The refugee question

The Children of Herakles - Euripides

I've decided to read this again despite having already written a commentary on it, but that was partly because the commentary was on the whole book of Euripidean plays as opposed to this particular play (though the only play that I read when I commented on the book was this one). Anyway, a large portion of the end of this play is missing so we don't actually know how it ends (which is probably why it does not appear in many of the other books of Euripidean plays and why I had to hunt around for a copy of it). As such, we cannot actually say that this is one of Euripide's extant plays.

That does not mean that this play does not confront issues that were faced not only in the days of Classical Athens, but are also confront with our own society today: the issue of what to do with refugees. In the play the refugees are the children of Herakles (aka Hercules) who had fled to Marathon from Argos and sought sanctuary in one of the temples so that the king of Argos could not hunt them down and kill them.

The play was written in the opening years of the Peloponesian War and at that time Athens had its own refugee problem. The city of Platea had been attacked by the Thebans and in response the Plateans had sent all of the woman and children to Athens for protection. However Athens had decided to remain neutral in the conflict, which resulted in Platea being burnt to the ground and all of the remaining occupants killed. Meanwhile, in Athens, there was debate as to what to do with the refugees because they couldn't become citizens and had done nothing to warrant slavery, but the city did not seem to think that they could support this influx of people.

The issue of refugees is something that we simply cannot ignore today. This is something that confronts many of us here in Australia, but also in other parts of the world. The question that is raised though is the reason behind why the refugees want to get into our country – is it because they are fleeing persecution and war, or is it simply because they see better opportunities in our country. Either way, a lot of the refugees that end up here actually go on to become very productive members of our society.

One of the arguments that are put forth is that refugees are simply a drain on our society and they take money that could be used elsewhere. Personally I believe that that is rubbish. You will probably find that the refugees end up being much harder workers than the native citizens. In fact you will probably find that most people whom we would label dole bludgers are actually forth or fifth generation Australians. However, there is also the argument that they are taking our jobs, but the truth is that these are jobs that we are too proud to take up. Okay, there are questions about wages, and the fact that if you are on a minimum wage job then you are probably poorer than people on the dole because you do not have access to concession benefits. However, that also raises the question of whether, if we were to put more money into the hands of the working class, would they spend it wisely (in the same way would they also use time wisely if the working day were cut down by say two hours – probably not – they would probably spend more money on beer and spend more time in the pubs).

Mind you this debate over what to do with displaced people tends to only be argued in the more advanced and wealthy countries. Turkey and Jordan simply do not have the ability to turn these people back, especially since their borders are all land borders. The problem is that these people simply stream over the borders and thus need to be moved into camps. However, we here in Australia live in fear of a trickle of refugees that somehow manage to get over here by boat, and the few that get through are then marched off to third party countries and locked up in detention facilities in conditions that are significantly worse that the conditions our own prisoners have to put up with. In a way, as the socialists correctly say, when the economy turns sour, the best medicine is to blame the people who can't defend themselves against the attacks. In a way these refugees are not only fleeing persecution in their own lands, but are also facing persecution here.