It is almost two years exactly since my guest post on this blog, Knocking on Europe’s door, a post I felt compelled to write out of outrage and frustration at the loss of over 300 migrants’ lives off the coast of the Sicilian island of Lampedusa. Sadly, Lampedusa has proven not to be an isolated tragedy. Only a few weeks ago the photograph of a dead Syrian boy on a Turkish beach suddenly captured the world media’s attention dispelling, or so one hopes, any ‘compassion fatigue’ that the European public opinion might have experienced so far. Germany has taken the lead, presenting itself as the Weltmeister in willingness to help, while also asking for that pan-European solidarity (in the form of a redistribution of refugees across the Union) it so clearly rejected in the Greek crisis. The country is struggling to cope as the first destination of choice for the world’s refugees and asylum seekers, to the point that plans of housing some of them in Buchenwald barracks are being considered. History, as philosopher Emil Cioran once wrote, is “irony on the move.”
While the watershed moment in public opinion caused by the powerful photograph of a dead child is welcome, I don’t think that the EU can function if it is run according to the shifting moods of the national electorates. This is exactly what has happened so far with regard to the immigration debate, which not only has conflated crucial legal distinctions between a migrant, a refugee and an asylum seeker, but also has predominantly reflected the populist views of the mob over those of the democratic crowd.
This is not the place to analyse in depth the root causes of what is only the latest migration/refugee crisis in humanity’s history – the ‘clash of civilizations’ theory is often evoked; I believe instead that literature provides us with the most useful insights into the shape of things to come. The Camp of the Saints (Le Camp des Saints), a 1973 French apocalyptic novel by Jean Raspail depicting a not too distant future when mass migration to the West leads to the destruction of Western civilisation, eerily foreshadows current discussions about ‘European (Christian) values,’ or its local variant of ‘British values.’ In December 1994 The Atlantic Monthly dedicated its cover story “Must It Be the Rest Against the West?” to the novel. The piece is still so relevant that it might have been written yesterday. Here is its sobering conclusion:
For the remainder of this century, we suspect, the debate will rage over what and how much should be done to improve the condition of humankind in the face of the mounting pressures described here and in other analyses. One thing seems to us fairly certain. However the debate unfolds, it is, alas, likely that a large part of it–on issues of population, migration, rich versus poor, race against race–will have advanced little beyond the considerations and themes that are at the heart of one of the most disturbing novels of the late twentieth century, Jean Raspail’s The Camp of the Saints.
For a more recent literary example in a similar dystopic vein I would suggest Michel Houellebecq’s Soumission (2015), which features the election of an Islamist to the French presidency, against the backdrop of a general disintegration of Enlightenment values in French society.
So here is the challenge facing us: how best can we advance the debate from the disturbing xenophobic undertones which have characterised it so far?
First of all a close look at our own myths might reveal that at the origin of Western civilization there is a refugee story: wasn’t Aeneas, the founder of Rome, a homeless refugee from the war between Greeks and Trojans? From the world of myths to the more pragmatic one of politics, the answer lies in “more Europe and more union”, as the EU commission president recently put it (not only more but a much better union and Europe, I would argue), and in the role that cultural institutions like universities, Europe’s traditional seats of knowledge, must play.
It is very welcome that, perhaps belatedly, Universities UK new President, Dame Julia Goodfellow – first female President since UUK was established in 1918 – launched the Universities for Europe campaign last July. Also, the UK universities’ commitment ‘to a future in the European Union’ was strongly reaffirmed in her recent address to the Annual Member’s Conference, together with the repeated urge to remove international students from the Government’s net migration target. In her conclusions Dame Julia Goodfellow reminded the conference that ‘every day, universities are improving lives, helping the country grow, and changing the world.’ This is the time for universities to be true to such an ideal mission. They can contribute to changing the world and changing lives in many ways, one of which is by supporting projects like Article 26, whose aim is to promote access to higher education for people who have fled persecution and sought asylum in the UK. Universities can make a difference by introducing a whole series of measures to support refugee students, as the University of Glasgow has just done. In ‘The Syrian refugee crisis – What can universities do?’ Hans de Wit and Philip G Altbach identify several ways in which universities can provide a positive response to the crisis, not least because ‘in the current competition for talent, these refugees are not only seen as victims and a cost factor for the local economy, but in the long run also as welcome new talent for the knowledge economy.’
Personally, I would love to see universities, so acutely aware of the benefits of philanthropy at times of financial constraints, becoming themselves generous intellectual benefactors. Solidarity (fraternité) might have its costs, but the costs will be enormously higher in the long run for us all by the lack of it. In a globalised world our personal stories and those of our nations are interconnected, just like our destinies.