I am the son of an immigrant.
My mum arrived here from Australia in 1954 to work but also to explore her roots and travel around Britain and Europe – she had not planned to settle in Britain but met my dad and the rest is history, as the saying goes. She in turn was descended from people who moved to Australia, some as a result of transportation, some who chose to make the long and dangerous journey across the world to start a new life. Others were forced from the land, and had to find somewhere else to live, as I have written about before.
So my ancestors who travelled to Australia, who could be termed colonists, were a mix of convicts, migrants and refugees. I’m not going to dwell on whether this was a good or a bad thing, because it makes no sense to judge actions in the past with today’s mores or ethics, and what’s done is done.
Today Europe is engulfed in the worst refugee crisis since the second world war, when it’s estimated that 40 million people were displaced. Clearly what’s happening at the moment pales into the shadows compared with the chaos of the post-war years, but the fact that this is the worst crisis since then indicates what a relatively settled period Europe has been through in the past 60 years. Now it’s debatable to what extent European countries are responsible for creating today’s refugee crisis, although many come from Iraq and Afghanistan where Britain at least played a significant part in recent wars. And in a sense, it matters as much, or as little, as whether my ancestors travelling to Australia was a good or a bad thing. The important point is that these people, these refugees, did not choose to leave their countries, their families or their cultures: they were forced to by events beyond their control.
The question which now occupies the leaders of Europe is “what do we do about it?”.
Perhaps because of Germany’s cultural memory of its role in creating the last great refugee crisis, or perhaps because it’s always identified itself as part of a greater Europe, with a great attention to social responsibility, Germany has taken the lead in accepting hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants. Britain on the other hand (or should that be England?) is taking the opposite stance. David Cameron said yesterday that we should not take any Syrian refugees but instead “try and bring peace and stability” to the Middle East.
The irony of it: our interventions to bring peace and stability there have worked so well in the past have they not? Let’s have a quick romp through them – Iraq 2003-2012 – that one worked well. Of course supporting Saddam against Iran in their war 1908-88, that was a great success on the peace/stability front. Going back a little bit further we and the CIA arranged a coup to get rid of the democratically elected president of Iran, Mossadeq, in 1953, arguably helping create the foundation for the Islamic revolution 25 years later. And then there’s Palestine/Israel. Our Peace/Stability ideas encompassed in the Balfour declaration. This letter promised Palestine to the Jewish people. That must score highly on the Peace/Stability indicator – surely?
ok well I won’t labour the point any further. I think the lessons of history we should be learning are that British interventions in the Middle East, in the name of Peace and Stability, have generally not worked out well for that part of the world.
But regardless of whether they have or have not worked, there is a humanitarian crisis the like of which we have not seen in 70 years, and we have a duty, as fellow human beings, to help.
The issue of refugees, or migrants, trying to get into Britain via the Channel Tunnel has been turned into a bit of a media and political circus – used by all and sundry to push their own personal or party agendas, especially, but not exclusively, in the run up to the Euro Referendum. The very word “migrant” creates a misconception, “economic migrant” doubly so, as if by labelling them thus, it exonerates us from seeing their plight as worthy or compassion. It’s just another way that seeing through an “economic” lens can make us less human.
We travelled through the tunnel on our way to “Europe” (haha) this summer and saw the new fences – it does look a bit like a detention camp. On our way back we saw young men walking along the hard shoulder of the motorway near to Calais. As we drove through unmanned border crossings between France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, Austria, Slovenia, Italy and France, the meaning of the Schengen Agreement became clear. It’s completely free passage between these countries and others across Europe. Until you get to Blighty, when the barricades have gone up.
In some ways, we felt ashamed to be British, taking this Island Mentality, when for purely geographical reasons, we can physically refuse access to people in desperate need, people who have risked their lives to escape death or persecution, while our “continental” neighbours have no such choice: witness the scenes in Budapest or Macedonia in recent days.
Yvette Cooper thought she was taking a stance, creating policy distance between her and her Labour leadership rivals, by proposing that Britain takes 10,000 refugees. 1o,ooo? Germany already expects to take 800,000 asylum claims this year. These are not “economic migrants” but refugees. Thousands of people are drowning in the Mediterranean. Children’s bodies are found washed up on tourist destination beaches. 10,000?
After the end of the second world war Britain did take many refugees (I don’t have the exact number – if anyone does please let me know). They were often billeted in former prisoner of war camps or military bases – there’s some interesting history on Ukrainians here. My mum remembers her parents providing a hut on their farm in New South Wales, for a couple of Ukrainians after the war; and I suspect this was also common practice in Britain. After the unspeakable horrors of the war, there was an innate willingness to help people who were homeless, suffering from trauma or who had lost their families, their homes and possessions.
What has happened to our society, that we can be so unwilling to help? Cries of “Britain is full” are self-evidently untrue. What happened to all those PoW camps and military bases? Many returned to the farmland from whence they came. Why is no-one suggesting we build temporary housing for the refugees who need our help?
Such is the poverty of compassion within Britain’s political and media spheres.
image: “Vluchtende Belgen 1914” by Leo Gestel – Christie’s, LotFinder: entry 2073214. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Leo_Gestel_Vluchtende_Belgen_1914.jpg#/media/File:Leo_Gestel_Vluchtende_Belgen_1914.jpg