Looking at the ongoing refugee crisis, it’s time for some history lessons. This is a story that happened a long, long time ago, even before our parents were born. Long forgotten, or at least not mentioned enough to remind us that history is a circle, and that many events are only repeating themselves.
Many historians will remember the Évian Conference that was initiated by United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt in July 1938. The conference gathered many national delegations and organisations in order to respond to the problem of the increasing numbers of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution in Europe – and to obtain commitments from the invited nations to accept more refugees. At the same time, the majority of the Jewish population stood in long lines in front of embassies and consulates, in the “no-man’s-lands” between the borders, in bus and train stations, with their only belongings stuffed in one or two bags. With no ports willing to accept them, they were doomed to travel on “haunted ships”. Hundreds of thousands of desperate people tried to escape humiliation, discrimination, hate and violence, all because their God had a different name.
The conference was a failure, while the Nazi representatives were satisfied: their belief that “no one wants the Jews” was apparently shared across the world, more so than they thought. The United States and many European countries refused to accept more refugees, and the Jews had no escape and were ultimately subjected to what was to be known as Hitler’s “Final Solution to the Jewish Question”.
Today, we are faced with a similar scenario. Today’s refugee crisis has revealed the contradictions in the European principles of ‘democratisation and civilisation’. Hundreds of thousands of people are fleeing war-torn countries and risk their lives to reach Europe. But the way the European Union is dealing with it shows serious flaws in EU governance: each member state applies different migration policies, in order to protect itself.
Opening the borders of the European Union to refugees is humane and democratic, European leaders are afraid that this might trigger discontent among many European citizens, even though opening up the borders could be beneficial in the long run – not to mention that it’s the right thing to do. The borders remain closed, and the mistakes that were made 80 years ago are repeated once again. The result of it: the Mediterranean has become the grave of refugees.
Some positive measures have been taken: refugee’s entrance quotas were established; funds were established to help the refugees with the determined costs of stay and travel, with the inevitable battle between national governments about who will get more money. But I cannot help but wonder: is this money being spent on the refugees’ needs, or is it invested in something else, like building walls, in order to protect themselves from what, apparently, are different values, customs and beliefs? These are the same walls that were destroyed when the European Community was born back in the 1950s, when European leaders still dreamed of creating a more democratic, open and prosperous region.
The European Union is a magnificent project of peace and democracy, but at the same time, its citizens must face the harsh truth that the same Europe was also – and still is – a breeding ground for Nazism, racism and nationalism, and that some of the bloodiest massacres in the near and more distant past took place within its own borders. Sadly, many recent actions, such as protests across Europe against migrants and refugees, and the building of walls have uncovered latent racism and xenophobia in many European political cultures.
A solution to Europe’s refugee crisis requires the adoption of a harmonised EU refugee /migration policy that takes into account the needs of refugees and the needs of its member states, as well as an active foreign policy that can stabilise the countries and the regions from where refugees flee. But it seems EU leaders are more focused on economic and trade policies and thus the reluctance of national governments to adopt a harmonised EU immigration policy is implicitly condoned.
If the European Union decides to keep its borders closed and make it a “home” where no guests are welcome, its society will become a hostage of the current politics, a place where some members might at some point becomeundesirable, maybe even ending up in the same situation as the refugees from today’s war-torn countries: being forced to knock on others’ doors and seek help. Because, as we learned before: history does repeat itself.