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Refugees, then and now

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The reaction to recent events in Cologne and other European cities — not to mention the reaction in some quarters to the mass influx of Syrian and other Middle Eastern refugees in itself — has put me in mind of the Hungarian uprising in 1956. I'm old enough to remember that, and the warm welcome that Canada gave to Hungarian refugees at the time.

Not all of the 200,000 people who fled Hungary after the Soviet invasion actually qualified as "refugees" under the 1951 Refugee Convention, which defines a refugee as a person who "owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country." Some were indeed freedom fighters. But others were members of the intelligentsia seizing the opportunity for a better life, and still others were criminals, released when prison doors were blown wide open by the revolutionaries.

It didn't matter. The backdrop of the Cold War shaped events; all of those fleeing were perceived as anti-Communist, and hence on our "side." Most of them flooded into an ill-prepared Austria, which coped as best it might, and a smaller number fled to Yugoslavia. Then, as now, a majority of the refugees were young and male — two-thirds of the total, with more than half of them under 25.

Canada, with a population at the time of just over 16 million people, took in more than 37,000.

Unlike the Syrian refugees, these were not people fleeing from mass bombing and civil war. There were no Hungarian metropolises left devastated like the Syrian city of Homs, seen in the photograph above (the latter a fitting response to the bigots who ask why those people just don't go back where they came from). But, rightly, the nation offered these displaced people new lives and opportunities just the same.

As one might expect, there was a domestic reaction to Canada's generosity. Some feared that wages would be undercut. Others (including the RCMP) worried that Communist agents were concealed within the ranks of the newcomers. Immigration Minister J. W. ("Jack") Pickersgill, however, despite a rising unemployment rate, expedited the admittance of the Hungarians, waiving medical tests, setting up reception programs, relaxing security screening, and providing free passage to Canada.

In that same year, however — and we should take note of this — Minister Pickersgill took a hard line against admitting refugees from the People's Republic of China.

There are refugees, and then there are refugees. The Hungarians were European, and white, and therefore like us. And they were fleeing Communism, which endeared them to the powers that be. The situation for the Syrians is far more complex. They are fleeing a hellscape of government starvation-sieges and barrel-bombs on one side and ISIS/al-Nusra Front savagery on the other. Most are Sunni Muslim. And there are not hundreds of thousands, but millions of them, a human tsunami crashing onto the shores of Europe.

Such multitudes will inevitably contain criminals and psychopaths, as in every human population. It is equally inevitable that the behaviour of the latter will be amplified by regular and social media. But we cannot so easily dismiss the gross misbehaviour of migrants and asylum-seekers in Germany and elsewhere a few weeks ago. The sheer scale of these incidents, the organized nature of them, the demonstration of male entitlement conveyed, served to inflame an always-festering stereotype — the perennial bugaboo of the Other as sexual monster. We think of the Southern American preoccupation with supposed Black threats to the "purity" of white women. And we are reminded of Hitler's own racial obsessions:"The dark-haired Jewboy lurks in ambush for hours, satanic joy upon his face, for the unsuspecting girl, whom he poisons with his blood, thus stealing her from her people." Or: the "rape of hundreds of thousands of girls by bow-legged repulsive Jew-bastards." And again: "These dark parasites on our people deliberately rape our inexperienced young blonde girls and thus destroy something which cannot be replaced in this world."

This sort of thing never lies far beneath the surface, and the New Year's events were more than sufficient to permit them to burst forth once again. The defensive posture of the police and some media did not help matters, feeding fears of conspiracy among the tinfoil helmet set. It seems almost naive to insist that the law simply be applied, and that the wrongdoers be prosecuted no matter what their ethnicity or citizenship status might be. It is also obvious that the vast majority of asylum-seekers and migrants were likely as appalled by this loutishness as you and I are. At the very least, it made their own position even more tenuous.

But the new refugees are not our perceived allies, as the Hungarians were. In the latest Weltkampf, they stand in suspicious proximity to the forces of darkness — they're mostly Muslim, after all. And they have other disadvantages, too. They're swarthy, not white, for a start — at least in the popular mind. And they're numerous — they continue to arrive in unimaginable, catastrophic numbers.

No wonder the discourse on refugees these days looks like something out of the white supremacist novel, The Camp of the Saints. Those of us on the Left have been reduced to feeble defences such as, very likely, this one. A decent outcome is of necessity long-term, and in my view somewhat optimistic. In the meantime, most of the four million Syrian refugees have literally nowhere to stand, let alone thrive. And so the question presses, in Europe and elsewhere: What is to be done?

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