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The Guardian view on compassion for the stranger: not found in Fortress Europe


The moral insight that informed the Geneva convention on refugees is weakening in our own times. That must change.

Migrant children gather near the fence on the Poland-Belarus border in November. Photograph: Reuters

“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me” – Gospel of Matthew 25:35.

“One girl who had suffered fuel burns on the boat as she travelled across the Channel was neglected for two days, leaving her with scars for life, it was found” – Guardian report on the treatment of detained asylum seekers in Kent, 16 December.

For Christians, the Christmas narrative offers an annual reminder of the ethical duty to offer hospitality to the stranger. The straitened circumstances of the birth of Jesus in a Bethlehem stable, and the holy family’s subsequent flight from Herod into 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 always the reference point of international law. Two thousand years after Jesus lived, the Judeo-Christian commitment to the outsider – to what the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas called the face of the other “in its nudity and defencelessness” – found legal expression in the form of the refugee convention of 1951. Sadly, in increasingly insular, inward-looking times, faith in that seems to be dwindling too.

The convention became an integral part of the postwar era, originally offering rights of asylum to millions of displaced people in Europe. The horrors of totalitarianism, two world wars and the Holocaust irrevocably shaped the hearts and minds of those who lived through them and sought to learn from the experience. The right to seek and be given refuge in a safe country formed part of a new liberal architecture of universal rights. But 70 years on, proliferating barriers and fences along European borders testify to a harsher mood. As a notion of “Fortress Europe” is normalised, the inviolable right to claim asylum – to make one’s case and be properly heard – is no longer uncontested.

Weakened regulation

The direction of travel became starkly apparent during the recent crisis on Poland’s eastern border with Belarus, when thousands of migrants from the Middle East were repelled with water cannon and batons. Forced to freeze in a small strip of wooded no man’s land, at least 21 people died. Hundreds of others have been secretly sheltered by courageous Polish families, who risk prosecution for assisting illegal immigration. Primary responsibility for these appalling scenes naturally lies with the Belarusian president, Alexander Lukashenko, whose decision to open up a putative route into the EU played politics with desperate people’s lives. But instead of responding from the moral high ground, Europe battened down the hatches.

In October, Poland’s nationalist government passed legislation authorising the “pushback” of asylum seekers, brazenly flouting the Geneva conventions. The European Commission has itself put forward proposals to allow countries to suspend protections for asylum seekers during similar emergencies. Greece and Spain, which have accused Turkey and Morocco respectively of Lukashenko-style tactics, will have taken note. From Croatia to the Greek islands, unacknowledged pushbacks of asylum seekers are commonplace; 12 EU member states have formally requested that the rules governing movement across borders (the Schengen borders code) be updated to allow the financing of physical barriers to keep migrants out.

Outside the EU, Britain is also treating international norms as optional. The government’s nationality and borders bill seeks to criminalise asylum seekers crossing the Channel and remove arrivals to third-country processing centres, both measures in apparent contravention of the 1951 convention. It is scarcely surprising that Agnès Callamard, secretary general of Amnesty International, should recently warn: “We are [taking away] bit by bit all the rule-of-law system infrastructure that’s been built over the last decades.”

The moral retreat is taking place only six years after Angela Merkel said “we can manage this”, as a million Syrian refugees sought sanctuary from civil war. At the time, the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, was widely condemned over the erection of a border fence to keep the refugees out. “We have only just torn down walls in Europe; we should not be putting them up,” observed a European Commission spokesperson. But that was then. The exploitation of the 2015 crisis by the populist right now haunts the imagination of mainstream European leaders, while the ongoing failure to agree a common system of refugee quotas has further shifted the policy dial in a draconian direction.

A hardening of hearts

Modish concepts such as “hybrid warfare”, and the language of breaking the “business models” of people smugglers, are legitimising indifference to the plight of vulnerable people. The certain prospect of rising levels of migration, as a result of global heating, is likely to up the ante still further. During the standoff with Mr Lukashenko, Poland’s prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, advised a German newspaper: “It is clear that if we are not able to keep thousands of immigrants at bay now … if we do not resolutely protect and defend our borders, hundreds of millions from Africa and the Middle East will try to get to 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 being treated with performative cruelty to discourage the others. Earlier this month in Kent, the chief inspector of prisons, Peter Clarke, condemned as intolerable the conditions in which hundreds of newly arrived asylum seekers were being held. 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 in comparison with the drowning of 27 people during a small boat crossing in November. But it is indicative of times in which the urgent humanitarian insight that underpinned the refugee convention is being lost. Of course, work must be done to establish safe, legal routes, and solutions must be found to deal with the reality of economic migration in an unequal world. But when directly confronted with the suffering of the vulnerable stranger, the only ethical response is to offer food, drink, warmth and compassion – and to listen to their story. Having learned this lesson seven decades ago, 21st-century Europe is in danger of forgetting it all over again.

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