In the 1970s, my parents decided to go into exile, away from totalitarian Prague. Under Communism, moving to another country was unconstitutional, so they had to leave clandestinely. With their teenage children – my brother and I – they went on an organized trip to India, which, they discovered too late, had meanwhile signed an agreement with Communist Czechoslovakia that it would hand over anyone who tried to flee to the Czechoslovak authorities. To continue our journey from Delhi to New York, my parents had to depend on the benevolence – or negligence – of the passport control clerk in Delhi: if he had reported them, my parents would have been sentenced to many years in jail. We were lucky and were able to land at JFK airport without any problems. Hundreds of thousands of people from the countries of the Soviet orbit left their countries in conditions as dramatic or even more dramatic than those of my parents: some tried to cross the barbed wire fences along the border, others tried to swim across the border drawn by rivers like the Danube, risking not reaching the other bank or being shot dead by the guards. The risk was enormous, and there were many fatalities on the closely watched borders. But those who managed to reach the other side of the “iron curtain” were generally accepted by the West.
Historians of the future may define the 20th and 21st centuries as the period of great wars and population displacements. Never before have so many millions of human beings, mainly in Europe and Asia, been forced – for ideological, political or religious reasons – to abandon their usual ways of living and flee without knowing what awaited them. In the West, the waves of political exiles changed the ethnic map of the great European and American cities. Germans, Irish, Russians, Spaniards, Jews, Bosnians, all of them in their time fled from some revolution, war or ethnic cleansing. Paris, Berlin, London, Prague, New York were once great centers of refugee acceptance that changed their character due to the impact of these refugees’ arrival. New York would not be as we know it now, if it were not for the flood of Jews fleeing Nazi Germany.
However, the 21st century has changed the Western trend of providing asylum to political exiles. The wars in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan have created new waves of asylum seekers, but most of them remain in the limbo of refugee camps and only a minority have been reluctantly admitted.
Asylum seekers have become a problem for the West. In 2016 Trump won the election in part because of his proposal to build a wall on the border with Mexico. The one million refugees accepted by Germany a few years back helped the rise of the far-right Alternative for Germany party, especially in the former GDR. Post-communist Europe is not only unsympathetic when it comes to taking in refugees but builds barbed wire walls (I have seen them along the borders of Slovenia, Croatia and Hungary) to block the path of refugees, forgetting those countries’ own earlier longings to flee communism. Eastern countries have historically dealt poorly with immigrants from Muslim countries, and populist leaders take advantage of this to demonize their migration. Unfortunately, their attitude has partly been adopted in Western Europe; the Islamist radicalization of the mullahs does not make things any easier, either.
Poland, as well as Lithuania, are today erecting barbed wire fences to deny entry to 35 Afghans who came to the Polish border with the encouragement of Belarus. Standing at the border (some of them ill) without being let in by the Polish authorities, they have become a symbol of this new European border crisis.
Looking at the photos of the human tragedy at the Kabul airport, I think of the failure of Great Britain, the Soviet Union and the United States in Afghanistan, that unexploited mine of the most valuable metals, including the highly sought-after lithium. Yes, that country is a victim of its mineral wealth; this is its curse.
The fact that the United States has abandoned the Afghan people to their fate does not absolve us, the Americans and their allies, of our responsibility. And let us not forget that with immigrants we gain: the couple who invented one of the vaccines against COVID-19, Pfizer-Biontech, is of Turkish origin, and there are dozens of such examples. The Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet writes: “You must know how to die for men/And moreover for men you never met/And moreover without anyone forcing you to do so.” Fortunately, no one is forcing us to die, but refugees deserve that we continue to discuss possible solutions with generosity and compassion.