No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less
As well as if a promontory were,
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
Six degrees of separation: we have all heard of the concept first postulated by the Hungarian writer Frigyes Karinthy (25 June 1887 – 29 August 1938) in his 1929 story Chains. It reminds us that each one of us is linked to everyone else on this planet. We can’t just wash our hands and pretend that we have no connection with the forces of IS or their victims. We are all part of one another’s life, whether settled law-abiding citizens, murdering terrorists or migrants. We cannot, whoever we are, wherever we are, ignore the events in the Middle East and those fleeing from the horrors there. But what can we do? How should we react, how should we respond?
In the last weeks, I have been asked to sign petitions asking the UK government to act in many different ways, ranging from total refusal of assistance – a freeze on foreign aid and a stop to all immigration – to raising the number of asylum seekers accepted, especially Afghan interpreters and Syrians with families.
There are those who are almost paranoid about IS members entering Europe along with the Syrian refugees, and Facebook has shown photos of at least one alleged IS fighter standing on Munich main station. Their knee-jerk reaction is to bring down the portcullis and keep everyone out of these islands. Others are collecting clothes, blankets and toys to take to the “swarms” camped outside Calais as autumn and winter approach. Photos and film footage of their plight abound.
We have also seen photos of the state in which the trains transporting refugees from Hungary to Austria and Germany were left after they had disembarked. For Germanic people, with their love of everything clean and tidy and in the right place, the sight of the filthy, messy compartments and corridors strewn with donated clothes, blankets and toys, comes as a big shock. It’s almost as if the migrants are biting the hand that is feeding them.
The refugees themselves are probably totally unaware of this. It must be utterly confusing for them, especially the children and adolescents, to be beaten, pepper sprayed, water-cannoned, physically and verbally abused in one country and a few hours later to be greeted with applause, food, sweets, good quality clothing (even if it is Bavarian Lederhosen and Trachtenjacke!) and offers of comfortable accommodation.
My heart says that we should support efforts to help these people find a new life. Let’s hope the German and Austrian welcome can endure and extend across the borders into the neighbouring EU countries, and to other continents. Let’s also hope that the migrants will soon understand the expectations of their hosts with regard to behaviour, and that they can learn to adapt to the culture of the countries where they find themselves. And let’s hope that the fears of infiltration by jihadists are unfounded, or that their numbers are small enough to be ineffective.
And not least, as a Christian I believe in loving my neighbour whether my neighbour reciprocates or not. The main point of the story about the Good Samaritan was that the Samaritans were the enemies of the Jews, yet he was the one who showed love in action. I also claim as my motto “Do unto others as you would be done by.” So my heart says help, whatever the circumstances. These are my brothers and sisters.
However, my head has a slightly less impulsive response. I remember the phrase used by the Swiss to refuse asylum to Jews fleeing the Nazis in the Third Reich: Das Boot ist voll! The boat is full, and if we take anyone else on board it will capsize. The metaphor is appropriate in the current context, given that the sea is turning to blood as boat after flimsy boat packed to the brim sinks under its load. Nevertheless, there are cautious voices warning us that this country does not have the capacity to take large numbers of asylum-seekers.
It is a platitude to say that the solution is to tackle the cause and not the symptoms. Much easier said than done, since international law doesn’t allow us to impose our will by force on other countries where we disapprove of their regime. Maybe diplomacy and military action will eventually prevail but in the meantime we still need to alleviate the symptoms. How many people are camped in the Jungle outside Calais, attempting to enter the UK illegally? The fact that some of them are succeeding means that the rest will remain there, and their success encourages more to join them. Can we, should we, continue to block their passage?
David Cameron has proposed to take Syrian refugees only from the camps in the countries neighbouring Syria, refusing any who have undertaken the hazardous journey into Europe. His reasoning is clear: to discourage people from using the so-called services of people-traffickers. But what of the hundreds of thousands who are already in Europe?
Like the UK and Ireland, Denmark can choose whether to participate in the quota scheme. For the moment, it has closed its motorway and suspended rail links with Germany to prevent migrant hordes crossing its borders en route to Sweden, which has offered hospitality. This stand-off will hopefully soon be resolved, and the footsore families re-settled in a more hospitable environment.
The media has snatched up the word ‘migrant’ and it has rapidly been imbued with a pejorative sense. I speak as a migrant myself, having lived and worked in different countries outside the land of my birth for many years. I have, however, always been there legally, abiding by the national laws and, most significantly, paying all my taxes, tithes and contributions to social institutions and insurances. I know from my own experience how important it is to learn the customs and culture of the country where one is resident.
At the moment, after an absence of 4 decades, I have temporarily returned as a stranger to my native land, and find my old familiar environment filled with migrants from many different parts of the world. Although I have spent most of my adult life in an international environment I grew up surrounded by white British faces. Nowadays, I see every possible shade of skin from the palest Poles to the blackest West Africans, including Chinese and other Asians. They all seem to be well integrated here. The majority are working hard, duly paying taxes and other contributions, and providing much-needed services, from waiters and taxi-drivers to nurses and doctors, lawyers and teachers.
Many of those currently making their dangerous way to a new life in Europe are also skilled and well-educated people with much to offer once they are granted asylum. How can we say that we don’t have room for more?
I have also had plenty of contact in my time with refugees and asylum-seekers, a different kind of migrant. Some are genuinely desperate, traumatised people who have been through hell, others – and I would say definitely a minority – are hangers-on with a different agenda. How are the authorities to discriminate between these groups?
Distinctions have also been made in these discussions between so-called “genuine” refugees fleeing persecution and war, and “economic” refugees, who simply “want a better life”. There is a tendency to dismiss the latter, as not really being in want and distress. But consider the huge numbers of Irish who fled to the UK and the USA in the nineteenth century: these were trying to escape starvation and deprivation, too. Yet nobody called them “economic refugees” or denies that they deserved asylum in the countries where they landed. Remember the inscription in the Statue of Liberty? Are those words as hollow as the statue herself?
Others point out that the great majority of refugees at present are from an Islamic background, yet ironically they are fleeing into what used to be called Christendom. In spite of the upheaval in so many countries affected by the Arab Spring, there are still plenty of wealthy, prosperous Arab states that could very easily support large numbers of these people, both financially and in terms of settlement. And they have the advantage of a shared Islamic culture. Is it really so difficult for Sunni and Shia to coexist in peace?
It is never easy to uproot yourself from your native soil and migrate to another country. I know this, even though I migrated from choice. I cannot imagine the heartbreak of having to set out with nothing but what you can carry and, at the mercy of unscrupulous people willing to exploit any kind of human misery, run headlong into the unknown. Of course you hope for a Promised Land and a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. That keeps you going. But how many find it?
The debate goes on. I have no answers.