There seemed no end to the teeming tide of Irish that washed ashore in New York City when the famine compelled a mass exodus out of the isle. By the early 1850s, the city and the country faced its first immigration crisis. At a time in which there were no social services – indeed, the very concept of a social safety net did not yet exist – the first wave of unskilled, unlearned Irish immigrants soon became a plague upon the city’s slums. “You have no idea what an immense vat of misery and crime and filth this great city is,” wrote the Protestant missionary and philanthropist Charles Loring Brace. “Think of ten thousand children growing up almost sure to be prostitutes and rogues.”
Brace was one of many charitable souls who took it upon themselves to descend upon lower Manhattan and to house and educate the destitute (Brace’s Children’s Aid Society endures to this day). These works, while undertaken out of a sense of altruistic obligation, were in part a project of self-preservation. These children were a great humanitarian tragedy in 1853, but by 1873 they would become the vanguard of a violent criminal epidemic. By the 1850s, more than half of the arrests in the city were of Irish-born immigrants. Seven in 10 foreign-born prisoners by 1858 were Irish. Nearly three-quarters of those arrested for drunken and disorderly conduct by the final year of the decade came from the Emerald Isle. The future seemed bleak.
Still worse to some was the prospect that the products of this privation who eventually emerged from the shadows would participate ill-equipped in the democratic process. “In 20 years’ time, they will have grown up, and they will vote, and what will they vote themselves?” the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, summarizing Brace’s thinking, wondered. These foreign masses needed to be assimilated into American society, and soon. The alternative was too terrible to contemplate.
“The great duty,” Brace wrote, “is to get utterly out of their surroundings and to send them away to kind Christian homes in the country.” And that is precisely what he did. Over the next 75 years, 100,000 destitute children were uprooted, put onto trains, and absorbed into rural America. The blight of Irish criminality foretold in the middle of the 19th century never materialized.
Today, a new generation of children is in jeopardy, and the future they will inherit is in peril. “An estimated 13.7 million school age children from Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya and Sudan aren’t in school, out of a total of 34 million, the United Nations Children’s Fund, or Unicef, said,” the Wall Street Journal reported on Friday. That’s 40 percent of the children in five Middle Eastern nations marred by war and civil conflict. UNICEF officials believe that rate could rise to 50 percent or more in the coming years as the conflicts roiling these countries intensify.
Some of these children are taken from this world too early, as was illustrated so traumatically this week when a three-year-old Syrian boy clad in playful shorts and a bright red t-shirt washed ashore on a Turkish beach. He and his older brother drowned when their makeshift boat capsized on the way toward Western Europe and what they surely hoped would be peace. These children never made it to relative safety in Europe, but tens of thousands of Middle Eastern migrants have.
Europe is now gripped by a refugee crisis of proportions unknown since the Second World War. Great columns of migrants are startling observers as they make their way down Hungarian highways and Bulgarian rail lines toward Austria, Germany, France, Great Britain, and, ultimately for some, toward the Atlantic and North America. So far in 2015, more than 300,000 migrants from the Middle East and North Africa have crossed the Mediterranean and into Europe – more than the sum total of refugees who crossed the Mare Nostrum in 2014, which totaled over 219,000. The bulk of them are Syrians who are fleeing a horrible conflict characterized by authoritarianism, radical Islamism, and chemical warfare. A substantial number are, however, of Eritrean origins – a nation struggling with abject poverty and ruled by an oppressive, dictatorial regime. The crises in these two nations are distinct but equally inextricable.
The practical effects of this wave of migrants on Europe are dramatic. The rise of Europe’s far-right elements has been catalyzed by the migrant crisis. The Schengen Agreement, which permits passport-free travel in between European Union nations, is coming unglued. Borders are being tightly controlled again in places like Italy, and the outlying EU member states of Hungary and Bulgaria are exploring the possibility of constructing steel security fences along their borders to keep out the tide of humanity escaping death at home. The Czech Republic has called for NATO aid to help enforce the borders on the periphery of the Schengen zone.
The political impact of this crisis is equally unnerving. “There is a clear difference between the new member states and the old member states,” Slovakia’s foreign minister said of the “scary” invasion of migrants from the East. He noted that, while Old Europe is “multi-racial” and “multi-religious,” the former Warsaw Pact does not have this same experience. In Hungary, where the far-right Jobbik party is ascendant, migrants are being shuttled off into makeshift camps or toward their western border with Austria. The government has asked the refugees to avoid entering into Hungary, but there is little they can do to stop the tide. Images of anti-immigrant activists attacking and beating unfortunate refugees are already beginning to surface.
But while xenophobic activists in Europe surely expect that the thousands of refugees will one day return to the homes they left, which in many cases no longer exist, that is an unrealistic hope. Germany is preparing to take in a staggering 800,000 asylum-seekers this year. The image of a dead toddler on a Turkish beach so shocked the conscience of Europe’s elite that even recalcitrant governments in places like Britain softened their stance toward refugee admittance. So far, the UK has accepted only 216 people into the country from war-torn regions. Thousands will soon be allowed to resettle in Great Britain. The EU is working on a quota system that would force Western Europe to take in a portion of the hundreds of thousands of migrants straining Greek, Hungarian, and Italian services.
These migrants are unlikely to leave – where would they go? The West has displayed no spine to impose a resolution on the conflicts raging in their native lands. These refugees will settle into their new countries; some will assimilate, but many more will not. Unlike the America into which the Irish migrants of the 19th Century settled, Western Europe does not fetish and facilitate the assimilation of the foreign-born. One cannot help but think of Moynihan’s warning when one considers the children of these wars both in the refugees’ adopted countries and in those war-torn lands in which they remain trapped. What will they vote themselves? Literally, in the case of Europe where they will one day grow up to take advantage of the franchise, and figuratively in the ravaged and authoritarian Middle Eastern and North African provinces they will be bequeathed by their brutish forbearers. What kind of future will they make? There are too few Charles Loring Braces today to take the hands of these children and show them a better way. Many are truly on their own. What kind of world will they build for themselves and for us?
An earlier version of this post indicated that Hungary’s Jobbik party was the controlling party in government. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz Party is the controlling party.