Refugees and Responsibility

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by Akio Matsumura

In his welcoming remarks at the United Nations General Assembly, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon drew attention to the plight of refugees fleeing Syria and the political and humanitarian challenges of and responsibilities for Europe’s leaders and citizens as more and more people seek safe haven. More than 4 million have fled Syria since 2011, and that number grows as you include those from Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries where it is safer to flee than stay put.

Southern and Eastern Europe — Greece, Italy, Hungary, Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia,  Austria, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Romania, Turkey, Poland, Germany – the countries who bear the large share of the burden on the receiving end, are no strangers to conflict, revolution, or dramatic change.

A September New York Times editorial asks Eastern Europe to remember its own past:

Even as Europe’s greatest refugee emergency since World War II grew more acute, prompting Germany and some other nations to temporarily shut their borders, European Union interior ministers failed on Monday to agree on even a limited mandatory distribution of refugees for resettlement among member states.

That tragic reaction was all the more shameful because those most adamantly opposed to quotas were some Eastern European countries that recently basked in and richly benefited from the embrace of their Western neighbors.

The Central and Eastern Europeans were not alone in their resistance, and there are explanations for their reaction. Most of the countries that were liberated from the Soviet yoke 25 years ago are still poorer than their neighbors and have not shed a sense of victimhood; many have never had large numbers of people from distant parts of the world on their lands; and many have only a limited familiarity with the crises of the Middle East.

All these things, however, are beside the point. The question before Europe’s national leaders is not whether they should welcome immigrants but how to cope with a massive and fateful rush that has put an inordinate burden on the European countries where refugees first arrive: Greece, Italy and Hungary.

Since the question is not if but how, we should ask ourselves how a country might mobilize its citizens for change of this scope. The political and economic space for decision making is tight in Southern and Eastern Europe. At moments like these, it is useful to think of what might enlarge this space.

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Inspiration for courageous action comes in many forms, but two traditionally useful founts have been religion and sudden dramatic events. Spiritual leaders can provide fresh perspectives on intractable political dilemmas, offering new approaches to old problems.

It is time I look back in my own memory: Two months after the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989, President Gorbachev hosted the Global Forum Moscow Conference at the Kremlin, where hundreds of spiritual and political leaders put their heads together to jointly tackle the world’s most difficult transnational threats.

Needless to say, by January 1990 the sudden disappearance of the Iron Curtain had energized the hundreds of world leaders who took part. The spirit of new hope made possible the extraordinary transcendence of the Sabbath at the closing ceremony inside the Kremlin, and encouraged eminent political and religious leaders from Eastern Europe and the Middle East to highlight the importance of human rights and openness.

One such leader was Grand Mufti Sheikh Ahmad Kuftaro of Syria, a powerful but independent figure in his country. At the Moscow Conference he stressed the need for reconciliation in a time of great change. (Grand Mufti Kuftaro later made an historic achievement in May 2001 when he accompanied Pope John Paul II into the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, Syria.) In other words, Syria’s religious leadership offered support to Eastern Europe in a time of great upheaval.

Twenty five years later, much of Eastern Europe has  been integrated into the European Union. Each new member added came after a political struggle, but each has made contributions to the union. Its current economic and political struggles notwithstanding, one strength of the EU has resided in its ability to act jointly to tackle the humanitarian crises in Africa and Balkan States.

Speaking before the U.S. Congress last week, Pope Francis said of the growing refugee crisis, both in the Americas and in Europe:

We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation…To respond in a way which is always humane, just and fraternal. We need to avoid a common temptation nowadays: to discard whatever proves troublesome.

While mid-September marks a time of much political fanfare as world leaders shake hands and say their piece in New York, it also marks the beginning of autumn. Eastern Europe is getting cold. The lives of children, and many others, are at stake. Like it or not, Europe’s leaders and its citizens have before them the responsibility to take swift, effective actions that integrate millions of new lives into their societies. Integration has been a difficult but ongoing process with the EU, and it’s time to take in some new members.

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