Emo­tions rule when deal­ing with refugees

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - OPINION - Henry Sre­brnik

The refugee cri­sis now over­whelm­ing Europe has led to the pub­lic’s veer­ing from one ex­treme to an­other across the con­ti­nent, like a drunk driv­ing a car er­rat­i­cally from side to side on a road, in their re­sponse to this on­go­ing catas­tro­phe.

Last sum­mer, three-year-old Alan Kurdi, a Syr­ian boy, washed up on a Turk­ish beach, drowned while his fam­ily was try­ing to reach Europe. Sud­denly, there was a huge wave of sym­pa­thy for those try­ing to es­cape the hor­rific wars in Syria, Iraq and else­where in the Mus­lim world.

On New Year’s Eve, a very large group of men, very many of them Middle East­ern asy­lum seek­ers, were in­volved in a wave of vi­o­lent as­saults on women in Cologne, Ger­many. Since then, sim­i­lar in­ci­dents have been re­ported in other Euro­pean cities.

In re­sponse, many Euro­peans have re­acted with hos­til­ity to all mi­grants en­ter­ing Europe.

This form of political “bipo­lar­ity” ap­pears to be an emo­tional, rather than ra­tio­nal, re­sponse, which to a large ex­tent has been fu­elled by the mass me­dia, in par­tic­u­lar tele­vi­sion.

Lit­tle Alan Kurdi pulled at peo­ple’s heart­strings be­cause this is hu­man na­ture. All chil­dren are in­no­cents, of course, but many, due to their cul­tural, religious and so­cial back­grounds, will not re­main so. (Hitler and Stalin were once kids.)

On the other hand, the crim­i­nals en­gaged in sex­ual ha­rass­ment and thiev­ery in Cologne and else­where, are clearly a mi­nor­ity of the men com­ing to Europe seek­ing a bet­ter life, and to cas­ti­gate an en­tire group be­cause of them is clearly xeno­pho­bic.

Nei­ther ex­treme makes sense, nor should ei­ther be­come the ba­sis of a rea­soned, calm de­bate about the larger is­sues fac­ing Europe: how many peo­ple can the con­ti­nent ab­sorb with­out los­ing its his­toric cul­tural and eth­nic makeup?

Will such a large mass of peo­ple ar­riv­ing in so short a time be as­sim­i­lated into the norms and val­ues of Euro­pean democ­racy, in­clud­ing re­spect for gays, women and other mi­nor­ity pop­u­la­tions?

Will they em­brace the lib­eral sec­u­lar char­ac­ter of th­ese so­ci­eties, with their sep­a­ra­tion of re­li­gion and pol­i­tics?

In an opin­ion piece pub­lished in the New York Times on Jan. 9, Anna Sauer­brey, an editor on the opin­ion page of the Ber­lin news­pa­per Der Tagesspiegel, as­serted that “In­te­gra­tion will fail if Ger­many can­not re­solve the ten­sion be­tween its sec­u­lar, lib­eral laws and cul­ture and the pa­tri­ar­chal and re­li­giously con­ser­va­tive world­views that some refugees bring with them.

“We can­not avoid that ques­tion out of fear of feed­ing the far right,” she wrote. “But in­te­gra­tion will also fail if a full gen­er­a­tion of refugees is de­mo­nized on ar­rival.”

Th­ese are the ques­tions that need to be ad­dressed, and emo­tions in one di­rec­tion or the other, dic­tated by spe­cific events, should not af­fect the poli­cies of de­ci­sion-mak­ers in gov­ern­ments.

Henry Sre­brnik is a pro­fes­sor of political sci­ence at the Univer­sity of Prince Ed­ward


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