“The situation is dire. Waves and waves of illegal immigrants are flooding our shores. We are dealing with an invasion. We are not safe anymore.”
This is the manner in which a cousin from Samos expressed his feelings about the flood of refugees reaching the shores of that island, along with many others, in their thousands recently. Those refugees are fleeing the continuing conflict in Syria and Iraq that has caused thousands of civilian deaths and displaced millions, in what is possibly the largest humanitarian catastrophe of our present age.
In Kos, it is reported that refugees may possibly outnumber residents. As the already beleaguered Greek state struggles and not particularly succeeds in accommodating floods of people fleeing war, this is leading to social disruption, racism and, on the part of some desperate and hungry refugees, crime. One can see why the plight of 2,000 refugees, including women, babies and small children, who were locked in a football stadium without access to food, water or bathroom facilities last week on Kos can exacerbate already present feelings of desperation and frustration on the part of refugees already brutalised by war, leading to the riots and acts of violence on that island.
The Greek state and the largely sympathetic Greek people currently have neither the resources nor the capability to accommodate, even for a short period, the sojourn of these refugees. The refugees (for they are not, as is insensitively claimed, ‘illegal immigrants’) in turn will do whatever they can to secure the resources they need to feed their families. If it was your infant child that was compelled to sleep on a piece of cardboard in the open air, as is depicted in the picture accompanying these words, most plausibly, you would be willing to act in a similar fashion.
As refugees who have fled the region during past conflicts have told me, no one wishes to leave their countries unless they absolutely have to. The refugees who make their way to Greece, after first having lost their homes and having to pay people smugglers a small fortune in order to find a place on overcrowded and unseaworthy vessels, do so, not in the hope of staying in Greece or subjecting Greece to Islam (which is ridiculous since a large percentage of them are Christians fleeing religious persecution), but in search of temporary succour in their quest to reach the more developed, democratic and safe Western world they have heard so much about.
The hysterical claims by many frustrated Greeks, however, to the effect that Greece and more broadly Europe is facing a barbarian invasion that will have untold social and economic ramifications upon the continent, require closer scrutiny.
A millennium and a half ago, much of Europe was ruled by the Roman Empire, a state that had reached an unprecedented level of material wealth, bureaucratic and ideological conformity. Arguably, the longevity and internal cohesion of that empire rested upon a gradually-realised consensus that Roman rule was justified. Such a consensus was the product of a complex conversation between the central government and its far-flung peripheries. It follows logically that those immediately without that periphery would, if not adopt, at least become familiar with the Roman way of life and in times of crisis, when there own customs, institutions and resources failed them, to seek refuge and or to avail themselves of the benefits of Romanity.
The Gothic refugee crisis further illuminates the point. In the summer and autumn of 376, tens of thousands of displaced Goths and other tribes arrived at the border of the Roman Empire on the Danube River, seeking asylum from the Huns who were attacking them. The Gothic leader, Fritigern, appealed to the Roman emperor Valens for asylum across the Danube in Roman territory. Valens agreed, stipulating however that the weak, old, and sickly must be left on the far bank to fend for themselves against the Huns.
Rome was unable to supply the Goths with either the food they were promised or land. Instead, they were herded into a temporary holding area surrounded by an armed Roman garrison. There was only enough grain left for the Roman garrison, and so they simply let the Goths starve. When Fritigern appealed to Valens for help, he was told that his people would find food in the distant city of Marcianopolis. When they arrived there, they were denied entry and assassination attempts were made against their leaders. Consequently, the Goths embarked upon plundering expeditions that led to a war in which they were able to kill Valens, plunder most of the Balkans to an extent that they did not recover for centuries and extort protection money from the Romans.
Similarly 100,000 of the beleaguered Slavic peoples, seeking refuge from the Turkic Avars, who in turn were being persecuted by other nomadic tribes, poured into Thrace in the late sixth century, taking over Roman cities and gradually making their way down to the Peloponnese, where they settled in large numbers.
In the first instance, failure by the Romans to accommodate Gothic refugees adequately, address their needs or find a solution to their humanitarian catastrophe led to the wholesale sack of the Roman Empire and untold misery. A similar set of circumstances took place in the US in the aftermath of Cyclone Katrina, proving that this is not a phenomenon of civilisation but rather, one of the human condition.
In the second instance, which was occasioned by Roman inability to police their borders owing to wars with the Persians, a campaign of gradual assimilation (punctuated, of course, by bouts of violence on both sides) seemed to pay dividends, as these populations gradually assimilated within the Empire, although not without strife or occasional disharmony.
There are lessons that Greece and Europe can learn from the ‘barbarian invasions’. They can and will happen, regardless of how much we attempt to ‘turn back the boats’ and the more inept or indeed callous the treatment of those on the periphery seeking to get in (recently a visiting Polish dignitary advised the Italian mayor of Lampedusa, where the refugee crisis from Libya has reached cataclysmic proportions, to merely let the refugees drown), the more violent in their desperation they will become, with unforeseen consequences for their host societies and for humanity in general as refugees become ‘barbarians’ and are thus dehumanised.
When Rome was the world, the world was Rome, and the rest of the globe was largely isolated from the effects of the refugee crises of late antiquity. Now, when the ‘West’ spans the globe, the after-shocks of the mass movement of population, caused partly by the mismanagement of world affairs by the West itself, is a global responsibility.
The refugees, first and foremost, need our sympathy, not expressions of fear, horror and indignation at their presence. They need to be humanely processed, housed, fed and accommodated fairly and it is in the interests of all developed countries to partake in this endeavour. It goes without saying that effective action to cease the multitude of wars blighting our planet is the one main preventative measure that would nip such crises in the bud.
Finally, when talking of invasions, barbarians and refugees, let us consider who is the true barbarian: he who has everything and denies another who has lost everything his needs, or he who has nothing and must do whatever he can to survive. In this, the finally word goes to the Theanthropos Himself, by way of the Gospel of Matthew:
“For I was hungry, and you gave me to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me to drink; I was a stranger, and you took me in.”
* Dean Kalymniou is a Melbourne solicitor and freelance writer.