Monday, February 20, 2017

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.  


When I was on a recent brief trip to Madrid (six nights only), I saw a sign on a major public building (the town hall) that disturbed me in a number of ways.

It said – in English – “Refugees Welcome”.

Part of my disquiet was that it was written in English. Why wasn’t it written in Spanish if it expressed the sentiments of the people of Madrid? The only answer I can think of is that it was intended for the mass viewing of the international television (or on-line) audience. And clearly, it was there because of the “Refugees Welcome” demonstrations that were coordinated across Europe some months back, in response to news of the drowning of refugees from Syria. The same sign appeared in many other European cities.

The fact that it was saying refugees were welcome did not disturb me in the least. Who does not sympathise with refugees? And in the light of President Trump’s inept executive order banning from the USA people from seven Muslim countries, are we not even more sympathetic to the refugees’ plight? It is quite clear that New Zealand has only a token regard for refugees and, while we pride ourselves on being a humanitarian country, we could quite easily accommodate two, or even three, times the number of refugees that we currently admit each year.

But there was something else that troubled me about this sign in Madrid.

Spain is a member of the EU, and it is possible that Spain will be accepting refugees from the Middle East when and if the EU works out some protocol to allocate certain numbers of refugees to each EU member state. But up to this point, Spain is not, and has not yet been, a destination for refugees, or even a country of transit for refugees. Tens of thousands of North Africans are passing through – or staying in – Italy each year. Tens of thousands of refugees from the Middle East are passing through – or staying in – Greece, the Balkans, Austria and Germany, with a very high proportion hoping for permanent settlement in Germany, Sweden, France or Britain.

But Spain is so far hardly touched by this human tide.

In late 2015, Spain agreed to accept 15,000 refugees, but so far only a small handful have reached the country. Among other things, it is not where refugees want to settle. And here is my disquiet. Is it not too easy for a country, which is out of the way of the crisis, to loudly proclaim its humanitarian principles? The sign in Madrid might say “Refugees Welcome”, but the reality is that the refugee trail is far from Spain.

One evening, we were having dinner at a restaurant on the Plaza Mayor. There were hardly any tourists around (we were happily there in the off-season) and the waiter who served us had nobody else to attend to. So he lingered near our table and chatted quite a bit. He was Rumanian. He did not express any illiberal ideas. He did not say anything negative about Muslims or people from the Middle East.  But he did say that Spain was far from where the stream of refugees was flowing, and he made some rather choice comments on the humanitarian posturing of Spaniards who basically knew they would be highly unlikely even to see a refugee.

For myself, I thought of the line from Macaulay’s poem on Horatius at the Bridge: Those behind cried ‘Forward!’ and those before cried ‘Back!’

We can all support great and brave causes when somebody else is bearing the brunt of them.

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