Three cheers for Yvette Cooper, who has at last re-injected a smidgeon of sense and humanity into the refugee debate: three cheers for her small proposal, that we give shelter to a small number of desperate persons within our borders, which goes at least a little way to unpicking the panic that seems to have afflicted public debate in recent months.
Watching the BBC News on the refugee crisis, yesterday, i was struck by just how lacking in context was its reporting. How ahistorical: how, frankly, inaccurate.
A reporter was talking excitedly to camera about the numbers trying to cross the border in Hungary. Cut to pictures of refugees chanting “freedom”: cut again to scenes of hundreds of refugees arriving in Germany. The numbers, this uninformed mouthpiece assured us, were “unprecedented”.
One word. One easy, unsustainable, wrong word. Yet it is this idea, that never in the field of human conflict have we seen such things before, that is poisoning public debate. For the numbers are only unprecedented if we ignore every other precedent that has occurred.
A short history of European refugees
Let’s rewind a century or so, to the end of the First World War. One might just forgive the BBC a little ignorance here, since while we have “done” the centenary of 1914, the anniversary of the end of the war lies still some three years into the future.
Historians argue exact numbers: but it is generally agreed that at least 10 million individuals out of a European population approximately half what it is now were, by 1918, “displaced” and in need of help with resettlement. Though that is not counting the hundreds of thousands who perished on the way, and were resettled with neither ceremony nor dignity in a roadside grave.
Fast forward to 1945, a year whose anniversary the BBC have covered a little in recent months, and the numbers are equally staggering. The Second World War displaced some twenty million individuals: a consequence of economic collapse and the wholesale redrawing of national boundaries in Eastern Europe. Over time, many of these returned to their approximate placve of origin: but by 1947, there were still some 1 million individuals in displacement camps across Europe; and it was not until 1959 that the last such camp (at Wels in Austria) was closed down.
In between wars, displacement may have been less dramatic, less obvious. The numbers, though, continued to hit levels that puts the current “unprecedented” tally into perspective. Millions of Eastern Europeans on the roads in the 1920’s as boundaries were redrawn, and persecution of minorities became endemic. A milliion Germans abandoned Germany between 1933 and 1940, after Hitler came to power. Over 3 million Russians displaced between 1941 and 1952: some internally, some abroad.
Less permanently, but at least as spectacular as the current crisis, was the attempt by hundreds of thousands of individuals to escape East Germany – many across those same soft borders that Hungary is now desperately trying to re-establish – in a matter of weeks.
Then there is the small matter of the British Empire: in 1948, politicians and civil servants realised, to their horror, that carelessness over legislating nationality meant that, in theory at least, some 900 million persons from across the globe had an absolute legal right to enter the UK. That did not last long.
So the numbers seeking safety in Europe today are only unprecedented if we ignore every other instance of mass displacement that has occurred over the last hundred years. Yet that failure to acknowledge history is contributing to the present furore.
Resolving past refugee crises
On each occasion that such population movements have taken place, reactions have been similar. Resentment and welcome by local populations in approximately equal measure. Attempts by central government to devolve responsibility to regional and local authorities. Eventual recognition that while the issue will, to some extent, resolve itself over the medium term, in the short term, immediate, co-ordinated, concerted action by governments is essential.
Thus, in the aftermath of WWII, hundreds of camps were established initially across Europe and elsewhere (one camp as far afield as Mexico). This allowed the authorities to manage the problem, both in terms of coping with the needs of refugees, and reducing the fears of their own electorate.
Many refugees eventually returned home: what they needed was not permanent residence, but temporary shelter that was nonetheless more permanent, less insecure than an unofficial shanty town that the authorities might, at any moment, decide to shut down.
The world did its bit: the UK took around 100,000 refugees as well as offering British citizenship to around 200,000 Polish soldiers under the Polish resettlement Act of 1947; Canada took over 150,000; Australia took in 180,000; France around 40,000; Belgium, one of the first countries to open its borders, took in 20,000.
The United States, to its shame, came late to this party. In 1948, Congress begrudgingly passed the Displaced Persons Act, which President Truman felt compelled to sign despite considering that it was “flagrantly discriminatory” and “mock[ed] the American tradition of fair play”. Nonetheless, they, too, eventually accepted some 400,000 refugees for permanent settlement.
The 1951 UN Refugee Convention, setting out national responsibilities in respect of refugees and asylum seekers, was also born from these events: not, as some politicians have this week been claiming, the work of woolly-minded do-gooders, but rather, a necessary means to establish a framework within which nations should, in future, deal with mass flows of people under pressure.
We have been here before.
There is nothing unprecedented about the current crisis, except perhaps, that this time around, it emerges from wars that Europe has encouraged, dabbled in, but for the most part, not engaged in.
Yvette Cooper has made a small start. If she can begin to change the tone of debate and provide cover for other politicians prepared to speak out on this issue, she has done us all great service.
Otherwise, we might do well this week to listen not to the BBC, but to a statesman who, faced with a humanitarian crisis of far greater magnitude than the one we now face, captured perfectly our public duty.
“In war, resolution; in defeat, defiance; in victory, magnanimity”. That was Winston Churchill in 1948. It is a shame that so few of the present generation of political leaders are endowed with equal practical compassion.