‘A Princess Diana moment’: David Frum on refugees and response

The Canadian-born author tells Evan Solomon why he thinks politicians are failing in their duty to protect, and that Europe should close its harbours



Born in Toronto, David Frum worked as a journalist before taking a job as a speechwriter for George W. Bush. He is currently a senior editor at The Atlantic, and the author of Dead Right, Comeback, and the novel Patriots, among other titles. He lives in Washington, and spoke to Evan Solomon for the Everything Is Political radio show on SiriusXM Canada. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: David, let’s start with the Syrian refugee crisis. It’s become a major issue in the Canadian federal election campaign. It’s a major issue now in the U.S. nomination races, and it’s obviously a critical issue facing Europe. Everybody is now saying: How many more refugees will you take in? The Germans are taking in 800,000 to a million. Every country is now recognizing the scope of this, and that perhaps they’ve not done enough. What’s your view on how politicians are reacting to a situation that has suddenly snapped into focus after many years?

A: I don’t agree that they’re recognizing the scope of it. I think they’re actually belittling the scope of it. The scope of it is potentially infinite. There are hundreds of millions of people along the southern rim of the Mediterranean who would like to move to Europe. Not just people displaced in the Syrian conflict, not just people displaced in the Iraqi conflict, not just people from Afghanistan, not just people from Libya, but people to the south of that. And indeed, the refugees, the migrants who’ve been showing up in Italy in the past 18 months, the majority of them were coming from West Africa.

I believe the first duty of governments is to their own people and, when faced with this potential vast influx of people from all over the southern Mediterranean and eastern Mediterranean and Africa, too, and now South Asia—because it’s turning out many of the people claiming to be Syrian are actually from Pakistan—governments have to ask themselves: Are they admitting people who are going to strengthen the country, who are consistent with the country’s national security, who will enhance the welfare of the country? Or are they creating for themselves more of the kind of massive internal security conflicts that Europe has had with its past immigration from the Middle East?

Q: There are a couple of things I want to unpack there. First, the use of the terms “migrant” versus “refugee.” Yes, there are a lot of so-called migrants, people seeking better economic opportunities, but that’s very different from a refugee. And the four million people who have fled the civil war in Syria aren’t necessarily economic migrants. They are genuine refugees.

A: I use the term “migrant” because it’s the most neutral possible word. A migrant is somebody who moves from one place to another. It doesn’t say anything about motive. I don’t use the word “refugee,” because that is a word that claims knowledge that actually we don’t often have.

Related: Q&A with Mike Molloy, the Canadian who delivered the ‘boat people’

Q: But we do have knowledge of four million Syrians who have left. This is critical, because, when some people hear you talk, they might think to themselves, “Well, look, between 1975 and 1980 in Canada, we took in 60,000 Vietnamese boat people.”

A: I was involved in the sponsoring of many of those people. I was college-aged, I was very involved in that cause. Here’s the difference: We didn’t have to worry that any of those Vietnamese refugees had borne arms. They were clear victims of a persecuting government. Many of them, although they were Vietnamese citizens, belonged to the ethnic Chinese minority. But no one worried about those Vietnamese.

Now, are we admitting people who might some day commit acts of terrorism in Canada? Are we admitting people who were combatants in a war in which Canada had a stake? We do have to worry about those things with the Syrian refugees. And by the way, they’re throwing away IDs. We don’t know that these people are Syrians. We don’t know who is; we just know they’re in camps and many of the people showing up have very complicated stories. And that’s why we have to use the neutral term “migrant.”

What has happened here is we’re having a Princess Diana moment where, because of an extremely upsetting photograph—and we were all upset by that photograph—every rational faculty is going out the window. In fact, even to think rationally about this problem is considered a hateful thing.

    Q: There is a sense of xenophobia because, when you say we don’t know who’s a terrorist and who would commit an act of violence just because they’re Syrians, and a lot of these folks were fleeing a horrific civil war inside Syria. You remember Canada’s policy during the war for the Jews, the “none is too many.” There was a lot of xenophobia there. Are there echoes of that, and a fear that people who are coming in will commit acts of violence?

    A: One of the great problems we have in thinking rationally about movements of peoples in the modern world—and we’re talking again about millions, hundreds of millions who would like to move—is that, so often, the only history that anybody can remember is the history of the Jews. We take [as] the most analogous situation in the whole history of refugee persecution a case where a highly advanced civil society, Germany plus Austria—the refugees, by the way, didn’t come from parts east; they came from inside, this is a pre-1939—these were the most sophisticated, the most cultured, most technologically advanced people in Germany and Austria. These were people who instantly acculturated to the society they moved to, and not only acculturated, but operated at the very highest levels, wrote music and performed scientific experiments and were clearly patriotic. There was no question of their loyalty to their new society and their betrayal by the society they’d come from.

    That highly anomalous situation is an analogy to precisely nothing. What the Syrian migration is an analogy to is what was going on in Europe six months ago. Europe was dealing six months ago with a vast internal security problem caused by migration from the Middle East and North Africa.

    Is there any reason to think that the million people Germany is about to admit are going to acculturate to Germany better than the million or so who moved from Algeria to France, who have been responsible for a huge increase in the internal insecurity in France and acts of terrorism and ordinary crime, as well? Governments have their duty to the people who elect them and pay their taxes.

    Q: But look, you can say it’s not analogous, but during the Kosovo crisis, there was a huge number of Kosovar refugees that were taken in by Canada and by other countries . . .

    A: Right.

    Q: . . . and the Vietnamese boat people we’ve talked about. There have always been people who thought, “Oh, the Irish are going to come, or the Jews are going to come, or the Somalis are going to come or the Jamaicans,” and there are always reasons people say, “Oh, they haven’t assimilated.” But almost every study says that refugees and/or immigrants eventually integrate, certainly, in the North American experience. I know it’s been different in France, but there are lots of reasons for that. They had a war. They were a colonizer of Algeria. So I don’t know if that’s analogous.

    A: A phobia is an irrational fear. What is not irrational is to look at the data on what has happened with migrants to Europe from the Middle East and North Africa in the past 10 years. I just did a big article about this for The Atlantic called “The Case for Closing Europe’s Harbours.” It is a fact that the migrants to Europe from these countries have claimed more in welfare costs than they pay in taxes, and do so for many, many years and often multiple generations. It’s a fact that they’re associated with dramatic increases in criminal behaviour. These aren’t allegations; these aren’t slurs. These are documented numbers.

    Now, a lot of these numbers are hard to get ahold of, because European governments, knowing how bad the facts are, often don’t keep proper records. In fact, there’s kind of a minor scandal in how little study there is, but to the extent there’s study, we can note this migration is not working.

    David Frum and Sen. Joan Fraser.

    David Frum and Sen. Joan Fraser, photographed in 2012.

    Q: Well, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has the same stats you have, and she wants a million refugees to come in. Do we not have a duty as a country who can afford to do this, to take in refugees? When we see a crisis like the Syrian crisis, where we’ve got almost 12 million displaced people—eight million internally, four million externally—is there not a duty to help these people who are living in brutal conditions in camps and are fleeing across the Turkish border, and now are trying to cross the Mediterranean?

    A: Where does the duty—if we have that duty—where does it come from?

    Q: It comes from a moral responsibility for countries like Canada, where everyone but the First Nations are immigrants. Because we all came off a boat.

    A: This is a phrase we use, but it’s not something that is intelligible. Duties come from places. Look, there are 12 million or so displaced people from Syria, and many more, by the way, in Iraq, and many more in Afghanistan and many more in conflicts all across the North African perimeter and West Africa.

    They would like to migrate to Europe, [but] Europe can’t take all of them without destroying itself as a society, without losing its economic base. It’s just too big a task. Meanwhile, the funds to pay to electrify and bring water and sewage to the refugee—we shouldn’t call them camps, they’re cities now—those amounts are not being paid.

    Merkel had a failure of nerve and a failure of responsibility confronting a breakdown in the governing structure of the EU. Because they could not protect their frontiers, many people migrated to various weakly sovereign countries inside the EU, then rushed the borders, and Germany was faced with some very upsetting images and people have reacted emotionally.

    But Syrian refugees should be cared for in the places where they first found refuge on the borders of Syria: in Turkey, in Jordan and Lebanon, and that means writing some big cheques. You know, there’s an asylum process for people who are personally at risk. But bringing millions of people from the Middle East . . .

    Q: But no one’s saying millions.

    A: . . . has been a disaster.

    Q: But all we’ve done. . .

    A: . . . and it will be a disaster. Don’t do it.

    Syrian refugees walk towards Greece's border with Macedonia, near the Greek village of Idomeni, September 11, 2015. Some 7,600 migrants, many of them refugees from the Syrian war, entered Macedonia from Greece between 6 p.m. (1600 GMT) on Wednesday and 6 p.m. on Thursday, an official with the United Nations refugee agency said on the border. (Yannis Behrakis/Reuters)

    Syrian refugees walk towards Greece’s border with Macedonia, near the Greek village of Idomeni, September 11, 2015. Some 7,600 migrants, many of them refugees from the Syrian war, entered Macedonia from Greece between 6 p.m. (1600 GMT) on Wednesday and 6 p.m. on Thursday, an official with the United Nations refugee agency said on the border. (Yannis Behrakis/Reuters)

    Q: Well, look at Canada. So far, in the last three or four years, there was a target of 10,000. We’ve only settled about 2,300. Think about in Kosovo in 1999: In 21 days, Canada brought in 5,000 refugees, double what we’ve done over years in Syria. Why is it good for one group and not another group?

    A: Because what was happening in Syria was a civil war, and we find it very hard to distinguish between people who have borne arms for one side and people who have borne arms for another.

    The people in Kosovo had no beef with Canada, whereas the different sides in the Syrian civil war, many of those sides have great grievances against the West and are going to be particularly difficult to assimilate.

    We are dealing, after all, with the people who are losing this conflict in Syria, the Sunni Muslim majority, many of whom have fought in militias and in al-Qaeda militias. And the migrants, the people coming across the Mediterranean, they don’t come with old people and women and children. The people who come first are men in their 20s.

    Q: I recognize it’s difficult to distinguish, but this has become a galvanizing political issue. Donald Trump—a guy whose views on immigration, certainly Mexicans, have been absolutely controversial, because it’s a humanitarian crisis—has now come out and said we need to take in people from Syria. Trump remains relevant, and this issue is part of that.

    A: Trump is an emotive person who doesn’t typically think very hard before he talks, and is concerned with the immediate reaction of a TV camera. But it’s the job of leaders of nations to think beyond the emotions of the moment, [to think] of the longer term, and sometimes the multigenerational term, and to do what is in the long-run interest of the country.

    Donald Trump is no hero of mine. I think he’s changing the debate of the Republican party in ways, and some ways are for the better by moving the party away from the pro-plutocratic messages of the past, but he’s not an example. The example are those politicians who are facing all kinds of demands backed by emotional pictures, who think, “My job, the thing I’m paid for, the reason I have the big car with the flag on the hood, is to think about what is in the long-term interest of the country.”

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