Europeans Weren't Always So Hostile to Refugees

Europeans would do well to set their deep-seated public anxiety aside and realize that the current situation in the Mideast is not dissimilar to their own history.

AFP

Some 800 refugees lost their lives in the Mediterranean Sea this week. While this has prompted calls for the European Union to do more to deal with the refugee crisis created by the current turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa, voices on the far-right have demanded that Europe do less.

Among them was Katie Hopkins, a popular columnist with U.K. tabloid "The Sun," who has over half-a-million followers on Twitter. Shortly before the latest tragedy, she wrote a column in which she described these migrants as “cockroaches” and “feral humans,” suggesting outrageously: “What we need are gunships sending these boats back to their own country.”

Though this rant is undoubtedly racist, Hopkins – and the European anti-immigrant right wing in general – also tap into deep-seated public anxiety toward the violent upheavals and conflicts taking place in the Middle East, which many fear refugees might bring with them.

For some on the far-right, "refugees" and “asylum seekers” have become dirty words, terms of abuse and subjects of hate. While right-wing nationalists may claim to be defending their heritage and tradition, in their attitudes to refugees they are actually betraying it.

Europeans weren’t always so hostile toward those fleeing war and conflict. During World War I, the Netherlands welcomed so many refugees that the Germans saw it necessary to construct a 200-kilometer-long fence along the Belgian-Dutch border in an effort to curb the influx of Belgians pouring from the German occupation into neutral Holland.

Known as the Wire of Death, it was the world’s first-ever high-voltage electric barrier. Built at a time when Europeans were largely unaware of electricity and its attendant dangers, the fence claimed hundreds of victims who were unaware of how deadly it was or were desperate enough to risk death to cross the border.

Many generations on, the vast majority of Belgians, including my wife and myself, are unaware that such a deadly barrier ever existed and almost no physical signs remain. In fact, I still remember clearly the first time I “crossed” between Belgium and Holland and my wife (girlfriend, at the time) challenged me to identify the border. As the two countries flow so seamlessly into each other, I failed.

It was not just the Dutch who gave refuge to their unfortunate Belgian neighbors. Even though Britain is famed for its oft-isolationist island mentality, it was, during World War I, home to a quarter of a million Belgian refugees, including the king and the government in exile, many of whom were housed in purpose-built villages.

Unlike today’s image of asylum seekers as being spongers and cheats, these refugees were regarded as heroic and people wanted to help the “plucky Belgians." It would be welcome if, instead of shirking its responsibilities, Europe rediscovered this spirit and took in more refugees today.

To understand the fundamental shift in attitudes over the ensuing decades, one needs to delve into the nature of contemporary Europe. It's not just a matter of selfishness and ill-will but also a question of profound misunderstanding.

It is said that the past is a foreign country, and the Europe of war and near-annihilation has become just that – a distant memory which only the oldest of Europeans has partly experienced first-hand. When viewed from the peaceful, still-largely prosperous and borderless European Union, the madness and mayhem in the Middle East and Africa seems inexplicable and barbaric, and this makes it far easier to blame the victims for the situation they find themselves in.

But the Europe of the First and Second World Wars resembled the contemporary Middle East to a frightening degree – except Europe was deadlier still.

While an estimated 3 million Syrians have fled the war that's ravaging their country, the situation is not unprecedented. A century ago, there were over 10 million refugees in Europe, while World War II resulted in tens of millions of displaced people.

A century ago, Belgium, like Syria today, was a devastated nation of refugees and internally displaced people. Some 1.5 million Belgians fled to neighboring countries, and possibly as many again sought refuge from the fighting in other parts of the country. And this was in a country of just over 7.5 million inhabitants.

To Europeans, another inexplicable aspect of the contemporary Middle East is the horrendous levels of mindless killing and blood-letting, which leaves the impression that our region has a unique bloodlust.

Though comparative carnage is a rather macabre undertaking, it is nonetheless a useful exercise to highlight, both to Europeans and Middle Easterners, that the current situation is not unique and, hence, can eventually be overcome.

While the carnage and destruction in Syria and the wider region today is horrendous and troubling, it pales in comparison with the butchery that took place on the Western Front, where the average trench soldier was expected to hold onto life for just six weeks.

Despite the tens of millions of Europeans who perished in the two world wars, Europe was able to turn over a new leaf in its history and herald in an extraordinary era of peace and coexistence.

It is inevitable that the fire engulfing our region will eventually die down. I only hope that it happens sooner than it did in Europe, and that, out of the rubble of conflict, we draw similar lessons to those of the architects of the European Union, and construct a frontierless Middle Eastern Union.

Khaled Diab is an Egyptian-Belgian journalist, blogger and writer who has lived, studied and worked in the Middle East and Europe and is currently based in Jerusalem. His book "Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land" was published by Guardian Shorts in October 2014. Follow him on Twitter: @DiabolicalIdea