Community & Education HKFP Voices

Receiving visitors in the ‘Republic of Conscience’

Perhaps the most touching moment broadcast through international media in recent times is the warm welcome people fleeing Syria through Hungary received from large German crowds on arrival. When citizens of one country extend their friendship to the people of another, at their hour of need, it is always a powerful moment. When freedom-loving people of a country extend support to a freedom loving people of another country fleeing from war and oppression, it is indeed a meaningful moment.

For several decades now, heavy propaganda spread through the media has conditioned minds to regard everyone fleeing their country in search of refuge as economic migrants. These words, economic migrants, have acquired a derogatory meaning. In fact, migration for economic reasons has taken place and is taking place all the time and on quite a large scale. Such migration is considered quite normal and even necessary. There are various arrangements, in various countries, to facilitate such migration. There is no hue and cry about those who come to steal the jobs of local people when such migration occurs. Hell breaks loose only when people try to reach outside of their settled areas into other areas in sheer distress.

The warm and humane response extended to Syrian refugees arriving in Germany reminds us of many other instances not long ago, when similar or even more powerful positive expressions of solidarity arose in response to human tragedy. One such occasion was when, in late 1970s, pictures of large masses of people walking from Cambodia towards the Thailand border were flashed in media throughout the world. Those people were fleeing from the wretched conditions and devastation caused by the Pol Pot regime (1975-1979). The world responded overwhelmingly and even prominent personalities at the time like Jean-Paul Sartre spoke powerfully in favour of a massive humane response to this great tragedy.

The Irish poet, Nobel Laureate, Seamus Heaney wrote his great poem “From the Republic of Conscience” that became the title poem for a collection of poems published by the Amnesty International Ireland to mark the 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Heaney wrote this about his poem in the introduction to the collection: “I took it that Conscience would be a Republic, a silent, solitary place where a person would find it hard to avoid self-awareness and self-examination …” The opening verses of the poem are relevant to mark the German people’s welcome of the Syrian refugees:

“When I landed in the republic of conscience
it was so noiseless when the engines stopped
I could hear a curlew high above the runway.

At immigration, the clerk was an old man
who produced a wallet from his homespun coat
and showed me a photograph of my grandfather.

The woman in customs asked me to declare
the words of our traditional cures and charms
to heal dumbness and avert the evil eye.

No porters. No interpreter. No taxi.
You carried your own burden and very soon
your symptoms of creeping privilege disappeared…”

seamus heaney

Seamus Heaney with his portrait. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

It has taken a series of rending incidents – of drownings of people as their boats capsized, of people dying inside enclosed vehicles, where they could not breathe, and of a child’s body being washed ashore, the little black shorts and the red t-shirt and the tiny shoes – to provoke a re-examination of the laws and the rules in several of the European countries. The politicians promised such a re-examination only after sections of people in their countries began to express outrage at what they were seeing and hearing.

syrian refugee

Illustrations by Egyptian cartoonist

What has come to be challenged in this way are hardened attitudes created mainly by the propaganda of right wing political parties, which have kept on attributing all the ills of their societies to migrants. It was the same old trick played by the Nazis, in their time. However, in the recent decades this propaganda has resulted in making the migrant blame game appear as the truth. This created heavy burden on international agencies committed to international conventions relating to refugees and internally displaced persons, as the governments began to refuse to cooperate with them. One of the most hardened stances in this regard has been the position taken by the Australian government. Even in Hong Kong, the government’s policy on refugees has been questionable.

australia welcome refugees

Australians welcoming refugees in 2013. Photo: Takver via Flickr.

The results of such hardened stances is the attitude that whatever happens to other people due to whatever problems exist in their countries is no concern of ours. It went to the extent of some developed countries establishing cooperation with repressive regimes in less developed countries to monitor the refugee inflows and to stop those attempting to flee. These developed country governments were quite willing to support repressive regimes by keeping silent about human rights abuses committed by such regimes. However, the events that have unfolded in the recent months have clearly demonstrated that the problem of people fleeing from repression, war, and hunger can neither be resolved by creating blackened images about these persons through propaganda, nor by taking hardened stances ignoring the relevant international conventions.

Following the end of the Cold War, the attitudes of developed democracies regarding the less developed countries has undergone a fundamental change. The problems in these countries no longer provide the possibility for, i.e. threat of, the expansion of communism. The promotion of democracy in developing countries and fighting against repressive regimes that create civil wars and enormous amount of violence became a matter of less concern. Indifference to the sufferings of people in these countries was no longer thought of as posing problems which will have international repercussions.

However, such notions have been proved to be just illusions.

It is to be hoped that the more positive responses that have emerged will lead to greater soul searching and a re-emergence of a ‘conscience’ within the international community on matters related to the sufferings of others.

In a September 10 editorial, the South China Morning Post has referred to the absence of consensus amongst European nations on ways to deal with the present influx of persons seeking asylum. However, this is not merely a European issue. It is a global issue, and much more soul searching is needed to find a humane solution.

Receiving visitors in the ‘Republic of Conscience’