“Angela Merkel,” said Bill Bryson, “is my hero.” We were sitting by a lake, in a quiet part of Surrey, talking about his new book, The Road to Little Dribbling. It was only a year since he had completed his own British citizenship test, after living in the “small island” that made him his fortune for nearly 40 years. Angela Merkel had just announced that all Syrians would be “welcome” in her country. “Germany is a strong country,” she said, “we will manage”.
Germany is a strong country, but now even Europe’s most powerful country is struggling to cope. In the months since Merkel’s welcome, barbed wire fences have gone up across Europe. More men, women and children have climbed into boats. More men, women and children have drowned. It was a photo of a dead toddler washed up on a beach that triggered Angela Merkel’s announcement. It took a photo of a dead toddler to trigger a wave of what you could call compassion. The trouble is that compassion isn’t the same as a policy. And there doesn’t seem to be all that much doubt that the policy has failed.
On Monday, a Banksy artwork popped up on a building site in Knightsbridge. The picture was of Cosette from Les Miserables, and she was weeping in a cloud of tear gas. Next to her was a QR code which, when scanned into phone, links to video of police using teargas and bullets in the “jungle” in Calais. The site is opposite the French embassy and the message was clear. You are bastards. You should show these people some compassion. We should all show these people some compassion. Unfortunately, Banksy doesn’t say exactly what form that compassion should take.
In Calais at the weekend, Jeremy Corbyn also wanted to show compassion. He saw people living in horrible conditions and he thought that the best way of making things better for them was to let them all come and live in Britain. “We’re talking 3000 people,” he said. “It’s not very many.”
On this particular point, Jeremy Corbyn is right. 3000 people is “not very many”. What he didn’t say was what happens next. When the next 3000 people go to Calais, and the 3000 after that, and the 3000 after that, do you keep welcoming them into the country because 3000 people is “not very many”? Angela Merkel thought she might get half a million refugees and migrants. Germany has an ageing population and it can probably cope with half a million migrants. Last year, 1.2 million people arrived in her country. They are still pouring in to her country. Some of them, of course, are escaping war. But only a fifth of the people who tried to claim asylum in Europe last year are from Syria. The vast majority are not trying to escape a war, and the vast majority are young men.
It is, of course, very sad that so many young men around the world feel they would have a better future in Europe. But you’d only need to look at a graph to see why. Germany is the fourth richest country in the world. Britain is the sixth richest country in the world. Most of the 7.4 billion people in the world will probably be right to assume that life in Britain, Germany and other countries in Western Europe is likely to be easier than it is in their own. Forty per cent of people in poor countries, according to a Gallup poll, want to move to a richer country. And poorer countries don’t just have a lower standard of living. They’re also likely to have more violence, more repressive governments and more wars. In 2004, the asylum rules changed to include anyone who was at risk of “indiscriminate violence in a situation of international or armed internal conflict”. There is a lot of “armed internal conflict” in the world. In an ideal world, we should be able to offer a safe haven to all of the people who are trying to get away from poverty, repressive governments and “indiscriminate violence”, but this is not an ideal world, and the truth is: we can’t.
So we have decided, instead, to have a system that rewards the youngest, the fittest and the male. Last year, nearly three quarters of main asylum seekers in the UK were male. Ninety per cent of the asylum seekers under the age of 18 were male. It’s the same picture throughout Europe. I have nothing against men. I even quite like some men. But are we really saying that Europe is much more likely to be a safe haven if you’re male? And are we really happy to let the people smugglers decide who gets into Europe and who doesn’t? The people who are happy to take people’s life savings, cram them on to a boat that should never go near a sea and finger their cash as they watch them die?
I like Bill Bryson. I respect Angela Merkel. Jeremy Corbyn? Not so much. But this is not what I call compassion.
We, in the West, did not earn our good luck. Many people in the world would risk their lives for a tiny taste of our good luck. Some of them do, and some of them die. Some of them don’t die, and a whole new hard path starts. We who are lucky should certainly try and help some of the people who are much less lucky, but it’s time to face up to the fact that we can’t help all of them, and we sure as hell can’t do it like this.