LONDON – The milk of human kindness toward refugees has soured. Donald Trump has declared that the United States, which was once the preferred destination of people fleeing from religious persecution, will shut its doors to refugees from the civil war in Syria and does not want anyone from specified, largely Muslim, countries.
One of the countries named in Trump’s list was Iraq, although this was a country into whose internal affairs the U.S. had launched an armed invasion and in which U.S. special forces are assisting the Iraqi in their efforts to retake the oil city of Mosul. Another was Afghanistan, which has suffered over a decade of civil war and where American forces have intervened. The life of anyone who helped U.S. forces in that country is in danger.
The European Union last year received over a million refugees largely from Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea and Somalia, all countries suffering from civil conflict or appalling misgovernment. They came either via Turkey to Greece initially or across the Mediterranean to Italy from Libya. Many were fleeced by people smugglers who arranged their journeys in return for extortionate prices in leaky old boats, often without life jackets. Thousands have drowned before they could be rescued by coast guards or vessels organized by NGOs.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel took the lead last year in offering sanctuary to Syrian refugees and over a million were taken in by Germany. But other European countries, in particular Hungary and Poland, put up barriers to the human flow and adamantly refused to accept any refugees despite their international obligations.
Greece and Italy, which were the main reception areas, had great problems in processing and finding shelter for a flow that turned into a flood. An attempt by the European Commission in Brussels to spread the responsibility for looking after the refugees foundered and the obligations, which states have accepted under the U.N. Refugee Convention to protect and succor refugees in their territories, have been ignored by some EU member countries.
Innate hostility to strangers, common to elements in communities throughout the world, was kindled by fears that local facilities would be overwhelmed by the newcomers. The refugees were of different races and colors, and had diverse customs. Reports of occasional criminal behavior by refugees added to anti-refugee sentiment. Strong resentment was felt when a very few terrorists were discovered masquerading as refugees.
The British, although still in the EU, opted out of any sharing of the EU refugee burden. The government argued that it was giving help to refugees in the camps on the borders of Syria and that this was a better way to aid the victims of civil war than offering asylum in Britain. Nevertheless, Britain would resettle by 2020 up to 20,000 selected refugees from camps in countries with borders to Syria under its Vulnerable Person Resettlement Program. It also agreed to take 3,000 vulnerable children currently in the Middle East and North Africa and later agreed to resettle up to 350 unaccompanied children already in Europe.
The British government’s response was viewed by many as stingy and hard-hearted. There was particular anger when the government reneged on a scheme to settle unaccompanied children from the “Jungle” camps in France. The scheme was proposed by Alfred Dubs, who had himself been a child refugee, and despite government objections was approved by a small majority in parliament. The excuse that local authorities could not cope with the small numbers involved was shameful.
Japan, however, cannot claim to be “on the side of the angels.” In 2016, Japan accepted only 28 refugees and rejected 99 per cent of asylum applications.
The civil wars that have ravaged the Middle East and Africa in the last few years have affected many millions. Vast numbers have fled abroad, but huge numbers have been displaced within their homelands. When cities like Aleppo in Syria are devastated by bombing, images of the wounded are seen on screens in our homes. Yet the misery caused by hunger and destruction of housing is often overlooked.
The current refugee crisis is one of many since World War II, which spawned mass exoduses during which millions lost their lives. In the following decades the world saw the tragedy of the displacement of Arab Palestinians and the massacres in Rwanda. The breakup of Yugoslavia led to many Balkan tragedies. In East Asia, the war in Vietnam and the communist persecutions that followed led to the Vietnamese boat refugee crisis in the late 1970s.
The U.N. High Commission for Refugees dates back to a U.N. General Assembly resolution of 1949, but its charter stems from the 1951 Refugee Convention. While it is generally accepted that a refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war or violence and who fears persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality or political opinion, states vary in their interpretation and application of these criteria and in their treatment of refugees.
The media focus on human interest stories has not led to a more liberal and humanitarian attitude to refugees seeking asylum. In some people it has induced feelings of nausea and hardened attitudes, especially among the supporters of populist demagogues such as Trump who denounce the media for peddling false news.
There is perhaps little that we as individuals can do to persuade our governments to be more generous to refugees, but though social media and support for the various charities ministering to the needs of the refugees we can help to reduce ill treatment of them.
Compassion is a quality cherished in Buddhism and Christianity. It is also an essential element in the ethos that underpins our commitment to human rights.
Hugh Cortazzi served as Britain’s ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.
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