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Lunacy and asylum

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Every day, we make choices about what to eat, what to wear, where to go. But how would we deal with a life-or-death decision? Imagine what it must be like to be a Syrian family which has managed to escape their war-torn country in which 200,000 have already been killed, and have made their way to the shores of the Mediterranean hoping that an overcrowded rust bucket will take them to a haven in mainland Europe. Behind them are the ruins of Aleppo or the devastation of Homs and Hama, historic cities pounded to bits in an unnecessary and unwinnable civil war. Ahead of them is a boat journey from hell in which the odds of arriving safely are heavily stacked against them. Having paid dearly for the privilege, few think twice before boarding the boat: for them and their children, anything has to be better than a life dominated by the roar of artillery and mortar rounds.

Schleswig-Holstein, where an estimated 120,000 'displaced persons' where housed in makeshift camps in May 1945Previous pages: A rubber dinghy packed with African migrants is seen some 25 miles off the Libyan coastPhotograph: Reuters
Schleswig-Holstein, where an estimated 120,000 ‘displaced persons’ where housed in makeshift camps in May 1945Previous pages: A rubber dinghy packed with African migrants is seen some 25 miles off the Libyan coastPhotograph: Reuters

It is doubtful if any of them give a thought to the greater dangers ahead. Some make it but many more don’t. According to the latest figures, 3000 people have been drowned this year as boats capsize or get into difficulties although how this figure has been computed is itself a matter of conjecture as the Mediterranean stretches over 2.5 million square kilometres and coastguards concede the impossibility of being everywhere at the same time. Until now the Italians have covered the area with their Mare Nostrum search-and-rescue mission but from yesterday that has been replaced by a more limited operation run by the EU with fewer patrols which will not venture into deeper waters.
As ever, high costs are being blamed but as the new Operation Triton is more about imposing border controls than saving lives it is obvious that the main reason is to try to prevent the influx of refugees from the Middle East and North Africa. Shamefully, Britain is supporting this new policy, which will do little to address the predicament facing refugees who are usually not benefit migrants but people fleeing for their lives. And the numbers are not enormous compared to the huge casualty lists in most regional wars. During the last 12 months, Mare Nostrum has apprehended some 150,000 souls, most of them consisting of family groups at their wits’ end.
The saga of the Mediterranean and its refugees has been with us for far too long – remember the tragedy off the island of Lampedusa which claimed 360 lives last year and was probably the trigger for the present crisis?
However, the sea and its unwilling seafarers are not the only source of concern for those who worry about Europe’s porous borders. Last week, Natacha Bouchart, mayor of Calais, addressed the House of Commons home affairs committee and told them that illegal migrants regard the UK as a “soft touch” and are queueing up to bypass border controls which, according to Bouchart, “make everyone laugh”. In Calais, not a night goes by without any number of young people risking their lives by clambering onboard container trucks or stowing away on cross-Channel ferries in order to get into Britain. Some of them perish in the attempt, others are easily apprehended but some get through and once inside this country they are difficult to pick up. The mayor of Calais admitted to the committee that an estimated 2500 illegal immigrants are now living in her bailiwick and that most are from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan, Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, Iran and Iraq – all countries which do not have their problems to seek.
She then added unhelpfully that the magnet for these desperate people is not so much the opportunity to live in a country such as Britain, which respects basic freedoms and is not embroiled in a civil war, but the chance to get their hands on benefits. Never mind that migrants now have to wait three months before claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance and can only receive it for six months, she believes that there will always be people desperate enough to risk all they have – their lives – in return for what is not untold wealth but more often a modest pittance.
This is the kind of grey-sky thinking that demonises illegal immigrants and plays into the hands of those of a Ukip persuasion. Instead of pitying the plight of people who are on the run and who are desperate to get away from fates that are usually the same as death, we are in danger of hardening our hearts and condemning people on a come-one, come-all basis.
It was not always like that. In the Victorian period, Britain had a reputation for being reasonably open-handed in its treatment of immigrants and had a fairly tolerant attitude towards incomers, provided they were small in number or had something useful to offer the country. Swiss waiters and German bandmasters were welcomed, as were revolutionaries such as Louis Kossuth, who was much admired for his opposition to the Habsburg empire.
So lax was the attitude that there were no immigration laws until the passing of the Alien Act in 1905, which was aimed at curbing the arrival of Eastern European Jews and which formed the basis for all later jurisdiction. In fact, that was the rub. While the absence of laws should have encouraged what would later become known as multiculturalism, it was not an even-handed situation. Throughout that same period, tens of thousands of Irish men and women attempted to make new lives in Britain but quickly found themselves on the receiving end of virulent anti-Catholic sentiment which stretched back over several centuries.
The same kind of sectarianism applied to the Jews who escaped the pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe and attempted to enter Britain at the end of the 19th century. Far from being welcomed in this country, their arrival sparked tensions which Professor Panikos Panayi of De Montfort University has described in his An Immigration History Of Britain as a xenophobia “not seen since the Middle Ages, which resulted in internment, property confiscation and mass rioting, culminating in deportation at the end of the First World War”.
However, his argument is balanced by the fact that at the same time Britain was prepared to welcome one-quarter of a million Belgians who had been displaced by the fighting in Flanders in 1914, though presumably that was because they were allies and were united against a common enemy. The same was true of the equally large numbers of Poles and Norwegians who were welcomed in Britain, especially in Scotland, during the Second World War and who took up the fight against Nazi Germany. To complicate matters, though, a different fate awaited the thousands of Italians who were already resident in the country at the outbreak of the same war.
Shortly afterwards, the government introduced stringent measures under Defence Regulation 18B to round up “aliens” of German and Austrian extraction who might be considered security risks. When Mussolini entered the war, some 15,000 Italians were arrested under Churchill’s terse command to “collar the lot”. Given the sizeable Italian community in Scotland it was not surprising that almost 2000 males, aged 17 to 60, were rounded up before being sent to Canada. Of that number, 446 were drowned when the liner taking them to Canada, the SS Arandora Star, was torpedoed in the Atlantic on July 2, 1940. Among the casualties was Silvestro d’Ambrosio, a confectioner from Hamilton, who had lived for 42 years in Scotland and who had one son serving in the British Army and another serving in the Canadian Army. Most times, war just doesn’t make any sense at all.
As this is clearly a deeply human story, let there be a personal dimension. Last year, one of my oldest and dearest friends died in his sleep after a life well led. Knut Mackensen was a scion of a great Prussian military family and as a babe in arms had fled westwards with his mother in the great Volkswanderung of 1945 as the Red Army swept into Germany leaving death and destruction in its wake. His mother, Charlotte, pushed him in a pram with some of the family silver hidden below the meagre blankets as they trudged towards Mecklenburg and then into Schleswig-Holstein before reaching the sanctuary of the Baltic port of Kiel.
They were not the only refugees on the road and it was not the end of their ordeal. According to the British publisher and peace campaigner Victor Gollancz, who was in the area at the time on a fact-finding mission, there were 1.3 million refugees in Schleswig-Holstein. “We visited a ship in Kiel harbour on which a couple of hundred have been living for six months,” he wrote in a report from Hamburg. “It is the only time since I got here that I was quite unable to prevent myself from crying the whole time.”
Knut and his mother were somewhat luckier, but only just. They had family in Schleswig-Holstein but they still had to find accommodation in one of the many camps for displaced persons (DPs) that were scattered across the north German countryside.
Later, it was found that three million Germans from East-Central Europe crossed into Western Germany between January and December 1946, most of them women and children. The Potsdam agreement which had ended the war enjoined the governments of Poland and Czechoslovakia to treat the DPs in an “orderly, humane and efficient way”, but very few officials bothered with such niceties in a world that had been turned upside down.
The influx was greatest in Schleswig-Holstein, where 120,000 people were housed in makeshift camps and the conditions were not the best. Gollancz estimated that 100,000 people were suffering from hunger oedema and that the incidence of tuberculosis was five times higher than it had been before the war.
It was a case of make-do-and-mend or succumb to the conditions and, thanks to fortitude, good luck and sheer bloody-mindedness, Knut and his mother pulled through and were eventually rehoused in Kiel.
During the years of our young manhood I used to marvel at his ability to recognise various types of edible fungus and his forensic skill in dissecting any kind of meat or fish. This was not culinary bravado but had been a key to survival.
Following Knut’s funeral – he died full of honours as the Probst (Provost) of the Lutheran Church in Kiel – I found a copy of an address he had given in 2004 on Volkstrauertag (similar in intent to our Armistice Day). In it he recounted the story of that childhood spent as a refugee but there was also a significant revelation, which proved yet again that we often come to know our friends better after their death.
In 1954, president Konrad Adenauer had brokered a deal with Moscow for the return of German prisoners-of-war, among them Knut’s father. For days on end, the 10-year-old boy and his mother would go down to the main station in Kiel to meet the trains from the east, hoping against hope that the colonel would be among the bearded and bedraggled host which made its way gingerly along the platform. He failed to appear and the boy and his mother were left to sink back into their personal grief.
Years later, they discovered that Knut’s father had died of starvation in a camp near Neubrandenburg. “Soldatenkind weint nicht,” said Knut’s mother, not unkindly but with grim finality (“A soldier’s boy doesn’t cry”).
As I watched the refugees from Syria last week deciding whether or not to brave the dark waters of the Mediterranean, I thought about that moment. And just as happened to Victor Gollancz all those years ago, it brought the weeping to my eyes.