Europe’s refugee crisis

Our common humanity must guide action to solve the refugee crisis in Europe and elsewhere

Kevin Rafferty finds inspiration in the pope's call to embrace human decency as world leaders continue to do too little, too late to help those marooned by war and hardship

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 September, 2015, 3:08pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 29 September, 2015, 3:09pm

Who remembers who Alan Kurdi was? His picture was splashed all over the world, a lifeless three-year-old in the arms of a policeman, or lying face down on the beach wearing a bright red shirt and blue shorts in those media prepared to face the grim reality of death for refugees.

For a short while, world leaders, shamed by the outcry from millions of ordinary people, declared that it must never happen again. The pope told parishes to take in a migrant family each. German Chancellor Angela Merkel generously promised to give asylum to any Syrian who reached Germany. Even US President Barack Obama, Australia's Tony Abbott and the UK's David Cameron belatedly agreed to take a few thousand more refugees.

READ MORE: Hong Kong needs code of conduct and mutual respect on refugees

Today, the situation has returned to an ugly normality. More than three million Syrian refugees are crowded uncomfortably in neighbouring countries such as Turkey and Lebanon, living on reduced rations because the UN does not have enough funds. About half the people of Syria are displaced because of fighting. The strongest and bravest of refugees, with Afghans, Eritreans and Somalis also swelling the ranks, find a way by boat and on foot to what they assume will be the paradise of Europe.

But Europe slams its doors again. European Union leaders last week pushed through a deal to share 120,000 refugees, a case of too few, too late, since, according to the UN refugee agency, almost 480,000 have arrived in Europe by boat. Four former Soviet satellites, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia, all voted against the deal, complaining about German bullying. The UK opted out completely.

Hungary claims it is defending Christian Europe against a latter-day Islamic invasion. Other opponents grumble that most of what they call "irregular arrivals" are economic migrants seeking a better life rather than real refugees. It is a difficult distinction. Ordinary people prefer to stay home rather than risk their lives, which is why this massive movement of people suggests something wretchedly wrong.

READ MORE: How Europe can learn from the hard lessons of Hong Kong's Vietnamese refugee crisis

Meanwhile, the US and its allies try, vainly so far, to stem the march of Islamic extremists across Iraq and Syria with air strikes. Russian President Vladimir Putin fans the flames with weapons and now soldiers to prop up the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. Now there is talk of Obama doing a deal with Putin that sees Assad as part of a solution rather than the problem.

The refugees are only a small part of a worldwide tsunami of turmoil threatening the planet, which includes climate change, environmental damage and the growth of determined terrorists, including Islamic ones, whose only real ideology is destruction.

All the issues are complicated but have one thing in common: the search for solutions is handicapped by short-sighted, stubborn and unimaginative world leaders, who care more about personal power than the plight of the planet.

Obama should ask Congress and himself whether the US proves itself "top dog" by seeking to control everything. Putin should ponder whether his legacy and Russia's global standing might be better enhanced in less muscular ways, through a quest for a more cooperative road.

President Xi Jinping should be looking for China to show that it is a great power through its civilising values that it can share with the world, not by force of arms or commercial might.

READ MORE: Pope Francis tells US Congress that America should reject hostility to immigrants

Is this just wishful thinking? My own far-fetched hope is that world leaders may reflect on the imaginative dreams of Pope Francis. In his short time as pope, Francis has tried to do away with the pomp and pageantry that previously attended the papacy and to show that his God embraces all humanity.

You don't have to believe all that Francis believes. But acceptance of his message that we are all refugees with a short time on this planet would be a step in the right direction as we seek a common solution for us and our great-grandchildren.

Kevin Rafferty was editor of The Universe, the UK Catholic newspaper