Estonian president Toomas Hendrik Ilves knows the life of a refugee: His parents left Soviet-occupied Estonia for Sweden, where he was born, and then moved to the United States. His youth in Leonia, New Jersey happened to give him a perfect American accent—which he used this week to deliver one of the most eloquent and powerful speeches yet about Europe’s refugee crisis.
Ilves argued that Europe’s history should inform the way it should deal with the current refugee crisis. He pointed out that in the aftermath of World War II, Germany—currently taking in more people than any other European country—had 12 million internal refugees. The United Nations spent the equivalent of €50 billion on relief efforts, he said.
“We have seen far worse and we have prevailed,” he declared. ”We will handle this migration crisis if we show the resolve of our forebears.”
“So, ladies and gentlemen, let us now gather our wits and strengths, leave behind the indecision, finger-pointing and ducking of responsibility,” Ilves said. “We will handle this migration crisis if we show the resolve of our forebears.”
“Political speech today sometimes adopts language that a few years ago was found only in anonymous on-line fora,” he said (a line that could describe European politicians as well as American presidential candidates). “Democratic, centrist leaders advocating calm and responsible policies are increasingly under pressure, if not attack.”
Ilves is serving his second five-year term as Estonia’s president, a position he has held since 2006. The Columbia and University of Pennsylvania-educated psychologist and former journalist is credited with transforming the smallest Baltic state into “E-stonia,” a successful, highly-connected economy with a tech-savvy government. He likes to wear bow-ties.