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.
While a war in Syria persists, while the Islamic State group exists — indeed, until there is a massive outbreak of unprecedented peace — certain facts are likely to remain unarguable. The flow of refugees is unlikely to stop. It is unlikely to lessen and those people cannot be accommodated by Turkey, even if they were happy to stop there.
A solution that relies on beefing up the fortification of Europe would merely deliver more money into the hands of people-smugglers, intensifying and empowering networks of criminality across the continent to a degree that would change its nature. A solution that relies on not noticing that people are drowning is indivisible, ethically, from a solution that undertakes to drown people deliberately, and this, again, would ultimately change the nature of all nations that let it happen.
A solution of avoidance on this issue would erode Europe’s collective ability to cooperate on anything. Rather than watch this painful display of inadequacy and heckle, Europe needs to start setting out a framework for what adequacy would look like.
First, people need to assert the legitimacy of the asylum claims, based on the routes taken, the nations fled, the extent of the conflicts that everyone knows. Too much time is wasted on who is an economic migrant and who is a refugee. It is possible to say in full confidence that 850,000 people crossed the water from Turkey last year and not one of them was a South American plumber looking for new opportunities.
It is not impossible or even unreasonable work to divide up 850,000 people between European nations, based on size, space and GDP per capita — and require each nation, as a condition of membership, to take its share. All of this must be undertaken without the petty vindictiveness that has characterized immigration policy since the turn of the century.
People need to spell out what it would take to meaningfully uphold the convention upon which so much of society’s collective self-belief is based; or consider a future in which that self-belief has gone.
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