Over a million people crossed into the European Union in 2015 triggering disagreement about how best to deal with the crisis. The problem of what to do with refugees was likely to get more intense in 2016. Rifts have emerged between governments willing to accept these people and other governments trying to discourage their arrival. European leaders have called for a more equitable sharing of the burden of hosting asylum seekers. At the same time voters are more and more criticising politicians for failing to control immigration.
Not all migrants claim asylum – but most do. Those trying to get into the EU mostly come from countries where there is to some degree an element of violence or poverty or both – Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Kosovo, Albania, Pakistan, Eritrea, Nigeria etc. Some are desperate and will go to almost any lengths to travel in dangerous conditions. Those fleeing often report exploitation and abuse by people traffickers, who charge huge sums for their services and pack people into unsafe overcrowded boats. Last year, over three thousand people drowned on the crossing from northern Africa to Italy.
No government official can easily know who is a refugee forced to leave their homeland and who is an economic migrant wanting to improve their standard of living. The chosen term ‘refugee’ or ‘migrant’ reveals a belief about this. My best guess is that most are both. To different degrees, they are justifiably concerned about lack of physical safety and human rights abuses as well as economic insecurity.
But what to do about the migrant crisis? How many should EU countries let in?
Refugees – Germany and Britain
A string of electoral problems for her party resulted from Angela Merkel’s generous stance on asylum in Germany. It seems that her open door refugee policy might not be sustained politically. In the UK a substantial proportion of those who voted for Brexit probably did so because they wanted a tighter control of immigration. Voters want some control over national borders.
The Convention on Refugees
The 1952 convention on refugees granted shelter to anyone with a well-founded fear of persecution at home. However, it is probably fair to say that its writers never envisaged vast numbers of people seeking asylum. Since the huge growth in modern communications technology, there is much greater awareness of what goes on in other countries. Thus, it seems the convention was designed for a world before mass travel and before people across the world discovered their rights under the convention and the advantages of living elsewhere.
Foreign aid and refugees
Is it better to send aid to tackle the basic problems of shelter, food and water in the countries where these occur? Or is this never going to be sufficient for many people’s well-being?
If prevention is better than cure then, arguably, it is better to prevent people becoming displaced by helping poorer countries generate their own economic and political solutions e.g. by gifting technology. But this doesn’t help those now who are the victims of horror and loss.
Military intervention and refugees
No amount of food and tents will solve a humanitarian crisis caused by war. The huge flow of refugees will probably not stop until politicians address the root causes of the violence. Yet, whenever the West has tried to enforce democracy using military means, it seems to have created an aftermath of instability and violence to fill the resulting political vacuum.
Arguments for taking in more refugees
The sheer ghastly nature of the human suffering horrifies us; refugees suffering exhaustion, hunger, thirst, cold, and loss of hope. Children separated from parents. These people need help and need it now.
Christ spoke about feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, inviting in a stranger, and clothing those in need. Yet, his self-righteous audience failed to appreciate they were not part of the kingdom of heaven. The reason? Because they did not act charitably to those in need.
The state infrastructure – water, sewage, medical care and education – is at risk of being overwhelmed in states like Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon. These are the countries hosting the majority of refugees. Arguably, a major resettlement and aid initiative in Europe would relieve that strain.
Arguments against taking in more refugees
There are ethnic differences in language, religion, dress, touching-codes, and social attitudes to marriage. Many younger and liberal-minded people celebrate the diversity that people from other lands bring to national life. Those less keen, instead, see an increase in immigration as a threat to their sense of national cultural identity – particularly if living in countries already experiencing a high proportion of immigrants.
Another consideration is the social injustice of the position of poor people in the host country. It is suggested that increased competition for limited housing and local jobs may push up rents and hold down wages. As a result there is concern about the risk of social tension and threat to social cohesion.
One point of view is that accepting refugees into Europe would only encourage more people to make the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean.
How many refugees should be allowed into the EU is a controversial political question. However, I do feel it helps to look at the ethics of this in a spiritual way: a way that requires the compassion of a Mother Teresa and the wisdom of a King Solomon.
One principle of the world’s spiritual traditions is the spirit of kindness. Doing to others as you would wish them to do to you. Loving the neighbour as oneself. Not craving after the worldly things to which we are attached at the expense of the basic needs of others.
However, another aspect of spirituality is acting with wisdom rather than from just emotion. I see this as being moved by prudence as well as conscience. There is a need to align the heart of love with the head of good sense before deciding how to use the hands.
“The kindnesses of charity are giving to the poor and helping the needy, but with prudence.” (Emanuel Swedenborg, spiritual philosopher).
I’m unsure how many refugees should be let into the EU. But I would say be wary of the hardhearted who rush to man the battlements to ward off all ‘invaders’. By the same token beware of the softhearted who want to lower the drawbridge to naively let in everybody who wants to enter.
Copyright 2016 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems