This summer has been rife with disturbing news. Dozens of refugees suffocated in a truck in Austria. Hundreds of thousands of refugees landing in Greece has brought the country to breaking point. Then there’s the image of five-year-old Alan lying on a beach in Turkey, dead from drowning. It’s a picture that put a face to the worst refugee crisis in living memory and was so powerful even the UK’s PM David Cameron called for action. The refugee crisis is horrifying, real, and needs to be dealt with.
Much of the reaction has been admirable, despite the inaction of a political class that has had years to prepare for the influx, but seems to be both unwilling and inept at dealing with the task at hand. Instead, civil society has joined forces to hand out food and essentials. Many even risked criminal charges to smuggle refugees toward their desired final locations. In Copenhagen this September, 40,000 people gathered in solidarity with refugees. Even the continent’s largest football teams have broken with their usual social apathy, donating money and unfurling banners at their mega stadiums reading “refugees are welcome”.
But there have also been some reactions that should fill us all with shame. Asylum centres in Germany have been firebombed and the Hungarian police has attacked and tear gassed desperate people at their border. Closer to home, a swastika along with the message “this is just the beginning” was painted on an asylum centre. Far-right Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has even gone so far as to draw distasteful comparisons between the refugee crisis and the Ottoman Empire’s invasion of Christian Europe. Casting himself as a heroic general defending the walls of Vienna, he has even started construction of a wall along his border.
But there has also been plenty of doe-eyed naivety from the left – good-willed humanism that seems to forget that this is not just a horrifying humanitarian catastrophe, but also a practical problem of Herculean proportions. Letting people into Europe who are fleeing conflict is the right thing to do. But we won’t resolve this problem with good intentions alone.
Of course but…
Germany, which has seen some of the starkest anti-refugee sentiment, is expected to receive one million refugees this year. That is more than all of Copenhagen – a Copenhagen of people with limited possessions and resources, possibly traumatised by war, living in a foreign country whose language they don’t speak.
“Of course we should help.” How many politicians and friends have I heard say that over the past month? But what does that really mean? Sure, it makes us feel good to say, “of course”. It’s what Dieter Reiter, the Lord Mayor of Munich, said when refugees started arriving in his city. But his “of course we should help”, was quickly replaced by “our city is full” as he started bussing refugees to Dortmund.
The u-turn was mirrored by Germany-at-large as Interior Minister Thomas de Mazière announced temporary border restrictions and halted train services from Austria in order to limit the number of refugees. The move was both a sign of the extreme scope of the crisis and of Germany’s weariness with shouldering so much of the responsibility following EU inability to coordinate and cooperate.
Recent years have seen anti-Muslim sentiment arise across the continent. The refugee crisis has started to pour fuel on that fire. The terrifying picture of little Alan lying drowned on a beach may have spurred supporters into action, but the effect is fading.
While we have seen violence against the refugees, these negative attitudes could spur a counter-reaction. We should remember Herschel Grynszpan, the Polish-Jewish refugee whose assassination of a German diplomat in Paris provided the pretext for Kristallnacht. The fact that the violence and hatred has already started shows that we not only have to worry about dealing with refugees, but our own citizens as well.
Of course we should help, but how? There will come a point when handing out blankets and food, and smuggling people across borders stops being enough. What happens when we need to deal with the longterm reality of accepting hundreds of thousands of desperate people into the continent? When we start to place them into cash-strapped councils, and demand that they integrate into societies, despite our abysmal track record at doing precisely that. Personal sentimentality, moral obligation and outrage will not solve those problems.
We do ourselves no favours by simply saying that “of course we should address this crisis”. Allowing people in is just the start – we face a challenge that will last generations. The predictable cries of “we should help our poor first” and talk of a fifth column creeping over our borders, get louder by the day. If we are to succeed in being humane, then we all need to work together to integrate new arrivals and humanise their struggles. It will require effort and resources. It might be hard work for decades to come and it requires a concentrated effort from governments across the EU.
But, most importantly, the general population needs to be on board with this mission. We have to provide support, while also admitting that the arrival of more than a million refugees into Europe will bring with it conflict, poverty and tension between the new arrivals and natives. We need to cooperate and look for long lasting and realistic solutions. The sad reality is, I don’t see any of this happening. M