Welcome to hell
Cruelty is hardly an acceptable response to the refugee crisis.
“ABANDON all hope, ye who enter here.” That is the clincher, so to speak, in the inscription on the gates to hell, according to Dante’s Divine Comedy. It’s a message that could be transported across the centuries and prominently be displayed along the US border with Mexico, in place of the wall Donald Trump has so far failed to build.
Could his administration’s policy of separating parents from their children, including infants and toddlers, conceivably be interpreted any other way? It was abandoned last week, after the outcry against distraught minors incarcerated in metal cages grew too loud. But the fascist mentality that facilitated it remains intact, and despite the government’s assurances, it remains unclear whether all of the more than 2,000 kids effectively taken hostage by the ‘land of the free’ can be reunited with their adult relatives.
It is equally uncertain whether they will be imprisoned alongside their parents. Trump, who broadly denigrated Mexicans and other Latinos as murderers and rapists, has lately indicated he would prefer potential asylum-seekers, refugees and would-be immigrants to be deported without due process.
The policy of wrenching children from their parents has been implemented since last year, but became the norm a couple of months ago when Jeff Sessions, the US attorney general, was able to have his way. Last week, he cited the Bible in defending his ‘zero-tolerance’ policy, and White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders was dumb enough to echo him.
Sanders was upset at being denied service at a restaurant in Virginia a few days ago. But perhaps she should be counting her blessings. No one has tried to separate her from her children. Trump spouted the usual inanities on Twitter, but the fact that some Americans are willing to call out his collaborators and enablers is a hopeful sign.
Whether the resistance will gather sufficient momentum by the time of the mid-term congressional elections in November remains to be seen, but the past week or two have provided extra cause for keeping one’s fingers crossed.
Not surprisingly, Trump has been crowing over the troubles of Angela Merkel in Germany as she struggles to keep her ruling coalition intact in the face of a revolt spearheaded by her interior minister, Horst Seehofer, who seems determined to tighten his nation’s border controls. Merkel, about the only prominent leader in her part of the world to offer a compassionate response to the mass influx of refugees from the Middle East in 2015, seeks an EU-wide response to the dilemma.
That has seldom seemed less likely. Seehofer’s Italian counterpart, Matteo Salvini, built the reputation of his League on an anti-immigrant platform, and has lately directed his bile against the Roma community. Next to European Jews, the Roma were the next biggest victims of Adolf Hitler’s exterminatory zeal. The discrimination has been exacerbated in the 21st century.
Salvini garnered international headlines with his decision to refuse docking rights to a rescue vessel transporting more than 600 refugees, which was also turned away by Malta, and welcomed by Spain only because of a fortuitous change of government. There are communities in Greece, Italy and Spain that have been remarkably gracious in accepting those desperate enough to risk their lives in the vague hope of a less uncertain future, not least for their children. But, generally speaking, the mood of the ruling classes in Europe is reflected more accurately by Salvini and his ilk — from Hungary, Austria, Serbia and Poland all the way to France and Britain — than by Merkel.
And there are plenty of Australians heartless enough to take pride in the fact that their nation was the first in the 21st century to effectively go to war against asylum-seekers, depositing those who made it through on nearby islands. The aim was deterrence, as it is in the US and in much of Europe, and likewise the motivation was largely racist.
The government in Canberra effectively showed its hand on this score when it offered to fast-track potential applications for asylum from farmers in South Africa. Being white, Christian, possibly rich and probably prejudiced against darker races, they would fit right in.
The tens of millions of people displaced by foreign wars, civil strife and grinding poverty, the vast majority of whom find refuge in neighbouring countries, do pose a complex conundrum that requires a concerted international effort. But routine cruelty and callousness hardly qualify as a reasonable response.
It could be argued that the inscription on the Statue of Liberty — which incorporates the words “Give me your tired, your poor/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,/ The wretched refuse of your teeming shore” — should be replaced for the time being with the Dantean warning cited at the outset. But there will always be room at the back of it for another message, perhaps in the form of graffiti: La lucha continua. The struggle carries on. As it must.