WASHINGTON, Sept. 6, 2015 — The tide of refugees washing across Europe has excited ugly passions and handed Europe’s hard right a political bonanza. The response suggests that Europeans have little room to sneer at the popularity of Donald Trump. When it comes to immigration, Europe is a big glass house.
The world response to today’s refugee crisis is reminiscent of responses during the Evian Conference of 1938. President Franklin Roosevelt convened, but did not attend, a conference in Evian, France, to discuss the refugee problem caused by Germany’s annexation of Austria. The Anschluss triggered an exodus of Jews, and that exodus put pressure on the U.S. to act.
It also triggered a strong response from isolationists and anti-immigration forces who wanted to keep the refugees—the Jews—out.
Roosevelt was warned that the U.S. was in no condition to accept refugees. Our economy was still depressed, and opponents didn’t want Jews competing with Americans for jobs. Rep. Thomas Jenkins declared, “He (FDR) forgets the cold winds of poverty and penury that are sweeping over the one third of our people who are ill clothed, ill housed, ill fed.”
Hitler, for his part, announced Germany’s willingness to let the Jews emigrate to any country that would have them. “I can only hope that the … world which has such deep sympathy for these criminals (Jews) will at least be generous enough to convert this sympathy into practical aid. We on our part are ready to put all these criminals at the disposal of these countries, for all I care, even on luxury ships.”
The conference was a failure. Switzerland refused even to host the conference; Romania refused to attend. The Australian delegate said, “We don’t have a racial problem and we don’t want to import one.” The Canadians said of refugees that “none was too many.”
Venezuela didn’t want to disturb its “demographic equilibrium,” and the Colombian delegate refused to admit that civilization would sink to a “terrible catastrophe.” The British were sympathetic, but their tiny island had no room.
Only the Dominican Republic was willing to accept large numbers of refugees, and its generosity was crippled by lack of resources. In the end, the German Foreign Ministry observed, “Since in many countries it was recently regarded as wholly incomprehensible why Germany did not wish to preserve in its population an element like the Jews … it appears astounding that countries seem in no way anxious to make use of these elements themselves now that the opportunity offers.”
The nations of the world today are as enlightened as they were 77 years ago. As they were then, the world’s nations are profoundly sympathetic to the plight of refugees. But, as then, we simply can’t afford to take them. Europe is concerned about its demographic balance, while Americans are concerned that the refugees include in their ranks criminals. Australia has chosen to house the refugees that arrive on its shores in camps on islands off its shores.
Those who oppose letting refugees onto their shores have no shortage of good reasons. Any rational national leader would want to know who these refugees are and where they’re coming from. Are there terrorists among them? Do they pose a security threat? How will we pay to house and assimilate them? Are they economic migrants, or are they genuine refugees?
Economic migrants flee from poverty, not violence, in search of better jobs and opportunities. The waves of migrants who built the United States were economic migrants, as were European settlers in Australia and South Africa.
Refugees flee their homes for their lives. By the end of 2014, there were 6.5 million displaced Syrians, 3 million of them refugees. Are there terrorists among them? Yes, and murderers and drug users and child molesters too.
But millions are people displaced by war: by bombings, by ISIS, by 1,001 ways to die. The Syrians who have fled their homeland haven’t headed to Europe in search of better jobs, but because ISIS, Iran, Russia, the U.S. and Syria’s own President Assad have made their country a hell, where to stay home is to court death.
Whether the people clamoring to get out of the Middle East are migrants or refugees, they won’t be easy to absorb. There are problems assimilating large refugee populations into your own country. Sweden has been very generous about letting refugees in, but once they’re there, there’s little for them to do beyond driving cabs. Swedes now joke that they have the best-educated taxi drivers in the world. The social welfare costs of Swedish generosity are huge.
The Gulf state leaders—kings, sheiks and strongmen—have cynically refused to accept any of these refugees. If we’re going to be like them, burn the Constitution, melt down the Statue of Liberty, accept that life is brutal and your leaders are worse, and be the worst that you can be.
We like our comfortable lives, and so do the Australians and the Germans. Anyone who makes us uncomfortable or threatens to draw on our resources belongs in a camp. That’s the idea of poorhouses; we get disutility from seeing poor people on the street, and they sometimes directly annoy us, and they’d really rather be among their own kind anyway, so put them away and everyone will be happier.
But this is still an excuse to keep refugees out and do nothing. If it were easy and costless to take refugees, countries wouldn’t worry about admitting them. It’s easy to be kind and generous when it costs you nothing and carries no risk, but that isn’t really kindness or generosity.
Whatever it is that makes America, Europe and Australia special, it isn’t our wealth, our scenery or our social welfare programs. If we’re afraid of losing what makes us special to a wave of refugees, we needn’t worry; we’ve already lost it.
If all we have left is wealth and security, there’s no reason that anyone else should care whether our nations live or die, and our existence is meaningless. If we’re too afraid of the risks to be good, too concerned about our own security to be generous and kind, then our country is nothing but a bank vault and a whited sepulcher. Let the barbarians have it; it might do them some good. It is doing us none.