European Union is a geo-political construct, with peaceful and inclusive aspirational values but also with enforced physical borders and a ruthless bureaucracy, a region where, over decades, politicians, economists and sociologists have managed to find the right strategies to create and maintain a quite fragile ecosystem, where only a careful distribution and management of local, national and supranational resources can keep in check anything from regional economic instability to the effects of high population density and low natality rates, et caetera. Any politician seeing those people boarding trains will think in exactly these terms, because any kind of major change or disruption that affects the axes and levers of – again – local/national/supranational resource management systems is a threat to the stability of all of these systems.
A politician, a technocrat, a resource manager is trained to think ahead. On the one hand, while hearts break at the sight of a young child washed up on a tourist beach, most politicians know that their country, district and town is not in a position to cope with taking in more refugees that they are probably already doing right now without destabilising entire local economies and communities. On the other hand, decisiveness and knowing when to bend the rules, put things into perspective and bow to morality while respecting existing commitments and the wishes of an electorate are all marks of an outstanding politician. Which why most of talking and of the doing is happening in Merkel’s Germany.
So what about the Germans then? They are lucky these Germans, and they’ve made their own luck, you know: by working hard, atoning for their historical sins, helping each other out. They are rich, stable, they have some economic surplus and not enough people in the active workforce, and, after checking their balance sheet, they thought it was the right thing to do. To sum up: 1. They feel they have a duty to. 2. Their legacy dictates that they do. 3. Quite simply, they can – at a moral, political and economic level, they can supply that help and they are capable to absorbing even these numbers, and even this quickly. Germany, as well as other Northern and Western Europe countries, through their own pains and tribulations of their past, have reached a stage of in their political and societal development where they realised that laws do not have to be divorced of humanity; we can see that in how they treat their less fortunate, their immigrants and their criminals for instance.
So what next? Recreating entire countries in the West of Europe is not a solution, and, again, there is only so much you can ask of people. But the good news is: it is not that much after all. The resources are there. Small private donations run in the millions now, in addition to state help, homes are being opened to receive refugees, unused housing is also available in places. Schools can accommodate more children; universities are free in some European countries. There are insufficient welfare supports and medical services, and that is not going to change, but helping hands are there. It is not just governments and state services that are meant to help the less fortunate, it is up to everyone in the fortunate West to contribute their very small acts of kindness. If the West is prepared to save, through charity and state funding, its addicts and its criminals, people who have made a choice, the wrong choice, should it not try to support people whose only decision was to run, and to run here?