The photograph of the body of the Syrian boy washed up on a beach brought home more than anything seen before the tragedy of the refugee crisis. How could anyone with a scintilla of humanity not be moved, or morally outraged, at the sight of that lifeless form lying at the lapping water’s edge?
But, in the cold light of reflection, what does one boy’s sad fate have to do with our opinion of the causes of the desperate migration of which he was far from an isolated victim? Or, for that matter, what we think the solution to the migrant crisis is?
We recoil from the image of the boy in the water. It made us feel uncomfortable, and perhaps even somehow complicit in the crisis, even in some undefined way responsible for it.
Politicians and commentators on the left in Britain wasted no time rushing into print demanding that the country fulfil a humanitarian duty by taking in tens, perhaps even hundreds, of thousands of migrants. Germany, a civilized country racked by guilt for past sins, quickly promised to accommodate 800,000. Prime Minister Cameron, appealing to our better natures by citing his feelings as a father, was immediately caught up in the response, softening a hard-line position that had been roundly criticised by German and other European leaders. Britain, he announced, would accept 10,000 migrants. That of course would be in addition to the 300,000 souls who already arrive each year by various means, legally or otherwise, from various corners of the globe.
From the opposite end of the political spectrum came predictable calls for military action against the Assad regime in Syria, coupled with more robust action against the forces of ISIL. Even a former archbishop of Canterbury, ignoring the most emphatic of the Ten Commandments, called for ISIL and al Qaeda to be ‘wiped out’. Naturally the generals agreed with him, though without venturing how such a solution might be brought about by armed forces so reduced in quantity and quality as to be hardly capable of defending Britain itself.
Photographs can cause such diverse reactions, as twentieth century history has repeatedly demonstrated. Who can forget the image of those naked Vietnamese children running away from the burning village of My Lai? Or, fifty years earlier, of Parisians weeping as jack-booted Germans marched into their city? Or the survivors of the concentration camps staggering towards their liberators? Or those many grainy shots of bodies sprawled in the mud of the Somme in what was then called the Great War?
Our sentimental responses are entirely understandable. The world would be a poorer place if they were not.
But what is actually supposed to happen next? What will bring about in a less visceral way a ‘solution’ – the word unavoidably triggers recollection of that terrible phrase ‘final solution’ – to the migrant crisis?
I have written before that I have little to offer except empty rhetoric – or worse.
In summary, I cannot endorse unlimited acceptance of immigrants, if only on practical grounds. Their numbers are already vast, and the more refugees Europe lets in, the more will come. And more still. The numbers could plausibly reach millions, tens of millions. How are such numbers to be fed, sheltered and cared for, medically and educationally? The charitable burghers of Germans have enthused over the Federal government’s righteous generosity, but will they be turning out with food parcels and clothes when the next 800,000 refugees disgorge from trains at the Hauptbahnhof? And another 800,000 after that?
In the sunlit comfort of my garden, as far distant geographically and emotionally from that awful beach in Greece, I have sat and pondered my own stance. My instincts have always leaned to the ‘come one, come all’ position. I have examined my conscience ad nauseum. I have wrestled with an emerging view that I might a few years ago have dismissed and expelled as unworthy.
But having cleared my conscience of the clutter of sentiment and indignation I am now persuaded by the argument that unrestricted entry may well threaten such social upheavals across the continent as to render the ‘cure’ worse than the ‘disease’.
Such a wishy-washy opinion – or scare-mongering bile – is doubtless no more imaginative or enlightened than those of millions of my fellow-citizens across Europe. They – we – are not motivated by racism. I am no Little Englander. I harbour no more nationalistic feelings than a desire to cheer on the England cricket and rugby teams.
There is something else that motivates many of us now, something more profound than old-fashioned flag-waving xenophobia: it is a genuine concern for the preservation of an orderly, humane and sensibly governed society that may soon find itself under threat, perhaps under siege. To talk about ‘waves’ or ‘hordes’ of immigrants is to invite attacks from posturing liberals, on the grounds that such words are a fear-mongering code for an attitude that dare not speak its name. But there are waves crossing the Mediterranean, and not just the breakers that swept a small boy ashore.
Little wonder that our politicians have yet to agree a policy that makes any sense. If their electors are bemused, they must be too, almost by definition. A plea for each country in the European Union to take in a ‘fair share’ of migrants is all they have given us. As a demonstration of decency, it is reasonable as far as it goes, but ‘fair’ has so far defied a rational definition. It means, of course, quotas. There’s another ‘code’ word that raises hackles.
How, anyway, is such a policy to be administered in the absence of Schengen border controls? And by what body? What happens when immigrants decide that the country which first took them in is not quite the paradise they thought it would be? Will they then be free to go somewhere else? If so, how will the national quotas be maintained? Immigrants will, of course, gravitate to the country that offers the best prospects for their economic well-being. They have no nationalistic aversions.
That shot of the boy on the Greek beach tugs at heartstrings, but it detracts from the need for a calculated – and, yes cold-blooded – policy.
Does that include military intervention in Syria and the imposition of western-style democracy? And what about Iraq? And Libya? Yemen? Somalia?
Those who advocate air strikes, or putting ‘boots on the ground’ – or even more severe measures – are posturing, too, having learned nothing from history because they don’t know the meaning of the word. They are right, though, in one respect: the solution must lie in action taken at the source.
Incidentally – and pointlessly – where are the helpful contributions from those fabulously wealthy (and empty) countries neighbouring those providing the bulk of the migrants, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. Ask a silly question …..
I admit it: I remain perplexed, and a little dispirited. Not by that picture in the papers, by the whole picture.
JJ. You are echoing the sentiments and ponderings of many of us. Bill
Beautiful job of framing the conundrum we are all wrestling with: humanity vs. reality within pragmatism.