Six things we get wrong about refugees

After initial public sympathy for drowning asylum seekers, the backlash has begun and it’s been a week of anti-refugee rhetoric in Europe. There are more than 50 million forcibly displaced people in the world. More than 27,000 refugees have died on their way to Europe since the year 2000. Why do we so quickly forget our first, instinctive feeling of empathy?

(1) We’ve forgotten that migration is heroic

We have to keep going. This is the pulse that beats in our blood as human beings. The drive to set out for some distant idea of home: this was the howl of the wind in Odysseus’s sails and the creak of the timber in Noah’s ark. It was the crunch of the gravel under the sandals of Moses’ followers as they crossed the bed of the Red Sea.

We are all the offspring of refugees. We are the descendents of those who fled from danger, and thus survived. We are an adaptable species, and our survival comes from our ability to imagine a condition of refuge, and to set out for it. We are all, as I’m sure Noah remarked at the launch ceremony, in the same boat.

(2) We imagine it couldn’t happen to our family

The potential exists, through war or divisive politics, for a rapid reversal of our status as a refuge of peace and security. It’s good to remember that luck can change, and to imagine the situation reversed.

As happened in the Balkans in the 1990s, and in Syria in this decade, and as happens now ever closer to home, it is possible that we might become refugees in our lifetimes. If that day comes then we might hope that the people of Africa, for example, will be more understanding when considering our applications for asylum than we have been when considering theirs. It will certainly be hard for us to argue that we helped others as much as we could while times were good for us.

(3) We believe in a glaring half-truth

We are so often told that we live in a globalised world that it’s sometimes hard to remember it isn’t true. At best it’s half true – money can move freely across national borders, but people can’t. Human beings are systematically denied access, but money always has a safe refuge. The fact that money transcends borders has given us a financial crisis that is indisputably global. The fact that people cannot move freely has given us the refugee crisis. (If we didn’t mind when people moved, it wouldn’t be called a crisis).

It is possible to imagine a world where money is restricted to its country of origin, but where people can move to where the work is. That’s an alternative interpretation of globalisation that would solve one set of problems and create another. Before we dismiss it out of hand, we should consider – at least as a thought experiment – what such a world would look like.

(4) We have not learned the lesson of Apartheid

We should ask ourselves whether we have a right to insist that people cannot move freely. In the South Africa of the second half of the 20th Century, ‘Blacks’ were denied citizenship rights and made to live in self-governing enclaves, or ‘Bantustans’. Apartheid fell and is now almost universally condemned. And yet it could be argued that the consequence of our restricted form of globalisation is a global apartheid in which the largely white Western civilisation has the whip hand.

Imagine for a moment that, in our small world, the movement restrictions between the “developed world” and the “troubled world” are as arbitrary and cruel as the boundary between greater South Africa and Transkei. Or, if the boundary is not arbitrary, then what is the basis – beyond self-interest – on which we deny a life in the West to those who would seek refuge here?

(5) We forget that refugees are like us

I once asked a Nigerian refugee what he missed most, now that he lived in London. “Democracy,” he replied with a twinkle in his eye, going on to remind me that for all his evident faults, his President had been directly elected while my Prime Minister had not.

Refugees can be refreshingly satirical about their host countries, and it behoves us to remember when considering refugees that we ourselves have not yet reached the pinnacle of statehood.

(6) We don’t suppose that refugees are part of the solution

When I was a teenager in the 1980s, we thought of asylum seekers as heroes. The hundreds who died while trying to cross the Berlin Wall, for example, were mourned. Those who made it into the West were greeted with cheers, and often became celebrities. Likewise the pilots, performers and scientists who defected from the Soviet Union.

We also had heroes from previous generations. Sigmund Freud, who fled to London to escape the Nazis. Albert Einstein, Karl Marx, Joseph Conrad – all of them refugees. When horror and darkness descend, asylum seekers are the ones who get away. They are not all Einsteins and Conrads, of course. Some of them are horrible people. And that’s just it – they are like us: they are people. Many are above average in terms of far-sightedness, motivation and resilience. A fair proportion are the people you want to have on your side.

Whatever the solution to the refugee crisis – and I don’t suggest there is a simple one – it will be a monument to our dehumanisation if we allow the new anti-refugee rhetoric to erode our first feeling of empathy.

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