Fri, Jan 22, 2016 - Page 9 News List

The economics of the refugee crisis lay bare our moral bankruptcy

Raising special taxes and taking desperate people’s valuables are not the acts of a compassionate polity. A realistic framework for adequacy must be established

By Zoe Williams  /  The Guardian

Germany wants to introduce a pan-European tax to pay for the refugee crisis. Denmark wants to pass a law to seize any jewelry worth more than £1,000 (US$1,413) as refugees arrive — apart from wedding rings. That is what marks you out as a civilized people, apparently, that you can see the romance in a stranger’s life and set that aside before you bag them up as a profit or a loss.

In Turkey, people smugglers are charging US$1,000 for a place in a dinghy, US$2,500 in a wooden boat, with more than 350,000 refugees passing through one Greek island — Lesbos — alone last year. The profit runs into hundreds and millions of US dollars, and the best EU response so far has been to offer the Turkish government more money to either hold refugees in their own nation or — against the letter and the spirit of every pledge modern society has made on refugees — send them back whence they came.

Turkey is a nation of 75 million that has already taken 1 million refugees, accepting impossible and cruel demands from a continent of more than 500 million people that, apparently, cannot really help because of the threat to its “social cohesion.”

The British government has pledged to take 20,000 refugees, but only the respectable ones, from faraway camps: The subtext being that the act of fleeing to Europe puts refugees outside the purview of human sympathy, being itinerant, a vagrant, on the take.

Institutions and governments represent an ever-narrower strain of harsh opinion. The thousands of volunteers in Greece, the Guardian readers who gave more at Christmas to refugee charities than to any appeal before, the grassroots organizations springing up everywhere to try and show some human warmth on this savage journey to imagined safety — none of these are represented, politically, in a discourse that takes as its starting point the need to make the swarms disappear, to trick them into going somewhere else.

It is those neutral-sounding, just-good-economics ideas that give the game away: If 1 million people in any given European nation suffered a natural disaster, nobody would be talking about how to raise a tax so that help could be sent. People would help first and worry about the money second. When the EU wants to rescue a government, or the banks of a member state — granted, at swingeing cost for the rescued — it does not first float a “rescue tax.”

The suggestion that the current crisis needs its own special tax might well be an attempt to force individual governments to confront the reality of their current strategy, which is to have no strategy. Yet it sullies the underlying principle of the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention: that anyone fleeing in fear for their life be taken in on that basis, not pending a whip-round. To repudiate that is essentially to say that human rights are no longer our core business. However, without that as an organizing principle, the ties that bind one nation to another begin to fray: alliances must at the very least be founded on ideas you are not ashamed to say out loud.

A continent whose fellowship is based on shunning the desperate is going to find its confidence fatally damaged. Against that backdrop, Denmark’s jewelry grab, France and Britain’s vying with one another to see who can be the most inert and pathetic on the questions of France’s Calais and Dunkirk, the myriad brutalities erected across Europe, make dispiriting sense; without a moral purpose, a competitive yet indifferent impotence pervades.

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