Refugees, then and now

Addressing Congress last week, Pope Francis, like the most inveterate American politician, invoked his immigrant past. And he urged America not to fear welcoming new “pilgrims,” a word whose resonance I’m sure he well understood. He may have been speaking about the current US debate about illegal immigrants from Latin America, but it was inevitable that his words would also be linked to other waves of “pilgrims” across the sea– Syrian pilgrims. As if in response, the Administration quickly announced that the quota for refugees admitted would be increased to 85,000 in 2016 and 100,000 the following year.

The gesture was not universally embraced. While the Pope invoked the Golden Rule, Congress invoked questions about resources and national security.

There is an existential crisis upon us today, not only on America, but on Europe and much of the rest of the world. People are on the move, the largest number of displaced persons since the end of World War II. Europe is inundated with millions fleeing the madness in Syria and the Middle East. In speaking recently to a meeting of EU presidents, European Council President Donald Trask claimed that there are currently eight million displaced persons in Syria, while four million more have fled the country, mostly for Europe. In discussing the crisis, he promised only one thing: the problem will not end “anytime soon.”

While the loudest headlines may be coming from Europe, there is hardly a continent not somehow embroiled in a refugee crisis today. Across the Mediterranean, refugees from Africa and West Asia are braving the sea in suicidal flotillas seeking sanctuary in Greece, Italy and Spain. The rest of Africa is a Rubik’s Cube of displaced populations festering in camps having fled wars, ethnic cleansing and persecutions in their home countries. In addition to the millions of refugees from wars in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen there are other Muslims in camps in Bangladesh– Rohingya, fleeing Myanmar and what has been called “one of the worst persecutions in the world.” Mass graves of Rohingya have been found over the border from Myanmar in Thailand. Those who have succeeded in “escaping” are warehoused by the thousands by human traffickers in boat camps, rusting offshore hulks. And of course, in the Western Hemisphere Mexicans and other Latinos are headed north to the United States and an increasingly hostile reception, intensified now by the heated rhetoric of a presidential campaign.

Welcome, as John Cleese famously quipped, to 430AD.

Cleese was referring to history’s cyclic nature and the fact that traumatic mass migrations like these are nothing new. They have rarely been peaceful, and in the resulting clash of cultures the newcomers frequently win, destroying established societies and uprooting those who had been there before them.

Cleese’s particular reference is to what is oft called the Migration Period, 4th through 9th centuries AD, a time of intense barbarian movement into and through Europe, when such tribes as the Goths, Vandals, Anglos, Saxons and Lombards were pouring into a declining Roman Empire from one direction, while Huns, Slavs, Bulgars and others were pushing in from another. In the mix, the Roman Empire ceased to exist, while the names of many of the newcomers remain emblazoned on the maps.

Two thousand years earlier, around the 12th century BC, what was arguably the world’s first internationalized society of Egyptians, Hittites, Canaanites and Minoans crumbled under the onslaught of mysterious strangers, who remained to build a new civilization on the ruins of the Late Bronze Age.

But history also has its stories of less ruinous outcomes. Huguenots fleeing persecution in 17th century France resettled peacefully and prosperously in surrounding European nations. 18th century Turkey welcomed – and was transformed by – the assimilation of from five to seven million Muslims from the Caucasus, Crimea, Croatia, Greece, Romania and Yugoslavia. The 19th century found populations fleeing the potato famines of Ireland and the pogroms of Russia finding new and successful lives in Europe or the United States. Examples extend throughout history and geography.

But today isn’t the 17th, 18th or even the 20th century. Today’s crises move quickly and forcefully across the globe and leave little time for reflection. Even where good intentions exist, they aren’t sufficient to meet the needs of the refugee populations.

Syrian Syria

Syria via Shutterestock

Under the Common European Asylum System, every refugee is entitled to asylum in Europe. Last week, EU Interior Ministers voted to relocate 120,000 asylum seekers in Europe, a well-intentioned effort that was already impracticable when adopted: nearly half a million refugees have already arrived in Europe so far this year. Nearly 9,000 entered Croatia in a single day. Last week Slovakia announced that they will sue the EU over the quota plan, which was also appealed by Hungary, Romania and the Czech Republic. Hungary, the scene of massive recent refugee disturbances, last week passed laws giving draconian new powers to the military to help contain the situation. Even Germany, which had initially put out the welcome mat for refugees (with, of all places, Buchenwald as the welcome center) has suspended the agreement that allows for free movement across Europe’s borders. With Germany’s withdrawal from what is called the Schengen Agreement, there is the possibility of reversing decades of European integration.

The Gulf States are providing plenty of cash for humanitarian relief – $700 million from Saudi Arabia alone – and are housing plenty of refugees of their own (even if the West refuses to call them refugees). Nevertheless, the situation is complicated for the Gulf States. The Saudi air force has been bombing parts of Syria held by the Islamic State. Are these refugees fleeing the Islamic State (good), or fleeing the bombing (bad)?

Which, while harsh, is instructive of why today’s crisis differs from refugee crises of the past. Even granting history’s migratory success stories, the game in 2015 is radically different, the cost of mobility are much lower and the stakes much higher.

At what point does humanitarian action become a national suicide pact? When does decent humanitarian behavior court the ultimate destruction of the humanitarian?

Forget Donald Trump’s rants about Mexican murderers and rapists. Are we in danger of opening our doors to the next generation of extremist proselytizers and terrorists? Today’s land of opportunity could become tomorrow’s target of opportunity. There has been no shortage of news stories in recent years of terrorist acts, actual or contemplated, by displaced, new-grown radicals from abroad.

But the photograph of a dead boy awash on a Turkish beach becomes the iconic image for this latest humanitarian crisis, and comes to haunt us. Pope Francis, in his remarks to Congress, said, “You must … view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation. To respond in a way which is always humane, just, and fraternal. We need to avoid a common temptation nowadays: to discard whatever proves troublesome.”

And so we are left with the horrific images of despair and unimaginable chaos, to ponder our own part in ameliorating this crisis that is upon us, in no small part of our own making.

Answer, anyone?


Ira Meistrich is an independent television producer and writer with an eclectic background in documentaries and in military history. Ira has worked for the news divisions of all major networks, and in more than 28 countries over the course of his career. His films and documentaries have achieved critical success worldwide.

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