Are Europeans prepared to offer protection to non-Europeans? That is the central question in the refugee debate. The apparent reluctance to do so has everything to do with the fact that non-Europeans are regarded as outsiders. That is why it is important to remind people that Europe and refugees go together, like Bert and Ernie and Sesame Street. Recent history shows that Europeans have not always been opposed to refugees. Their protection is purely and simply a matter of self-interest.
During WWI, a million Belgians fled to the Netherlands. Most returned when the war was over, but not all. Virginie Korte-Van Hemel (junior justice minister from 1982 to 1989), for instance, is the daughter of Belgian musician and refugee Oscar van Hemel.
From 1933, many Germans fled to other European countries and to the United States (the Manns, relatives of Anne Frank, Albert Einstein) where, after the Anschluss in 1936, they were joined by Austrians (among them Sigmund Freud, who fled to London). The Spanish civil war (1936-1939) led to an exodus of Spaniards, most of whom ended up in France. Writer Jorge Semprun was one them.
Many fled from occupied countries to Britain, like Erik Hazelhoff Roelfzema (of film and musical Soldier of Orange fame) and the High Commissioner for Refugees Van Heuven Goedhart. A small number of Dutch Jews managed to flee to safety. After WWII, millions of refugees were milling around Europe, so many in fact, that a special International Refugee Organisation was founded to deal with them. There were displaced people, German minorities from Poland and Czechoslovakia (Günter Grass), Jewish survivors, and groups on the run from the Red Army.
A separate group came from the Dutch Indies and Indonesia to the Netherlands. They were ethnic Dutch or ‘Indo’s’ who fled the fighting of the war of independence (the Bersiap period, the police actions ). They were categorised as repatriates although many of them had never set foot in the Netherlands before, or hadn’t been there for a very long time.
Although many had Dutch nationality and couldn’t be classified as refugees they felt like refugees and their welcome in the Netherlands reflected that. One of Geert Wilders’ grandmothers and housing minister Stef Blok’s father came to the Netherlands as repatriates. In 1951, 12,500 Moluccan soldiers from the KNIL Royal Indonesian army were transferred to the Netherlands on the order of a Dutch court because their position in Indonesia was too precarious. They were treated as refugees although they weren’t included in the VN refugee treaty.
From 1945 to 1950 international relations became ever more tense. A slow but steady stream of refugees from the communist countries entered western Europe. More came after the communist take-over in Czechoslovakia (the father of human rights activist Boris Dittrich), the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 (junior minister Dzsingisz Gabor) and Czechoslovakia in 1968 (television presenter Martin Simek and tennis star Richard Krajicek).
Until 1975, refugees also came from countries with fascist regimes. Greeks, Spaniards and Portuguese who left for political reasons didn’t claim refugee status because it was easy for them to get residency permits as migrant workers.
Between 1992 and 1995, many refugees from the former Yugoslavia were given asylum in western Europe. In 1999, refugees from Kosovo also made their way to western Europe until Nato managed to put a stop to the incipient genocide of Kosovar Muslims with a military intervention against Serbia. Asylum seeker numbers and the problems of housing them were as great then as they are now.
We Europeans are all refugees. Modern history shows that we’ve had to seek refuge in and outside Europe on many occasions. It also shows that we managed to build a life for ourselves in our new home.
But the events of today uncovers something even more fundamental. Protecting refugees is not altruistic, it is a mutual insurance policy. I hope my house won’t burn down. But it might happen and so I pay my insurance premium every month. Meanwhile I hope that I won’t need that insurance but that someone else will profit from it. That seems altruistic but isn’t: I know I’m covered as well in the event something happens to me. Or, as footballer Marco van Basten is supposed to have said: when I play Germany I bet on a German victory. That way I can’t lose.
The same is true of refugee law. We, as members of the global community, have agreed to help each other out in times of trouble. If all we have to do is welcome refugees we should not complain but count ourselves lucky that we’re not the ones having to leave our country behind. And we know that if that sea level keeps rising our grandchildren will find a new home elsewhere, too.
This article appeared earlier in the NRC