Narcissistic guilt in the West is creating the lawless chaos of the migration crisis

... Refugee crisis. Budapest, Hungary, Central Europe, 3 September 2015

It is precisely because the rich Western nations, awash in their narcissistic guilt about the visible crisis, have had no rational plan or discussion that hapless people have been left out of the equation almost entirely.

Let’s stop accusing each other of lack of compassion, shall we? If we are sincerely interested in finding a solution to this horrendous migration crisis, then hurling insults is not going to help. Compassion is the beginning of this discussion, not the end. We all start from there. The next question should be: what would constitute a humane and just outcome?

Can I establish my credentials at the start, in the hopes of avoiding just the sort of incendiary fulmination that is wasting so much time and energy? I am the grandchild of refugees who fled from persecution and genocide in the last century. As such, I have pretty much limitless sympathy for those who are doing so today. I also believe that human progress is largely a story of the migration of peoples.

I am particularly favourable to the idea of economic migration: it is a testimony to individual courage, fortitude and endeavour and almost inevitably results in greater prosperity for the countries and populations which accept it.  None of what follows should be seen in any way as a repudiation of those views. On the contrary, what I am asking for is a proper argument rather than a phoney one.

In the midst of all the shrill noise, there is scarcely any useful conversation taking place about what is happening and how we might deal with it. This is quite extraordinary considering that there has never been a time in human history when there were more agencies and organisations dedicated to the cause of international cooperation and the welfare of the world’s peoples. The idea of moral responsibility, not just to those closest to us, but to the human race at large, has never had a more prominent place in political discourse.

And yet, somehow, we are managing to make an absolute mess of this. The august bodies in which so much hope and idealism were invested, the United Nations and the European Union, with their high-flown rhetoric about global accord and delivering the populations of the world from war and want, have been almost entirely useless. Nothing has slowed, or even adequately dealt with, the millions displaced by war, and the further millions who are, as they say, just “seeking a better life”.

Any proper moral debate must establish some basic premises. Otherwise we end up where we are: talking at cross purposes. It would be useful to get right down to the most fundamental questions.

It is precisely because the rich Western nations, awash in their narcissistic guilt, have had no rational plan or discussion that those hapless people have been left out of the equation

 Migrants queue on the third day of their evacuation and transfer to reception centers in France, as part of the dismantlement of the Jungle camp

What is the desirable end result? Do we believe that it is an unalloyed good thing to encourage huge tranches of poor or endangered people to abandon their own countries and settle, almost certainly permanently, in the rich parts of the world? Given that these migrants are likely to be among the strongest, healthiest, most highly motivated individuals in their unfortunate home countries, wouldn’t it be plausible to describe the diaspora as an abandonment of those who are most disadvantaged? Because the truth is that the men – and there is a great preponderance of young men – who arrive on Europe’s shores with smartphones having had enough cash to pay the people traffickers are not generally the most deprived or the most deserving of compassion.

In the Calais Jungle evacuation, it became clear that children had been left behind in the scrum, and the voluntary workers who had real knowledge of who was most needy were scarcely being consulted. It is a fairly sound assumption that men between the ages of 18 and 30 are in less potential danger than women and children under most circumstances – and that girls are in the greatest danger. It is surely those left behind in the hell holes created by civil war and despotism, who do not have the wherewithal or the insane willingness to risk their lives and those of their families, who should be the first in line for generosity.

It is precisely because the rich Western nations, awash in their narcissistic guilt about the visible crisis, have had no rational plan or discussion that those hapless people have been left out of the equation almost entirely. When Britain proposed taking families from the refugee camps on the Syrian border rather than illegally trafficked migrants from Greece and Italy, this was roundly condemned in the European Union as pure cynicism and a refusal to meet our obligations. 

What they meant was that it was unhelpful to the EU, whose chaotic handling of uncontrolled mass migration had got completely out of hand. In all the breast-beating and mutual recrimination, there has been almost no consideration of the consequences of this movement of the able-bodied and relatively affluent (with enough money to pay for their transport) out of what used to be called the Third World. What will become of those left to their fate among marauding warlords? It might be argued that we in the West have a greater responsibility for them since it was often our interventions that destabilised their countries.

There has not even been the universally agreed global action on the people-smuggling industry that should, by rights, be comparable to the slave trade in international ignominy.

Stamping out human trafficking should be among the top priorities in the migrant crisis

 In fact, dreadful as it is to have to say this, the charities whose ships wait just off the coast of Libya to pick up the smugglers’ desperate passengers could be described as aiding and abetting the crime. Stamping out this wicked trafficking in human life should be among the top priorities in the migrant crisis. At the very least, one would have expected the UN and the EU to have agreed on an effective programme of action for eliminating it, rather than simply “condemning” it and then picking up the detritus left in its wake.  

So where does this leave us? Unfortunately, history is not much help. The United States, famously “a nation of immigrants”, is not a useful model. When my grandparents arrived at the turn of the twentieth century, there was an established and rigorous procedure at Ellis Island – and it was not the unbounded open door that sentimental Europeans might think.

Immigrants queuing at Ellis Island in 1892

No one could be admitted to the US mainland from the island reception centre who might prove to be, as the rules put it, “a charge upon the state” either through mental unfitness or ill health. (Because my grandmother’s cousin had measles, the whole family was held in the quarantine centre until she was deemed non-infectious.) Perhaps more surprisingly, prospective migrants were not permitted to have pre-arranged jobs. This was to prevent the importation of cheap labour gangs into the country: if you wanted to come in, you had to take your chances for survival with the indigenous population. There would be no state support and no employment stitch-up.

The system was designed to stress independence and resourcefulness. Modern European societies with their extensive welfare provision and employment protection laws are a world away from this mentality. And, of course, those European entrants had paid for legal sea passages in steerage: they were not fodder for smuggling gangs. This was a well-supervised operation with rules and regulations, not lawless chaos. Now the US is deeply troubled by the sort of migration that is much harder to control: from Mexico and points south, the border with which (no matter what Donald Trump claims) is impossible to police. The lesson is, unsurprisingly, that there may not be easy solutions to this great mass movement of peoples but there are worse and better ways of dealing with the political pressures that it raises.

It is imperative that decisions are made – and stuck to – about what “dealing with migration” should mean: about what we want the end result to be. Otherwise it will remain a brutal fight to the front of the queue for those who may not be most deserving, and a collapse of trust in government and the rule of law which could undermine the most compassionate intentions.


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