An Eyewitness to Global Refugee Crises

Suddenly the war in Vietnam in back on people’s lips here in Europe, more than 40 years after it ended.

“This is the worst crisis since Vietnam,” people are saying as the migrant inflow from the Middle East continues at full speed, with horrific pictures on the TV news of toddlers dying, usually by drowning, on the perilous voyages from particularly Syria and Libya, which are providing by far the most refugees.

Well, it is not quite as bad as Vietnam (and Cambodia) yet: no B.52 bomber strikes or Agent Orange or napalm. But the buster bombs used in Syria are horrible people killers, and the city of Aleppo, bigger than Damascus, is mostly in ruins. Libya, too, is in chaos.

The corpse of a three year old toddler, Aylan Kurdi, was carried, oh so carefully, by a Turkish policeman named Mehmet Ciplak, from the sea’s edge. This incident is being compared by commentators on TV to the little Vietnamese girl, Miss Pham Thi Kim Phuc, running down that road in Tay Ninh province after an air-delivered napalm strike, a poignant scene snapped by Nick Ut of Associated Press in the Vietnam War.

And it is true that British Prime Minister David Cameron, who had been hard-line about migrants, seems to have changed his tune in the last couple of days and is now talking about the possibility of accepting at least 10,000 refugees. He said he would only pick them up from static camps in the Middle East, instead of from the roads crossing Europe with needy migrants, most Syrians, but including Pakistanis, Afghans and Eritreans from the repressive, war-like regime in the Horn of Africa.

Then we have American airman first class Spencer Stone, 23, reacting to the words ‘Let’s go’ from his military friend Alek Skarlatos, 22, as they tackled a Moroccan terrorist gunman on a express train from Amsterdam to Paris after two Frenchmen had been knocked out of action, one of them shot. Seeing these can-do Americans also brought back memories of Vietnam. We saw the French president handing out France’s highest medal for bravery, the legion of honor, to all those who helped disarm and subdue the Moroccan-born terrorist 26 year old Ayoub Khazzani.

Of course, the United States faces its own frustrating problems with illegal Mexicans and those from the poorer countries of Central America, and this includes the mafia slaying of students. About 11 million asylum seekers from south of the border live in the US.

In Europe, Angela Merkel, known as “Mama Merkel” to the migrants, seemed to have been showing the way as to how things should be done, while Cameron had kind of lost the plot. Germany may take 800,000 migrants this year, while Cameron has up to now has taken only 200or so.

Still, there are voices in Germany – not just the right-wing fascist groups in Hungary but in neighboring nations who wonder if Merkel is moving too fast, too soon.

Of course, Germany and Sweden, the two countries most sought after by migrants, have things that still nag at their consciences. (I did my compulsory military service in Germany and know that this is still true today).

Germans still want to live down their Nazi past, and the 6 million Jews they murdered, in any way possible, and Sweden in WWII was neutral, but allowed Hitler’s panzers and military forces, Gestapo and SS men, to cross Swedish territory and ravage small but brave Norway.

The Nazis established a dictatorship there under the odious puppet named Quisling, whose name became a byword for “traitor” throughout the world.

We saw the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a rare right winger in power in modern Europe, forcing unwilling migrants to register, always with the fear that they might be kept in Hungary instead of heading for Germany.

Orban has now relented and permitted migrants to move on, relieved to be outside the purlieu of the unsympathetic Hungarian regime.

It should be noted that Hungary and Slovakia have questioned the policy of taking Muslim migrants into “Christian” Europe. Seems we are going back to the Middle Ages now, with its Crusaders fighting the chivalrous Kurdish leader Saladin, leader of the Muslims at the time.

Still, there is a possible problem in the future as certain Muslims, once settled in Europe, claim their right to mosques and even Sharia law, and also the fear of female genital mutilation as practiced by some Muslims, although there is nothing about it in the Koran. These obscene razor tortures have occurred in the UK and elsewhere in Europe.

I know Syria quite well as I was Newsweek’s correspondent in Lebanon in the early eighties and travelled overland to the Iraqi border. I spent a night on the way through with my fearless Beirut driver Mehdi, near the then wonderful Roman ruins of Palmyra there.

These are the ruins that now being blown up temple by temple by the murderers of the Islamic State (IS) who already decapitated the 80 year old Syrian archaeologist who protected the ruins there, and hung his headless body in a damaged Roman temple. Islamic State were at it again with their explosives late last week.

It should be noted that this whole shebang is the worst refugee situation since the late 1970s of the last century, when the Vietnamese ‘”boat people” were fleeing Vietnam in unbelievably overcrowded boats, only to succumb, in many cases, to Thai pirates, otherwise known as fishermen, who included those who raped women from the boats and sometimes threw them in the sea afterwards to drown.

The Vietnamese boat people had to deal with racketeers the same as now, but then they had to pay in gold, according to the late Barry Wain’s book “The Refused, the Agony of the Indochina Refugees.” Wain, an Australian, wrote about Bidong, a normally uninhabited Malaysian island that became a haven for refugees fleeing by small boat from southern Vietnam. The population of the island rose from zero to 40,000 within a year.

Meanwhile, the Cambodians who managed to escape across the Thai-Cambodian border, after Pol Pot and his cohorts fled Phnom Penh, were sometimes pushed back, at least in one case into a mine-field (I covered the border for two months for Newsweek so have firsthand knowledge of this incident). Numbers of Cambodians were blown up on mines.

Later, things settled down and the Thais finally opened proper camps on the Thai side of the border.

Rape is something that has not been noted so far in the current fleeing of migrants from mostly Syria, but also from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, and from Africa. Apart from Syria, most refugees are economic migrants, while the Syrians are escaping a hot war pitting the government against the merciless IS.

What happened to the Vietnamese and Cambodians is history now, but the fate of the Syrians, Libyans and the others, still hangs in the balance.

So far, the situation in Europe, gruesome though it is, is not nearly as threatening as what occurred in Vietnam and Cambodia in the 1960s and 1970s. But we are a long way towards finding a satisfactory solution.

God knows what Ms Kim Phuc thinks about it all, when she sees the news at her safe home in Canada, as one presumes she does. It’s all about what Vietnamese author Bao Ninh called ‘The Sorrow of War.’

James Pringle covered the war in Vietnam and Cambodia for Reuters and Newsweek Magazine.