So what should we do about the thousands of human beings risking their lives to find a safe haven in Europe? Newspapers are full of harrowing pictures; crammed boats negotiating wild seas, elderly people trudging through the snow clutching their belongings, large-eyed children bewilderedly being made to walk yet more miles in the cold.
There are two extreme responses to the situation. According to the first, morality insists we let these people in and give them the refuge they so desperately seek. According to the second prudence insists we keep them out because we have problems enough of our own, problems which will only be exacerbated if we take on theirs. I can see both arguments.
I too am moved to despair by the pictures. I cannot bear the thought of these people, who have lost everything, being made to walk further, to live in tents, to draw cold water from a shared tap and to live on meagre rations, handouts from our tables of plenty. I expect, generally speaking, to be comfortable in my upcoming retirement. Many of the people struggling across the mountains will also have been expecting to retire comfortably only a few years ago. How would I feel if what is happening to them were to happen to me? Surely it is only right to take them in?
Anyway, isn’t it to our benefit that we take them in? Many of them are well qualified doctors, lawyers, engineers. They will soon get back on their feet and start making a contribution. Admitting the Jews in WWII and the Ugandan Asians in the 70s didn’t do us any harm. Arguably did us a lot of good.
But I am also aware of the difficulties at home. The NHS is on its knees. Every medical advance puts another million people on the waiting list. Our schools are full to bursting. Can we really ask them to take more children – especially traumatised children who do not speak English? The lack of affordable homes resulted in 50,000 families becoming homeless last year. Given the fact we don’t seem to be able to look after our own properly, how can we wantonly admit to our shores yet more thousands of people?
This is not to mention the worry about who we will be admitting. 65.2% of the 200,000 people making application for asylum in Germany last year were men or boys, mostly aged between 18 and 25. It is this demographic who are most likely to be radicalized. Do we really want to import problems such as those experienced by the women of Cologne on New Year’s Eve?
So, I run through the arguments for and against, and wonder how we are going to square this circle. I see the Prime Minister’s point about providing aid to those who haven’t travelled to Europe. It is undoubtedly the case that providing aid to, or admitting those who have, will encourage more to make the perilous journey. But can we blame people for wanting to flee an area ravaged by war, homes and lives that have been reduced to rubble? And if we are considering our own benefit, isn’t there something in the claim that it is those who have made the journey who are most likely to be the ones who will eventually contribute most to our own society?
There are times when I am very glad I do not have to make the decisions. Sometimes people talk as if it is easy. How can it be when both sides are so balanced? But I can do a few things off my own bat. I can (and do) give money, and I have offered to house refugees in my own house. I am happy to find that I am at the end of a long waiting list of people who have done likewise: this supports my belief that most people are good most of the time.
But what do you think?