Opinion: Refugees Welcome? Britain, Germany and the Refugee Crisis

First published on Fair Planet, 4 March 2016

‘Refugees Welcome’ has been revealed as Germany’s official ‘Anglicism of the Year’ for 2015. A panel of judges, mostly linguists, confers each year to choose the English word or phrase that has most influenced Germany. But what is really in it?

‘With Refugees Welcome’, the panel explained, ‘Germans both overcame the immediate barrier to communicating with the refugees and, almost inadvertently, showed their cosmopolitan, outward-looking attitude.’

Rally in Leipzig, Germany to make refugees welcome
A Refugees Welcome protest in Leipzig, Germany, September 2015                                               Judith Vonberg

It’s ironic that while Germany is celebrating an English phrase signalling tolerance and open-mindedness towards refugees, England itself is closing its minds and borders to the same people. It might be our phrase, but the Germans have taught us its meaning.

If you happened to be waking up from a years-long coma, though, and heard the rhetoric of moral superiority that flows freely from the tongues of our politicians while discussing the refugee crisis, you could be forgiven for thinking it was Britain putting the rest of Europe to shame.

‘This is about meeting our humanitarian responsibilities, and demonstrating that ours is a country – which it is – with a moral conscience,’ boasted Prime Minister David Cameron during a debate in early September last year.

‘We are proposing that Britain should resettle up to 20,000 Syrian refugees over the rest of this Parliament,’ he announced. ‘In doing so, we will continue to show the world that this is a country of extraordinary compassion, always standing up for our values and helping those in need.’

Constant allusions to Britain’s ‘proud’ history of welcoming refugees allow Cameron and others to follow the claim with a token gesture towards today’s crisis. Such statements imply that Britain already holds the moral high ground among the European nations and deceive listeners into believing that this new commitment is truly a continuation of a long and noble tradition.

Many of Cameron’s listeners in the House of Commons were not deceived, calling the figure of 20,000 over five years ‘inexcusable’ and ‘woefully inadequate’. Yet the claim itself, that Britain is ‘a country of extraordinary compassion, always standing up for our values’, is rarely interrogated.

Kindertransport statue, London Liverpool Street; symbol of showing welcome to vulnerable refugees
Statue dedicated to the Kindertransport at Liverpool Street Station, London                         Judith Vonberg

Britain’s Kindertransport rescue policy, tirelessly invoked as a sign of Britain’s tolerance and moral integrity, was only pushed through thanks to lobbyists and a few courageous politicians in a general climate of suspicion and anxiety. To claim that Britain’s role in saving 10,000 children from the Holocaust is evidence of Britain’s history of welcoming the vulnerable makes a mockery of the truth: that many ordinary Britons and parliamentarians were opposed to the idea.

Furthermore, Britain’s countless, often horrific transgressions during the colonial period, which would quickly collapse David Cameron’s narrative of British history if dwelt on, are generally ignored by politicians, the media and school history lessons. So much so that a recent YouGov poll found that 44% of respondents were proud of Britain’s history of colonialism, while only 21% regretted that it happened.

This is a public ready to believe that Britain’s moral conscience is both deep-rooted and alive and well today, a public willing to accept a potted, rose-tinted story of our nation’s history and to read Cameron’s response to the Syrian crisis as the next chapter in a tale of virtue.

There is no amount of rose-tinting that could disguise the horror in Germany’s history. Merkel and her colleagues do not have the luxury of platitudes like ‘long and honourable tradition’ or ‘proud history’. Instead, they know that action, now, is the only acceptable response.

A few weeks after Cameron’s announcement, Merkel made a rousing speech to the German parliament packed with active verbs, calling for ‘national, European and global exertion’. The government will ‘do its utmost on every level’ to ensure the necessary decisions are taken and implemented, she said. ‘For who, other than us, would have the strength? I am convinced that we will succeed.’

Unable to retreat to comfortable rhetoric and smug clichés about her nation’s history, Merkel has embraced the chance to make uncomfortable, but morally inspiring decisions. To say ‘refugees welcome’ is easy. But without taking action to make it happen, it is meaningless.

‘The right hon. Gentleman says that he is going to take in 20,000 refugees over five years,’ Sir Gerald Kaufman MP told the house in that September debate. ‘The Germans took in 10,000 on one day. What kind of comparison is that?’

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