Refugee Blues

Once we had a country and we thought it fair,
Look in the atlas and you'll find it there:
We cannot go there now, my dear, we cannot go there now.

The consul banged the table and said,
"If you've got no passport you're officially dead":
But we are still alive, my dear, but we are still alive.

Came to a public meeting; the speaker got up and said;
"If we let them in, they will steal our daily bread":
He was talking of you and me, my dear, he was talking of you and me.

Saw a poodle in a jacket fastened with a pin,
Saw a door opened and a cat let in:
But they weren't German Jews, my dear, but they weren't German Jews.

-- W.H. Auden, Refugee Blues, 1939 (extracts)

And here we are, again. Only it's not Jews, but Syrians.

On May 13, 1939, the passenger liner St. Louis set sail from Hamburg, carrying 937 Jewish refugees seeking asylum from Nazi persecution. The ship was respectively turned away from Havana, Miami -- the U.S. Coast Guard blocked its entry -- and Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Eventually, the liner sailed back across the Atlantic, docking at Antwerp. After much negotiation, Britain, France, Belgium and the Netherlands took most of the passengers. Historians have determined that roughly 709 survived the war and 227 perished in the camps.

None of the allied nations made room for more than token numbers of Jewish refugees from Nazism. The United States took about 60,000, Switzerland 30,000, Britain took about 10,000 Jewish children, but actively blocked Jewish emigration to Palestine. About 100,000 refugees went to countries that were soon overrun by the Nazis.

Reading that history, one found the sheer inhumanity incomprehensible. Yet all of the leading politicians had other fish to fry. They did not want to challenge a public opinion that was opposed to taking in large numbers of refugees.

And here we are again.

The mounting catastrophe of Syrian refugees in Europe is one part the same old same old, "not in my backyard," but with several new wrinkles. One is the complete paralysis of the European Union as a government able to take emergency action.

The humanitarian crisis is happening right now in real time, but the EU operates by consensus if not unanimity and it operates with agonizing slowness. Several nations don't want anything to do with refugees. Hungary's brutal response is more candid and ugly than others, but in this story there are few heroes.

One hero is the Prime Minister of Sweden, Stefan Löfven. Sweden has been more generous to refugees and immigrants than most nations, and now faces a backlash.

In the September 2014 general election, when Löfven's Social Democratic Party narrowly returned to power in a three-party coalition with the Greens and the Left Party, the biggest gainer was the frankly racist Swedish Democratic Party. It abruptly became Sweden's third largest party, increasing its parliamentary representation from 20 to 49 seats and picking up 13 percent of the popular vote.

I have spent the past week in Denmark and Sweden, exploring how the economic crisis and the immigrant crisis are affecting European politics. Elsewhere in Europe, social democrats are running for cover, because so many of their working class constituents are feeling economically insecure and many are scapegoating immigrants and voting for the populist right.

But in Sweden, Prime Minister Löfven, former head of the Metalworkers union, has done a remarkable thing. He has embraced the refugee cause, as has his entire government.

On Sunday, I accompanied the employment minister, Ylva Johansson, to a rally organized by the youth movements of the Social Democrats, the Greens, and other progressive parties. The featured speaker was the prime minister himself.

As thousands braved a nasty rainstorm to attend the outdoor rally, Löfven declared,
"We need to decide right now what kind of Europe we are going to be. My Europe takes in refugees. My Europe doesn't build walls," he said.

Johansson added, in our conversation, "In Sweden we are different and we need to stay different. To feel empathy with the suffering of another person, a person who is not like ourselves, is part of being human. To solve this refugee crisis is not rocket science, it is not impossible."

The obvious solution would be to offer a legal route for Syrian refugees to settle in Europe so that they didn't have to brave leaky boats and hostile border guards. That solution would require countries to each take their fair share -- including the United States and Canada.

President Roosevelt proposed something similar for German Jews. A conference was convened in 1938 at Evian-les-Bains in France to see if agreement could be reached among major nations on admission of Jewish refugees. The conference was a flop. Only the Dominican Republic offered to take serious numbers.

With the EU machinery deadlocked, the practical question is whether nations that are relatively sympathetic to the refugee crisis, such as Germany and France, can join with Sweden and create a coalition of the willing, bypassing the EU. This will not be easy.

Even before this latest refugee influx, Europe was experiencing a huge backlash against immigrants. Much of Europe had been compassionate in its acceptance of refugees and had also admitted citizens of its former colonies. During the boom years, Europe had welcomed guest workers. By 2008, many countries had immigrant or second-generation immigrant populations approaching 10 percent.

High unemployment in the prolonged aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis only increased local resistance. Really bad austerity policy has made an immigration crisis into a political catastrophe. Germany's stance on the refugees is relatively liberal, but its relentless pursuit of austerity has made the crisis worse.

This rightwing nativist upsurge has undermined social democratic politics in Europe's most tolerant and advanced societies. Large numbers of local working class voters, frightened of unemployment, have turned to nationalist parties -- fragmenting parliamentary systems and making it impossible for social democrat or labor parties to lead stable majority governments.

Rightwing populist parties have been surging in the most progressive nations of Europe. In Denmark, Norway and Finland, where center-right coalitions now govern, the rightwing anti-immigrant parties are now the second largest.

Unlike some other populist parties, the Danish variant is strongly pro-welfare state. It just thinks the welfare state should be reserved for Danes.

This puts Danish Social Democrats in a quandary. They are losing working class voters to the People's Party, and my interviews with party leaders suggest that Social Democrats are split down the middle. Some want to ostracize the populists as unacceptable toxic. Others look at the relentless parliamentary arithmetic, and conclude that their only chance of returning to power is some kind of alliance with the People's Party on issues where they agree. For now the People's Party is supporting the center-right government, which is more anti-immigrant than the Social Democrats.

Elsewhere in Europe, center-left leaders are hiding. Traditionally, as humanists, they are pro-immigrant and pro-refugee. But in practice, they are losing their working class base to racists. And there are only so many people that a small nation can admit.

This reality makes the stance of the Swedish government all the more ennobling. Sometimes, leadership is about appealing to the best in people. Without that leadership, racists succeed in appealing to the worst.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and a visiting professor at Brandeis University's Heller School. His latest book is Debtors' Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility.

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