We cannot close our eyes any longer. Large groups of displaced people used to be something you would see on TV from faraway lands, far from the seclusion of Northern Europe. The refugees who did make it to our latitudes did so in an orderly fashion, their outward appearance hiding the scars that remain within their memories.
While Denmark is still on the outskirts of Europe, recent images tell us that something has changed. Boat refugees in Greece and Italy, border crashing in Serbia, tumultuous scenes in a Budapest train station, people suffocating in trucks in Austria, and tent camps in Northern France all cement that this situation is different.
Some reactions are predictable, with political quagmires in the UK, Denmark, and elsewhere. The EU is scrambling to agree on anything relevant; and heated arguments ensue as to whether borders should be opened or closed further.
For me personally I think the tipping point was this video, published by Save the Children in the UK (some time ago, but I just saw it recently. It may be because I’m a parent myself, but it affected me very strongly, and still does.
The point is that these people are fleeing from something. We may argue about where they should go and how and who should pay, etc., but at the end of the day most of these people are human beings who have been forced on the run, hoping to gain or regain a dignified life for themselves and their families.
Many people emigrated from Northern Europe to the United States around the turn of the 20th century. They were fleeing persecution and poverty, looking for a brighter future in the ‘safe haven’ of the day. Today there is no safe haven as such, no ‘new world’. There is no frontier left to populate, although you do start to understand the allure of colonizing outer space. This means that migrants – and it’s safe to say that global migration will not disappear overnight – will need to integrate into existing societies.
So what is the solution? The issue is hugely complex, unfortunately, but in my view a minimum of human dignity does lead to some immediate recommendations, and some new ideas:
De-criminalize transportation. It is inhuman and counter-productive to let criminals profit on human tragedy. Many of the deaths on the Mediterranean and recently on the Austrian freeway could have been avoided if the traffickers were pushed out of business. If a European country is willing to grant asylum, do it from a distance or don’t do it at all – but don’t reward those lucky enough to cross borders illegally at their own risk.
Split the burden. Right now it looks like Germany will take a lot of immigrants, and most other countries try to weasel of the responsibility. Splitting the burden means that all countries should receive some measure of refugees, also those in the near vicinity – they shouldn’t all have to travel as far as Western Europe if they can have new lives in Turkey. But clarity and alignment is needed.
Stop calling it a burden. In terms of financial and societal strain it is, of course. But let’s instead focus on developing financially sustainable solutions. There’s no room for creating a new country, but how about experimenting with new planned cities and societies? Places where newcomers could contribute in a semi-closed economy, using and building their skills in a local community, thus bridging the gap to integrating into normal life.
Make sure the receivers can reasonably cope. A lingering question for politicians is always, who should pay? They have good reason to defend the money of their taxpayers. But this is a global issue, so let’s find global solutions. One could be an emigration tax, imposed by the IMF on the troubled countries – for every person fleeing from Syria, for instance, the Syrian government would be taxed a relative amount to cover the expenses in the receiving countries. And if they won’t pay? I’m sure there are ways around that, such as withholding aid, deducting tax from international trade, or similar.
Fix the root cause. Yes, much of this is symptom treatment. Ultimately, what the world needs is a more peaceful and dignified Middle East and Africa. I don’t have the solution for that unfortunately. But I do hope that wise and influential people are actively pursuing one.