Seeking Refuge

The refugee crisis in Europe is dire, and is about to become a whole lot worse with consequences that will affect the entire planet. Hong Kong, despite being a long way from the epicentre, is bound to be affected.

Already over four million Syrians have fled in panic from their own country because of the civil war there where everyone seems engaged in killing everyone else, including the Syrian government which has no hesitation in mass murder of its own people. In some diplomatic circles it is estimated that as much as 50 per cent of the population – perhaps 10 million people – could be on the verge of leaving.

Nor is Syria the only country where people live in fear either of their own government, or that of an adjacent country, or marauding bands of murderous thugs who cloak themselves falsely in religion. People from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and various countries in Africa have joined the exodus, some allegedly throwing away their identity documents to crawl under the blanket of sympathy for Syrians.

Most of the displaced are heading for Europe either directly, or from neighbouring countries where they took immediate shelter. And that fact actually brings us to the first point of controversy in how the rest of the world should respond. If an individual or family is now safe because there is no longer a well founded fear of persecution , is it still correct to call them refugees?

This question has already affected how the different countries in Europe have responded to the situation. Britain has said it will take 20,000 Syrian refugees by 2020 but only from the camps in the countries of first asylum. In other words, if you ran away to Jordan, or Lebanon or Turkey, and stopped as soon as you were no longer in danger, we will look into your actual circumstances and decide whether or not you qualify as a refugee.

At first sight that response seems half- hearted and inadequate. The number is far too low and the pace of resettlement far too slow, but it reflects political reality in Britain where there is considerable public opposition to mass immigration even when it is from the rest of Europe i.e. people of similar ethnicity, religion and outlook. But at least there is a certain logic to it.

Some countries in Eastern Europe have gone further and said they will take only a handful of refugees – "they don’t want to live in our country anyway" – and specified that they must be Christian. These countries have been accused of being Islamaphobic. It is an easy criticism to make, but once again it reflects political reality in those places. After all, their citizens argue, while it is true that the vast majority of Muslims are not terrorists it is undeniable that the vast majority of persons now instituting gruesome murders do proclaim themselves to be of that faith. Why should we let them in and risk disturbing the peace of our own communities?

The German response has been much praised as being more generous. Chancellor Merkel has talked of receiving 800,000 applications for asylum this year. But there is a danger that this very statement is acting as a magnet, attracting to Germany people who are already safe in Turkey, Greece, Macedonia and Hungary. The sight of "refugees" in Hungary demanding trains to carry them on into Austria must surely give pause for thought. The Danes have had to block roads to prevent persons already secure going on to Sweden which has a reputation for being even more generous than Germany. If the little boy whose tragic death by drowning helped spark the outpouring of sympathy had stayed in Turkey waiting for Mr Cameron’s slow rescue instead of listening to the siren call of Mrs Merkel’s promise of immediate help, might he still be alive? German public opinion, after an initial outpouring of sympathy, is beginning to have second thoughts.

We in Hong Kong have our own experience of a refugee flood so we are familiar with all these issues. The first wave from Vietnam after the civil war ended in 1975 was received with sympathy. They were mostly ethnic Chinese or those associated with the government of the south fleeing the northern victors. Local people could relate to their situation. But they were followed by thousands of people seeking a better life – so called "economic migrants" -- rather than political refugees. Then came poor people from North Vietnam, the winners of the war unwilling to live with the reality of their victory. They all wanted to go to America, which not surprisingly refused to take them. Eventually they had to go back, by force if they didn’t "volunteer".

A few hundred thousand was difficult enough to deal with. 10, 15 or 20 million is completely out of the question. The world stands on the brink of the abyss.