In Treating Needy Refugees Like Invaders, We
Risk Losing Our Humanity
Barbed wire along the Hungarian border. Barbed wire
at Calais. Have we lost the one victory which we Europeans learned
from the Second World War – compassion?
By Robert Fisk
September 01, 2015 "Information
Clearing House" - "The
Independent " -
Since our latest cliché-rag is to tell the
world that the refugee “crisis” is the greatest since that war, I
was reminded of how Winston Churchill responded to the German
refugee columns fleeing through the snows of eastern Europe in 1945
before the advance of the avenging Soviet Army. These, remember,
were the civilians of the Third Reich – those who had brought Hitler
to power, who had rejoiced at Nazi Germany’s barbaric genocides and
military victories over peaceful nations. They were the people of a
guilty nation slouching towards Year Zero. It was years since I read
the letter Churchill wrote to his wife, Clementine, on his way to
the Yalta conference in February of 1945.
But I looked it up this weekend, and here is the
key section: “I am free to confess to you that my heart is saddened
by the tales of the masses of German women and children flying along
the roads everywhere in 40-mile long columns to the West before the
advancing armies. I am clearly convinced that they deserve it; but
that does not remove it from one’s gaze. The misery of the whole
world appals me and I fear increasingly that new struggles may arise
out of those we are successfully ending.” Churchill would have
called his sentiment “magnanimity”. It was compassion.
Incredibly, it is Germany – the nation from which
tens of thousands of refugees fled before the Second World War, and
from whose armies they would flee in their millions after the
conflict began – which is now the destination of choice for the
hundreds of thousands of huddled masses trekking across Europe.
Germany’s generosity flares like a beacon beside the response of PR
Dave and his chums. Didn’t our Prime Minister ever read Churchill?
Or did he read too much Tennyson? He likes to quote a line from
Tennyson’s Ulysses – “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”
– which was inscribed on the athlete village wall at the 2012 London
Olympic Games. But did he also, I wonder, enjoy Tennyson’s own
favourite sonnet, Montenegro, in which our Victorian Poet Laureate
rejoices at the Montenegrin “warriors beating back the swarm/Of
Turkish Islam…”? A good word, “swarm”. “A good starter but it is a
bad sticker,” as Churchill himself warned in a pre-war message to
Hitler of the Fuhrer’s contempt for another benighted people.
More than 30 years ago, in Jerusalem, I met that
prince of journalists, James Cameron. He had defended my reporting
of Northern Ireland – and so, of course, was a hero of mine – but
he, like Churchill, was a man of great compassion. I thought of him
not long ago when I was complaining about another group of feral
Syrian boy refugees who had been following me down a Beirut street.
Almost 40 years ago Cameron was reporting for the BBC on another
fleet of refugees seeking salvation on unseaworthy vessels.
“It was a dishonest journalistic compromise to
call the Vietnamese refugees the ‘boat people’,” he wrote in his
script, “which has an almost comfortable sound, like people on a
holiday cruise. Refugees… are fugitives, escapers, victims, the lost
and the lonely… Jewish refugees, Arab refugees, German refugees,
Indian refugees, Pakistani refugees, Russian refugees, Bangladeshi
refugees, Korean refugees.” Cameron recalled the 17th-century
Huguenots who fled to Britain, the persecuted Jews who fled from
eastern Europe to America in the 1900s.
And then Cameron came close to a “PR Dave” moment.
“In those days the world was a pretty empty place; there was room
almost everywhere for the homeless stranger. Everywhere to which an
alien might wish to take refuge is now overpopulated, and already
with problems of its own.” And some refugees “are avaricious, some
are saving their skin, some are on a bandwagon. But I have yet to
meet a refugee baby who left home other than because he had to”.
There was no “divine ordinance”, Cameron asserted, “that says you
must stay where you were born.”
Were the followers of Moses not refugees, as they
continued to be for 2,000 years, “until they replaced their exodus
with someone else’s?”
A unique irony of our modern-day tragedy is that
an Irish naval vessel has been saving the lives of thousands of
shipwrecked refugees a few miles from the Libyan coast. A century
and a half ago the Irish famine exodus was washing its refugees up
on the coast of Canada, the vessels filled with men, women and
children dying or dead of typhus, received with compassion – but
also with fear that their plague would contaminate the people of the
It fell to Pól Ó Muirí, the Irish-language editor
of The Irish Times, whose own father was a migrant construction
worker in Britain, to point out last week how many Irishmen helped
build the Channel Tunnel – and of how today “the migrants are on the
other side, trying to get through”.
Yes, “something should be done” about the
refugees, Ó Muirí rhetorically agreed. But then – and since I love
great writing, you must bear with me – he added: “The whole thing is
a bit frightening, isn’t it, all those people throwing themselves at
the fences at the mouth of the tunnel that the Donegal ones helped
build… It was when the camera panned back to show men standing and
watching, with all the dignity they could muster, that I suddenly
realised I was seeing… my father in England… Do you see your family
in their faces too? Look a little closer. Don’t be afraid.”
As they say, necessity knows no law. Nor does