Migrants, Immigrants, Refugees, Asylum Seekers

Refugee children in Traiskirchen, Lower Austria

Refugee children in Traiskirchen, Lower Austria

“Migrants”, “immigrants”, “refugees”, “asylum seekers”: these are the last words I hear at night as I switch off the news and the first I read in my morning paper. For several decades now, I have been dealing with what in German is euphemistically called “Exilmusik” or “the music of exile”, glibly eliding every musician murdered in camps, or who died before “The Final Solution” or who remained as an object of persecution, into a single genre. “Exilmusik” thus only partially defines the amplitude of 20th century music history, and the question of “exile” in general leaves me wondering if there are parallels to be drawn to the crisis we see unfolding today. Is a refugee from Sub-Saharan Africa the same as a refugee from Syria or Libya? Weren’t Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi racism fundamentally “European” and therefore easier to absorb? And what does “European” even mean today? Are European values so very different from those of the “hordes” waiting to cross the English Channel, the Rio Grande or find a roof over their heads in provincial Austrian communities? We have been here before and it’s worth having a quick summary of arguments that may help us draw some wisdom from the past.

0,,18405673_401,00[1]

The first thing to recognise is that most refugees – contrary to official propaganda – wish to remain in their countries-of-refuge, even if their homelands return to stability. Ask the daughter of Austrian composer Hans Gál why he did not return when offered a job at Vienna’s conservatory immediately after the war. She’ll reply that his young family was settled in Edinburgh, Vienna was destitute and damaged, the position he was offered was not as good as the one he held before Exile, or as well paid as the one he had at Edinburgh University. Nearly all music refugees write about returning; all of them complain that inadequate opportunities were made available, and all feared that stability was a mere chimera. A few idealists returned because they felt strongly bound to their country of origin and wanted to fight prejudice from the inside. Others found it impossible to make a living in their countries-of-refuge and returned to professions they could only carry out in their homelands. Many, however, were stuck in the situation of simply not being able to afford to return. Who was going to pay for passage back to Berlin or Prague from Lima, Mexico City or Manila? The argument that refugees turn into immigrants before becoming citizens is a definite tick in the box of xenophobes who argue against letting them arrive in the first place. Disregard all politicians who try and calm things down by stating that the intake “is only temporary”.

Man in yarmulke praying with girlfriend

Man in yarmulke praying with girlfriend

The other box that xenophobes tick, and is clearly true, is that generations that follow on from immigration are the ones that often place the most cultural difference between themselves and the country in which they have grown up. Most Jews with the means and contacts to get out of Nazi infected Europe were less observant than their children and grandchildren who suddenly found in religion an identity their grandparents and parents had gone great lengths to shed. As someone on the radio mentioned the other day, “many of the young people wearing niqabs and burqas come from families where the mothers wear jeans and no head covering.” What do we learn from this? Difference is attractive, exotic and appealing, when assimilation and social conformity is demanded. It’s not just Jews or Muslims. The children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Irish, Scandinavian or Italian Americans are more unapologetic about their origins than their forebears. Difference can be celebrated at an Irish pub in Chicago, or feared on a London street at the sight of a bearded South Asian carrying a backpack. Fear of difference engenders difference. The unfriendly gawps directed towards the young woman in a burqa or the bearded young Muslim headed to the gym only entrench their disregard for conformity and another xenophobic box gets ticked.

24492ba9bc9ecfab6b95deecc1862c75[1]

Isolation also engenders difference and more than difference, it engenders the need for cultural consolidation. Probably no school is as American as the American Schools found outside of America. Nobody celebrates the Fourth of July or Thanksgiving like Americans living abroad. Living in Vienna, the second largest location of the UN after New York, one sees the international ghettos that have sprung up. These, however, are middle-class professional ghettos of people who have lived in Austria for decades, but speak no German, openly dislike the locals and keep themselves to their own communities. They run their own schools and churches and because they’re all professional and highly educated, nobody bats an eyelash. When I recorded with Geneva’s Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, the situation was even more pronounced as the city is that much smaller than Vienna. What surprises is how many refusniks-to-assimilation choose to remain following retirement. It would seem that the xenophobe thinks “No-to-assimilation!” is bad among poor immigrants, but remains indifferent to it when carried out by those euphemistically classified as “non-domiciled”. This amounts to a half-tick in the xenophobe box.

A park in London

A park in London

Where is this leading? It’s recognition that xenophobes have an argument that is impossible to dismiss. But it also recognises that simply refusing to take in refugees/migrants or immigrants, is as impossible as King Canute ruling against the tide. Let’s also put to one side the differentiation between “political refugees” and “economic migrants”. When Great Britain gave Hitler the go-ahead to absorb the Sudetenland, Communists and Social Democrats were issued visas by London Whitehall officials as “Political Refugees”. Jews, on the other hand, who had lost their livelihoods following the Nazi take-over, were seen as “economic migrants”. This merely proves that with the distance of time, there is little that distinguishes the two categories. The inevitability of a world on the move is a tick that goes in the box of the anti-xenophobes. It’s recognition of the truth that a global world has global mutuality and that today, even the most remote tribesman is aware of the option of sanctuary abroad if persecuted at home.

52d512d36[1]

What follows is far more complex, but human compassion must not be excluded when making even the most difficult practical decisions. The relatively tiny state of Lower Austria is trying to accommodate an influx of several hundred refugees arriving every single day. At the moment, they’ve been inadequately concentrated in a single “concentration camp” that cannot accommodate the 4000+ there already, let alone those who keep coming. And in this case “concentration” and “camp” are the right words – at least when taken independently: they are concentrated into a single location and only have tents to sleep in.

Tent-City in Traiskirchen Lower Austria

Tent-City in Traiskirchen Lower Austria

When asked why they were not being distributed throughout the state where more facilities could be found, I was surprised at the reaction of the vox pop. The Lower Austrian town of Tulln (population 15,000) has no refugees, and Austrian Television (ORF) wandered about a market asking what the locals thought. Only one said that under no circumstances should refugees be accommodated in Tulln. Everyone else (five or six interviewees of varying age and gender), showed astonishing compassion and a willingness to find a solution. These were rural Austrians speaking in local accents, munching sausages and drinking beer – not a bien-pensant among them.

Refugees in Traiskirchen

Refugees in Traiskirchen

Politicians listen to those who shout loudest, and often disregard what people actually think. Following 1933 and 1938, anti-Semites shouted loudest, but the man and woman on the street wanted to help, and there were countless accounts of kindness being offered in the teeth of officialdom. Knowing what we now know, Britain’s refusal to take more than 70,000 Jewish refugees was scandalous, as was America’s inability to fulfil its quotas or Canada’s refusal to take Jews at all, ultimately accepting only some 5,000 in the 1930s. One could argue that the relatively smooth integration of Jewish refugees post-war was a result of their numbers being kept small. In retrospect, we know that this argument needs to be weighed against the six million who were murdered. A practical solution must be to allow small groups of refugees to integrate throughout European communities. Small groups do integrate more easily – no denial – and compassion is more easily felt towards individuals than the un-washed masses huddled together in their refugee camps.

More refugees in Traiskirchen

More refugees in Traiskirchen

The other ‘killer-argument’ of the xenophobe is that once stability is reached in their countries of origin, they refuse to return. This is an iniquitous argument and I refer readers back to the position taken by Hans Gál. What is there to return to? Are countries-of-refuge truly prepared to lose the contributions of those who have resettled and re-established themselves? Of all the disturbing stories I have read lately, the one regarding Afghan orphans who are returned to Afghanistan after being raised in Great Britain by foster parents is the most distressing. At present, some 600 have been returned, and 500 are still on the deportation list – each story as worrying as the one linked above. The world was outraged when Mrs Merkel told a young girl who was to be deported, “Germany couldn’t take in everyone” – including the young girl who did well at school and spoke perfect German. Ultimately, the young girl was allowed to remain, but she was emblematic of the humanitarian problem that the tabloid press exploits in order to raise fear and sell papers. Politicians in Western Europe and America should do what is right, especially as the refugee crisis is partially a result of the instability following Western attacks on Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. As with Hans Gál’s daughter, it would be out of the question to suggest that a child return to the country from which their parents had fled. Children who grow up in countries-of-refuge do not see their situation as temporary, but as permanent. An orphan, who by definition has no family support, returned to his or her “homeland”, unable to speak the language and unversed in local customs is an outrage and inevitably a loss to the country-of-refuge.

Mrs Merkel and refugee child

Mrs Merkel and refugee child

If integration is the key, then barriers to integration need to be torn down, and they need to come down from both sides. Local customs, whether social (arranged marriage and female genital mutilation), or religious (homophobia or misogyny) can have no place in the new world-order where mutuality and tolerance are required. In a pluralistic society, personal faith needs to be kept outside of the public realm. Every individual has a right to belong to a religious confession. Many people see their individuality exclusively in their faith. They wear crosses, yarmulkes, headscarves or turbans. They also have a right not to belong to a religious confession, and indeed, it is often the reason for their exile in the first place.

The faces of London today

The faces of London today

When does individual religious expression overstep the mark? The French think it’s the wearing of veils and burqas. The British are more tolerant, and it’s difficult to say which country has the greater integration crisis as a result. The British maintain that their Muslim minorities are better integrated than the French, whereas in certain parts of Germany, it’s quite impossible to tell who’s of German parentage and who comes from a Turkish background. One thing is for sure, when a refugee is in need of refuge, religious expression is rarely their first priority. The photos of lower Austrian refugees, inadequately huddled together in the “concentration camp” of Traiskirchen, show few men and women in full Islamic splendour. Religion, as a marker of social differentiation, generally comes later, during the integration process. For those who fear immigration will lead to “the Islamisation” of Europe, I can only hope that the state is able to legitimise itself by remaining neutral and secular. It must in essence become intolerant of religious intolerance.

Security at a London Jewish school

Security at a London Jewish school

Personally, I feel it is a mistake to hand the education of children over to religious organisations. Every religious confession professes “values” that inevitably and frequently stand in opposition to the secular values necessary for mutual tolerance. It is too often a means of the State off-loading its responsibilities to outside organisations. I have little faith in a minister for education who tells me that Anglican/Jewish/Catholic/Islamic schools are perfectly acceptable as long as they teach sex-education, the equality of men and women and acceptance of different sexual orientations. It simply doesn’t follow and conspicuously underlines the fact that so-called “British” values stand in stark opposition to what religious leaders of all faiths openly proclaim. If everyone is a citizen, but only a few are members of any given faith community, then it stands to reason that the state, which presides over everyone, must take ultimate responsibility as to how future generations are educated. One need only look at the issues still plaguing Northern Ireland to see how ineffectual faith-schools are in creating a tolerant society.

IRA...Catholic school children play under the shadow of IRA graffiti in the Republican area of Twinbrook in West Belfast, Northern Ireland, Friday, February 4, 2000. The writing refers to the current decommissioning issue which has put the Northern Ireland peace process in trouble due to the failure of the IRA to start decommissioning its weapons. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison)

IRA…Catholic school children play under the shadow of IRA graffiti in the Republican area of Twinbrook in West Belfast, Northern Ireland, Friday, February 4, 2000. The writing refers to the current decommissioning issue which has put the Northern Ireland peace process in trouble due to the failure of the IRA to start decommissioning its weapons. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison)

So, if the present demands lessons from the past, what are they? Personally, I see the following as at least a partial guide:

Humanity demands compassion and anything less amounts to murder. At the same time, taking in vast quantities of refugees can only be done when shared across wider communities so that smaller groups are integrated rather than large ghettos created. And finally, that religion is kept strictly within the private sphere. If rational, secular values are upheld, there should be no fear of religious domination creeping in from one side or the other. Sensible measures should be taken in the display of religious adherence. As frequently pointed out, if men were to wear full face covering, it would instantly be seen as a security risk and outlawed. There is a reason why motorcyclists take off their helmets when they enter banks and petrol stations.

comic-cover[1]

Most of this article is anecdotal, and unapologetically offers little beyond personal thoughts and observance. So I’ll end with one further observation: while travelling in the United States, I was astonished how in large cities such as Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco, very little outward religious display was seen – certainly far less than seen on the streets of any British city. And yet, America is the most religious country I visit these days. No society is immune to nut-cases and the United States has more than its fair share, but the space of the country appears to allow a more painless integration process than in Europe. I obviously can’t know what happens behind the closed doors of these seemingly happy Americans when they go home: has the young girl in tight jeans jiving with headphones undergone female genital mutilation? Are the happy couples one sees wearing beach-shorts and flip-flops, pushing baby strollers through shopping centres, in an arranged marriage? All of these things are possible, but seem unlikely in a country that appears to be able to integrate its newcomers more easily and seamlessly than in Europe. The secret is the ability to be, and accept, an identity that is an adjunct to being American: Irish-American; Chinese-American; Norwegian-American and so on. It’s easy in a country where only a few generations back, everyone’s ancestors came from somewhere else. The “Americanisation” of the world is not just the fashion for comfortable cloths, junk-food and laid-back music, but also the fact that everybody, including the Navaho, Apache and Cherokee, originally come from a different culture and all make a contribution to the greater culture in which they live today. It’s something that Europeans are taking too long to comprehend, but it’s the way the entire world is now developing.