Refugees and Responsibility in Central Europe

PRAGUE – Fifteen years ago, the Czech statesman and playwright Václav Havel noted that some Czech politicians “recognize two different kinds of violence, genocide, terror, and mafias: one that is better, and one that is worse. The better kind is pan-Slavic, and the worse kind is Islamic.” The response to the current influx of mostly non-European refugees and migrants suggests that this worldview – shaped by fear of the unknown – remains pervasive in Central Europe today.

The hatred, open racism, and barely hidden longing for refugee camps surrounded by barbed wire that has emerged is, among other things, the result of a long-standing tolerance of intolerance in Central Europe. Such intolerance is not blind; it is aimed at people of a different race, persuasion, or opinion, who represent, at best, some kind of abstract entity, and, at worst, a threat.

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This intolerance intensifies with ignorance. The absence of direct experience with people of a different culture, race, or religion leaves space for prejudice, myths, and dark rumors, reinforced by the apocalyptic rendering of the tabloid media.

But ignorance is no excuse. We have a responsibility, dictated by tradition, to provide at least emergency aid, protection, food, and shelter to the refugees. The obligation to help others, near or far, is central to all three monotheistic religions; it is the core of our culture; it is part of our identity.

It is tempting to end all discussion at this point and issue a fervent appeal to citizens to help the refugees. But there is more to the story, and Havel – for whom responsibility meant far more than impassioned rhetoric – can help us to understand why.

European Union governments and institutions must ask themselves not only whether they have lived up to their responsibility to provide immediate assistance to refugees today. They must also ask whether they did enough to prevent the current situation, such as by intervening to contain the conflict in Syria. Likewise, they must consider whether they fulfilled their responsibility to protect the EU’s external borders from the large-scale migration that has obscured the difference between those fleeing death and those seeking economic opportunity.

The EU must also reconcile differences among its members about whether its responsibility includes permanent residence or citizenship for some or all of the refugees. On this question, too, some Western European countries have taken a much more positive view than the majority in Central Europe. But it would be facile to attribute this to the immaturity of Central European democracies.

Surveys indicate that most Central Europeans are not hostile to migrants in general. In recent decades, a large number of immigrants have flowed into the region; with few exceptions, they have not faced racism and discrimination. The region’s growing economies and the dwindling populations are as hungry as Germany for young, inexpensive labor.

Yet there is no jubilation in Central Europe over the prospect of large numbers of immigrants from the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa; indeed, Central European countries have demanded to choose not just how many refugees can enter, but exactly which ones. This stance has triggered accusations of “discrimination” and “lack of solidarity”; every European country, Central Europeans have been told, must share responsibility for the arriving refugees, if not voluntarily, then by diplomatic arm-twisting or decree. It is as if the clash between closed-minded chauvinism and open-hearted humanism had drowned out common sense.

To think more clearly, we would do well to consider Havel’s take on the subject. His first instinct would be to help, exemplified in his belief that to receive someone “fleeing from war, poverty, and suffering” was “a matter of fundamental, universal human solidarity.”

But Havel stops well short of an all-embracing gesture toward all who want to settle in Europe. Some reasons are practical; we could “hardly squeeze” all of the people who are unhappy with their regimes into Europe.

Another reason stems from the principle of responsibility. “I don’t think it hurts to remind people who live in totalitarian states, subtly perhaps, that they might also do something about their own domestic totalitarianism, instead of just running away from it,” Havel, then Czechoslovakia’s most famous anti-communist dissident, argued in 1986. “If I demand that Westerners not think merely of their own particular interests and that they behave as we should all behave – that is, as though we were immediately responsible for the fate of the whole of society – then I see no reason why I shouldn’t demand the same of people living in totalitarian countries.”

Havel admits that this imperative, which can be applied to people fleeing other types of regimes, is “tough”; three decades later, however, it has lost none of its relevance. It is easier said than done, but the problems of a country or a region – whether economic or political – can be solved only in that place.

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When it comes to Central Europe, there is another factor impeding the willingness to accept refugees: the region is not weighed down by the burden of imperial guilt. For Havel, the feeling of Europe’s former colonial powers that they must make amends for past oppression led to an “intellectual dead end.” As he put it, “we will all help one another best if we make no pretenses, remain ourselves, and simply respect and honor one another, just as we are.”

In considering Europe’s future, Havel often dwelled on the search for an ethos to drive integration. The current refugee crisis could be the seed from which such a European ethos grows and spreads. Havel, however, would have questioned whether it could be planted, much less take root, by decree.