Monday, September 14, 2015

On refugees


Now streams of refugees from the Middle East are arriving in Europe – and many migrants from Africa as well, but in this blog I’ll ignore this, although the question is the same in many respects –. The first problem is, of course, how to receive them and how to take care of them. This logistic problem is immense and must not be underrated, also because some countries in Eastern Europe would like to get rid of the refugees rather yesterday than tomorrow. Have they forgotten that before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 many people from there has fled to the West and that they were always most welcome? They should remember the words of Alexis de Tocqueville in his Democracy in America: “The happy and powerful do not go into exile, and there are no surer guarantees of equality among men than poverty and misfortune.”
Once the refugees have arrived in their country of destination and have become settled a bit, another problem arises: integration. This seems to be the more difficult since many of the newly arrived have a different religion and social and cultural background than most of the inhabitants of their new fatherlands. On purpose I speak of “new fatherlands”, for in view of the present situation in the Middle East it is not likely that the refugees can soon go back home again; at least not in the years to come.
Integration is often difficult to realize, especially if it doesn’t regard just a few individuals or families but such quantities of people that come to Europe today, moreover almost within a short period. Integration is not an automatic process. One has to work on it. Many people think that it cannot and will not be successful. Is it true? It’s a never ending discussion, also in Germany, a country with many refugees and migrants, which was recently yet in the news because of protests against the arrival of new refugees. Happily, many Germans think differently about it and recently refugees from Syria and other countries in the Middle East were welcomed with applause and presents in Munich when they left the train. Will they succeed to integrate? As the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas underlined in an article a few years ago, problems of integration must not be denied but generally integration is successful. The problem is not so much the integration as such but those who  are afraid that traditional values will be undermined by the arrival of newcomers (see for the article). I don’t want to play down the problem of integrating people from other cultural backgrounds (and that’s much more than only different religious backgrounds). However, I just finished reading a book about the “fin de siècle” – the period around the year 1900 – in the Netherlands. In those days the towns had been overflowed with migrants from the countryside, like all countries in Europe then. Many people saw their traditional ideas undermined because of that. Also the introduction of many technological innovations at that time had this effect. People were on the move; ideas and values were changing. Later, during the famous 1960s we see a movement towards democratization and against the authoritarian structure of society. Many new ideas developed then are still practiced and honoured today. In the 1960s they were seen as an attack on everything “we” stood for. Now, fifty years later we live through new social changes caused by the introduction of the computer, the Internet, the smart phone, and so on, as a consequence of the digitalization of society. The way we get along with each other has changed, too, and also, for instance, the concept of friendship must be given an new interpretation (for many people today a “friend” has become someone who is on your friendship list on Facebook, even if it is no more than that and even if you never talk with him or her). Be it as it may, the best solution of the present problem of refugees would be, of course, an end to the wars in Syria and the Middle East. But how to do that?
What most people do not realize is that many states have been built on migration. Go back into history and see how people always have been looking for new places to live. Also during the past hundred years many people in Europe have moved and migrated and they settled elsewhere as a consequence of two world wars or simply looking for work.
I want to finish by quoting a few words by Max Frisch and then change them. Somewhere he said: “We asked for workers. We got people instead.” I want to make it this way: “We expected refugees. We got people instead”. Fugitives are seen as people in miserable circumstances that need help, but they bring also a lot with them. There are also philosophers among them; maybe a Descartes.

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