11 August 2015

I was recently attracted to a reader’s letter in a leading Catholic newspaper, which sought to highlight some uncomfortable facts concerning the cultural background of many of the immigrants who are arriving on Europe’s shores.

The letter noted that in many of the countries of origin of the immigrants, there is a prevalence of anti-Christianity, anti-Semitism, hostility towards homosexuals, women are treated as second class citizens and their concept of ‘justice’ would be considered unacceptable in a modern liberal democracy. The reader was both suggesting that absorbing such people would be fraught with difficulty and that the very issue is more or less being swept under the proverbial carpet instead of being openly debated.

It would be unwise to suggest that this comment reflected our society but it might reflect some latent concerns that are rarely aired and which might represent a more significant segment of society than we are willing to acknowledge.

The fact that the letter was published at all suggested that in some quarters, even unlikely ones, questions are being asked about the fundamental context of mass migration – illegal or otherwise – and the impact on European culture and identity.

In fact it actually raises a moral dilemma. How much help should you give people who are vulnerable now but in the future, might become a threat to social stability? Indeed, is the very fact the question is raised a stain on Europe’s values?

As ever more of Europe’s politicians wring their hands and shake their heads at this crisis, both the migrants and mainstream European society must wonder what the future holds.

For those advocates of significant intervention regarding migrants, particularly the advocacy of residence in Europe, one must acknowledge that this position is based on short-termism. It perceives a human tragedy and one, which cannot be ignored unless many poor unfortunates are to lose their lives trying to reach Europe. It is short term because the solution is a temporary fix, with the promise of a more considered solution in due course. Additionally, there is a political slant to the issue: active NGOs in the migration field are seldom recognized for their advocacy of restraint on accepting migrants to Europe. There is the ever-present sense that Europe’s wealth has been historically built on exploitation, particularly in Africa and Asia and in some way, the problem requires some form of European acknowledgement of redress.

These are not inconsequential arguments. However, do they do justice to the concerns of our letter writer? Judged by mainstream media coverage of the crisis, any argument or position, which questions the appropriateness of the type of short-term fixes for migrants, is tantamount to heresy. Such arguments concerning culture or integration are unwelcome and usually attributed to right-wing xenophobes.

Yet this emasculation of debate is doing a disservice to all involved. It fails to question the structural problems in those countries from which the immigrants are leaving, including poor governance, repression, economic dislocation and conflict. Are we sure that we have really done everything we can to support these countries in need?

The dampening of debate also conceals the problems at home, which we also regularly sweep under the carpet:  the poor, the homeless, the excluded, the marginalized are also in need of significant help. Do we have the right to shunt them aside in our rush to show our compassion elsewhere?

Of course any debate of this nature will eventually focus on cost. Our societies have been so ‘monetised’ that we are compelled to look at compassion in terms of economic arguments. One senior European politician recently claimed that hosting large numbers of migrants would dent our standard of living. Yet to be fair, is this unreasonable?  Should those who live with the consequences of ‘casino capitalism’ or rampant greed, in terms of real economic hardship, really need to see further erosion of their basic services and social net as scarce funds are relocated to support poor migrants? I for one have no answer to this but I detect more than a hint of unfairness.

Failure on the part of our political elite to address this dilemma is crucial if we are to avoid the politics of extremism or resentment. Sensitivity, however, must be shown to all stakeholders in this issue, not just those who have the best press. The letter writer mentioned above has contributed a not unreasonable opinion on this matter. Others will have equally considered and varied opinions, helping in the process to generate genuine debate. The migrant crisis is truly problematic and sad. The responses, however, must be just and stable. The problem is that in this moral maze, what constitutes justice and stability?