12 November 2015
(with Martijn Stronks)
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 refugees are regarded as outsiders. That is why it is important to remind people that refugees belong to Europe like Bert and Ernie belong to Sesame Street. Recent history shows that Europeans and refugees are not mutually exclusive; quite the opposite. 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 (Dutch state secretary of justice from 1982 to 1989), for instance, was the daughter of Belgian musician and refugee Oscar van Hemel.
After 1933, many Germans fled to other European countries and to the United States (the Manns, the family of Anne Frank, Albert Einstein) where, after the Anschluss in 1936, they were joined by Austrians (among whom 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 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. Displaced people included German minorities from Poland and Czechoslovakia (Günter Grass), Jewish survivors, and groups on the run from the advancing 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 the Dutch nationality and couldn’t be classified as refugees in the legal sense, their departure felt like flight and their welcome in the Netherlands was like that of refugees. One of Wilders’ grandmothers, and Dutch housing minister Stef Blok’s father came to the Netherlands as repatriates. In 1951, 12,500 Moluccan troops of the KNIL Royal Indonesian army were transferred to the Netherlands on the order of Dutch courts because their life and safety were in danger in the newly independent Indonesia. They were treated as refugees although they were formally kept outside the scope of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention.
From 1945 to 1950 international relations became increasingly tense. A slow but steady stream of refugees from the communist countries entered Western Europe. More came after the communist take-over in Czechoslowakia (the father of human rights activist Boris Dittrich), the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 (Dutch state secretary of agriculture Dzsingisz Gabor) and Czechoslovakia in 1968 (TV presenter Martin Simek and tennis player Richard Krajicek).
Until 1975, refugees also came from countries with fascist regimes. Greeks, Spaniards and Portuguese who left for political reasons often 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 by a military intervention against Serbia. The number of asylum seekers and the problems of housing them were as great then as they are now.
We Europeans are refugees ourselves. Modern history shows that we’ve had to seek refuge in and outside Europe on many occasions. It also shows that we, European refugees, time and again managed to make things work in our new home countries.
But this history uncovers something even more fundamental. Protecting refugees is not altruism. 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 benefit from it. That seems altruistic, but it isn’t, because I know I’m covered as well in the event something happens to me. Or, as soccer legend Marco van Basten is supposed to have said: when I play against 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 sheltering refugees, we should not complain. Instead, we should count ourselves lucky that we’re not the ones having to seek refuge. And we know that if that sea level keeps rising our grandchildren will find a new home elsewhere, too.
Published in Dutch in NRC Next and NRC Handelsblad, 12 November 2015
Translation Hanneke Sanou