Restoring Some Humanity To The Refugee Debate

I’ve noticed that most discussions about the refugee crisis discuss the issue in a very abstract way. The proposals are spoken of in a technical and hypothetical manner relating to various treaties, agreements and EU regulations, as well as figures about what may or may not happen. The discussion revolves around quotas and flows, as if refugees were something that come out of the tap. Even worse still, many opponents to refugee resettlement take a simplistic view of “Us versus Them”. “We” have a common culture and heritage that is apparently under attack. “They” are a strange foreign thing, incompatible with us.

Discussions of Muslims often treat them like a monolith as if they all think the same. They are lumped together and smeared as violent, sexist, homophobic, primitive, terrorist, rapist and dangerous. The worst examples are taken as representative as the whole. Every day, crimes are committed by white native Europeans without much comment, yet if a single one is committed by a Muslim, it provokes national outrage and declarations of how they are all like this. Certain people will confidently tell you that Muslims won’t stop until Europe is destroyed and replaced with a Sharia law Calpihate.

It is easy to demonise people if you stop thinking of them as fellow human beings, but instead as a foreign and hostile group. Fear mongers thrive on treating refugees as a faceless horde, which is why it is so important put a human face on the problem. We must remember that refugees are people with hopes, fears, dreams, friends, families, jobs etc. the same as us. When we see refugees as humans the problem doesn’t seem as scary if they are viewed as “them”.

I would highly recommend you watch these videos where refugees themselves describe their lives. It’s hard to view them as a dangerous horde out to destroy Western Civilisation when you see them talking and behaving just like the rest of us.

A lot of this fear stems from simple ignorance. Most people in the West have never met a Muslim so they treat them with the suspicion that most people treat the unknown. This blank canvass makes it much easier to project an image of dangerous people. If the only time people have seen a Muslim is on a news report after a terrorist attack, it’s understandable for this image to predominate. Yet if people were to just simply meet Muslims in the flesh, they’d see that they’re just the same as you or me.

I’ve recently moved to Toulouse in France and am living in an area with a lot of Arabs (France doesn’t collect racial or religious data so I don’t know how much). The hijab is a frequent sight on the streets and people have a much better tan, but otherwise it’s no different from living in Dublin or Galway. (As an Irishman, even the French seem tanned to me so I can’t always tell them apart from Arabs). As it happens I’m living with a lot of Arabs at the moment and it’s a completely ordinary experience. In my dormitories, the vast majority of people are African or Arab and they’re completely lovely. I have no idea how many are Muslim, which I suppose is the point, Muslims act the same as everyone else.

While it is a cliché to say “We are all the same” it’s easy to forget this in a world where immigrants are regularly damned as dangerous. In a world where people are increasingly looking out for themselves, where politics becomes “us versus them”, realising that foreigners are the same as us is almost a radical idea.

Some say that Islamic culture is just too different to Western culture that clashes are inevitable. But it is nonsense to pretend that there is only one Western culture or that we all share the same values. It is also nonsense to pretend that two cultures cannot live together and that we must shut ourselves off from separate views and only live with people who agree with us. Urban culture and opinions are different to rural ones but no one is suggesting we build a wall to keep them separate. Elderly people have very different views to young people but it is ridiculous to say that they cannot co-exist. Liberals and conservatives have hugely different worldviews yet this difference is a core part of modern society and democracy. We would all be much poorer with a monoculture and no dissenting viewpoints. Even if Muslims have different views and culture, this shouldn’t scare people. Life is all about getting on with people who are different to you.

The recent shooting of a Mosque in Canada shows that violence and terrorism are not exclusively Muslim traits. America has a serious problem with gun violence and a long history of invading countries, but to treat the average American as a potentially dangerous and violent person is as unfair as treating the average Muslim so. Nowadays the stereotypical image of a terrorist is an Arab, but during the 70s, 80s and 90s, it was an Irishman. During the Troubles many Irish people (especially in Britain) suffered discrimination and prejudice for actions they had no control over. Decent innocent people were blamed for the murders of the IRA. Some suspected all Irish people of supporting the IRA and trying to destroy the country from within.

Throughout the 19th century there were fears in America that floods of Irish would drown natives. It was viewed as a simple fact that the Irish were unfit for civilisation with their violent culture and primitive religion. They were too poor, ignorant, religious, had too many children, they beat their wives, drank their wages and plotted rebellion. There are many similarities between the Irish fleeing famine in coffin ships and Syrians fleeing war in flimsy dingy.

Yet they weren’t the only ones accused of being the dregs of Europe. In fact, almost every ethnic group has suffered the same prejudice that Muslims currently face. The Italians too were seen as bringing their criminal Mafia ways with them. In the late 19th century, it was the turn of Eastern Europeans to face prejudice and suspicion. Laws were enacted banning Chinese people from entering the country due to their supposed immoral and decadent ways.


During WW2 more than 100,000 Japanese people were detained in concentration camps because they were viewed as a security risk. At the time it was supported by most Americans as a reasonable security proposal (like the current Muslim ban) but has since but viewed with shame (as the Muslim ban too will be). This is to say nothing of the anti-black prejudice which has such a long history.  A friend showed me the border checkpoint where his parents crossed into France when they fled the Spanish Civil War (the French government detained them with other refugees in camps).



There are many parallels between the current refugee crisis and the wave of Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis in WW2. Most people were opposed to Jewish refugees as they were viewed as an economic burden, culturally incompatible and potentially Nazi spies (just as the people fleeing ISIS are now viewed as possible ISIS operatives). Ireland took in a shamefully few Jews (possibly only 50) and not many realise that Anne Frank’s family applied for and was denied asylum in America. I wonder how many modern Anne Franks are now languishing in refugee camps?



How would it feel if you were a refugee? Imagine if war broke out in your country and it was your town that the bombs were falling on. Imagine if it was your friends and family who were being killed. Imagine if every time you left the house you didn’t know if you’d return or if your house would still be there. If the war halted work and made getting basic living supplies a serious challenge. If your house was destroyed, where would you go? Considering the horrific situation in Syria, can you really blame people for leaving?

People shouldn’t try so hard to distance themselves from the refugees as if they are completely alien to us. They’re people just like us who just want to be safe. The main thing separating us is where we happened to be born, with some being luckier than others. No matter where you’re from, you probably have ancestors who suffered prejudice similar to what refugees currently face. Before rushing to condemn or shut them out of the country, put yourself in their shoes. It could be you.

5 thoughts on “Restoring Some Humanity To The Refugee Debate”

  1. An excellent piece of work Mr. Nielsen. I concur with all of it. Though I am an 8th-generation Texan many of my ancestors came to the U.S. as refugees fleeing inequality, war, religious asylum/freedoms, and genocide. I wager that unless you’re a Native American Indian, ALL OF US are somewhere up and down the line immigrants/refugees! Ah, but ignorance abounds and is often manufactured…

    In Bill O’Reilly’s interview moments ago with the POTUS, O’Reilly stated to tRump that today’s state/nation is completely different than 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th century American immigrants/refugees. 😦
    (shaking my head in my palms)

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