The Guardian’s Perspective on Compassion for the Stranger: Nowhere in Fortress Europe | Editorial
âFor I was hungry and you gave me to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed meâ – Gospel of Matthew 25:35.
“Girl who suffered fuel burns on the boat as she crossed the English Channel was neglected for two days, leaving her with lifelong scars, it was discovered” – Guardian report on treatment of claimants asylum detainees in Kent, December 16.
For Christians, the Christmas story offers an annual reminder of the ethical duty to offer hospitality abroad. The difficult circumstances of Jesus’ birth in a stable in Bethlehem, and the subsequent flight of Herod’s holy family to Egypt, both identify Christ with the predicament of all who are vulnerable, exiled and in need. . For non-believers – most of us these days – there is still the benchmark of international law. Two thousand years after the life of Jesus, the Judeo-Christian commitment to the foreigner – to what the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas called the face of the other “in his nakedness and defenselessness” – has found legal expression under the form of the 1951 Refugee Convention. Unfortunately, in an increasingly insular and inward-looking era, faith in this also seems to be waning.
The convention became an integral part of the post-war era, initially providing asylum rights to millions of displaced people in Europe. The horrors of totalitarianism, the two world wars and the Holocaust irrevocably shaped the hearts and minds of those who lived through them and sought to learn from them. The right to seek and obtain refuge in a safe country was part of a new liberal architecture of universal rights. But 70 years later, the proliferation of barriers and fences along European borders is testament to a tougher mood. As the notion of âFortress Europeâ becomes normalized, the inviolable right to seek asylum – to assert one’s case and to be duly heard – is no longer unchallenged.
The direction of travel became very evident during the recent crisis on Poland’s eastern border with Belarus, when thousands of Middle Eastern migrants were driven back with water cannons and batons. Forced to freeze in a small strip of wooded no man’s land, at least 21 people have died. Hundreds more have been secretly hosted by courageous Polish families, who face prosecution for helping with illegal immigration. Primary responsibility for these appalling scenes naturally rests with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, whose decision to open a putative path to the EU played a political role with the lives of desperate people. But instead of responding from the height of morality, Europe has closed the hatches.
In October, the Polish nationalist government passed a law allowing the “refoulement” of asylum seekers, brazenly flouting the Geneva Conventions. The European Commission has itself put forward proposals to allow countries to suspend protection for asylum seekers in similar emergencies. Greece and Spain, which accused Turkey and Morocco respectively of Lukashenko-style tactics, will have taken note. From Croatia to the Greek islands, unrecognized refoulements of asylum seekers are commonplace; Twelve EU member states have formally requested that the rules governing cross-border movements (the Schengen Borders Code) be updated to allow funding for physical barriers to prevent migrants from entering.
Outside the EU, Britain also treats international standards as voluntary. The Government’s Nationality and Borders Bill seeks to criminalize asylum seekers crossing the Channel and return arrivals to processing centers in third countries, two measures in apparent violation of the 1951 convention. ‘surprising that AgnÃ¨s Callamard, Secretary General of Amnesty International, recently warns: “We are [taking away] little by little all the infrastructure of the rule of law system that has been built over the past decades.
The moral retreat comes only six years after Angela Merkel said “we can handle this” as a million Syrian refugees sought refuge from the civil war. At the time, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor OrbÃ¡n was widely condemned for erecting a border fence to prevent refugees from entering. âWe have only just broken down walls in Europe; we should not put them in place, âobserved a spokesperson for the European Commission. But that was then. Populist exploitation of the 2015 crisis currently haunts the imaginations of key European leaders, while the continued failure to agree on a common system of refugee quotas has shifted the political dial further in one direction. draconian.
A hardening of hearts
Trendy concepts such as “hybrid war” and the language of breaking the “business models” of human smugglers legitimize indifference to the plight of vulnerable people. The clear prospect of increased levels of migration, due to global warming, should raise the bar even higher. During the clash with Lukashenko, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki told a German newspaper: Millions of Africans and the Middle East will try to reach Europe.
The price of this hardening of hearts is inevitably paid by the hungry, the thirsty, the cold and the exiled. To adapt Voltaire, in Britain and across Europe, irregular migrants are treated with performative cruelty to discourage others. Earlier this month in Kent, Chief Prison Inspector Peter Clarke condemned the conditions under which hundreds of newly arrived asylum seekers were being held as intolerable. They were unfit, he commented, “even for a small number of people”.
Among those detained on the south coast was a 16-year-old girl suffering from fuel burns, who was left untreated for two days. The seams of her damp jeans became embedded in the wounds, leaving permanent scars. This is clearly a minor episode compared to the drowning of 27 people during a small boat crossing in November. But it is indicative of a time when the urgent humanitarian vision that underpinned the refugee convention is being lost. Of course, efforts must be made to establish safe and legal routes, and solutions must be found to deal with the reality of economic migration in an unequal world. But when confronted directly with the suffering of a vulnerable stranger, the only ethical response is to offer food, drink, warmth and compassion – and listen to his story. Having learned this lesson seven decades ago, 21st century Europe risks forgetting it again.