On Refugees


November 7, 2015 – Warsaw

The refugee issue is the single most important challenge facing the EU today, indeed, the biggest challenge the Union has been faced with since the fall of Communism. It has already generated powerful splits, both between different member states and within them. It pits those who face the brunt of the problem either because of geography (Italy, Greece, Hungary), or because of a political decision to help (Germany, Austria, Sweden), and those who either experience some of its the consequences (France, Croatia, Slovenia, Denmark), and those who largely don’t yet, and don’t want to (Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, but also the UK). Within each country, the issue generates very deep division, with those opposed to taking in any - or more - refugees see themselves as defending their country’s, and Europe’s, fundamental interests, and those in favor seeing themselves in the same light as well. Ultimately, the issue has the potential of splitting the Union apart, or at least engendering radical political changes within it.

The gravity of the issue has been recognized, and a fundamental debate is raging in all countries involved. Even though it also allows the expression of positions that many of us would consider unacceptable, at times even criminal, it should be hailed as a great example of open societies concerting to address a challenge. Yet if the debate is to lead to the adoption of acceptable solutions, its terms need to be defined clearly. This, however, is often not the case, largely because both the scale of the issue is unprecedented, thus making hitherto accepted approaches irrelevant, and because it triggers very strong emotional reactions which do cloud our judgement. I am, of course, fully aware of the fact that this paper might be fatally flawed by the same two defaults.

I propose, if accepted and possibly amended, it be submitted for debate, as broad as possible, within the Humanity in Action community. The objective would not be the adoption of a common policy paper, an outcome I do not see as realistic, and perhaps even not desirable. As positions on the issue are shaped by assigning different priorities to values we all have in common, it would be futile to search for complete unanimity. What we can strive for is an agreement to abandon positions which are in contradiction with those values, or arise from mistaken readings of the situation. This would narrow down the range of possible options, and would make both the choices and the reasons to make them much more explicit. Instead of a common position on the issue, I propose a common understanding of it.

1. This is not a crisis

A crisis, by definition, is a temporary exacerbation of fundamentally relevant conditions, and can be solved by bringing these conditions back to more acceptable parameters. The refugee influx during the Yugoslav wars was such a crisis, and was solved by ending the wars, with European participation, and facilitating – or forcing – the return of the majority of refugees. Since that was before Schengen, national governments were competent and sovereign in making and implementing relevant decisions. The case was eventually closed and the status quo ante largely restored.

This is not what we are facing now. On the one hand, the factors which motivate people to flee are more dire and more permanent. The war in Syria is certainly, in terms of its toll on civilians, much more severe that the Yugoslav wars, while perspectives of ending it, be it internally or by external intervention, are much more dim. Furthermore, any imaginable end to that war would increase, not decrease, refugee influx, as those on the losing side would have every reason to fear for their lives. And finally, Syria is simply the most salient case only. The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan are slightly less violent (quantitatively, not qualitatively), and just as intractable. Libya and the Horn of Africa also generate their own waves of refugees, and it is safer to bet that more countries will be added to the match list than removed from it. One should therefore assume that the reasons for people to flee will be present in the years to come.

Yet one should note that similar reasons, if possibly less acute, obtained already in the previous years, without generating similar outcomes. It is not only that the current conflicts are more dire, though they are. It is that practical and political logistics exist now that did not exist ten years ago. The wide availability of GPS has democratized flight: no longer must one rely on a network of professional smugglers, who know – or allege they do – the way. Individuals may now move on their own, checking the way on their smartphones, and exchanging tips with others via social media. This, incidentally, alongside the need to keep in touch with the family at home, is why migrants come equipped with sophisticated smartphones, something that critics in Europe have taken as evidence they are not bona fide refuges, as most of them claim to be (1).

This fundamental change in the technical logistics of flight removed one bottle-neck in the movement of people toward Europe: no longer was it limited by the means at the disposal of smugglers. While smugglers were controlling transportation, there still were borders to be crossed, and this imposed a basic limit on how many people could pass: there was an upper limit to the number of border guards in the pay of the smugglers. Changes in political logistics, however, eliminated that bottle-neck also.

The implementation of the Schengen agreement meant that there was only one EU border to be crossed to get in, not many: once inside, migrants could move around relatively freely. This meant that reaching a relatively inhospitable Greece did not mean the end of the journey. It also meant that deals, such as the one struck by Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi with Libyan leader Muammar Kaddafi (in return of EUR3bln in aid the Libyan navy blocked the smugglers’ operations) would no longer be effective: it was cheaper for Italy to let migrants transit north than to pay to prevent them from leaving the south.

The Libyan deal, however, was also in Kaddafi’s interest; as a dictator, he very much wanted to retain control over who leaves Libya: in essence, he was being paid for something he would want to keep doing anyway, with Italy getting the bonus of Libya stopping even those it would otherwise not object to see leave. The same situation obtained then in Turkey, which was engaged in a brutal civil war with the Kurds, and considered control of the borders a national security priority. Yet the peace process Ankara had engaged in over the last few years reduced that priority (2), while the massive influx of Syrian refugees (2mln over the last four years, generating expenses to the tune of some $8bln) has given Turkey a major incentive not to oppose them if they choose to go elsewhere.

While obviously political conditions in transit countries, such as Libya or Turkey, may change, the democratization of the logistics of flight remains a given, and the same is true of the implications of the Schengen agreement. Nor, as we have seen, can conditions which make people flee be expected to dramatically change for the better. This means that people both have the motivation to move, and that the technical and political circumstances which facilitate that movement still obtain. Under such circumstances, it is logical to assume that this movement will continue for years to come. This is not a crisis; this is the new normal.

2. This is not about refugees alone

Much has been made of the difference between refugees and economic migrants, with governments, such as the German one, favorable to taking in the former, stressing their opposition to accepting the latter, and promising to deport them. There is of course a fundamental legal difference between the two: under the relevant Geneva and Dublin conventions, EU states are legally obliged to take in the former and provide them with room and board until their case is examined, while no obligations arise in the case of the latter.

Yet while legally this distinction is stark, in practice the lines tend to be blurred. First, telling a refugee from an economic migrant can, in individual cases, be difficult: is e.g. someone fleeing Eritrea, because of the government’s policy of conscripting slave labor, the former or the latter? This difficulty is compounded by problems in establishing the veracity of the applicants’ claims or, indeed, of their very identities: there is a brisk black market in Syrian passports, which all but guarantee being accepted for refugee status application in Germany, the way that having a Kosovo passport all but precludes any chance of obtaining that status. Holders of the latter of course have then an incentive to avail themselves of the former, in the hope of blustering their way through.

Those ambiguities have been seized upon by the anti-immigrant movement, and the fact that governments approve of the concept of sending economic migrants back home strengthens its case. All it now need to do is to show, as is in fact the case, that many of those who claim to be refugees have problems in proving their claim to that status, while it can be proven that some make that claim in ill faith. The entire issue is then reframed as one of upholding the law, rather than as one of xenophobia. Even advocates of refugee rights fall into that trap, endorsing the rejection of economic migrants, whom they see as subverting legitimate refugee rights.

But this, just as with the mistaken view that the refugee issue is a crisis, not the new normal, just obscures the terms of the debate. While it is obvious that the special legal status of refugees needs to be maintained, protected and strengthened, the problem is not a legal, but a political one. It is not that opponents of immigration support taking in refugees, and are concerned that others might subvert their status. They are opposed to taking anyone in, and are concerned that the plight of refugees might undermine their position. In other words, their policy is one of no immigration, with bona fide refugees, once thoroughly vetted, being the lone and unwelcome exception. By stressing that economic migrants are illegitimate, governments are strengthening their point.

The opponents of migration might or might not be right; this is discussed below. But it does not seem right to endorse them a priori, as the position on illegitimate migration seems to do. While it is currently necessary to sharply differentiate between refugees and migrants, simply because of the unexpected scale of the issue and the limited resources at our disposal, this is incidental and not central to the debate. Help to refugees must be prioritized in a situation of limited resources, because we have a legal obligation toward them, which does not apply to economic migrants. But ultimately the issue is one of immigration; refugees cannot be separated from it. It is interesting to note that opponents of immigration are aware of it, and they concentrate their criticism on undermining refugees' claim to special status. A favorite argument is that even Syrians who arrive via Turkey cannot make the claim to be refugees, as in Turkey their lives were not threatened. Yet under EU law, Turkey has not been declared “safe third country of origin”, which means that the EU does not believe that refugees from other countries, arriving from Turkey, will be safe there is send back again (3). Legally, therefore, the fact that e.g. Syrian refugees arrive from Turkey in no way undermines the legitimacy of their claims.

It is of course true that their lives were not threatened there. But the immediate threat to life disappears once one has withdrawn from the area of immediate fighting. It this principle were to be considered paramount, one could make claim to refugee status because of threat to life on the frontline only. This obviously would be nonsense, and the Geneva and Dublin conventions make no such demands; they do not even contain references to threat to life, or a special category of “war refugee”. The determining criterion is “reasonable fear of persecution”, and Syrian refugees arriving from Turkey largely meet it. The fact that opponents of immigration have been raising that issue clearly indicates that it is not possible abuses in claims to refugee status they are concerned about, but immigration itself.

Accepting the premise that anyone who is not a bona fide refugee should be deported from Europe simply strengthens the position of opponents of immigration in general. It makes non-citizens right to live here conditional, and makes all foreigners automatically suspect. Worse still, the common practice of issuing deportation orders to “illegal aliens”, but then not acting on those orders, additionally undermines trust in the law.

The reason these orders are not being implemented is twofold: deportation is financially and politically expensive. A police round-up of “illegal aliens” entails serious costs, as at least passive resistance can be expected, and any use of violence may generate substantial public opinion reaction. Even if successful, the round-up will still generate expenses in the transportation stage, and will remain a political liability in case misfortune befalls the deportees at their final destination. Governments therefore tend to support issuing deportation orders, in order to placate immigration critics, but not to implement them, in order not to provoke immigration supporters.

The results are disastrous. Trust in the law is undermined among immigrants, who not unreasonably draw the conclusion that if the law cannot be relied upon when it acts to their detriment, it a fortiori cannot be relied upon to protect their interests. But it obviously is undermined also among critics of immigration, who see their state powerless in the face of the presence of “illegal aliens”. This motivates them to act to prevent more “aliens” from moving in, the more so as they can be expected to become “illegal” as well. And supporters of refugee rights are torn: they would be inclined to support such deportations, in order to stress the legal status of those who are not subject to such orders, but are loath to do so, because of the generally xenophobic nature of such round-ups.

The legal question is who gets to be called a refugee. The political question is whether Europe will accept migration or fight against it (4).

3. Things will not stay as they were

Because of the evidently xenophobic ideology criticism of migration is steeped in, its adversaries tend to reject it wholesale. This is as much of a conceptual mistake as rejecting deportation on grounds that it is a xenophobic measure. Our attitude on migration must be determined by the merits of the case, which must include a careful examination of the impact it has not only on the interests of the migrants but on that of the Europeans as well.

There is, of course, a serious argument to be made against this position. It would be based on the claim that the fact that Europeans live under conditions of wealth, freedom and security practically unrivalled around the planet is unfair in itself, and therefore any sharing of those conditions will be fair. Furthermore, this reasoning goes, the above statement would be true even if the Europeans’ privilege would have been obtained in a fair way – but it was not. Europeans have colonized the world and exploited it for centuries, and participated in wars abroad but a few years ago. They cannot therefore refuse others their fair share of this misbegotten wealth and the concomitant benefits.

A fundamental problem with that argument, of course, is that it engenders a cascade of similar claims. Eastern Europeans, for instance, who have rather been colonized than colonizers, could then assert they are not obliged to help, as they did not have their share of the loot. On the other hand it could be maintained that e.g. Syrians, as successors to a rapacious mediaeval caliphate, need to moderate their claims. Historical justice compounds the manifold problems of regular justice by an order of magnitude.

More importantly, however, the argument is practically absurd. If indeed anyone has the right to move into Europe, then the most demagogic claims of critics, about half of the planet just waiting to climb into a boat and row their way to German welfare benefits, will be vindicated. Not only can we not endorse the “equal right to Europe” argument, but we must explicitly state that we support a ceiling on population movement, to be ascertained on the basis of economic and political absorption capacity, and to be translated into yearly quotas, which would prioritize refugees, but not be reserved for them entirely.

One has also to do away with the unwarranted expectation that refugees will largely return to where they came from, once conditions there improve. This improvement will be long in coming, probably hardly comparable with conditions they encountered in Europe – and, most importantly, people who have re-rooted themselves elsewhere after traumatic experiences at home need not be expected to pack up and go once the immediate reason for the trauma is no more. People have the right to live their lives, and it takes precedence over policy recommendations.

Furthermore, an important element in any sensible approach to the problem of migration is making the limitation of migration a key element of it. While hopes of restoring peace to Syria, for example, seem presently utopian, efforts are underway to prevent a full-scale resumption of hostilities in Libya. This means that Syrians in Turkey will not be coming back – but their current situation there, both economic and legal, can be improved to discourage them from moving onwards. And if an accessible and trustworthy mechanism for applying for residence or asylum in the EU from outside its borders would exist, the motivation to undertake the perilous journey would become less. Our position should be that not everybody can move to Europe – but anybody can apply.

This still means accepting that hundreds of thousands of migrants will move in each year for the foreseeable future. This immediately brings forth the necessity to assess the impact of migration to the EU so far – and it is a mixed bag. Such an assessment is clearly beyond the scope of this paper, but one needs to say that while opinions that immigration has been an unqualified disaster are simply false, one cannot claim it has been successful either. Though different policies produced different results (the enforced adoption of a local civil identity, combined with de facto ghettoization, as in France, has clearly not been a success, for instance), it remains true that nowhere in Europe has the massive arrival of immigrants been without its share of very serious problems.

This in itself is not surprising: the coexistence of different ethnic or religious groups anywhere is often problematic, as the Flemish and Walloons in Belgium, or Serbs and Croats in Yugoslavia, have shown. Yet those conflicted groups are already there; it is legitimate to ask if bringing in additional, ethnically and religiously distinct groups makes sense at all, given this experience. After all if, say, a hundred thousand Germans or Poles were to move in today to Bagdad or even Istanbul, the result would in all probability be disastrous.

The question will be more fully addressed below, but at this point one needs to point out that coexistence need not always be catastrophic. The Swiss function better than the Belgians, and multicultural London is more of a success than Paris. There are clearly better and worse ways of going about this, and identifying best practices is an urgent need. Still, even the very best practices do not mean that immigrants disappear, or transform themselves completely to become impossible to tell apart from locals. Multicultural London is today less English than it was a generation ago, and its English majority today much less insists on the city retaining its English character than they did then. Successful coexistence is a two way street.

In the best case scenario, then, things will not stay as they are. Immigration will change Europe, making some of its current inhabitants uncomfortable with the unfamiliarity. For those of us who genuinely relish multiculturalism and appreciate change, this is something possibly hard to appreciate. Yet people have a right to expect that the world around them will not dramatically change, that it remains familiar, intelligible and safe. If this right is to be taken away from them, it has to be for a reason. In many cases, invoking the rights and interests of others will not be seen as reason enough. We will need to convince those threatened by change that this is in their interest as well, or at least that the price of keeping things as they are would have been unacceptably high.

Furthermore, while Western Europe’s experience with multiculturalism since WWII has been, even with the reservations made previously, by and large positive, all things considered, this has not been the case in the eastern half of the continent. In the Visehrad4 countries there is a general feeling that there has been a silver lining to the horrors of the 20th century – and that has been ethnic cleansing. Though millions have died, we are now all among our own, without the presence of foreigners, who are only trouble and war. Under such circumstances, to ruin this precious legacy and actually permit, or worse – invite – foreigners to come in and settle, seems to border on the criminally insane. Hence the violent reaction to immigration in countries where very few foreigners reside.

In the Balkans, where multiethnic societies still survive, the attitude to foreigners coming in might have been more relaxed – but the wars in Yugoslavia has reminded everyone just how dangerous multi-ethnicity may be, while the influx of refugees, fleeing wars between different ethnic or religious groups, has brought this once again to the fore.

It makes no sense, therefore, to try to convince people that the impact of immigration will be marginal, and/or largely offset by economic benefits, another issue I do not have the time to address here. Changes will be gradual but substantial, many people will not be comfortable with them. They need to be convinced that there are worse things than that discomfort. And worse for them, not only for others.

4. Yes, it is also about Islam

Just as the xenophobic ideology of many critics of immigration has made it difficult to accept that there are also reasons for concern as hundreds of thousands of foreigners settle in Europe, the Islamophobic hysteria they have whipped up makes a rational discussion of the issue difficult. Beyond that, however, there is a number of rational reasons to believe that the fact that recent newcomers to Europe are predominantly Muslim is not a reason to feel concern. It may well be that there reasons are sufficient to discard the entire topic. So many people in Europe, however, do not feel that way, that a discussion of this question is necessary. But first the counter-reasons.

Considering Islam as one civilization is an error of monumental proportions. In the contemporary period, it was probably most egregiously committed by Samuel Huntington, who in his highly popular and just as uninformed “Clash of Civilizations” identified one “Islamic” civilization only, while allocating Christian-majority countries to three of those: the “Western”, “Orthodox” and “Latin American” ones. Listing the internal splits, divisions and differentiations of the Islamic world would go way beyond the scope of this paper; suffice it to say its internal richness is in every degree as great as great as one would expect of the creativity of hundreds of millions of people over 1400 years. Furthermore, not everything created by Muslims is Islamic, no more than the American constitution or the Italian mafia are Christian.

Islam is also obviously not a newcomer to Europe, but one of its architects: in Spain till the end of the Middle Ages, in the Balkans and Russia from roughly that same period till now, in Western Europe for at least a century. The concept of Europe’s alleged Judeo-Christian identity is an ideological construct aimed at excluding Islam, and is doubly mistaken. Once due to that exclusion itself, though Islam finds itself through it in the good company of pagan ancient Greece and Rome, and ancient to present day atheism and agnosticism – while Europe emerges truncated. Secondly by the implication that Judaism and Christianity share an affinity from which Islam is excluded, while in fact Judaism and Islam have more in common historically (relative tolerance for Jews in Muslim lands) and theologically (radical monotheism, absence of clergy, importance of the law, no differentiation between sacred and profane, weak eschatology etc.) than either faith has with Christianity.

The Muslim-Jewish analogy in fact runs deeper. Much of the current Islamophobic propaganda is old antisemitic propaganda barely rehashed. Muslims are seen as barbaric, Asian, endowed with a different mentality, sexually corrupt, followers of an ancient religious tribal code incompatible with Christian teaching, fanatic, cruel, prone to revenge and murder. They have no culture to speak of or if they do it is evil, they are bent on conquest and world domination, and will employ any ideology that will suit that nefarious purpose. They refuse to assimilate and are unable to in any case. They just do not belong and should go home. Or else.

The argument that Europe is not Islamophobic, but simply expects Muslims to conform to standards of Western public and political behavior also does not hold much water. There already had been an Islam in Europe which followed these European principles: in Bosnia. Its adherents were Slavs, not descendants of recent immigrants. Thoroughly secularized, like most of their Christian neighbors, they mainly considered their Islam a cultural code, to be applied flexibly.

It is hard to imagine a better example of the “European Islam” critics of Islamism legitimately want to see. And these were, of course, the Muslims Europe allowed to be murdered by other Europeans, in the worst massacres, including an act of genocide, to occur on European soil since WWII. Those events, televised live, were closely observed throughout the Muslim world for three years. Europe had been tested – and found lacking. And though this murder spree preceded, and not, as in the case of Europe’s Jews, followed the teaching of hatred towards them, the analogy is still chilling enough.

And yet the analogy is only partially correct. Not only because, mercifully, Srebrenica was the only act of genocide Muslims had to endure, and it was in fact a local crime, committed in wartime, analogous to other crimes Europeans under such circumstances commit against each other. But mainly because Jews, both those resident in Western Europe and those moving in there from the eastern part of the continent, had no choice but to adapt and assimilate, and so they did. They were too small a community to preserve their separateness, and the European belief in the superiority of their model, then unchallenged, would not have it otherwise. So Jews assimilated, even though both their own tradition and European racism worked against this. They became model Germans or Frenchmen, model Europeans, incidentally giving other Europeans one more reason to kill them when the time came.

The situation of the Muslim immigrants in present-day Europe is markedly different. While, of course, as it was the case with the Jews, their own traditions and European racism conspire to keep them, as it were, in the ghetto, the countervailing forces are much less present. The sheer numbers of the Muslim community, and the support it obtains from very rich Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia, makes the preservation of that separateness feasible. At the same time, there is no longer a dominant European model they are expected to conform to, if they are capable of achieving that. Under such circumstances many more of them remain in the ghetto – where, of course, European racism wants to keep them in the first place.

Therein lies the problem with Islam in Europe. It is not related to the specific teachings of that faith (though, as in Judaism Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism and just about any other faith known to man, the capacity to use some of those teachings to justify pure evil is there) but to the sociological situation of its adherents in present-day Europe. This is partially a result of European hostility, and partially – of the Muslims’ own choices. It generates a permanent frustration due to the untenable situation of being there and yet not belonging, of not being accepted, and not knowing if one wants to, but wanting to be the one who decides. This sociological grey zone generates psychological turmoil, which in turn translates often into violence.

That violence is largely directed against Jews. As in the Christian tradition, they have come to personify the opposition to God, the source of all evil. Politically, their State is seen as supreme oppressor of Muslims, while in Europe they represent the successful integration which Muslims have not achieved: both the epitome of Europe and the continent’s Other. But much of it targets European civilization in general, which – confusingly and unfairly – seems decadent and triumphant at the same time. An envied object of scorn. An ongoing provocation through the mere fact of its existence.

Contrary to warnings, terrorism does not loom large in this picture, at least not yet. No self-respecting terrorist organization would subject its operatives to the indignity, let alone the risk, of a Mediterranean dinghy crossing, the more so as they can usually afford the cost and safety of flying them business class on good passports. Also, the refugees have fled politically motivated violence of one persuasion or the other; they will rather shy away from more of same. But the situation will change if the horrors of yesterday are replaced by the frustrations of today. If not for the refugees themselves, then certainly for their children. It is not very plausible to expect that some of the refugees are terrorists in disguise. But look closely at their children. Some of them are future terrorists who do not know this yet.

Paradoxically, many Europeans could identify with elements of their rage. Left-wing anti-Zionists would support the anti-Israeli violence, with possibly some carry-over to the violence against Jews. Right-wing authoritarians could identify with the criticism of alleged European decadence and the need for a strong religious identity, though probably not with the choice of the religion to support it. Liberals, including Jewish ones, would extend their support to a minority deprived of its rights and potential by ambient racism. But many find it difficult to make common cause with a community which to their eyes seems to successfully maintain its separateness. In the eyes of that community, of course, that separateness is imposed on it by the very same people who see it as separate.

And this is why many Europeans are concerned about the possibility of a growth of that community, as hundreds of thousands more Muslims make it to European shores. The image they have of it may be somewhat, largely, or entirely false – but it maintains itself, even if crude racism and Islamophobia are removed from the picture. That image is a reality which must be confronted in any honest discussion of immigration.

Jews in particular have reasons to worry. While identifying with the experience of a discriminated religious and ethnic minority, they find themselves at the receiving end of the violence unleashed by some of its members. The situation is compounded by the fact that the formerly antisemitic European extreme right now offers to make common cause with them. For the purpose of the resistance to an alleged Muslim invasion, Jews are made honorary Aryans, and Israel becomes the overseas outpost of a Europe under siege, defending it from the enemy. Regrettably, if perhaps unavoidably, some find this offer too tempting to resist.

5. Our comforts or our freedoms

One of the huge surprises of the current situation was to see Germany, its society and its leaders, assume the role of moral model and inspiration for the rest of the continent. Neither past history, nor recent political behavior would have made other Europeans expect such a development, and this challenge to our stereotypes is also part of the debt of gratitude that we owe to chancellor Angela Merkel, who said “We can do it”, and the majority of the German people, who rose to the challenge and did. Yet even not in the heady days of the thousands, who flocked to the railroad station in Munich with water, food, diapers and toys for the bewildered refugees streaming in from a hostile Hungary, was there any reason to believe this unexpected explosion of decency will last long. Germany showed us all what we are capable of on our best days; it would be an unforgivable mistake to expect this will henceforth be the norm.

The norm, it is unfortunately only too reasonable to expect, will be something altogether different. A creeping tiredness with the influx of traumatized humanity, which has to be supported while resources are dwindling. A growing anger at the authorities, which might have meant well, but have clearly overestimated their capacities. A mounting panic as more extreme opponents of immigration again resort to violence, trying to convince, through hate, beatings, arson, the refugees to move elsewhere. A belated reflection that, after all, Europe cannot be the solution to all the misery of the world, and that there must be a way of stemming the tide. The satisfied smirks on the faces of those who, from the very beginning, knew that all this foolishness is going to end very badly. And finally the heartfelt cry, even from the mouths of those most committed to the welfare of the refugees: Stop them from coming! And the shameful thought, which dares yet not express itself: Take them away!

The winter, to be sure, will alleviate the strain. The Mediterranean in December is a dangerous sea for big ships, let alone rubber dinghies. And walking through the Balkans in the summer was not fun; in the winter, once the snows fall, it will become a nightmare. We will be granted a respite before the unavoidable return of the influx in the spring, when waves are less choppy and skies more clement. We can, however, use these few months to think things through. And some things, by now, are rather clear.

This is not a crisis, but the new normal. As long as Europe is safe, rich and free, while elsewhere conditions are dire, and as long as facilitating technical and political logistics exist, people will keep coming. They would be stupid not to: why risk having your child die of a bombing in Syria, or live as a slave in Eritrea, when you can be safe and free in Germany? Whether or not technically one is a refugee is crucial for the reception one gets, but not for the motivation to leave. Our concerns do not fit theirs.

But they are central to our concerns. Their coming in huge numbers will change our world, and we will not be happy about it, even if the changes affect mainly the smells wafting from restaurants and the script used on shop signs. But changes will go deeper than that: traumatized people, cast in a society they do not well understand, and which does not really want them in the first place, are bound to end up frustrated. And violence feeds on frustration, especially if nursed and stoked with an ideology which explains what is wrong with the world and how to set it right again. We do have reasons for concern.

However, refugees will not stop coming just to spare us the discomfort of seeing Europe change in front of us more quickly and less understandably than we would have liked it. They tend to value their lives more than our comforts, and do not well understand what is it we are concerned about. Even if we tell them not to come, as Denmark recently did in ads in the Lebanese press, they will still keep coming.

Some hopes can be pinned on slow-down measures, such as the ESI plan mentioned earlier, and on other localized interventions which will affect the causes of migration, or hinder its logistics. But ultimately there is only one thing which is able to deter people who are fleeing for their lives, or for a better life. Force.

If we convince the refugees that by fleeing to us they stand a similar chance of losing their lives as by staying under the rule of Bashar Assad, and that even if they make it here their lives will not be much better than if they had stayed in Eritrea, they will go elsewhere. People are rational and they act according to their best interests. But the arguments we would have to use would have to be convincing indeed. Hungarian-style fences all around the EU will not suffice: people will bring ladders with them, as they do in Ceuta and Melilla. Routine naval tow-away procedures will be hindered: people will sabotage their boats and risk drowning rather than be sent back. Ultimately, step by step, we will reluctantly have to admit that in order to do that we will have to be credible. To threaten to use force is not enough. We will actually have to use it.

By that time, however, the public mood will have changed. Too many economic migrants passing away as refugees will have been exposed. The budget will be running too high a bill for all the refugee relief services. Too many veiled women will be walking our streets. And sooner or later one of the kids we have saved will have killed some of us, because he will have been convinced that we might have protected his body, but have savaged his soul.

Not many people will care that the police or the army, somewhere out there, would have to do what they have to do to keep things from getting even worse. Nor will many care about what happens to people who still care about what is it that the army has to do. If they love the migrants so much, then it is ok that they go join them in the special detention centers set up for those who break the new laws. Well, maybe not ok, but better that than having migrants ran amok all over the place, as they did in 2015. And not so many people protest these laws anyway.

It might not look exactly like that, but it will look something like that. We no longer have the luxury of protecting both our comforts and our freedoms. We will have to sacrifice some of the one or of the other. If we decide we want to protect our comforts, we will have to pay with our freedoms. And if we decide to protect our freedoms, we will have to pay with our comforts.

This former choice will seem to be the more obvious one: we will simply protecting something that is already there; the unannounced price will be exacted only down the road, and it will be markedly higher for some than for others. If we choose the other way we will have to pay up front, in order not to pay something else later. This does not automatically come to mind as a good thing.

And we will keep paying. Our cities will become more differentiated, populated also by people whom we might find hard to understand, filled with strange new clothes, scripts, smells. We will have to support paying from the budget for their room and board, education, adaptation – until they find themselves on a sufficiently sure footing to make their own living, and eventually start paying the budget back. We will have to adapt ourselves to them too, not only expect them to adapt to us. For otherwise how are we to minimize, if not avoid, the effect of frustration that is only too easy to predict, but so difficult to prevent?

But if we go down this way, there is a hidden bonus. At least we will have avoided turning into what we would have never thought we could become: people willing, to protect their comfort, to use force against people trying to protect their lives. The violence we fear from them would not have found a dwelling place in us. At best we might find ourselves living in a society which is not only more variegated, richer and more interesting than the one we were trying to protect, but which is actually enhanced by the knowledge that we did the decent thing – and it worked. This would slightly increase decency’s chances of survival the next time round.

For there always is a next time round.


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Creative Commons photo (2015) by CAFOD Photo Library


1.This was just one among several outlandish arguments against considering the migrants refugees. Others included the prevalence among them of young men of military age, as if crossing stormy seas by dinghy was best left to women and children. But that demographic feature was interpreted as indicating that migrants constitute an invading army, and that they do not deserve our sympathy, as they should have stayed behind and fought at home, instead of fleeing and throwing themselves at the Europeans’ mercy. Much was also made of a video clip, in which migrants are seen throwing food parcels at Macedonian relief personnel. The fact that they had these parcels thrown at them a moment earlier, and were protesting at being treated that way, was considered irrelevant. Finally, a story about barbaric migrants randomly assaulting a tourist bus in Italy kept making the rounds, even after passengers of said bus repeatedly denied the event ever took place.

2.The process has broken down in the last few months, but it remains to be seen if a concomitant return to strict border controls will ensue.

3.A very interesting proposal, set forward by the European Stability Initiative (http://www.esiweb.org/index.php?lang=en&id=156&document_ID=170), makes giving Turkey that status its cornerstone. The problem, however, is that Turkey would much prefer being considered a “safe third country”, period – i.e. having the presumption of security extended not only to refugees transiting through its territory, but to its own citizens as well, which would drastically affect their chances of obtaining asylum in the EU. This in turn is not acceptable to Brussels, given the repressive nature of the current Turkish regime – and is the reason why that regime desires to obtain “safe third country” status.

4.This is why I will henceforth use the term „migrant” in the discussion, reserving „refugee” only for the subset meeting the particular legal criteria.

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Warsaw, Poland


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