Hungary closes down border crossing from Serbia, September 15. Demotix/Beata Zawrzei. All rights reserved.In these times of turmoil over the massive arrival in Europe of war refugees from Syria and Iraq, and of massive interrogations among receiving European countries, and people, torn between welcome, fear and, for most, uncertainty about what the future might look like, I would like to put in the balance my family experience.
Born French, of Flemish ancestry from my father's side – he being born a few miles from the Belgian border – my maternal grand-father was an Hungarian Jew from Transylvania (now part of Romania) who had emigrated to France looking for a better life; then he married a French woman.
His brother followed his journey to the States where he started a fruitful glass business. So my grandfather was what we would now call an ‘economic refugee’, like millions of other immigrants whose families are now part and parcel of today's France.
When World War I started, given the choice between a prisoner of warfare camp, as a citizen from an hostile country, and the French Foreign Legion, he chose the latter and was sent to the Turkish front where he fought side by side with Serbian soldiers against a coalition of Germans, Austrians, Turks and Bulgarians along what is now the Greek-Macedonian border. The day he died, in 1916, fighting for the country which gave him a new home against the country of his forefathers, his regiment's diary only mentioned that hardly anything had happened on that day. A few months later, his regiment was sent to Athens to stop the ‘allied’ Greek government from switching sides in favour of Berlin and Vienna.
Had he not been 'Mort pour la France', my grandfather could have been deprived of his right to live in France by the Vichy regime and sent to an extermination camp and I would not be here today. And, now, he might again be liable to be sent back ‘home’ as an illegal immigrant if we were to listen to Marine Le Pen's National Front, or to right wing politicians like Nicolas Sarkozy, who have been taking almost as hard a line, trying to surf on a anti-immigrant wave. And, even more worrying, to strengthen this chauvinistic line in order to grab votes from the extreme right in future elections, regional in December, presidential in 2017.
‘Sarko’ wants now to draw the line between the ‘bad’ immigrants, those who only want to ‘integrate’ themselves - i.e. keeping some of their traditions while becoming French citizens - whom he considers as a threat to national unity, and the ‘good’ ones who agree to ‘assimilate’, i.e. to abandon their ancestral customs to blend in with a, so-called, common mould, as he himself did. Going even further, he wants the EU to draft what he calls a ‘new’ category of refugee, the “war refugees”, who should only have the right to remain in their host country until the crisis is over and, then, be sent back where they belong.
Forgetting by the way that his own father was a Hungarian refugee who fled his country after WWII to escape communism, and was generously granted asylum in France. Just like his maternal grandfather, a Jew who had emigrated from Salonica, whose Jewish community was exterminated by the Nazis. What would have happened to them if we had been as tough, then, on immigration as he wants us to be today? And would he side with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban who is barbwiring his border to stop Syrians fleeing from Daesh across his country?
All this explains why I cannot help being shocked by the behaviour of some former members of the Soviet Bloc like Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic or Poland, whose citizens fleeing communism were generously granted asylum in western Europe and to whom members of the EEC, starting with Germany and the UK, opened their doors after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
No questions were asked then about their religious or political beliefs. Despite some reservations - I remember a campaign in France against the ‘unfair competition’ from ‘Polish plumbers’ - millions found a new, and better paid job in Old Europe. How shocked would they have been if we had behaved as they are doing now with Syrian refugees, claiming that, perhaps, there were KGB spies hiding among the hordes of refugees,...
My, partly dubious, origins did not stop me from marrying a Chinese lady who had fled Vietnam to escape anti-Chinese discrimination and the American war which was beginning there. And today we all, parents, children and grand children, consider ourselves, and are considered as ordinary French. Would she have been granted asylum now? Would the 150,000 Vietnamese ‘boat people’ who fled Vietnam years later and are now living peacefully in France be accepted now, as the hundreds of thousands of economic migrants from the Indian subcontinent and elsewhere who are legally living here?
They had different customs and, for many, religions, some ate with chopsticks and had slanted eyes. And yet they have not only shared French economic prosperity at that time, but generously contributed to it. Just like the millions of Italians, Poles, Spanish, Portuguese, and later Northern Africans fleeing poverty, dictatorship or war but also widely sought by employers who needed manpower during the ‘30 glorious years’ which followed WWII and who are now filling pages after pages of the phone directory. Reminding us that France always has been a country open to immigrants. Would they be considered today as ‘economic’ or ‘war’ refugees with no right to settle here? Even if our present Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, is the son of a Catalan refugee and the Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, the daughter of Spanish political refugees.
Does this mean, as some do-gooders say, that we should open our borders to all? As former Socialist Prime Minister Michel Rocard once said, “France cannot carry on her shoulders the whole world's misery. But she has to take her share of it”. Even if too many today seem to have forgotten the second half of this sentence. Yes, priorities have to be defined, choices have to be made, just like for those waiting for a council flat, as there will never be enough places for everybody everywhere at the same time. This would not be accepted by the majority of nationals in any EU, or other society afraid for their jobs and the social structure of their countries. Besides, those who have made their way to France, or other countries, in an orderly, legal way, following all the bureaucratic hurdles – and they are many – are not always keen to be put in the same basket than those who did not. And it also seems normal to grant priority to the victims of the wars which are destroying Iraq and Syria. Not only because it could nurture terrorism in Europe but because - besides humanitarian reasons - we all share a large part of the responsibilities in the present conflicts.
We just have to remember who invaded Iraq in 2003, destroying its political and security infrastructures, tearing the country apart towards a civil war, and who shied from supporting Syrian rebels when they tried to rise up against the Bashar el Assad bloody dictatorship. We let them down then just like we let down the legal government of Spain in 1936, giving Hitler and Mussolini a training ground to prepare for WWII, which they launched only months after the fall of the Spanish Republic.
We cannot forget that Bush and Blair launched their countries into the Iraqi quagmire, or that Obama and Cameron backed down at the last minute from the air campaign against Daesh in Syria in 2013, only a few months before Daesh launched its deadly offensive in Iraq and Syria, leaving the French Air Force alone with its planes already on the tarmac, loaded with missiles and their tanks full of kerosene. Al Qaeda and Daesh, in their wildest dreams, could never have hoped for such unexpected support.
Let me add, as a final point, that, besides our moral obligations towards migrants from Syria or Iraq, besides the right of asylum granted by the French Revolution, other reasons have to be considered, including by selfish, nationalist, populist politicians and thinkers.
That many of these refugees come from the middle and upper strata of society, educated, engineers, doctors, civil servants, businessmen or academics which are needed everywhere and won't ‘steal’ jobs from the lesser off. And that they could become the best anti-Daesh propagandists, being able to tell about their ordeal in war zones or zones controlled by Islamists, of the crimes committed against civilians, women, children, Muslims like Christians, to disorientated youngsters, Muslims and new converts, looking on the Internet for an escape route from our societies in terrorism, or who learnt about a so-called Islam in books like ‘Islam for Dummies’. And who have been the recruiting ground for terrorism in Europe.
And that, if we let down these war victims, some of them might again become the prey of recruiters from Daesh or Al Qaeda. Is that really what we want?