I’ve been thinking for a while that I should write something here about the refugee crisis that has been stirring up passions in the media and social media in Britain (and I suspect in Europe and the US too) in the last few weeks. I have been struck for some time by the dogmatic features of a lot of discussion about immigration (though not all), so what I really want to do here is just point out some of the dogmas that I think need to be avoided if we are trying to apply the Middle Way to the issue. Beyond a certain point, in such a complex issue, the Middle Way doesn’t give us specific answers to the dilemmas involved. Questions like exactly how many refugees to admit, how exactly they can be accommodated, or how to avoid encouraging criminal gangs from people-trafficking operations are all more detailed questions of policy on which I’m going to try to avoid being too prescriptive. Instead, I want to reflect on the effect of frontiers on our thinking
National frontiers are political absolutisations of differences in geography, history, language, culture, religion, ideology etc that would otherwise be incremental. If I travel overland from England to Mauritania, say, I will pass through only 3 other countries (France, Spain, and Morocco), and as I go the climate and culture will gradually but imperceptibly change. By the time I reach Mauritania I will be in a poverty-stricken, Islamic, desert land where slavery is still common: a starkly different place from England. However, since national boundaries in the Sahara are extremely difficult to police, and under the Schengen agreement France and Spain share an open zone, that whole difference has become concentrated at the Straits of Gibraltar (and to a lesser extent at Calais). There migrants and refugees try to scale the fences of the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Mellila, just as they try to cross the sea between Libya and Italy or between Turkey and Greece. All European fear of the Other has become concentrated on those borders, with ‘home’ extended to one side of them and the Shadow lurking on the other side. The British tabloid newspapers have exacerbated this kind of reaction by using consistently negative or dehumanising language about the ‘swarms’ (a word used even by David Cameron) on the other side of it.
Whatever judgements we make need to avoid that absolutisation. Of course, when people of very different cultures are brought together (particularly when they have to share resources), difficulties of communication, adaptation and adjustment will follow. We can’t ignore that condition, but it is an incremental condition, a matter of degree. The ‘swarms’ on the other side of the wall not only share our basic humanity, but are like Europeans in lots of other ways too. Probably to list such ways would be patronising: anyone who has heard refugees interviewed on the media will have an impression of how much refugees are often not very different from us. Indeed, many people who have been refugees in the past are now settled citizens of Britain, the US, and other such countries.
It’s striking how the British tabloid Daily Mail, particularly, moved suddenly from dehumanising refugees to sympathising with their plight, after the shift in public mood that seems to have been triggered by pictures of drowned refugee children. But to blame them for that inconsistency (rather than for their previous negativity) is fallacious: we are all moved by such pictures, for we are embodied humans, not rational automata, and if those emotions help us to address conditions we were not previously addressing, that is helpful.
Frontiers also give us a sense of protective and egoistic ownership over ‘our’ land on this side of them, and this protectiveness can extend to worries about employment, the shortage of housing, and strain on welfare systems. But if we incrementalise such concerns, rather than absolutising them, we may be able to see them in better proportion: perhaps minor inconveniences or drops in service provision for us, and a major help to refugees. Perhaps if refugees did enter Britain in the kind of numbers they have been entering Turkey (where there are 1.9 million, according to UNHCR), we would see a noticeable increase in the strain on housing and welfare (employment is perhaps a different matter, as enterprising people can create their own jobs). But why should Turkey take that strain rather than Britain? How much difference would it really make to everyday life in Britain? Even if some British people would suffer to some extent in some ways, how would that suffering compare to the suffering of the refugees?
Yes, there are all sorts of practical difficulties that stand in the way of breaking down the walls of fortress Europe. I was in a local Green Party meeting the other day that brought some of those difficulties home to me: for example, currently a town in the UK that wants to host refugees will only be funded by central government for the first year to help the local authority meet their needs. Many councils are rejecting the prospect, because they fear that their overstretched budgets will be stretched still further by responsibilities for traumatised people that go on beyond that year. One can hardly blame local council officials, who have to make it all work, from being concerned about such points.
But we also need to keep in mind the big picture that such objectors neglect: that Europe cannot forever maintain a fortress policy. Exactly the same point applies to other developed countries, such as the US and Australia. How many refugees do there have to be, and how desperate do they have to be, before such policy becomes impossible to maintain? No border is absolute, not just in philosophical terms, but in terms of practical maintenance. If climate change produces a great many more refugees, as is often predicted, how will we deal with this? You cannot shut off a large portion of the world’s conditions behind a wall and pretend it is not your business – or if you do, you are engaging in repression, and that repression has a habit of springing back in the future with unexpected and often violent effects. Other social, economic and technological forces are also making the world more integrated, not less. It has been remarked that one of the drivers of the current wave of migration is the internet, where migrants can easily find out about their dreamed-of destinations.
How we precisely address these conditions is another matter. An open-door policy might actually produce a lot less conflict and suffering in the long-term. Of course we shouldn’t neglect the possibility of social conflict that might be created by such a policy. The details of where the right balance lies can only be worked out by those responsible, with all the practical information. But for those of us on the sidelines the general best policy seems clear: we need to work on the basis of the big picture, and that also means opening our hearts – not indulging our projected archetypal fears about the shadowy people on the other side of the border.
Picture: Syrian refugees in Lebanon (public domain)