To pretend you haven’t noticed

This post first appeared as one of the responses on The Guardian‘s Comment is Free to the question: How many refugees should the UK take in?


Yvette Cooper is correct: it is “immoral and cowardly” to close the doors against refugees from war and persecution. Real strength is not using force to keep out destitute people fleeing for their lives; true moral strength lies in striving to do what is right.

News of last week’s conference at the Hofburg palace, where European leaders expressed sympathy but came up with no collective plan, made desolate but familiar reading. It was reminiscent of the Evian conference convened by President Roosevelt in the summer of 1938 to find solutions for tens of thousands fleeing Nazi Germany. No European country raised its quotas, allowing Hitler and Goebbels to observe that, while they complained about how Germany treated the Jews, no one else wanted them either.

We don’t wish to become the moral equivalent of the places from which those seeking shelter, safety and a future are desperately fleeing today. We don’t want to go down in history as the nation that closed its doors.

At the age of 16 both my parents were refugees. Mercifully, my mother’s family gained temporary visas to Britain and found shelter with pious Christians who showed them kindness and respect. When they left, my mother asked how she could repay them: “One day your family will do the same for others” was the reply.

The time has come to make good. Around me everyone is looking with horror at the pictures of the drowned and the exhausted and asking: what can I do to help?
Germany has offered to take 800,000; placards were even raised at football matches proclaiming: “We welcome refugees.” Iceland is taking 10,000; surely Britain should exceed that figure.

The Hebrew Bible contains a remarkable verb: “to pretend you haven’t noticed”. We’ve all noticed. Now we mustn’t pretend. Instead, we should be true to this country’s past, as an isle of refuge and a land of tolerance and welcome.

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