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With 100 Million Refugees, the Migrant Crisis Has Barely Begun

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“When a stranger resides with you in your land, do not molest him,” a credible authority tells the Israelites in Leviticus. “You shall treat the stranger who resides with you no differently than the natives born among you; for you too were once strangers in the land of Egypt.”

The tension God was referring to is timeless. We all may one day need to flee from injustice, tyranny, violence, hunger or other calamities. And then we’ll need help. In turn, even if we’re lucky enough (for now) to live in stability, we should offer asylum to those fleeing to us. And yet we often don’t.

For the first time ever, more than 100 million people worldwide have been “forcibly displaced,” in the jargon of the UNHCR, the refugee agency of the United Nations. Millions of Ukrainian women and children have fled from Russia’s war of aggression in just the past three months. Millions more — often less conspicuous in the Western media — have run from violence in places like Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, Myanmar, Afghanistan or the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Both the numbers and the suffering are about to get worse. Also owing to the Russian attack on Ukraine — a “bread basket” that now can’t export its wheat and other staples — a global food crisis is imminent. Most people in Western countries will feel it as a painful rise in prices. But those who are already hungry — in Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere — will face starvation. 

Margaritis Schinas, the European Union’s commissioner in charge of migration, told Bloomberg that he’s expecting another refugee crisis. In this one, people will be coming in dinghies across the Mediterranean, rather than on trains through Ukraine and Poland. It’ll be “more messy,” Schinas reckons. As if all those other crises hadn’t been messy enough. 

I’ve never been a refugee, but as a journalist, I’ve occasionally witnessed the human toll of migration. I picked grapes in California’s Central Valley with undocumented farm workers from south of the border to hear their stories. They’re the heirs to the “Okies” who once fled America’s Dust Bowl, as described so hauntingly by John Steinbeck in “The Grapes of Wrath.” Except that they’re not only desperate and poor but also alien and unwelcome.

In 2015-16, I covered Europe’s refugee crisis. The migrants at that time were largely Syrians fleeing from their own murderous tyrant. I remember the range of reactions in Europe as they arrived. 

At the train station in Munich, many Germans greeted the newcomers with bottled water, teddy bears and hugs. Other Germans were outraged about the chaos and wanted to keep the refugees out. Most were quietly apprehensive. A similar split in attitudes rent all of Europe. Countries such as Hungary turned the refugees back with barbed wire and water cannon. 

This spread between hospitality (xenia in ancient Greek), xenophobia (literally, fear of strangers) and all the nuances in between has greeted aliens everywhere and at all times. It’s what God was talking about in Leviticus. 

In my experience, the “xenophobes” are sometimes racist or callous but more often just anxious. In Germany in 2015, for example, the backlash against migrants was worst in what used to be the communist East, which has also become the bastion of the populist far right. In a meme I heard often, these Easterners felt that German reunification had turned them into second-class citizens in their own country. 

Now they were watching exotic-looking foreigners arriving by the busload and — as they chose to interpret the situation — “skipping the line.” The aliens, in this narrative, were threatening to demote the Eastern Germans to third-class citizenship, and depriving them of nebulous rights — perhaps welfare, attention or compassion — that should belong only to the native-born.  

The Scotch-Irish in 19th-century America probably felt the same way when the German immigrants arrived, until the Germans said all this about the Irish, who then repeated it with the Italians, then in succession, the Russians, the Jews, the Chinese… So it goes. 

Part of human nature is to distinguish between in-groups and out-groups, and to show the ins more empathy than the outs. Even Benjamin Franklin, ordinarily an open-minded type, looked askance at German and other non-English immigrants, whom he considered “swarthy” and suspect. 

That might explain the about-turn in Polish policies and attitudes between the 2015 crisis and this year’s. Back then, the refugees were dark-skinned Muslims, and Warsaw slammed its borders shut. Now they’re fellow Christians and Slavs, and Poland has warmly welcomed more than half of the 6.7 million Ukrainians who’ve fled abroad.

So there we are, forever stretched between dueling human impulses: on one side, openness, compassion and altruism; on the other, suspicion, prejudice and nativism. Some of us emphasize optimistic stories of migrants integrating well into their adopted societies, playing by the rules and just rebuilding their lives. Others dwell on those other tales — of traumatized refugees becoming a burden to their host country or committing crimes.

All these stories exist, and all are equally worth hearing. Then again, the exact same range of biographies exists for the native-born as for migrants. Ultimately, they’re just a reminder that we’re all — aliens and natives alike — human, as Leviticus understood.

The biggest refugee crisis in history is still ahead of us. War, famine and plague will not only stay around, but spread and become worse, because of climate change. What will that do to our societies, and to us as individuals?

All of us, since our common ancestors trudged out of the East African rift valley, descend from migrants. If we go back far enough, we all have refugees among our forebears. And all of us, if we’re not already displaced, can be sure to have descendants who will flee from something. We all were, are or will be natives and aliens somewhere, at some time.

There are no easy answers. Speaking for most Germans in 2015, the country’s president at the time, Joachim Gauck, expressed the dilemma well: “We want to help. We are big-hearted. But our means are finite.” It’ll be important to keep both parts of that sentiment in mind — the magnanimity and the limits. But when in doubt, we should heed Leviticus, and keep our hearts big.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Andreas Kluth is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics. A former editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for the Economist, he is author of “Hannibal and Me.”

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