Events this week have reminded me of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall and his description of the hoards of barbarians poised on the borders of the Roman Empire. Were they refugees seeking asylum from the rampages of other barbarian tribes, seeking protection within their stronger neighbour’s frontiers or were they economic migrants who gazed at the wealth and opportunities the Empire possessed and aspired to be part of it? There were accepted points of entry guarded by Roman legionaries; walls like that built by Hadrian across northern England to keep the unwanted invaders out; some barbarians were allowed into the Empire to supplement depleted Roman forces and they were keen to keep other barbarians out once they had achieved this; there were perennial debates about what the Roman state should do about the barbarians and equally perennial failures to find any workable solution resulting in different parts of the Empire adopting different approaches. Yes, I’m still writing about Gibbon but this could equally apply to the lamentable mess that the EU has got itself into over the migrant crisis.
In a week when people suffocated in a lorry in Austria and hundreds drowned off the Libyan coast, our contribution to the issue has been an entirely fatuous debate about whether to call those moving across the Mediterranean refugees or migrants. I’m absolutely certain that this is not the critical question on their minds. The Schengen system means migrants can arrive on the shores of Greece and Italy and make their way to wealthier countries like Germany, which expects to receive 800,000 new arrivals this year. German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere has said the agreement is only sustainable if Europe agrees a permanent mechanism for relocating refugees so that the burden is spread more evenly. Britain and Ireland are not members, but Switzerland, Norway and Iceland are, even though they are not part of the EU. This, and growing anti-immigration sentiments across Europe, mean that finding a solution to the problem of surging migration is extremely difficult. It’s not the scale of the migration but its speed that causes the real problem. Countries need immigration to support their economies and most countries have planned immigration policies in place to deal with this…the critical word here is ‘planned’. But what is happening now is unplanned and unpredictable which is why the EU has difficulty finding a solution and yet thousands more people are trudging towards the EU each week.
All the solutions proposed by governments in the EU are reasonable. The notion that there should be a quota system for allocating migrants to all member states seems eminently reasonable…it would spread the burden. Dealing with the people smugglers and traffickers, who pray on human misery and hope, is equally reasonable. Finding solutions to problems of conflict in, for instance, Syria and Eritrea so that people do not feel the need to move elsewhere, are also thoroughly sensible. But they all take time and do not address the immediacy of the crisis. Even establishing refugee camps, one solution that has been suggested, takes time. So we’re left with small groups, families, individuals getting into the EU and then having to find their own solutions to the problem. So we have the unedifying sight of people wandering along railway lines, waiting in the street, sleeping in railway stations, establishing ‘jungles’ in Calais as they wait for ‘something to turn up’. They are discovering, much as medieval peasants who moved to towns found, that the streets of Europe are not paved in gold.
When faced with an unstoppable wave of humanity, you have two choices…stand against it and be swept away or embrace it, recognise its potential and understand that there will inevitably be a period of disruption to your settled lives. At present we’re doing neither, we’re simply wringing our hands and crying ‘we don’t know what to do’.