Deeply seared in the collective German psyche is the memory of the nine million or so displaced ethnic German civilians as the Second World War drew to a close.
As the boundaries of post-Third Reich Germany were redrawn at the Potsdam Conference of 1945, so a tide of human refugees was forced westwards from modern day Poland, Russia, Lithuania and Ukraine. My own mother, as a five year old girl, was one of this vast number having been forced to leave a village outside Breslau (now Wroclaw) where my forefathers had lived since the 1720s.
To a great extent this explains the decision of Angela Merkel’s Grand Coalition unilaterally to welcome 800 000 refugees from the war in Syria to German shores. Chancellor Merkel’s bold initiative was also designed as a safety valve since it has become abundantly clear in recent months that the Italian and Greek governments have totally lost control of the unmanageably large numbers of people reaching their shores and claiming asylum.
Whilst the Hungarian Premier, Viktor Orban, does not cut an especially sympathetic figure at the best of times, it is difficult not to feel some sympathy for his nation’s current plight. In recent months Hungary has been the recipient of vast numbers of Middle Eastern migrants who have been allowed through Greece, Macedonia and Serbia in flagrant breach of the Dublin Convention. Their numbers will now doubtless be swelled by the tantalising prospect of assurances of safe haven in Germany.
Mr Orban stands singly accused of racism, yet in the more far-flung corners of the European Union, such as Poland and the Baltic states, governments have already made it clear that they will give overwhelmingly strong preference to Christians fleeing Syria, Egypt and Iraq. He is also within his rights at the very least to question the legitimacy and providence of many of those turning up in Budapest and other central European cities. I fear it is not entirely fanciful to suggest that ISIS sympathisers might well be infiltrating this mass of refugee humanity with a view to obtaining asylum and becoming sleepers ready to agitate and foment terrorist activity in the West in the years ahead.
Meanwhile we need to recognise that the German government’s actions, whilst representing decisive leadership which has been so lacking in the EU over this issue, will also have collateral costs attached. The clear message has now been delivered to people traffickers and their hapless prospective clients that the Mediterranean waterways are open for business. Tragically the direct consequence of giving a green light and a clear route towards successful asylum in the EU’s largest economy is the acceleration of this appalling exploitation of some of the most desperate people.
It also poses a dilemma that our own government has wrestled with in the recent announcement that refugees will be taken exclusively from camps in countries adjacent to Syria. I fully support this decision. Migrants who pay people traffickers to ship them across the Mediterranean in order to engage themselves in the EU and international asylum bureaucracy are essentially trying to jump the queue using their financial resources – something which is utterly inequitable. Their plight is a dreadful one but is surely no more desperate than those in Jordanian, Turkish, Tunisian or Lebanese refugee camps. If we want to end the evil trade of people trafficking then we need to end the institutional incentives that our asylum rules provide for all those associated with this terrible trade in human misery.
I welcome the government’s acceptance of our international, moral obligation to take additional refugees. However, I also believe the UK’s global leadership in the sphere of international development is where our most lasting contribution to this crisis will shine through. It is clear that it will be several years before many fleeing war and conflict will be able to return to Syria or Libya. I trust – and this is the subject of future debates and articles – that we shall use our expertise and financial clout to help rebuild communities in these war-torn regions. In the meantime, we should also lead the way encouraging global companies to open operations adjacent to refugee camps where displaced persons might be gainfully employed whilst we try to forge some sort of stability in their homelands to allow them to return.