In the 1970s, my parents decided to go into exile 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 according to which they would hand over to the Czechoslovak authorities any person who tried to flee. To continue our journey from Delhi to New York, my parents had to pray for the benevolence – or negligence – of the passport control clerk in Delhi: if he reported them, my parents would have been sentenced to long years in jail. We were lucky and were able to land at Kennedy Airport without any problems.
Hundreds of thousands of people from the countries of the Soviet orbit left their countries in conditions as or more dramatic than my parents: some tried to cross the barbed wire on the border, others tried to swim across the border that drew rivers like the Danube, risking not to reach the other shore or to die from the shots of the guards. The risk was enormous and there were many fatalities on the rigorously guarded borders. But those who made it to the other side of that 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 displacement. Never have so many millions of human beings, mainly in Europe and Asia, been forced for ideological, political or religious reasons to abandon everything that made up their lives and flee without knowing what awaited them. In the West, waves of political exiles changed the ethnic map of large European and American cities. Germans, Irish, Russians, Spanish, Jews, Bosnians, all of them at the time fled some revolution, war or ethnic cleansing. Paris, Berlin, London, Prague, New York were at one time great refugee reception centers that changed their character under the impact of their arrival. New York would not be as we know it if it were not for the great wave of Jews who fled Nazi Germany, nor Santiago, Mexico City or Buenos Aires where so many Spaniards took refuge.
However, the 21st century has changed the Western trend to provide asylum for the political exile. The wars in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan generate new waves of asylum seekers, but most of them remain in refugee camp limbo and only a minority have the doors reluctantly opened to them.
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 1 million refugees that Germany once accepted helped the rise of the far-right party, Alternative for Germany, especially in the former GDR. Post-communist Europe is not only unsupportive when it comes to welcoming refugees, but it also builds walls of barbed wire (I have seen them along the borders of Slovenia, Croatia and Hungary) to block the way of refugees, forgetting its own desire to flee from communism. The Eastern countries have historically had little treatment with immigrants from Muslim countries, and populist leaders take advantage of it to demonize this wave of migration. Unfortunately, some of his position has carried over to Western Europe; the Islamist radicalization of the mullahs does not make things easier either.
Poland, like Lithuania, today erected barbed wire to reject the entry of 35 Afghans who moved to their borders encouraged by Belarus. Some sick people, standing at the border without the local authorities letting them in, 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 the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union and the United States in Afghanistan, that unexploited mine of the most valuable metals, including the much sought-after lithium. Yes, that country is a victim of its mineral wealth; this is his curse.
That the United States has abandoned the Afghan people to their fate does not redeem us, Americans and their allies, of our responsibility. And let’s not forget that we win with immigrants: the couple that invented one of the covid-19 vaccines, Pfizer-Biontech, is of Turkish origin, and there are dozens of such examples. Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet writes: “You have to know how to die for men. / And also for men you never saw / and also without anyone forcing you to do so.” Luckily, no one is constraining us to die, but refugees deserve that we continue to discuss possible solutions from generosity and compassion (Latin translation from the Greek sympatheia: “Suffer together”).
Monika Zgustova is a writer.