|Refugees walking northwards towards Sweden along a motorway in Denmark|
For the last few days hundreds of Syrian refugees have been trudging northwards up Danish motorways trying to get to Sweden. Right now, in Europe, if you’re a refugee you want to be in either Germany or Sweden as these are the two countries that have the most lenient asylum policies. Basically put, they won’t write a number on your arm, stick you in a detention camp or clobber you with nightsticks.
Judging by images on the news it’s a surreal sight. Denmark is a land of orderly neatness and happy conformity where the ugly reality of the ‘outside world’ is kept at bay. This is no place for unsightly groups of refugees. Long term readers of 22 Billion Energy Slaves will remember that I used to live in Denmark where I worked as a journalist, and moved to the UK two and a half years ago. Before that I lived in Spain, and before Spain I lived in Denmark again. As an EU passport holder I can flit from country to country and call myself an ‘expat’, and nobody calls me an immigrant or a refugee or an alien. It’s my privilege – I’m one of the lucky ones.
But the refugees don’t have any such luck. They drew the short straw of being born in the wold's most unstable region, and now they want to get out of it, even if it means crossing the sea in a leaky dinghy and risking their lives. Most of them don't actually want to be in Denmark. If a bridge could be built that passed right over the country you can bet that it would be filled with Syrians trudging from Germany to Sweden. Basically, they are unwelcome in Denmark. Fetegan Altorek, a 26 year-old Syrian yesterday remarked “It’s obvious to see they [the Danes] don’t like us. They spit on us and fight us.”
Perhaps they had not seen the adverts put out by the Danish government in recent weeks telling them they they were not welcome in the World's Happiest Nation (TM).
|Travellers at the airport receive a different welcome|
But not all Danes are like that, of course, and some have been stopping to offer lifts to the bridge that separates Denmark from Sweden. However, this is regarded as ‘people-smuggling’ and carries the risk of a three-year prison sentence. Some do it anyway, reminding their forgetful compatriots that Danish citizens once helped Jews flee to Sweden during the Second World War. “At the time we were occupied by the Nazis, but this time we voted them into power,” quipped someone on social media, referring to the current government and the resurgence of the far-left nationalists the Danish People’s Party.
Apart from the lure of not being incarcerated or deported, why do so many Syrians want to get to Sweden? To live in peace and join family already there, they say. I had a chance to see some of them doing just that when I went on a walk to a Swedish forest last year. I wrote about it in my book The Path to Odin’s Lake, in a chapter I called The Far Flung People. This is an excerpt, in which I had just emerged from the forest into a small rural town in a bucolic setting, and had found a hotel in which to get some breakfast:
The girl on duty, presiding over an empty breakfast buffet, was accommodating if a little frosty, although in all probability I did look as if I had been dragged through a hedge backwards. Which was half true. I poured myself a coffee and sipped the sweet black liquid, savouring its restorative effect as I gazed out of a window at the empty streets. By the time I had finished my second refill and also eaten a Danish pastry (also called Vienna bread in Sweden) people in the outside world had begun to wake up and give some life to the town.
But something was odd. One might have expected the people walking the streets in a tiny town in rural Sweden to be, well, Swedish. But almost everyone I saw looked to be from the Middle East. Women wearing headscarves pushed prams, men sat on walls idly fingering worry beads and olive-skinned teenage girls giggled and chatted into their mobile phones. Among them was the occasional obviously Swedish person – an old silver-haired woman here, a blonde boy on a moped there – but the majority were clearly from somewhere else. They were all smart-casual dressed, as if they’d just stepped out of an H&M store. “What’s going on?”, I asked the girl behind the breakfast bar who, in other circumstances, could have been a catwalk model and perhaps was. “Are these people refugees?”
“Yes,” she replied sparsely. “There is a centre here.”
I asked where they had come from. “Mostly Syria, from the war”, she explained. “Some from Somalia.” I thought back to the man I had seen earlier at the lake, about how his eyes had been so wasted. I didn’t think Somalis liked to drink.
“There is nothing for them to do here”, said the girl. “They are not allowed to work, so they just hang around. Some have bad habits.”
I wondered if this was causing problems. Sweden, famously, is the most accommodating country in the world when it comes to taking in refugees. Its liberal policies dating back to the 1960s have been the envy of progressives the world over, and many of the Swedes I had met over the years were justifiably proud of them. But decisions about refugees were made in faraway Stockholm, and such an influx of people from a different country, with a different religion and culture, was bound to cause tension, I thought. The girl seemed to read my mind.
“Some people say there are too many for our town – we are only 800 people but we now have to support 400 refugees.”
“Is this a problem?” I asked.
But the girl just shrugged. “No problem, really”, she said. I tried to ask her more questions but she became tight-lipped, indicating that the matter was closed, so instead I asked her how much it cost to stay the night in the hotel.
Röstånga in the afternoon wasn’t much different from Röstånga in the morning. The lumber trucks still rolled southwards on the Riksväg 13, the occasional moped or Volvo stopped at the petrol station and the streets were still scattered with bored-looking refugees. They milled around listlessly in small groups; a bunch of pram-pushing women here, a row of men sitting on a wall there. Their presence in this rural Swedish hamlet was incongruous and they seemed like actors in a movie who had turned up on the wrong set. It was as if they were waiting for something to happen, a bus to arrive, or a concert to start.
During half a lifetime of travelling the world I had noticed that in most countries people’s lives are played out in public places. From Madrid to Istanbul, Guatemala City to Mumbai, it is on the streets that social interaction takes place, news is passed on, gossip is blathered, deals are done and emotions are vented. Not so in Scandinavia. The streets here are infrastructure – cold boulevards for the conveyance of people and goods from A to B. Scandinavian life takes place in private behind closed doors, and perhaps that’s why these people seemed out of place.
Passing a few women on the pavement I tried to make eye contact with them. Most blocked me out but one made the briefest of contact before looking quickly away, as if embarrassed. Another group, this time teenage girls, gave me the same response. The groups were always segregated by sex. It was a curious thing, this business of casual greeting. During my perambulations around the forest, I had often come across other walkers. In Britain, nine times out of ten, walkers crossing paths in a forest would greet each other with a cheery ‘morning’ or ‘afternoon’. In Denmark, I had found the opposite to be true, but here in Sweden it was really a 50/50 situation. On the one hand you could take the initiative and boldly say ‘hi’ only to be met with that steely Scandinavian look of horror that a stranger is trying to make contact with you, but on the other hand there was an equal chance that the other party would take the initiative just when you had decided it wasn’t worth making yourself look a fool. After a few days of this I had learned to settle for some brief eye contact, a quick head-nod and a short ‘hi’ at the ready on my lips should they greet me. It was best to hedge one’s bets.
But with the refugees it was a different matter. There was a barrier there; something protective was in place. I was interested in speaking to a few of them, curious to find out their stories. But it seemed that the newcomers inhabited a different world to the Swedes – a kind of parallel universe separated by a vacuum across which communication was difficult. Eventually, after wandering around the village in circles, I decided I had better find out what time the bus would come the next morning to take me back to Lund.
At the bus stop two men were talking animatedly in Arabic. They looked to be in their mid-twenties, one heavily muscular and with a crew cut, the other thin and bearded. I guessed they were friends. As I stood there studying the timetable the muscular one asked me if I had a light. He stood there with an unlit cigarette hanging from his lips and mimed striking a flint lighter with his thumb and clasped hand. I rummaged in my bag and found one, proffering it to him. He took it and lit his cigarette and then that of his friend, handing it back to me between hands pressed together as if in prayer. I asked them where they were from. “Syria”, he said.
“What do you think of it here?”, I asked, meaning Sweden.
“Good life”, he replied, inhaling the smoke. “Good people.”
It was a stupid question. I asked him another stupid question. “Why are you here?” He immediately said something to his friend, who it was clear did not understand English, and they both laughed. “Assad”, he said. He thought for a moment and added “War bring us here. When Assad gone, I go back, rebuild my house”. He turned back to his friend and they continued with their fast-paced conversation and I, having noted the time of the buses, left them to it.
Granted, it wasn’t much of an insight, but the thing that struck me the most was how deeply separated the hosts were from their refugee guests. And with the refugees being unable to work or better themselves, isn’t there a risk of them going stir crazy? Scandinavians love to talk of ‘integration’, but that would seem to be quite a tall order when such a barrier exists. In any case, I suspected, integration really means ‘forget who you are, be like us’.
Yet at the moment, despite all the media hysteria, it is just a trickle of refugees arriving. It’s a given that there will be more. Currently, like everything these days, their appearance is highly politicised. You’re either for them or against them. Currently, if one is a right-wing ‘realist’ you will talk about building walls and fences and dropping more bombs on the countries they are fleeing. Bombing is always offered as a solution to violence. On the other hand, if you’re a compassionate liberal you talk about opening up the borders, giving them all somewhere to live and allowing them to invite the remainder of their families over too. I suspect that this second point of view will sadly have a limited shelf life as things progress further down the road and people begin to grasp the sheer scale of the problem.
And the rhetoric on both sides is rising, which is unfortunate if not entirely unpredictable. The unpalatable truth is that the Middle East and North Africa is becoming uninhabitable and not fit for human habitation. 100 years of oil exploitation, imperial plundering and ecological mismanagement has led us to here. In the case of Syria, as this article in The Ecologist points out, disastrous land management practices initiated in the 1960s turned most of the Syrian steppe into a dustbowl. Global weirding, in the form of droughts, followed by downpours and epic dust storms, destroyed much of the remaining topsoil. Millions of farmers and pastoralists were disenfranchised – ideal recruitment fodder for jihadist militias.
So a proxy war between Russia and the USA over control of the remaining energy resources was all that was needed to tip Syria into total chaos. The population is caught between their own crazy dictator dropping barrel bombs on them, and the murderous thugs of ISIS cutting and raping their way across what’s left of their country. Is it any wonder they want to get to Sweden?
The wider picture is no less unappealing. The age of oil that allowed for the greening of the desert is drawing to a close. Nitrogen fertiliser was first synthesised using fossil fuels after the last world war, meaning that vast swathes of desert could now be irrigated and used for growing crops. At the same time, selling their oil wealth has permitted countries such as Saudi Arabia to import massive amounts of food from the more fertile areas of the world, and to create a generous social security system for its people. Predictably, in light of this, the birth rate shot up, meaning there are now an order of magnitude more people living in these fragile desert regions than the ecology can support. As the oil crutch is kicked out we’ll find out the hard way that you can’t bargain with nature. So it goes.
And so pretty soon we can expect hundreds of thousands more from Syria. Turkey currently puts up two million of them, but as other nations prevaricate and squabble, its patience is wearing thin. There are said to be twelve million Syrians displaced. And after Syria we have Afghanistan, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Iraq and a few other places that we have meddled with. That’s not a political statement, it’s a simple fact. Where else will they go other than the smallish, wealthy and fertile western Eurasian appendage knows as Europe? There are 381 million people living in the arid regions fringing Europe, and it has the fastest-growing population of any of the planet’s major regions.
Last year I had a conversation with an historian who knows a thing or two about mass migrations. “It starts off as a trickle,” he said “but then, as things collapse, all of a sudden it turns into a flood. When you have entire nations full of people suddenly deciding to get up and leave, there is literally nothing anyone can do about it.”
“What about Europe?” I asked.
“Italy, Spain, Greece, France, a few other places … toast,” was his reply.
That’s the predicament we’re in. It won’t be pretty and our only guidance is compassion, not fear. The great change is already upon us.