On the whole, modern man has no solutions. Those words of Alexander Herzen – written in exile in Twickenham in 1855 – apply with bitter accuracy to the refugee crisis now afflicting Europe.
As a matter of emotion, or moral sentiment, I entirely agree with Garvan Walshe’s most recent piece for ConHome, entitled “We must rediscover British hospitality, and welcome those fleeing Syria”.
I also agree with Ed West’s recent piece for the Spectator’s Coffee House site, entitled “Why don’t we launch a Kindertransport scheme for Syrians?” We ought to be ready to welcome into our own homes these people who may otherwise perish in leaky boats or airless lorries. As when Jews sought refuge in the 1930s, there is a moral imperative to make one’s spare room or one’s sofa available to people in far worse circumstances than one’s own.
But I observe the often repulsive comments below these pieces, and I recognise that our politicians face an insoluble problem. If we follow the promptings of our hearts, and welcome the present wave of refugees, will that not encourage yet greater numbers to brave the perils of the journey?
Germany’s generous response to the plight of Syrian refugees is condemned by countries further east for increasing the flow of people seeking a better, safer life in the rich economies of western Europe.
And while in logic, and also in law, there is a clear difference between a refugee, who has a well-justified fear of persecution, and an economic migrant, who is in search of a more prosperous life, may it not be difficult, in practice, to separate those two motives for trying to get here?
A writer in this morning’s Times points out that more than two-fifths of the 196,000 people who have claimed asylum in Germany so far this year are from countries in the western Balkans: Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Kosovo and Serbia. They are fleeing poverty rather than war.
Only a few months ago, I travelled the length and breadth of our own country for ConHome during the general election, and spoke to many voters, usually people in quite modest circumstances, who are furious with our political class for allowing (as these voters see it) excessive immigration.
Here was an unacknowledged theme of the recent election. Labour in particular suffered from appearing to deny the anger this issue roused in many of its traditional voters. But one cannot pretend the Conservatives were spared that anger. UKIP gained votes from people determined to protest against both main parties.
In a consoling column for the Times, Matt Ridley has suggested it is likely that “the spasms of violence causing surges of migration from poor countries will have died away by mid century”.
But mid century seems just now to be rather a long way off, and an uncertain prospect. Our politicians cannot afford to wait that long to work out what to do. Nor can the refugees.
And another phenomenon is this morning detectable: the resentment of the generous. According to the Times, “Germany has rebuked David Cameron over Britain’s failure to take its fair share of migrants entering Europe, threatening to dash his plans to win back powers from Brussels.” So at least says Stephan Mayer, a spokesman on home affairs for Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union. Merkel herself called yesterday for “a fair distribution of refugees”.
Germany is certainly taking more migrants than we are. But this should not be regarded as an act of unalloyed altruism: the German economy needs more workers than are being born in Germany.
There is a journalistic convention according to which, at the end of a piece like this, one suggests, in conveniently few words, that the problem is in fact capable of being resolved, if only the politicians who are tackling it can be persuaded to take more enlightened views and follow more enlightened policies.
But a retreat into the higher wisdom would on this subject be an evasion. The truth is that there are far more refugees who want to come here than it would be practicable to accept. There is no short-term solution to this problem. We must do what we can to alleviate suffering, and to co-operate with other countries.
But there isn’t some grand European answer, in which we reach an entirely equitable sharing of the burden. Politicians in each country will have to convince their own electorates that the national policy is the right one, or the least bad. If Britain is to be more generous, that has to be a British decision.