Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Are they not all the seas of God?

I've blogged about my family history before. My mother was born in Weimar Germany into a Jewish family in Düsseldorf. Soon the Nazis came to power. Things went from bad to worse to terrifying. Almost too late, my grandparents found a way of getting their two children into Britain. My mother was sent to this country as a teenager and began life all over again in England. She married here and five years after the war I was born. 

She crossed the sea as a refugee, and this country took her in and gave her asylum. The British record in welcoming persecuted Jews from continental Europe is not without ambiguities. Nor did all the refugees find as ready a welcome in Britain as had been hoped. But it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. When so many of her relatives and friends perished in the death camps, my mother survived. And that was thanks to this country that saw a need and tried to respond to it. It was in the spirit of a people for whom humanitarian care has mattered.

75 years later, Europe is facing the biggest refugee crisis since the war. This time the sea that is carrying hundreds of thousands of desperate, frightened people towards its shores is the Mediterranean. Many of them are fleeing vicious perscution and untold hardship, and have paid unscrupulous middle-eastern or north African people traffickers to cram them into vessels that are not seaworthy 50 metres from the shore. It is a dangerous voyage. Only the reckless or those who have abandoned all other hope would attempt it. The Italian search and rescue operation Mare Nostrum has saved no fewer than 150,000 refugees from the sea in just one year.

But incredibly, just when cooperation across Europe is so much needed to help these hapless refugees, Britain is refusing to support it. Yesterday's Guardian reported that 'British policy was quietly spelled out in a House of Lords written answer by the new Foreign Office minister, Lady Anelay: "We do not support planned search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean," she said, adding that the government believed there was "an unintended 'pull factor' encouraging more migrants to attempt the dangerous sea crossing and thereby leading to more tragic and unnecessary deaths...The government believes the most effective way to prevent refugees and migrants attempting this dangerous crossing is to focus our attention on countries of origin and transit, as well as taking steps to fight the people smugglers who wilfully put lives at risk by packing migrants into unseaworthy boats."'


It is hard to believe that such specious stuff can emanate from the Upper House. Indeed, it is not just specious but heartless. Can this be the same nation that acted in such a principled way in the 1930s? But it is an unintelligent response too because it seriously misreads the human psyche when life is under threat. The CEO of the British Refugee Council Maurice Wren was quoted yesterday: 'People fleeing atrocities will not stop coming if we stop throwing them life-rings; boarding a rickety boat in Libya will remain a seemingly rational decision if you’re running for your life and your country is in flames. The only outcome of withdrawing help will be to witness more people needlessly and shamefully dying on Europe’s doorstep....The answer isn’t to build the walls of fortress Europe higher, it’s to provide more safe and legal channels for people to access protection.' In today's Guardian Amnesty's UK director, Kate Allen, says: 'This is a very dark day for the moral standing of the UK. When the hour came, the UK turned its back on despairing people and left them to drown.'


I'm not pretending this is straightforward for any of us in Europe, especially those on the front-line in the south. But Britain simply cannot pass by on the other side. It would be an act of cynical, shameful neglect. The word 'unforgivable' has been used. To the British as members of the EU, what happens across the continent ought to be our proper concern, no less than the English Channel and the thousands in the Calais refugee camps who have made it across continental Europe and are ready to take the last big risk of passage into England. Far from shrugging the Mediterranean boat-people off as someone else's problem, we should be taking a lead in contributing our effort and resources to help.


It's a principle deeply embedded in the Hebrew Scriptures that we should care for the stranger who comes among us, especially the vulnerable and poor. I would not be here now if it weren't for this honourable humanitarian ethic of embrace. 'Are they not all the seas of God?' asked Walt Whitman. We owe it to those who are in such a terrible plight to make sure that when they are in peril on the seas off Europe, they will find through our willing minds and hands God's help and care that they need so much. We owe it to our fellow human beings not to turn our face away in this hour of crisis. 

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