Simple hospitality could be the answer to the European migrant ‘crisis’

Would you like to be turned away at the gate? EPA/Zoltan Balogh

Since the beginning of 2015, thousands of refugees and migrants have landed on European shores, fleeing desperate circumstances to try to make a new life. They end up stranded in the places that Westerners like to use as holiday destinations and are now to be seen nightly trying to pass through the Channel tunnel – a thoroughfare more generally used for leisure. When they do so, they are dismissed as “swarms” and treated as “aliens”.

Instead of complaining about migrants disturbing our holiday plans by having the cheek to fall under lorries or drown in the same sea in which celebrities bathe, Europe needs to reconsider the notion of hospitality.

If we want to be welcomed as tourists, then we need to work on our hosting skills. A good place to start might be Middle Eastern ideas of hospitality.

Privileged passengers

All travel, whether temporary or permanent, involves an encounter between strangers and locals. Europeans and North Americans enjoy a privileged status when they travel. If it is for leisure they are tourists and if they also work they are business travellers or expats.

Travellers from Africa, Asia and the Middle East are called migrants if they’re lucky and other less flattering terms if they’re not. Recently we’ve seen them called “illegal” and even a “swarm” by British prime minister David Cameron.

Hospitality is a social pact. The host territory is kept safe because services are rendered to the guest that oblige the recipient to express gratitude and open the way for reciprocity at a later date.

However there has always been tension and concern that the system is open to abuse. Philosopher Jacques Derrida warned of the fear of parasites inside the practice of hospitality and now European governments talk of migrants coming from afar to abuse their generous welfare systems.

European tourists – and British travellers in particular – could also be seen as parasitic swarms who degrade the environment and spoil pristine paradises. Yet, they hold power because they pay for the goods and services they receive.

But is this a good holiday? For most people, the best holidays are the ones that involve bonding with hosts and receiving a form of hospitality that came without a price. There is a reason that websites like Tripadvisor consistently rate tourist facilities by the positive feelings of friendship and generosity experienced by visitors.

Tourists pass a Syrian refugee in Kos. EPA/Yannis Kolesidis

In the Middle East, hospitality is a way of staying in control. It is often done with food and a common saying is that feeding someone means you have captured their heart. The parasite guest still exists – in my research on European women’s encounters in Egypt, one respondent told me her ability to exploit her hosts’ hospitality ethic meant that she “came with $100 and stayed six months”.

But strategies have also evolved to mitigate the potential for exploitation. Bedouins, for example, have developed a tradition obliging anyone to look after a stranger for three days without question. On the third day you are entitled to ask what their business is – and they either have to move on, or start to contribute to their keep.

Temporary guests

Democratic European countries such as the UK claim superior moral values and sign up to helping others through international conventions but have taken in 187 Syrians. Since 2011, more than 97% of displaced Syrians have been taken in countries criticised for their authoritarian governance such as Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt. Kurdish Iraq now has more refugees than locals, a situation that is far from ideal, but you do not hear them saying they are full.

As academic Janroj Keles argues in his research, these countries have flexible visa systems, allowing Iraqi migrants to adopt an “in-out” and “out-in” strategy. Germany has a similar multiple entry visa for Syrian refugees. Classifying refugees as “temporary guests” limits their right to permanent residence, citizenship and often the right to work – but allows access to health, some form of work, and a legal right to cross-border mobility.

Of course it’s not perfect, but at least a system like this offers a safe haven and means that if and when it is possible, people caught up in wars and crises that are not of their own doing have the possibility to return home. And they do go home if they can.

Preliminary research suggests more than 10,000 Kurdish migrants in the UK have moved back to Iraqi Kurdistan. Yet many more migrants fear leaving the UK in case they are not allowed back in and hosts fear being overrun if they offer more.

More than 15 years ago, Mireille Rosello noted how European countries “have turned into supposedly weakened hosts who can no longer welcome the huddled masses gathering on our uncertain shores”. The system is paralysed. To make it move again, hospitality is the key.