A Sense of Perspective

I think it is well past time for some perspective to kick in.

The really big news of last week was the report from various agencies that up to one million people were thought to be waiting in North Africa for the chance to migrate to Europe.

If anything approaching that number do set off to make the journey, the consequences for that continent – indeed conceivably for the whole world – will be earth shaking.

Here in Hong Kong we have experience of large scale refugee flows. After the second World War and again periodically thereafter under the influence of events in the mainland, Chinese from all corners of our country flooded in. They mostly were allowed to stay and immigration control did not begin in a serious way until the 1970s and the end of the "touch base" policy.

Next came ethnic Chinese fleeing Vietnam following the communist victory in that country’s war with America. Most Hong Kong people were sympathetic as they could understand the motivation, and some readers may recall the brilliant award-winning film "Boat People" directed by Ann Hui.

A later wave from the same source, but this time comprising predominantly ethnic Vietnamese people, did not evoke the same response here. After all, many of those arriving had fought for the communists – they were the original "men in black pyjamas" – and paradoxically they now wanted to go to the USA to enjoy the good life.

America wouldn’t take them as it saw correctly they were essentially economic migrants (and from the enemy at that) but at the same time strongly opposed the idea of Hong Kong sending them back. Since our foreign policy at that time was decided by the British, who took their lead from Washington, our citizens were essentially forced to grin and bear it.

Now carry this mishmash of conflicting emotions over to the Africa/Europe situation and it doesn’t take a genius to see the emerging crisis. On the one hand, nobody likes to see people especially children drowning as flimsy vessels sink at sea. From Libya, and other countries to the south and in an arc round to Syria and further afield, they are fleeing from failed states, societies that have basically ceased to function. So there is a surge of humanitarianism. On the other hand, most of those concerned are poor and of a totally different culture, a heavy burden on the communities they aim to be a part of.

There is a religious element too: there are even reports that the conflicts from their homelands have carried over into the boats carrying them to Europe, with murders en route. Why should such people deserve succour? In countries already suffering from high unemployment and austerity, which governments are going to be brave enough to offer to house the new arrivals? There are already political parties in all the major democracies reflecting citizens’ concern in this area. Some members of course are overtly racist and even neo-Nazi, but many supporters are just ordinary people concerned for their own families’ welfare and safety.

Let’s face it, when large numbers of people -- some of them armed -- arrive somewhere uninvited, that’s called an invasion. Hell, it is an invasion.

A soft policy – aside from being political suicide – invites even larger numbers to come, and also brings in human trafficking with all the attendant abuses.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has opted to go tough – indeed he even won the last election partly on a platform of promising to turn back the boats. Instead of automatic entry to his country, new arrivals are sent off to camps elsewhere while their case for political asylum is assessed. As a consequence the numbers arriving have dropped sharply, and the human traffickers are basically out of business: who after all is going to mortgage his soul in order to sweat for years in a rather rudimentary camp in Papua New Guinea.

There are no easy answers here and I certainly have no magic wand to wave to generate one. Both soft and hard policy options have their critics and have pluses and minuses.

But one thing is certain. Compared to the human tragedy unfolding in the Mediterranean, the damp squib of Hong Kong’s political reform proposals unveiled last week is pretty small beer.