Every so often events occur on the world stage which appear to capture the world’s consciousness beyond the immediate and transitory nature of such events. The fall of the Berlin Wall was one such. The simple act of hacking away and bulldozing large chunks of concrete in a city that most people would never visit had resonances on what might be termed the world’s moral structure. Some kind of reordering had taken place. I can remember hearing about it on the morning news as I was shaving in a small room in a Somerset conference centre. There have been other events that are similar, possibly Nelson Mandela’s walk to freedom, John F Kennedy’s assassination, perhaps the 9/11 attacks in New York. These are events which have not just a personal, nor a political, impact but also trigger a slight but real shift in what could be called our cultural morality. Seeing that wall come down, and the reaction of those Berliners whose city had been divided for so long, allowed a resetting of our moral compass, a slight but significant reordering of our value systems.
Of course this was not so for everyone, some who were ignorant of the event or simply so concerned with their sheer survival in a difficult world that such moments did not impinge on their consciousness. But for a substantial part of our world community these ‘moral events’ have had an impact.
Just last month I returned from a two week stay in SW France, a holiday of relaxation, reading and warmth. Returning via Calais on the channel ferry I was shocked to be greeted by a whole port surrounded by a high steel fence, topped with razor wire. The fence even extended some distance down either side of the AutoRoute that led to the port. I suppose I should not have been shocked, there had been much publicity in the media of the problems at the port and at the entry of the Channel Tunnel. Friends and acquaintances were always ready to tell horror stories about hijacked vehicles and desperate refugees attempting to find some way to cross over to Dover. No, I should not have been shocked but I was when I looked over to my right. Through the fence I glimpsed ‘The Jungle’, the name given to the large refugee encampment right alongside the AutoRoute. There was I coolly sliding through all the defences and barriers, confidant of a welcome once I had reached the UK. And there were thousands of my fellow human beings equally wanting a similar welcome. The image is still vivid in my mind and I struggle to know how to respond.
I know that thousands of volunteers from the UK have travelled to these encampments, helping out as best they can, bringing supplies donated from many communities throughout the UK. Others have travelled to the Greek islands, funding their own way there, seeking to respond to the humanitarian crisis that afflicts people fleeing from civil war, oppression or seeking to make a living for themselves and their families in less threatened parts of the world. I can, and have, donated and collected relief supplies. The action hardly seems to be enough but it’s the least that I can do.
I know all the arguments “our island is too overcrowded already”, “they should have stayed in refugee camps near their homeland”, “if we let them in it will only encourage others to make the journey”, ”most of them are young, male and economic migrants”, and horrifically “they only come so they can sponge off our benefits system”. Others have refuted all these prejudices so I have no need to do so here. What troubles me is the question: what is the ethical response to all this?
When the wall came down politicians and pundits opined that it would take ten years or more for Germany’s divided halves to be reunited. This seemed, for a while, to be a consensus until Chancellor Helmut Kohl, by no means a charismatic or idealistic leader announced that it would be done immediately. No prevarication, no worrying over what the implications, economic, social or political, would be. It was to be done because it was the right thing to do. Germany had been wounded for so long, the humanitarian response was to heal her, whatever the consequences. Later a successor to Chancellor Kohl, Angela Merkel responded in a similar way when the flow of refugees from war-torn Syria began to accumulate. We will take whoever wants to come”, she said. “We will welcome them”. I know there have been subsequent grumblings and protests about both decisions but that does not detract from the fact that these were moral decisions, expressing humanitarian values, not craftily calculated political expedients.
I have sensed that despite the pronouncements of many of our own political leaders – and the propaganda of the right wing dominated press – there exists in our own country a great unease at what is happening, or more accurately, what is not happening in response to the so-called refugee crisis. You could call it the conscience of the nation but clearly it is not all the nation. Nonetheless we, as a whole, seek to find the ethical pathway, not just the political steps, to resolve this painful crisis of human need. In the same way as we responded to the fall of the Wall, to 9/11 our collective moral consciousness has shifted. This is the time to do ‘what is right’.
To me this means commandeer all those ferries that transport all our imports and exports, our holidaymakers, our children on school trips and carry all those in ‘The Jungle’ and other such camps over the channel to join us here. Don’t count the cost, don’t listen to the prophets of despair -just do it. Our political leaders and administrators can work out the logistics from thereon. There are surely plenty of individuals and communities who would say ‘Refugees Welcome’. Most refugees will want to return to their own country once peace is restored, they will want to rebuild their homes and communities. But some will stay, Experience and history should reassure us that these remaining can be nothing but good for our country – think of the Huguenots, the Ugandan Asians, the Vietnamese boat people – all such influxes of refugees have had a truly positive influence on our nation and culture.
Now is the time to respond to humanitarian need with a human response and humans, as we have seen, sometimes react unexpectedly, selflessly and, in the end, with love. Now is the time to do it.
Andrew Chapman. October 2016
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