For several years we have watched the Mediterranean Sea become a huge human cemetery as desperate people fleeing from Syria and Africa crowd onto rickety boats and drown by the hundreds within sight of the Italian coast. We think, “How terrible!” Then we read the next news story. Now there is a new swell of arrivals on the Greek island of Lesbos. People on unsafe boats are crossing from Turkey by the thousands and huddle on a small beach totally unequipped to receive them. Again we read, we watch on our screens and we think. “Poor people!” And we move on and go on with our lives. Then one day a picture that appears in all the papers and on all our screens hits home. Aylan Kurdi is 3 years old. He is lying face down on a Turkish beach, his head in the water. He is from Kobani. Someone had lovingly dressed him in a red T-shirt and navy shorts. We know he will never get up and run in the sand. We know he will never reach safety on the other shore.
The people who arrive on Lesbos have an itinerary and destinations. They have researched the best routes and methods and shared information and advice using social media. They have hired guides and smugglers and paid them well to take them across to Greece, their entry point into Europe. Greece, which has its own problems and is the weakest link in the European Union, suddenly finds itself overrun and having to “process” thousands of fleeing people. But that is only the beginning of the nightmare for the refugees. They have to rush across Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary where they face various walls, barriers and hostility on the part of the locals.
Hungary is blocking them with fences topped with razor wire strands. Many families get separated. Hungary, Bulgaria and Slovakia are barricading themselves against these hordes of aliens forgetting what they themselves had to endure when they were occupied by the Soviet Union. Misfortune has not taught them compassion. In Hungary people are crowded into pen-like enclosures, food being thrown at them as though they were animals. Elsewhere they face hostile police with tear gas and water cannons. Did the Hungarians forget that Austria opened its borders to them when they were fleeing from Russian tanks rolling through Budapest in 1956? Hungary may be the main villain here but the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and Estonia are similarly hostile. In Bratislava (Slovakia) they proclaim loudly that they will only accept a few hundred Christian Syrians. They want no Muslims; they have no mosques, they say. Many are afraid of Jihadist infiltration.
There is definitely an Old Europe/New Europe schism operating here. Most of the newly accepted countries have right-wing regimes, hostile to immigration. Germany, Austria, Sweden, old, established democracies, have shown empathy and understanding. In Germany, with an aging population, young workers are needed. But there is also some residual guilt about Hitler’s crimes. Most of the refugees are heading for these countries which have extended a welcome to them. But no one really expected this melting glacier of refugees sliding inexorably across Europe. Cracks, fissures and splinters are appearing everywhere and the whole threatens to break apart. The Schengen Agreement providing free circulation across European borders has already given way. Chancellor Merkel has been in the forefront of the humanitarian effort, saying refugees are entitled to asylum. The German population as a whole is sympathetic and there are many volunteers spontaneously offering help, but it may have unwittingly created this onslaught of arrivals that threatens the whole continent. Denmark and Norway are dissuading people from coming. France, Britain and Italy are reluctantly offering some hospitality.
Recently the scale of the refugee crisis has reached catastrophic proportions.Water, food and sanitation problems are worsening. The UN humanitarian agencies are on the verge of bankruptcy Even Germany had to institute border controls along all its frontiers. Europe has lost control of this tsunami of gigantic proportions.There has been no solidarity, no sharing of the burden, and moral responsibility has been sadly lacking.
But what about the rest of us? This is not only a a European problem.There have been more than 7 million Syrian refugees displaced so far. In Turkey, which is their first destination, many live in refugee camps. Others are in Lebanon, which faces its own problems and has no functioning government. Jordan already has a huge number of Palestinian refugees . None have been integrated or resettled. The Gulf countries, except for the United Arab Emirates have accepted no Syrians. Some Latin American countries have taken in a modest number. But where is the United States in all of this? Where is the Lady on the pedestal? Has she closed the golden door to the tired and the poor? Has she extinguished the lamp that guided the homeless and the tempest-tossed? We are vacillating. Some of us say it is not our problem. Others think there might be terrorists among the refugees. As a result we are piously proclaiming that we will accept a few thousand of them. (And maybe more in 2017.) Are we going to repeat the mistakes of the past when we could not distinguish between the culprits and the victims? When we imprisoned Japanese-Americans because they might be enemy sympathizers? Don’t we remember that we refused entry to Jewish refugees during World War II who then went back to perish in extermination camps?
It is time to wake up and acknowledge that this is now a global problem and that we have a common duty to participate. We cannot shirk our responsibility any longer.