Refugees are a gift not a threat

16 Oct 2015

'Attitude is everything' is a well-known maxim. Our chances of overcoming a problem, according to this philosophy, depend largely on our attitude to it.

With refugees pouring into Europe by the tens of thousands, our attitude to this ‘crisis’ may not be everything. But if we don’t unmuddle the thinking in our heads, the consequences could be catastrophic – for them and for us.

So much of the current debate is centred on our ourselves – whether we can cope, how we will be affected. Of course these issues are important, but there is more at stake here.

As Europeans we need to reboot our brains, shedding the notion that these people are a threat, and coming to see them as a gift instead.

A gift? How can that be when many European countries are already struggling with economic inequalities, unemployment, ethnic tension?

We may find that these fleeing people, poor in possessions, but rich in experience and values, may help us in ways we have not imagined.

Their humanity could rekindle our humanity. As we become more aware of the smallness of our often-self-preoccupied lives, we might begin to find a new and deeper motivation. Already we see the crisis bringing out the best in people, as the latent generosity in so many Europeans is unleashed. It could lead to a renewed sense of purpose – amid the drifting aimlessness gripping our continent – to help shape societies which provide justice for all.

Another gift could be an opportunity to atone for the wrongs of the past. As everyone knows, whether we admit it or not, Europe bears a heavy responsibility for the breakdown of nations and communities in many of the countries from which the refugees are fleeing. For centuries we have acted largely out of self-interest without thought of the consequences. Here is a chance to help redress the balance.

A new humility and integrity in the West might give us more credibility, too, in playing a role in helping Syria to stop bleeding. We cannot ignore our responsibility to help in stabilising the region and bringing a settlement to the Syrian conflict.

And then perhaps another gift is on offer here. The true happiness that comes from sharing, from caring for those in need. Much of our Western society is based on the notion that happiness comes from getting what you want, but in our heart of hearts we know that isn’t true. Here is a chance to experience the real thing.

Yes, seeing these people as a gift to us, instead of as a threat to our comfortable isolation, could be the change of mindset which would release new ideas and fresh teamwork across the continent. What this might mean in terms of hard government policies is another matter. But attitude, if not everything, is fundamental to find a way forward.