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Demagogues should not hijack refugee response

HONG KONG (SE): Fences going up along Hungary’s border with Serbia, with its rolls of razor-sharp tiger wire and fortified foundations suggest that the band of desperate refugees, mostly from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia, with a few from Eritrea, intend great harm to its citizens.

Popular reporting suggests that Europe is facing an invading horde, whose numbers may run well over the one million mark. 

The chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, suggests it is the biggest crisis faced in Europe for decades.

But the foreign minister of Italy, Paolo Gentiloni, went further, warning that the crisis could pose a major threat to Europe’s soul.

While some European countries have opened their arms to the refugees, others have reacted like Hungary and begun closing off access to their borders.

Church representatives have appealed to leaders and people alike to offer welcome. Archbishop Jean-Claude Hollerich, from Luxembourg, called it a Christian duty to welcome refugees in a Mass for Europe celebrated on September 23.

Archbishop Peter Smith, from Southwark in England; and his Anglican counterpart, Bishop Trevor Trott, from Dover; as well as Bishop Jean-Paul Jaeger, from Arras in France; have called on people to welcome the refugees with generosity.

No one denies that the route traversed by those knocking on Europe’s door seeking hospice and a new life have faced numerous dangers in their torturous journey, but what they did not say is that up until September 3, their numbers represented only around 0.068 per cent of Europe’s 500 million population.

Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, claims that if the refugees present Europe with a threat, it is a political one and not one of capacity to absorb.

“The latest estimate of the numbers of people using irregular means to enter Europe this year via the Mediterranean or the Balkans is approximately 340,000,” Roth is quoted in the Huffington Post as saying in its September 3 issue.

Roth points out that this wave of people is more like a trickle when considered against the pool that must absorb it.

He quotes from studies done by the European Commission in 2008 (latest figures available) that show that the European Union had between 1.9 and 3.8 million undocumented immigrants, or less than one per cent of the population.

By contrast, the United States of America (US), with a much smaller population, has 11 million, with polls showing that around three-quarters of the population believe that if they have settled in the US they should be allowed to stay.

He says that the biggest concern of those touting the trickle as a crisis seems to be fears about culture. Unlike the US, most European countries do not think of themselves as immigrant nations and fear that an influx of foreigners may disturb otherwise comfortable cultures.

Roth says, “The fear is accentuated in largely Christian Europe by the Muslim religion of most of the new arrivals. Some governments… have expressed a preference for only Christian refugees.”

He points out that disquiet in Europe has been building for over a decade and politicians like France’s Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, Matteo Salvini in Italy or the United Kingdom Independence Party are using the arrival of the refugees to do a bit of scaremongering.

Roth maintains that since it is a political problem, it is up to political leaders to rise to the challenge and honour the policy of welcome to the stranger that Europe adopted after World War II, when Europeans were the ones facing persecution and finding acceptance in the US, Australia, Canada and other countries throughout the world.

Germany and Sweden have embraced that principle and agreed to accept those who can demonstrate they are in fact fleeing persecution.

He also points out that some worry that terrorists, as well as what is referred to as economic migrants may have secreted themselves among the numbers.

However, he does not believe that anyone would bear the hardships nor take the risks of such a journey unless they were in desperate need.

In addition, he notes that terrorists have already shown that they prefer to arrive on jet planes than risk torturous journeys over hostile territory or voyages in flimsy boats, and it is also easy to recruit personnel on the spot, without taking a journey anywhere.

The three bishops from England and France say in a September 19 statement, “We wish to counter the myths that lead to prejudice and fear, and urge politicians to envisage new policies that go beyond merely closing frontiers and employing increased numbers of security staff.”

Roth believes that the real problem lies at the source. He points out that many of the refugees are fleeing the barrel bombing, which targets civilians in enemy-held territory, being carried out by the Syrian army.

He concludes by saying that decisions should not be propelled by demagogues, as the numbers moving through Europe, though numerous, are manageable.


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