At the heart of human kindness lies nothing more than the simple realisation that an act of decency is always worth a moment of brief discomfort. (Anon)
In my humble opinion it seem that rational debates on any matter of significance these days seems to be increasingly challenging, but perhaps few conversations have become as polarizing in the modern world as that of Immigration. As we are fond of reminding ourselves, the modern era represents an almost unparalleled level of human social interactions, whether friendships, relationships, families and careers, are not just crossing internationally demarcated lines, but rather becoming agnostic to their existence. Yet across the OECD there is increasing resistance to this global flux of cultures and people, with the latest flux of immigration into Europe providing a headline almost every day of this summer.
To put it simply the situation on Europe’s borders is wrong.
The UN estimate that the world is experiencing its largest number of international refugees and internally displaced peoples since WWII, with some estimates suggesting 1 in3 Syrians have been displaced either internally or become international refugees as a result of conflict. Yet European leadership has been non-existent.
While Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan have absorbed several 100,000 refugees each, with relatively modest international financial aid, Europe has been busy building walls, cutting funding for rescue missions and launching nationwide marches against the perhaps 200,000 migrants who in 18 months have managed to reach a continent of over 500 million people.
It is pathetic. Worse than that it is a mockery to supposed “western values” and it is getting no-one anywhere.
The current migration crisis resembles a zero sum game. Europe wants the problem to go away and aims to do so by encouraging migrants not to flee, or to flee to other poorer and less developed nations instead. When that fails, they attempt to maximise the chances of people being abused and exploited by making it almost impossible to legally enter Europe. At which point the Schengen area becomes a “free-for-all” where the children’s game “pass-the-parcel” is now cynically played out by national law enforcement agencies, with traumatised migrants in the middle.
For the migrants it is often a very real choice of “a rock or a hard place”. It is important not to underestimate how dramatic it is for people from what was (until 2011) a middle income nation, to leave their life, careers, families and friends, along with their possessions. Place their lives in the hands of people smugglers and then run the gauntlet of security agencies in a desperate bid to find refuge.
I understand the concern amongst those in Europe. It is a familiar refrain. “Our culture is at risk” they cry, “they don’t respect our values”, or more cynically “how do we know we aren’t inviting terrorists into our country to live on benefits” (slightly exaggerated daily mail esque, but you catch my drift).
First off, in many cases these people are right.
Refugees are not fleeing home by choice. They have to. Why should they necessarily respect/admire all your values? Why would they all necessarily even want to stay anyway? But none of that really matters. These people need help and of all the places on earth that has the resources to do so and the values which urge us to do so, there are few better placed than the European continent.
The reality is that true refugees, who fear persecution and violence, will not be deterred by any mechanisms that the EU imposes. Similarly, the EU (despite some voices), will not simply let 100’s of thousands of people die or send 1,000’s home. What is needed therefore is a new deal.
If the aim of being a “refugee” is to escape the threat of violence (perceived or real), with economic concerns a secondary consideration, then I humbly suggest the EU should try the following:
1st, establish centres across North Africa and the Middle East where all refugee requests can be registered and approved quickly. Only refugees who have paperwork from these centres can enter Europe and anyone without these documents will be returned to a centre to complete them. The documentation will be issued to any applicant and will simply require some personal details (e.g. name and place of origin), before the individual is approved to enter as an “indefinite refugee” into Europe.
What is an “indefinite refugee”?, this is the 2nd part of the deal.
The first phase must be to allow refugees to enter Europe and escape violence, as well as abuse and the risk of harm associated with being smuggled into Europe. But the caveat must be that individuals and their families enter Europe as refugees “in perpetuity” until either their host country offers them citizenship or they are returned to their country of origin. Their children will also become refugees and any applications for citizenship that come from other avenues, such as marriage, will require the individual to return to their country of origin first and apply for citizenship from there (excluding any national exemptions that EU member states may chose to make).
This is not without precedence. In fact this classification already accounts for 5 million people in the world and has its own UN agency. I of course am referring to UNWRA and the Palestinian refugees. In 1948 many arab nations were unwilling to offer citizenship to Palestinian refugees, as they were afraid of legitimizing what was seen by them as “social engineering” by the state of Israel. Furthermore in countries like Lebanon, there was great concern that the influx of refugees (predominantly Sunni Muslim) would disrupt the fragile religious balance. Thus the definition of Palestinian refugees as “perpetual” (as opposed to 2 generations) provided a convenient solution to accommodating these refugees whilst also ameliorating wider political challenges.
Such a solution is perhaps the “least worst” option for Europe today. It avoids claims of the continent being “flooded by immigrants” as they are legally only in “transitory status”. It also limits their career opportunities, thus taking the edge off potential social unrest in less socially affluent groups. Importantly though it would allow the children to be educated and allow for these desperately vulnerable people to escape from harm.
I am quite sure that for most people this solution holds little appeal. It is either too restrictive to “those in need” or too unsympathetic to EU citizens concerns over the challenges of assimilating large groups of people from complex cultural and social backgrounds in a short time horizon. However one thing is for sure, the current situation appeases no-one.
If European leaders want the rest of the world to place more respect on human life and human values, it needs to lead by example. Lives can be saved tomorrow, criminal networks and terror cells undermined, difficult domestic political concerns postponed and an example set to the rest of the world that Europe is not indifferent to the suffering on its doorsteps.
So let’s open the borders and take the poor, the vulnerable and traumatised refugees to a place of sanctuary. I’m not asking for citizenship cards, jobs, benefit allocations or automatic right to reside. But surely European nations can afford to provide basic shelters, water and security to those innocent people at need.