Robert Fisk International/UK 30 August 2015
The Great Wall of China, the walls of Rome and every medieval city, the Siegfried Line, the Maginot Line, the Atlantic Wall; nations – empires, dictatorships, democracies – have used every mountain chain and river to keep out foreign armies. And now we Europeans treat the poor and huddled masses, the truly innocent of Syria and Iraq, Afghanistan and Ethiopia, as if they are foreign invaders determined to subjugate our green and pleasant land. Have we lost the one victory which we Europeans learned from the Second World War – compassion?
Since our latest cliché-rag is to tell the world that the refugee “crisis” is the greatest since that war, I was reminded of how Winston Churchill responded to the German refugee columns fleeing through the snows of eastern Europe in 1945 before the advance of the avenging Soviet Army. These, remember, were the civilians of the Third Reich – those who had brought Hitler to power, who had rejoiced at Nazi Germany’s barbaric genocides and military victories over peaceful nations.
It was years since I read the letter Churchill wrote to his wife, Clementine, on his way to the Yalta conference in February of 1945. But I looked it up this weekend, and here is the key section: “I am free to confess to you that my heart is saddened by the tales of the masses of German women and children flying along the roads everywhere in 40-mile long columns to the West before the advancing armies. I am clearly convinced that they deserve it; but that does not remove it from one’s gaze. The misery of the whole world appals me and I fear increasingly that new struggles may arise out of those we are successfully ending.” Churchill would have called his sentiment “magnanimity”. It was compassion.
Incredibly, it is Germany – the nation from which tens of thousands of refugees fled before the Second World War, and from whose armies they would flee in their millions after the conflict began – which is now the destination of choice for the hundreds of thousands of huddled masses trekking across Europe. Germany’s generosity flares like a beacon beside the response of PR Dave and his chums.
More than 30 years ago, in Jerusalem, I met that prince of journalists, James Cameron. He had defended my reporting of Northern Ireland – and so, of course, was a hero of mine – but he, like Churchill, was a man of great compassion. I thought of him not long ago when I was complaining about another group of feral Syrian boy refugees who had been following me down a Beirut street. Almost 40 years ago Cameron was reporting for the BBC on another fleet of refugees seeking salvation on unseaworthy vessels.
“It was a dishonest journalistic compromise to call the Vietnamese refugees the ‘boat people’,” he wrote in his script, “which has an almost comfortable sound, like people on a holiday cruise. Refugees… are fugitives, escapers, victims, the lost and the lonely… Jewish refugees, Arab refugees, German refugees, Indian refugees, Pakistani refugees, Russian, Bangladeshi and Korean refugees.” Cameron recalled the 17th-century Huguenots who fled to Britain, the persecuted Jews who fled from eastern Europe to America in the 1900s. Syrian refugees passing on the Syrian side of the border crossing Akcakale, in Sanliurfa province, southeastern Turkey
And then Cameron came close to a “PR Dave” moment. “In those days the world was a pretty empty place; there was room almost everywhere for the homeless stranger. Everywhere to which an alien might wish to take refuge is now overpopulated, and already with problems of its own.” And some refugees “are avaricious, some are saving their skin, some are on a bandwagon. But I have yet to meet a refugee baby who left home other than because he had to”. Were the followers of Moses not refugees, as they continued to be for 2,000 years, “until they replaced their exodus with someone else’s?”
A unique irony of our modern-day tragedy is that an Irish naval vessel has been saving the lives of thousands of shipwrecked refugees a few miles from the Libyan coast. A century and a half ago the Irish famine exodus was washing its refugees up on the coast of Canada, the vessels filled with men, women and children dying or dead of typhus, received with compassion – but also with fear that their plague would contaminate the people of the Canadian Maritimes.
Yes, “something should be done” about the refugees. As they say, necessity knows no law. Nor does compassion.
[This is an abbreviated first page of a long article by Robert Fisk. ]