Over the last few weeks, the Mediterranean migration crisis has worsened. Consult whatever newspaper or website you like, and you will be able to read about the horrors of the migrants’ homelands, the perils of their crossing, the statistics which give only an indication of just how many have died. But the best response on the part of Europe is harder to find in print, which is surprising in several ways. After all, the situation is clear enough: masses of people are fleeing from Somalia, the northern coast of Africa, and the Middle East, escaping from war, disaster, and Islamist extremism. They’re heading for southern Europe, especially Italy, in search of asylum.
To my mind, it recalls something like the role western Europe – and the US – played during the lead-up to the Second World War, as thousands of Jews and members of other groups persecuted by the Nazis fled Germany and its annexed lands in pursuit of safety. Yet at least they were granted that safety, in the parts of the world which held true to the civilised, liberal-democratic, humanist values which we, as the human race, have spent so long refining and defending.
Look at events now, and the outcome is strikingly different. Italy, with its repellently-named ‘Mare Nostrum’ operation, and most other European nations, through their governments’ official responses, have refused to help, more often than not offering the casuistic excuse that by making the crossing riskier to potential migrants, they are actually preventing further deaths. Evidently, it is better that people die in their own country than in our waters.
There are other reasons of course. The economic ones are the most obvious and compelling, but even then the condition of most European countries must be contrasted not only with the migrants’ homelands, but with the migrants’ own economic status: if all they can cobble together for a voyage across the Mediterranean is a barely seaworthy vessel, then Europe’s comparative affluence hardly needs emphasis. And the fear that they are coming only to claim benefits betrays at best a shameful and culpable lack of empathy; if they’re willing to risk death even for a slight hope of something better, then they deserve asylum. It’s only human to grant it, along with the necessary financial assistance, especially when countless European citizens already on benefits deserve them far less. Besides, the notion that this action would impoverish a continent is absurd.
My view isn’t that of the typical liberal, half-hearted, spoiled leftie. Most of those would masochistically blame Europe or America entirely for the state of these war-torn nations in the first place, and then fail to do – or, an even easier task, say – anything which would improve the matter. I would dispute Western blame, at least in most cases; Islamist extremism especially, while it can use political excuses as props, is founded on ideology, and therefore isn’t subject to conventional influence from real world events. But whoever is to blame for this migrant crisis, the response must be the same. If you think the West is to blame, then persuade the West to do the right thing and correct some of its mistakes. If it isn’t, then reflect on the humanity and civilization which it has broadly upheld, and which we should all live by. Take the side of the victim.
After all, civilised values are increasingly under threat: the petty nationalisms and prejudices will always return. We have seen them throughout history and we will see them again. Islamic State and Putin’s Russia are only the two most salient modern incarnations, but the insular tendency of some European states – including the UK, with the hardly threatening, but still disturbing Ukip – is a related cause for serious concern. This concern, centring around isolationist and – in the short run at least – selfish policies, applies equally well to both the right and the left, simply because it is easier to do nothing and live a quiet life. The trouble is that this state of blithe indifference cannot last forever. Consider those UEA students from Eastern Europe who have received letters from their government telling them that in the event of a Russian invasion, they must go home to fight. Donne was right when he wrote that “no man is an island” and that the bell “tolls for thee”.
Among other things, we need a new internationalism, and a commitment to universal justice and human rights. It sounds grand, perhaps even quixotic, but in many ways great progress has been made, even in as short a time-span as since the Second World War. And all changes – at least in a democracy, as long as we keep it a democracy – merely require enough people to make enough noise. It is by showing solidarity with those fleeing or fighting oppression and injustice, such as the Mediterranean migrants, that we begin to make a difference. Or at least, in Auden’s words, from the close of his chilling 1st September 1939, “show an affirming flame”.