Richard Pine: Fear should not blind us to the plight of Syria’s refugees

Urban middle-class Europe can only understand refugees in terms of intrusion

A makeshift camp near Idomeni and close to the Greek-Macedonian border: how “honoured” are these “guests”? Photograph: Tobias Schwarz/AFP

A makeshift camp near Idomeni and close to the Greek-Macedonian border: how “honoured” are these “guests”? Photograph: Tobias Schwarz/AFP

 

The Greeks have the same word for “stranger” and “guest” – xenos. Why? Because the arrival of a foreigner inevitably triggers the instinct and obligation of hospitality. The stranger is welcome. He may outstay his welcome, but the Greek’s house is his house for the duration.

Unfortunately, the Greek word xenos has become linked to the word for fear, phobia. No Greek exhibits xenophobia, because it is a contradiction in terms. Greeks are, by definition, xenophiliacs, lovers of the guest.

But xenophobia has caught the imagination of Europe. Anyone who openly or secretly says “Not in my back yard” is, at root, afraid. Afraid of difference, diversity, the uncanny – anything that makes us uncomfortable.

And Europe increasingly sees Greece as a source of terrorism, Islamic honour killings and economic freeloaders.

Nothing could be further from the half-truths peddled by the right-wing politicians in countries like Austria, Serbia, France and even in Angela Merkel’s Germany.

The facts – verified by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees – are indisputable: of the one-million-plus who have arrived in Greece since the start of last year, over 50 per cent are Syrian, 25 per cent Afghan, 16 per cent Iraqi and 3 per cent Iranian.

Forty per cent of all arrivals are children; 22 per cent women and 38 per cent men. Some 52,000 are still on Greek soil, in almost 40 holding facilities, of whom more than half are in the north. Some of these are “migrant warehouses”, others transit camps like Idomeni on the Greek-Macedonian border.

However inconvenient and awkward their presence in such numbers may be, these people are honoured guests, because “honour” and “guest” are synonymous.

Their plight, as described in this paper recently by Fintan Drury, is exceptional and yet it is systematically ignored by the vast majority of Europeans and regarded cynically by the EU itself.

What that seems to mean to Europe’s incipient fascists is that, at best, Greece is harbouring terrorists and, at worst, attempting to flood Europe with the infidel.

Exaggerated risk

Brussels

If you exclude children, one half-adult in a million could be a terrorist.

The terrorists who, it is suspected, did pass through Greece (of whom two were, allegedly, involved in the Paris killings) were not camouflaged among the refugees.

One of the problems facing the immigration authorities is how to distinguish asylum seekers from refugees. The vast majority of arrivals are simply refugees from civil war or economic disaster. Only a small percentage have fled their homes due to persecution and face death if they return. Of course they should be prioritised, but only marginally ahead of the homeless and the hopeless.

So what about the other accusations – that the refugees are freeloading?

Yes, it is true you can find expensive-looking Syrians drinking coffee on the quayside of Lesbos and using the ATM machine. Does that invalidate the half-million who don’t even know what a cashcard is?

If you compare the Syrian cities of Homs or Aleppo today with 10 years ago, the contrast could not be more stark: the cities are destroyed. Those who fled are seeking a new home, because there is nothing to go back to.

Is that their fault? Is the phenomenon of civil war, exacerbated by the world powers, a sign that all Syrians are inherently unable to live within their own borders without rancour?

The fledgling fascists are capable of stirring public opinion to levels beyond fear, to the condition of hatred, such is human nature in an age of austerity. Such is our education system.

To condemn, unheard and untried, a man, woman or child because they are Muslim is as inhuman as Muslims attacking Christians for being Christian. To suspect a bomb under the burqa is as stupid as seeing a pervert under every soutane.

Neither side can win, nor can they live peacefully together. A recent poll in Greece showed 65 per cent believe the refugees will be unable to integrate into Greek, or any other, society different in culture and religion. Greeks have known this since 1922, when a population exchange between Greece and Turkey resulted in a permanent disruption: the Greeks expelled from Turkey have never been able to settle comfortably.

Social repercussions

Soviet Union

The Greeks, who have hospitality in their DNA, can hardly be faulted for their attempts, largely unaided, to cope with all these “guests”. But one can understand their frustration at the inconvenience and impact on tourism.

The ultimate problem for bourgeois, city-bred, middle-class Europe is the impossibility of overcoming the genuine fear of intrusion by people of different colour, race or religion. Political difference they can just about handle. Assimilation requires a maturity we do not have.

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