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The Migrant Crisis – Somebody Else’s Problem?

August 20, 2015

Syrian Refugee

I have never met a migrant who has managed to enter the UK illegally – at least as far as I’m aware. I’ve seen a few on a number of occasions when passing through Calais. So beyond what I read in the media, I can’t say I’m cognisant of the individual motives of these people or the circumstances that are driving them to risk their lives trying to enter the UK and other EU countries.

But I do know that they are being exploited, directly and indirectly. Directly by people smugglers who charge them huge sums for the privilege of boarding an overcrowded boat in conditions that slave traders of previous centuries would regard as common practice. Indirectly by newspapers whose pundits have also never met an illegal migrant, and by politicians using them to incite a wave of paranoia and xenophobia among their prospective electors.

I also know that on the political extremes there are many who find in the flood of desperate people a rich opportunity to blame their selected scapegoat for their plight. It’s because of Blair and Bush. It’s because of the Turks, the Sunni, the Shia, the Saudis, the oil companies, the arms dealers, the neoconservatives, New Labour, the Bilderberg group, the Zionists, the Freemasons, the Safavids, the atheists, the capitalist system. And so on.

Somebody or something is always to blame for something. And the more we blame, the less we think forward and look for solutions. The more we wring our hands and point fingers, because that’s far easier than effective action. And also because we don’t seem to have coherent solutions.

But for what they are worth, here are a few thoughts.

Without laying blame, we need to accept above all that these people are human beings, not marauding swarms. We need to look back to 1945 and ask ourselves whether these people are any less deserving of our assistance than the victims of Hitler and Stalin.

We need to ask themselves what it is about these desperate people that is different from the displaced Jews, Poles, Ukrainians, and yes, Germans, whom we fed, sheltered and protected after the war. Is it race, ethnicity, religion, level of education? Is it because Eritrea’s vicious regime oppresses its citizens in a faraway country of which we know little? Because Syria has become a vicious battleground for factions and religious extremists? Because Afghans like to beat their wives and force them to wear burkas? Because Sudanese cut off the clitorises of their women? Is it because “these people” are seemingly far more alien than the white Europeans who suffered equally in the shattered ruins of their countries?

This is not to say that our post-war record was as white as the skin of the refugees we allowed into the country. We abandoned many Europeans to their fate as boundaries were re-drawn and ethnic revenge flourished under the benign gaze of Josef Stalin. We also stood by as millions were slaughtered after the partition of India and Pakistan.

But should we help the migrants out of a moral obligation formed of guilt over our past actions or inaction, or because we can? Because we are a wealthy nation that has the resources and the humanity to welcome the few thousand in Calais, and perhaps another hundred thousand waiting in other countries? Just because we’re an island at the western edge of Europe, does that mean that we shouldn’t take a significant share of migrants?

We can and we should. And I personally would accept a hike in income tax to support and assimilate them into the workforce, confident in the belief that the vast majority of people seeking entry into the country don’t want to live on benefits, but do want to work hard to create a future for themselves and their families. Damn the consequence for our social cohesion. This is an emergency, for goodness sake.

But that’s not enough. We need to be part of a strategy on the part of the same players who negotiated the nuclear deal with Iran to make a concerted effort to eliminate the reasons why the migrants feel compelled to come to our shores. I’m not just talking about Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Libya, Ethiopia, Mali, South Sudan and Somalia too. To resolve the conflicts in each of those countries, let alone ones that subsequently flare up elsewhere, will take time, effort, resources and patience.

And no, I’m not stupid enough to believe that China, Russia, the US and the EU will suddenly set aside considerations of national interest for the sake of a few thousand people about to drown in the Mediterranean. But big problems are often solved step by step, in little increments.

All this is obvious. But here’s a final thought.

If a super-volcano wiped out most of France, leaving a million or so starving people on the margins of the devastation, would we in the United Kingdom not take a goodly proportion of them in, feed them, shelter them and enable them to build new lives here?

Why then do we categorise man-made disasters – the legacies of war, political mismanagement and other human failures – as different from natural ones? Are we not life forms also? And in that respect are the results of our folly not also natural disasters?

If one species achieves dominance over a particular domain – and I’m not talking about humans now – and as a result manages to so devastate the habitat of hundreds of competing species that it drives them to extinction, would we not consider the event as a disaster of the natural world? We think of our species as the only one capable of doing this. Yet in South Georgia, the arrival of rats over 200 hundred years has, according to one report, wiped out 90% of the sea birds that use the islands as a nesting place. A man-made disaster? Yes, because we brought the rats there on our whaling ships. A natural disaster? Surely also true.

So if we thought of the current wave of migrants as the result of a natural disaster caused by the malign genetic disposition – to make war, to oppress, to ignore the fate of those whose lives don’t matter to us – of our species, then surely we would open our hearts, our purses and yes, our land, as generously as we might to the victims of earthquakes, volcanoes, flooding and crop failure in countries close to our shores.

Thirty years ago, when famine devastated Ethiopia, the well-meaning and the wealthy came together to stage Live Aid, and event that raised both awareness of the plight of the starving Ethiopians and money for their relief.

I see no sign of a massive wave of sympathy for those who are flocking to the borders of Europe today. No rock stars ready to perform at Wembley for the boat people. Is this because as a continent we feel threatened, diminished by the European project, keen to hold what we have after the successive financial disasters of the past seven years? Does self-preservation trump generosity? Do we see the migrant crisis as a problem for our governments to sort out, not a disaster that should engage each and every one of us?

I have no smart answers that might transform the lives of those so desperate that they risk everything on a boat that might never arrive. But what is happening in the Mediterranean is a natural disaster, and the sooner we start thinking of it in those terms, the sooner we start following the best instincts of humanity rather than the worst.

It’s our chance to prove that as a species we’re more than just another colony of rats mindlessly eating seabirds out of South Georgia.

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