Mediterranean migrant crisis: Where has Britain's altruism gone?

The Government's refusal to take any of the boat people arriving on European shores is a symptom of a broader malaise

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The Independent Online

We all possess two natures. One is egotistical. It focuses on external success: security, comfort, wealth and status. The other is altruistic. It strives for inner fulfilment and values love and virtues such as compassion, kindness, honesty and loyalty. We thrive when we keep these two sides of our nature in balance. But, argues the American intellectual David Brooks in his new book The Road to Character, we live in a culture that encourages us to think about the external side of our natures rather than our inner selves.

What is true of individuals is true of societies. It is revealing to apply Brooks’ analysis to Europe’s migrant crisis: more people are now being displaced from their homes than was the case during the Second World War.

The three million Syrian refugees who have fled to neighbouring countries – along with thousands more fleeing persecution and misery in the failed states of Africa – are increasingly spilling on to Europe’s shores. So far this year, 153,000 boat people have crossed the Mediterranean – treble the number who came in the whole of 2014. The numbers arriving in Greece have soared eightfold.

The response of the British government has focused entirely on economic and political externals. It has announced that the UK will taken none of them. The inner values of altruism are notable by their total absence.

Of course, a balanced response must take account of those external factors. The Government pleads that the UK is the second largest international donor in the flow of funds to assist Syrian refugees in the countries that border that war-torn nation. That is admirable. And the Government is right to suggest that the issue should be tackled at source – with international alliances against the people traffickers.


But there is much more to do in countries such as Libya, from which many of the migrants set out – and where the UK was part of the Western alliance that bombed the Gaddafi regime out of existence but then abandoned the country to an internal conflict into which the brutalists of the so-called Islamic State have now entered. The UK should be working harder to broker some kind of agreement between the two feuding governments in Libya. We should be providing funding and logistic support so that more safe havens can be created near the war-torn countries of the Middle East.

And we need to reach a deal with other EU countries over the practicalities of handling the wave of migrants repeatedly trying to enter the UK from their makeshift camps outside Calais. In the end, some kind of scheme like the old UN Gateway programme must be put in place to allocate migrants to European countries through an organised quota.

Britain’s refusal so far to engage with the problem seems politically counterproductive at a time when the Cameron government is seeking allies in Europe in pursuit of its aim to renegotiate Britain’s place within the EU. At present, the UK has admitted fewer asylum applicants than Germany, Sweden, Italy, France or Hungary. That is hardly the basis on which to win friends in Europe.

But there is, as Brooks’ argument suggests, more to it than all these political externalities. It is not just about economics and money. Europe has a soul, too. Its history and tradition ought to make it a beacon of enlightenment, compassion, solidarity and hope.

Pope Francis offered an insight into this with his eco-encyclical this month in which he pointed out that behind the world’s environmental crisis lay a deeper malaise. The way that we have allowed market economics to dominate our value systems has led us into the fallacy that the world, and other people, are a resource to be manipulated for our gain.

The rich world’s indifference, in effect, to global warming, and our devastating pollution of the environment, is rooted in a capitalist mentality that maximises our choices but gives no guidance on how we should choose. We need, the Pope says, to “break with the logic of violence, exploitation and selfishness”.

Our attitude to the swell of migrants around the world is a microcosm of that. To address the issue with full humanity we need to inject into the debate the inner values of altruism, to give balance to the political and economic externalities that have become the default through which we view this wave of human misery.

In The Road to Character, Brooks takes a variety of historical figures –  from Dwight Eisenhower to George Eliot and Samuel Johnson to St Augustine. All of them, in very different ways, he argues, reconciled their external and internal natures. True fulfilment, he concludes, is to be found in the counter-intuitive truth that to fulfil ourselves we must learn to forget ourselves.

And he offers another useful corrective insight. He draws a distinction between what he calls résumé virtues and eulogy virtues. The former are the qualities you list on your CV, the skills that you bring to the job market. Eulogy virtues, by contrast, are the qualities you would hope people might mention at your funeral – kindness, honesty, compassion, courage, loyalty, integrity. They are the qualities we bring to the relationships we form in life.

They are also the merits we need to bring to bear on our current refugee crisis if we are to be happy with the judgements that history will make on us.

Paul Vallely is visiting professor in public ethics at the University of Chester