Refugees: learning from the past

This blog is both a cry of outrage and a plea: this is not the first time Europe has seen a tide of refugees, so let’s take the lessons from our recent past and stop greeting the terrible tragedy of today’s refugees with political and bureaucratic injustice.

This blog is both a cry of outrage and a plea: this is not the first time Europe has seen a tide of refugees, so let’s take the lessons from our recent past and stop greeting the terrible tragedy of today’s refugees with political and bureaucratic injustice.

In the chaos of Europe after World War II, displaced persons camps were set up to house and resettle refugees and Holocaust survivors. Among the people in one of those camps was a Jewish family from Przemsyl, in today’s south-eastern Poland, who had been held in Bergen-Belsen and by an administrative fluke kept together as a family unit – father, mother, daughter and son.

I met the son and daughter in the 1980s, when they were in their forties. They had been small children when they were deported to Bergen-Belsen, having witnessed the execution of their grandparents by the Nazis. When finally the camp was liberated they were malnourished and stunted. Shunted to a DP camp, they were finally sent to Britain. At which point the worst thing happened to the children, as they told it – the authorities separated them from their parents so as to treat their malnourishment.

The distress of this separation outweighed even the horrors they had lived through and made their adjustment to normal life very difficult. This may seem hard to understand, but if you slip inside the skin of a child for whom parents represent the rock of stability, and their absence a gateway to vulnerability, it makes more sense. Imagine also the anguish of parents whose children are taken away, or whom they voluntarily send away to try and ensure their safety.

Knowing this helped me to understand my father, who believed he had not suffered enough because he was not deported to a concentration camp. Aged 13, in autumn 1938 his mother put him on a train from Vienna to Zeebruge in Belgium, crossing countries run by the Nazis, armed with his passport with its large red ‘J’ to indicate he was Jewish. He travelled alone, like his sister, who had already made the same journey aged 8, crossing to Britain by ferry to be met by a foster family. In 1939 my father went on to South Africa for visa reasons – he was to be adopted by his great uncle there. He did not see his mother and sister for 10 years and never saw his father again.

Many people in Europe have refugees in their family history and know in their bones what that is. We also all know, thanks to modern communications and its exploitation by the so-called Islamic State, of that organisation’s utter cruelty, so reminiscent of Nazi barbarism. And we know most of the so-called migrants are in fact refugees, mostly from Syria, a country split between IS and Bashar Al-Assad, a conflict that manages to outdo our world’s unfortunately routine manifestations of man’s inhumanity to man. A Syrian migrant interviewed on TV said he came to Europe because here, people are treated like humans. In Syria they are treated like insects, he said.

So why are some leading political figures, notably in France and Britain, notably on the right, still talking about how hard it is to take these people in? They brandish unemployment and social problems, but they know that these refugees are no more than a drop in the ocean for the European Union, population 508 million. As it is, France has taken in some 6,000 in a country of over 60 million. You don’t need to be an economist to estimate that the impact of that on unemployment or budget deficits will be approximately zero.

Our leaders are not so much worried about the resurgence of poverty as the resurgence of the far right, with its vicious anti-immigration stance. Pandering to that stance is reprehensible at the best of times, but in the face of the horrors we have been witnessing, it is simply indecent. Note that Germany’s Angela Merkel faces in her electorate gangs of neo-Nazis prepared to set fire to migrant refuges, and has now decided to stand up to this obscenity and welcome refugees. At least someone has shown the courage the situation calls for.

Far from pandering to xenophobia, as Britain’s David Cameron, France’s Républicains and many Eastern European governments have done, or simply opting for inertia as the rest have mostly done, surely our politicians should use the refugee tragedy as a platform to challenge and push back far-right ideas. Ordinary people, as is so often the case, have rallied to help the refugees in so many places across the continent. Everyone has seen the heart-wrenching picture of Aylan Kurdi’s tiny, inert body. This is a call many people will be able to hear.

Political leaders should explain that the fears the far right exploits are unjustified. Firstly economically -- economists tell us that immigrants make a net positive contribution to an economy. Immigration has always a force driving the economic prowess of the United States, for instance. Explain too that in terms of sheer numbers, a river does not swamp an ocean, and Europe is an ocean compared to the flow of migrants.

But most of all, they should take a strong moral stance. The current lack of morality in politics is one reason for the drift to the far right. If ever there was a time to stand up and be counted, this is it.

Now for the plea. In the current chaos, some children are becoming separated from their parents. This must not happen. Whatever systems are put in place to resettle refugees, whatever the administrative imperatives, please do not separate children from parents and please do everything to allow refugees to join existing family members in Europe or elsewhere. It's the least Europe can do, given its relative wealth and its own scars from the past.





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