In Praise of Immigration

I can’t understand all the fuss about immigration. Most of my best friends and family are immigrants. I’m an immigrant myself. Putting aside the subtle distinctions that some immigrants and anti-immigrants make between expats, migrant workers, refugees and asylum seekers, let’s just think of immigrants as those who settle in another country indefinitely, whatever their purpose, whether in search of opportunity or sanctuary.

immigrants

Let me itemise a few of those who populate my business, social and family life.

I am a British immigrant to the Czech Republic, where I’ve built a business in IT, software and consulting – LLP Group. I’ve been made welcome, despite my lazy failure to learn the local language. Serious cultural mismatches have been few, and the most serious have had to do with the proper making of tea.

My business partner, Barbara, is an immigrant, the daughter of Hungarian immigrants to the United States. I couldn’t have built the business without her. Her husband is an immigrant from Serbia.

My friend and colleague Darina is an immigrant from Slovakia to the Czech Republic (though it’s true these were constituent parts of the same country when she made that fateful journey). I couldn’t have built the business without her, either.

My partner is an immigrant from Moldova, now a British citizen, working in Prague.

My friend Jo, who has built a PR and Marketing business in Prague (JWA) is a British immigrant, and her partner Jan, an immigrant to Britain in the late 1960s, has returned to Prague as one of the few lawyers qualified to practice in both countries.

My friends in Prague are immigrant French, Georgian, Romanian, Slovak, and so on. And I have some local friends too.

My brother is an immigrant to Switzerland where he married a Swiss French musician. He was made to yodel at his wedding, but otherwise has faced no particular indignities.

My partner’s sister Doina is a recent immigrant to the United Kingdom. She qualified as a pharmacist in the summer, sent herself on a crash course in English in Plymouth, walked into a dozen pharmacies in London and landed herself a job inside a week.

Immigrants are hard working, determined, ambitious, tolerant, appreciative. The overwhelming majority enrich the life of the countries they live in, culturally and materially. They are rarely bent on destruction or social benefits, or the slaughtering of animals in the gutter, forced marriage or female circumcision. They have fled or sought new opportunities to avoid such things.

I write this today because I met the best taxi driver in Prague yesterday. He drove me from my office to the airport. Mr Linh (his card doesn’t give his first name) is Vietnamese, and has been driving a taxi and working with tourists in Prague for four or five years. He spoke English perfectly, and (as far as I can tell!) speaks Czech well too. He underbid his rivals on Liftago (the taxi App I always use), bidding 18 CZK instead of 28 CZK per km. He was just around the corner, and with a keen sense of market opportunity he grabbed the chance for a longer than average journey.  His car was clean and he drove with care. No hints of ash or unwashed clothes.

And when he dropped me at the airport he offered me a gift from a basket of Christmas presents he’d wrapped for his customers. I had to take his word for the fact that none was explosive but after thirty years of business travel I am a good judge of taxi drivers. I have never before been given a gift by a taxi drive, assuming you can discount those cards that point you in the direction of striptease.

Mr Linh – +420 702 348 888 – the best taxi driver in Prague.

choc

I wish immigrants the world over a very Happy Christmas. And the rest of you, be glad of us!

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No Room in Vienna

It’s hard to find a hotel room in Vienna these days, at least at an affordable price. When I paged through Trivago‘s meagre and unaffordable offerings two weeks ago (a rip-off rate of 300 EUR for an airport Novotel, for example), I wondered what on earth could be going on in the city, especially on a Friday night. Car show, business conference, political summit, Star Trek convention, Vienna Marathon, Madonna, Kylie or Shirley Bassey in town?

All my partner and I needed was somewhere simple for eight hours’ sleep between an evening train journey from Prague and a morning flight to Dubrovnik. Not worth paying 700 EUR for the splendid Hotel Sacher, I thought, however stylish it might be. Who wants to pay a lawyer’s hourly fees for just eight hours of bed and breakfast.

Foolish of me not to realise it was part and parcel of the refugee crisis, as the receptionist at our hotel (more like a hostel, really) explained. I’m still dubious, because you don’t really think of refugees booking hotel rooms, but perhaps the lower-cost end of the market is saturated and there are only four-star and five-star rooms left for regular travellers. Being a refugee from a dangerous country doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t afford to sleep in a hotel. The huddled masses at Vienna’s main railway station, however, suggest that many, perhaps even most, still sleep rough.

There weren’t any rooms left anyway at our hotel, even if they did have the wherewithal. In the ten minutes we spent at Reception checking in, at least two groups of people came looking for rooms. I have no idea if they were refugees. In any case there was no room at our inn, not even for ready money.

pylone

Asking for high prices seems extortionate in the circumstances. In this situation ‘revenue management’ (the clever way in which price is continuously adjusted to reflect demand) might almost be described as ‘racketeering’, but it’s the way the West works. Supply and demand, and market prices. How could it be better arranged?

At the railway station the next morning, bound for the airport, we came across crowds of migrants queuing for cigarettes, washing facilities and food. In the same concourse there’s one of those pretty Pylones shops (there’s one I visit regularly in Portobello Road just before friends’ birthdays), an Aladdin’s cave of delightful, ingenious, imaginative and colourful things that no one actually needs. No queue of migrants there, of course, but a few shoppers nevertheless browsing for things that might tickle a decadent fancy, their basic needs no doubt already met (though our breakfast at the hostel/hotel was conspicuously poor). Not that these are luxury items. It’s not Prada. But they are in no way necessary.

A starker contrast is hard to imagine. I suppose we should hope that somewhere, someday, these refugees will be fully paid up and prosperous members of our Western European club, able to buy such discretionary items, driven by desire rather than necessity, as we are most of the time.

Borders – Back Where We Were?

Over the next three days we’re holding our company-wide LLP Group ‘consulting’ weekend in Visegrad in Hungary, in a spa hotel overlooking the Danube, just where the river bends down towards Budapest from the Slovak border. We have these conferences once a year. They’re expensive in terms of direct costs and opportunity costs, but they’re educational and they’re good for morale. The drinks are on us.

My colleagues are coming from the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Russia, Bulgaria, Romania and Luxembourg. Those travelling far are flying, but most of us are travelling by car, crossing as many borders as we must. Four of us made the journey yesterday, and it took eight hours to get from Prague to Visegrad. Two hours too many, but not, in fact, because borders have become more difficult, but because of a minor accident involving some trucks and a huge traffic jam. In 23 years of travelling on the dreadful Prague to Bratislava highway I can remember only a few occasions when the road was clear from one end to the other.

rajka

We were apprehensive that the closing of some Schengen borders in response to the refugee crisis might delay our journey, but we crossed the border between Slovakia and Hungary without delay. Only the long queue of cars and trucks crossing from Slovakia to Austria was a reminder of the reversion to the old restrictions on travel.

It’s depressing that after so many years of free movement borders are being closed in Europe. That we have taken open borders for granted for years now has never been more clear than during these temporary inconveniences. Perhaps we’ve already seen Europe at its most open, and won’t be criss-crossing as easily again for a lifetime or two.

A Belorussian colleague dared not travel at all, since his passport is currently with the British Consular authorities in Warsaw awaiting the granting of a British visa. These were the kind of inconveniences I thought we’d long ago put to rest.

The real border, of course, is the Schengen one, and the worst border is the one between Serbia and Hungary. Refugees/migrants are massing in ever greater numbers and trouble is inevitable. Indeed, yesterday there was tear gas. Let’s hope that tomorrow there aren’t bullets.

I sympathise with Hungary. Perhaps no one at the EU’s top tables took the problem seriously enough when there was time to do something about it – properly to finance and accommodate an orderly and humane acceptance of migrants arriving at the borders, and to ease their travel to safe havens all over Europe.

But Hungary’s policy of prevention, will surely not work, neither for Hungary in the long term, nor for the EU.

Shared Ancestry – Shared Values

The Hungarians and the Finns share a common history, somewhere beyond the Urals and near the River Ob. The evidence for this is largely linguistic. Their languages are the most commonly spoken two of the Finno-Ugric group (Estonian is the third) and of the wider Uralic group. Both are difficult to learn for those of us steeped in the syntax of Indo-European languages, agglutinating suffixes instead of using prepositions, eschewing gender and staying singular after a number.

Quite when the Finns and the Hungarians parted company is uncertain. The former struggled north-westwards towards Finland and developed a taste for vodka. The latter rode south-westwards towards the Carpathian basin and developed a liking for palinka. Both are unusually morose people. Over the few thousand years that have passed, the vocabularies of their languages have diverged so much that neither understands the other one today. They share only a certain intonation and syntactical logic.

Differences were thrown into sharp relief in recent days by the attitudes and behaviour of their two Prime Ministers, Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, defensive in tone, disdainful and unwelcoming of the thousands of refugees trekking across his country, Finnish Prime Minister Juha Sipila, generously offering one of his own houses to new arrivals in Finland.

Orban

Viktor Orban

sipila

Juha Sipila

Hungary’s government has inflicted serious reputational damage on its country through its behaviour towards those fleeing war-torn Syria and other hotspots. ‘We must preserve the Christian character of Europe,’ Viktor Orban protests, but the Christian message is one of compassion and generosity, not mistrust and contempt. Hungarian xenophobia, at least as voiced by the government and a few toxic right-wing groups, is offensively ugly and not, in the end, pragmatic.

Consider the behaviour of senior police officers welcoming migrants as they crossed the border into Austria, ushering footsore families towards tables of food, clothes and shoes, and then on to the trains that took them to Vienna and Munich. Their role was protective and liberating.  By contrast, Hungarian officials attempted only to contain the thousands of migrants stranded at Keleti Station in Budapest, or held in bleak camps devoid of comfort and sustenance, not to support or assist them.

I watched an interview with an Iraqi migrant on BBC News, and I take comfort in the fact that he praised the kindness of individual Hungarians, reserving his anger only for institutional Hungary, the tone and actions of the Hungarian government not the people. This is my experience too. There is kindness in Hungary and news stories showed many Hungarians offering food at the roadside to those who left the city to walk from Budapest to the border.

On Sunday a convoy of Austrian cars crossed the border into Hungary to pick up refugees and take them back to Austria. So many generous gestures, Christian or just straightforwardly humane, but not a word of kindness from Mr Orban.

The unity of the European Union is an artificial construct. It isn’t something we feel instinctively. The idea of ‘European Values’ that supposedly unites us means one thing to one nation, another to another.

The founding/joining emotions of the early members were formed in the aftermath of the Second World War. Though the Coal and Steel Union and, later, the European Economic Community, were ostensibly economic institutions, it was a determination to avoid conflict based on narrow national interest or racial identity that bound these nations together. The enthusiastic welcome offered by Germany and Austria to arriving migrants reflects their sense of history, and the shadow still cast over their countries by the Holocaust.

The accession motives of newer members, particularly those of the former Soviet Bloc, were not emotional. They were based on economic, political and military expediency.

The fragility of the European Union has never been more apparent than in recent months. ‘European Values’ are lamentably ill defined. Desperate references to ‘solidarity’ by leaders of the founding members mean little to the Visegrad Four. They understand each other no more deeply than the Finns and Hungarians understand each other’s language, however much of the past they share.

Solidarity with the Refugees

hand and number

The refugee problem in Europe has reached a crisis point and our governments are talking policy and theory whilst refugees die. They aren’t doing enough to help the tens of thousands who are risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean seas, or the plains of Central Europe, in search of a safe and better life.

Thousands are stranded outside Keleti Station in Budapest, unable to travel on to Germany, though Gerrnany will accept them. Thousands are drowning in the Mediterranean as they attempt to reach Europe from Libya and Syria.

In the Czech Republic refugees at the border station of Breclav are being ‘labelled’ with identifying numbers, written by the local police force onto their skin. This is disgraceful, horribly expressive of a Government attitude that suggests these individuals are merely inconvenient objects.

Though, in defence of the country in which I live I should point out that of all the nations of Central and Eastern Europe, the Czech Republic is by far the most liberal. It has long been so (the only one to stave of fascism between the Wars). It is the most tolerant, and the most secular. It has, in fact, accepted large numbers of immigrants from all over the world, including me. This ‘mistake’ in Breclav is an anomaly and will probably be rapidly resolved.

Our Governments and the people of Europe need to show kindness. True, there are long-term issues that must be addressed, but the current emergency demands only one immediate response – compassion and practical help –  urgently.

Write a number on your hand and show solidarity with the refugees.

Let Them In

There are a dozen of arguments to be made about immigration, but the immediate moral issue is clear. Whilst we squabble about the future of these ‘migrants’, ‘immigrants’, ‘asylum seekers’ or ‘refugees’, arbitrarily labelling them ‘economic’ or ‘legitimate’ to suit one argument or another, they suffocate and drown.

Let them in.

migrants

Some argue that an ageing Europe needs immigrants to avoid economic decline. Others argue that if this is true in the mid- and long-term, there are still sufficient unemployed young people and women to take up the short-term slack.

Some argue that the ethnic, cultural, and religious diversity that follows from large-scale immigration is harmful. England for the English, Hungary for Hungarians. But the greatest civilisations of the world have thrived on diversity, and the world is smaller now – the parochial values of nationalism, ethnic, cultural, and religious homogeneity belong to the past.

Today, our values are supranational or global. Democracy, justice, human rights, equality of opportunity, tolerance. They transcend the particular customs and whims of a single group, and have nothing to do with creed.

Some argue that these people’s problems are not our problems. But in many cases it is the rich world’s meddling (usually driven by an insatiable thirst for oil) that have created the conditions they flee. What good came of our hundred years of meddling in Iraq, in Libya, in Afghanistan, in Syria?

Some argue that immigrants are a terrorist threat. But surely, well-funded terrorists can find a more convenient way of infiltrating Europe than through the fields of southern Europe and under the razor wire, or across the choppy seas of the Mediterranean in unseaworthy vessels.

There are many more arguments for or against. And whilst we argue, these desperate people drown and suffocate, prey to the people-smuggling scum who profit from their misery.

What I miss is kindness. Angela Merkel’s words stand out from the harsh, pragmatic words of her counterparts. And yet Germany has accepted twelve times as many immigrants in 2015 than Britain.

Quoting from the Guardian:

“There can be no tolerance of those who question the dignity of other people,” she said, standing in front of placards accusing her of being the people’s traitor. “There is no tolerance of those who are not ready to help, where, for legal and humanitarian reasons, help is due.”

And then there is our hypocrisy.

How often do our guide books extol the generous hospitality of the Arab world? And yet how hard we find it to reciprocate.

How often have we ourselves fled our own nations, and been received generously by others? Think of Hungary in 1956.

Whatever the causes, the immediate situation requires just one response. Let them in.