Hundreds of thousands of people fleeing their war-ravaged country. Families crowding into tiny wooden boats and taking unimaginable risks to escape across the sea to safety. Communities feeling unnerved as “foreigners” arrive to start a new life.
It sounds familiar but this isn’t the Europe in 2016. The scenes I am describing are from South-East Asia, where the fall of Saigon in 1975 triggered a mass movement of Vietnamese refugees that lasted until the early 1990s.
Working with the boat people of Viet Nam was the defining moment of my career. More than 800,000 people sought safety in countries across South-East Asia, and as far north as Japan, as far south as Australia, and eventually even beyond Asia Pacific.
Today, as I see the migration crisis in Europe, and as I prepare to visit Germany, I find myself thinking often of what happened on the other side of the world, more than four decades ago.
I worked with the Japanese Red Cross in 11 of the camps that were established to support those arriving. The people I met there were haunted by uncertainty, the uncertainty of what would happen next hanging over them every day. But we worked hard, with other agencies and with governments, to support people to overcome their feelings of isolation and fear, and to help them settle into their new homes and new lives. These were people in my country who deserved nothing less than the people of my country
The parallels between then and now are many and obvious. The crisis that I responded to as a younger man was a consequence of conflict in a remote land. In the days before globalization, it already demonstrated how deeply connected we all are; how suffering, despair and fear in one part of the world can spread its consequences way beyond borders.
It also taught those of us in countries of arrival a lot about ourselves, about our own limitations, but also about the near boundless extent of our generosity and empathy. In the late 1970s, there were voices preaching fear and anger. But they were countered, ultimately, by the humanity that is, I believe, one of the defining and unifying characteristics of our species. This one humanity we all share.
I believe this today as much as I did back then, even though I am aware that voices of discrimination and indifference are growing louder and more influential, and that stigmatization of asylum seekers and anti-immigrant rhetoric is seeping deeper into our societies.
This is why the example from South East Asia is important. It is helpful, I believe, to recall that the challenge now facing Europe is not unique, that it has parallels in history, and that it has been, and can once again, be overcome, however long it may continue. It is useful as well to recall that, through these experiences, principles for responding to the needs of people fleeing persecution, conflict and poverty have been developed, and that these principles are enshrined in international laws and agreements. These principles find one simple expression: people have the right to live in dignity. People have a right to receive humanitarian assistance. People have a right to protection and security. Simple but very helpful principles to set a course.
The South-East Asia crisis is also useful to remind us that migration is not a European phenomenon. Only 14 per cent of refugees are in Europe. This is not to downplay the impact of the past 12 months on this continent, or to disregard the tremendous generosity of the response so far. But it does highlight the need for a global and coordinated response.
In June, the IFRC was asked to participate in a high level roundtable on migration convened by Germany’s Foreign Minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier. During that meeting, we emphasized these same points, calling for dignity to be the foundation of our collective response, and recalling that for such a response to be truly effective, that the needs of people on the move must be met at all stages of their journeys.
The work of the German Red Cross to welcome and support refugees and migrants, and to help them begin their new lives in Germany, is a source of pride for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. It is an important part of a continuum of Red Cross and Red Crescent work that circumnavigates the globe, in countries of origin, transit and destination. The IFRC is uniquely present at all of these points, providing information, support and protection as people begin their journeys, providing search and rescue as they attempt to cross the Mediterranean Sea, and first aid, relief and care when people reach foreign shores.
The challenge, of course, is what comes now. Regardless of how many people continue to seek safety in Europe, there are today hundreds of thousands of people who are here and who are likely to remain. They will need language classes, job training, education, and other support to help them become active and productive parts of German society.
Once again, history reminds us that this can be done. Today in dozens of countries across Asia and around the world, a generation of Vietnamese “boat people” has become part of the fabric of many diverse communities. This will require patience and dedication, and a commitment to our shared humanity.