Brian Wilson: ‘Most of us were foreigners once’

It’s time for leadership, not fear, and Pope Francis is showing us the way, writes Brian Wilson

A migrant family disembarks from a government-chartered train in Germany. Picture: Getty Images
A migrant family disembarks from a government-chartered train in Germany. Picture: Getty Images

The sight of Pope Francis addressing the Washington multitude in Spanish reminds us of a basic truth – that borders are of limited value when competing with economic imperatives and human aspiration.

A substantial proportion of those who heard the Pope’s words in their own first language would have been “illegals”, who first found their way into the United States without conforming to the rules of immigration. Many would have been encouraged to come, as the source of cheap labour.

“We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners,” Pope Francis told Congress, “because most of us were once foreigners. I say this to you as the son of immigrants, knowing that so many of you are also descended from immigrants”.

He pointed out the simple truth that, from Latin America, great numbers “travelled north in search of a better life for themselves and their loved ones, in search of greater opportunities”. And then the personally challenging question: “Is this not what we want for our own children?”

Without minimising the practical challenges that Europe is having to deal with, the Pope’s words create an equally necessary perspective. Migration is as old as humanity itself and always the imperative is the search for a better future. “Is this not what we want for our own children?” And, if so, why would we deny it to others?

It may be ironic that, in order to discover the foothills of the American dream, migrants from elsewhere in that hemisphere have long flocked from countries in which the United States had an appalling record of supporting the very regimes that abused human rights and prolonged their circumstances of poverty.

But irony does not feature in such calculations. The people now seeking entry to Europe are, inevitably, a combination of those fleeing danger and others simply seeing the chance of greater opportunity. It is a difficult distinction to draw and the dividing lines are not always clear. The unifying point is that their claims deserve to be managed with respect, rather than spurned through fear of numbers.

America, the melting pot, has a lot to teach us, perhaps because it is a single country rather than a multinational continent. Immigration, both legal and illegal, continues to be absorbed and is made to work. Immigrants arrive, they disperse, they integrate. It’s not perfect, it’s not without political controversy, but by and large it works.

When Donald Trump (whose mother was an immigrant from Lewis) talks about building a wall along the border with Mexico, he sounds absurd and extreme to the great majority of Americans. Whatever the problems of immigration, they are seen only by a minority to justify draconian, inhumane measures – perhaps because, as the Pope said, “most of us were once foreigners”.

The logic of the American experience is surely that the EU should deal with the current situation by strengthening its identity as a single, integrated unit, sharing burdens and responsibilities, rather than retreating into a scenario in which states start rebuilding national borders in order to push the problem elsewhere. That would be a very short-term solution for anyone.

It is inescapable that, for some time to come, the imperative to migrate from areas of danger and despair will push relatively large numbers of people in the direction of Western Europe. It should be possible to bring order to that process if sufficient collective will exists. But all history suggests that erecting new barriers will not defeat the human spirit, where it is driven by desperation. It will only deepen divisions and create new grievances.

As Angela Merkel had the courage to recognise, Europe can handle a large number of refugees, and she has led by example. Critically, asylum seekers are put on trains and buses to be spread out around Germany. Those who are genuinely in need of asylum are quickly granted it – so far, 39,000 Syrians and 14,000 Iraqis have been welcomed into Germany this year alone. The numbers are expected to increase and the resources are being found by central government to deal with them. Not easy, but possible.

If the same approach to dispersal was taken throughout the EU, then the challenge would acquire a different perspective. Neither is Germany a soft touch, any more than the EU or UK should be. Those who do not have genuine grounds for asylum are sent back to where they came from. According to one report, out of almost 34,000 Kosovans who arrived this year, only seven have received asylum and more than 25,000 have already had their applications rejected.

It is hardly surprising that countries like Hungary and Croatia have responded differently. They are not used to large-scale immigration. They are not particularly wealthy. They have their own historic tensions, some of them very recent. But they enhance the concept of European unity by being part of the EU and it would be a hugely retrograde step for their own people and the continent if they retreated behind physical borders. So they do need help.

Our own country is at arm’s length from much of this because of our island status. Where non-EU citizens are concerned, we make our own rules. We are obviously better placed to keep people out than those countries where the boats are coming ashore or the trains are pulling into stations. But none of that absolves us from the responsibility to strengthen the unity of the EU’s approach, rather than undermine it. That role should be left to the fringes of politics, rather than the mainstream.

Hasty meetings of EU ministers are not going to resolve this. If ever there was a case for a full-scale summit, with the mission to adopt a broad strategic approach to the whole issue of the EU’s borders and the sharing of responsibility to manage them, then this is surely it. Bringing order to the scenes of chaos and pathos which we see on our television screens is no easy task.

But then neither was the Marshall Plan or the creation of the European Union or the unification of Germany or any of the other landmark events in our continent’s post-war history. Now is the time for leadership and unity rather than for fear and fragmentation.