Emotions rule when dealing with refugees
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