I met a couple of refugees yesterday - in Rochdale. I knew as soon as I saw the elderly-but-sprightly couple walking ahead of me that they were displaced persons. Unlike the workaday folk of Rochdale, they were smartly dressed in traditional summer clothes and accessorised - he with a Panama hat and walking stick, she with a pashmina and trendy rucksack - in an expeditionary sort of way. They were obviously en route for the same destination as me - the tiny museum on Toad Lane comprising the original store of the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society, established in 1844.
The small rooms encourage intimacy so we soon got talking and the pair told me their story. Originally from the area, they left - "as one did" - on account of the relentlessly grim industrial environment. They now live near Oxford (obviously) and had come back - despite the tedious journey - on a sort of pilgrimage to their roots. As if to justify their earlier migration he told me that "just walking through the town we noticed how tall we are compared with the locals" and she said "we saw at least two people with bow-legs. That's a symptom of rickets you know". Despite their escape they seemed pleased to be back, briefly basking in the glory of their ancestors' most famous achievement, the Co-Op. For it was here that the mighty co-operative movement was born, not the brainchild of an elite educated thinker, but of men who laboured in the midst of poverty, ignorance and extortion. They formed a mutual self-help society which traded fairly and paid a cash dividend to members.
170 years later poverty, ignorance and extortion are still commonplace - not just in Rochdale but all over the world. Despite the latter success of the co-operative movement and the efforts of many a philanthropist, the progress of humanity towards a more humane co-existence seems destined to be thwarted by our other instincts - greed and the desire for power. My "refugees" were at the lighter end of the scale - that which is more accurately described as migrant labour: they may have travelled some way culturally but their hardship was not severe. Elsewhere the problem is one of life or death for millions of individuals displaced by corrupt dictatorships, religious or ideologically fanatical militias and fighting over control of resources.
We've become accustomed to news footage of refugees languishing in far-away desert camps and, more recently, making desperate journeys across the Mediterranean to our favourite holiday resorts. The distance may have lulled us into thinking they are someone else's problem but now that we see them boarding the queue of lorries at Calais their plight presents us with an immediate one of our own: how best to help them. The humane thing to do is to accept responsibility for the welfare of these displaced people but, even if we were willing and able to do so, such action would amount to no more than first-aid. The root of the problem is social and economic instability in their home countries and, until this is resolved, there will be fugitives. People are more inclined to stay put if they have a satisfactory life.
The Rochdale Pioneers stood on the shoulders of others who strove to improve the lot of the masses. Chief among these was Robert Owen, hero of Utopian thinkers, who made a fortune in industry and spent it in the pursuit of his ideals. In 1841 he urged governments "in the interest of the human race" to promote "the well-being and happiness of every man, woman and child, without regard to their class, sect, party, country or colour". This is sound advice for tackling the causes of migration but his idea is not as well subscribed as the Co-Op's: perhaps if it incorporated a cash dividend it might be more popular?