The world as a permanent refugee camp

The drowning death of one small boy – Aylan Kurdi – as his family was fleeing the chaos of the Syrian civil war and the poignant photograph of his small body that has now circled the globe, encourages J BROOKS SPECTOR to consider what can – or should – be done as the number of economic migrants and political refugees continues to grow.

By now, it must surely be a very rare person who has not seen the picture of the lifeless body of Aylan Kurdi, a small child dressed in what may have been his holiday best, being carried out of the Aegean Sea by a local policeman. Anyone who has ever held a small child in his or her arms must surely have felt shattered by the content and emotional quality of that image.

This picture is already being compared to Kevin Carter’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of the emaciated child who was being watched by a nearby vulture, in the maelstrom of a horrendous African famine. By virtue of this latest victim’s youth, his utter helplessness in the face of death, and his circumstances as a stand-in for the hopelessness of so many hundreds of thousands more, we are all left to ponder this tragedy. It is more than the great sadness of Kurdi’s “small” death. It is also what his death might tell us about what might have prevented not just his death but those of so many others as well.

In one article from among a global torrent of published soul searching about the larger meanings of Kurdi’s death, columnist Ross Douthat, writing in the 6 September New York Times, noted: “The image of a dead Syrian boy washed up on a Turkish beach has inspired a wave of Western soul-searching, with much talk about how ‘the world’ failed three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, who drowned along with his mother and brother while trying to escape their country’s civil war. This reaction is understandable, but its policy implications are unclear. And since policy questions are where outrage ultimately cashes out, it makes sense to try to think through what it really means to say that we – America, the West, the world — failed the Kurdi family, and helped consign them to their fate.” And there, indeed, is the rub, where ugly realities bump into sentiment.

For the past several years, a brutal, multi-sided, and increasingly chaotic civil war has engulfed Syria. As the brutal Assad regime has fought off various groups coming out of the Arab Spring uprising, Hezbollah has also fought on for its own (and its international backer’s purposes), and, moreover, the rise of Islamic State (IS) has meant yet further devastation and great human tragedy. And all through this calamity, despite millions of international and internal refugees being counted, with hundreds of thousands of fatalities from the fighting, and after the utter devastation of cities as well as some the world’s most important archaeological sites, the world’s major powers have still largely backed away from any intervention. This inaction has come about largely in response to strong criticisms of engaging in such possibilities, both from domestic critics as well as from beyond their respective nations. Non-interference in Syria (save for some very limited air attacks on IS positions in the most eastern, largely desert portions of the country) has clearly failed to halt the descent of Syria into the vast charnel house it has now become.

On the other hand, consider Libya. Under Muammar Gaddafi, the place was largely free of public disorder and civil commotion (although at a severe cost to the exercise of Libyan civil liberties or any political participation by Libyans, as well as more than just the occasional bit of Libyan support for international terror activities, nogal). However, once Gaddafi was forced from office with the assistance of western air power, the country largely dissolved into a kind of “Somalia on the Mediterranean”, with various armed bands claiming – and fighting over – control for the remnants of government, as well as the country’s bountiful oil and natural gas fields, and the revenues that come from them. Along the way, much of the Gaddafi regime’s rather large armoury has been jobbed out to rebel bands throughout Africa, helping generate or power further unrest and fighting in other nations.

But, unlike Somalia, however, Libya’s long Mediterranean coastline has encouraged growing numbers of economic and political migrants to take their chances via every conceivable rickety boat to reach the comparative safety and security of those tantalisingly close Italian shores. Moreover, the Libyan chaos has also triggered a growing flood of migrants from across North-Central Africa – beyond Libya – who are eager – or desperate – to try their luck at entering Europe as well.

Further, old networks of human traffickers are making use of the civil catastrophe along Libya’s coastline to transport “the wretched refuse of your teeming shore” – as Emma Lazarus had so memorably described the waves of desperate migrants heading for America in the latter part of the 19th century. But, in the sad case of Libya, in contrast to that of Syria, international intervention in support of regime change, whatever it may have been designed to achieve, and whatever else it actually did, has just as clearly also opened the floodgates for waves of immigrants to take their chances in those small, unseaworthy vessels and head for Europe, now that structures of Libyan civil control have largely broken down.

Meanwhile, in Myanmar, the sad, but less told story of the Rohingya, Muslims in a Buddhist nation, have fled persecution in their thousands to an uncertain and dangerous exile, hoping to reach Malaysia, Indonesia, or even Australia, and thus at least a chance for a better life. And, of course, there has been absolutely no appetite in any national capital for an intervention in Myanmar to aid the Rohingya people (let alone press the Myanmar government to expand the civil rights of the rest of its population). Even modest diplomatic engagements on the Rohingya’s fate have been virtually invisible.

Or consider the large numbers of migrants who continue to move north to the US from all over Latin America, usually by way of the Mexican border. They come, variously, for economic improvement, to escape brutal regimes, or even to flee the depredations of local drug lords who have been destroying whole communities throughout Central America. Here again, no rational politician or policy maker has urged intervention anywhere in that region in the face of this flow of people, despite the seemingly unremitting waves of such migrants.

But, by the same token, nobody can point to any acts by an outside power that have set off these recent waves of migration, other than the US being an economy that is growing in contrast to so many others, or the fact that that country has the political stability the continues to elude much of the “South”. A generation earlier, of course, thousands of migrants similarly fled Cuba to the US, also on a small flotilla of rickety boats, during the “Mariel boat people” migration. At that time, too, there was certainly no call for intervention in Cuba to preclude that movement.

In fact, the only real, tangible responses in the past few years for the migration from Latin America – aside from the nudge to industrial growth and job creation in the border areas of Mexico that came about as a result of the North American Free Trade Agreement some years back – have been growing expenditures to step up border controls, along with pressure from others to legitimise somehow those migrants who have already crossed the Rio Grande River. However, this same flood of migrants has also been encouraging a new wave of political “nativism” in America, something Donald Trump has tapped into and encouraged as part of his outsider’s run for the Republican nomination for the US presidency in the 2016 election.

And then, of course, much closer to South Africa, there is the vexing case of Zimbabwe, along with several other unstable regimes to the north of the country. Economic migrants, along with yet others who could be termed political refugees, continue to move southwards in their hundreds of thousands, if not millions, in response to an imploding economy at home and the realisation that if they hope to feed their families they will need to find work in South Africa.

As South Africans know well, the jobs these people have been taking on may be difficult, dangerous, and dirty – or just plain demeaning – but they pay just enough to let Zimbabweans send funds home to keep their families alive, in a place where things are so much worse for many than in South Africa. And no one in South Africa has even begun to set out a realistic case for intervention in Zimbabwe – even if real chaos were to take hold when Robert Mugabe passes away. (Surely he too must be mortal.) And yet, someone in South Africa, some day, may well need to make unpalatable decisions about the militarisation of the common border, or a popularly unpalatable, but very different kind of accommodation to all of those who will flee national chaos if it engulfs them some day.

Extracted from all these examples should be the realisation that the angst and hand-wringing over whether to intervene or not on behalf of humanitarian causes can be a kind of red herring. After all, some of the very same people who have decried interventions in one place or another previously are now leading the charge for some kind of humanitarian intervention in Syria to preclude even more terrible things from coming true.

The real problem, however, is the collapse of civil order and economic circumstances in societies; most especially the collapses that force so many to flee their homes for the dangers and uncertainties of yet another nation. And for that, a simplistic argument that intervention is morally wrong becomes both wrong-headed and counterproductive. Sometimes it must make sense to prevent truly dreadful things from occurring – or to stop them once they start.

Back at the beginning of World War II, for example, theologian Reinhold Niebuhr had wrestled with that very question, given his acknowledgement of the primal commandment “Thou shall not kill” – concluding, finally, that sometimes the imminence of some truly great, fundamental evil just must be confronted and stopped, even if this ultimately requires force. But that, inevitably, leads back to the question of who should intervene, or where, and to what purpose? And, moreover, what mechanism in today’s world can decide, for example, who is going to carry out such an effort?

However, the global geopolitical environment, despite the United Nation’s (UN’s) acknowledged role in carrying out numerous humanitarian and peacekeeping and peace-making efforts, simply has not achieved a foolproof way to determine how these questions can be resolved. And, of course, one does not need to be fatally cynical about the “real politik” rules to observe that more than one intervention has been labelled humanitarian by its proponents, even as it has simultaneously had a distinct whiff of efforts to harvest geopolitical advantage, or even to secure access to or control over natural resources.

In 1994, as horrific genocidal furies were unleashed in Rwanda, hundreds of thousands of people were killed solely for their ethnicity, and many others were forced into uncertain refuge in neighbouring states. With the 20/20 vision of hindsight, the failure by the world’s powers to intervene to bring those killings to a halt continues to weigh heavily on the minds – and consciences – of many of the very people who were in power at the time, both in the US and elsewhere.

But how to draw the right lessons from all these disparate cases or establish some sort of global norm may be impossible? The international norm of the “responsibility to protect” non-combatants in a civil war, given as motivation for interventions, can also be used more cynically as a smokescreen for other actions.

In the midst of crises, those who see that the most important, primary goal is to save lives will inevitably call on the “international community” to give shelter and protection to refugees from combat zones, or in aid for thousands or even millions of people fleeing great economic disasters. Meanwhile, others search – so far – in vain for some sort of universal international regimen that can come to grips with desperate, unanticipated mass movements of people internationally, to legitimatise their movements to new and safer places, and, ultimately, to make provision for their assimilation into new societies. Here, one goal must be to preclude turning those refugees into one more deeply angry, disaffected group seeking revenge and then giving in to their own extremist impulses.

Yet another political challenge is that in many of the nations most likely to receive displaced, desperate people, the nativist anti-immigrant urge is taking hold. A key aspect of the apparent support for Donald Trump in the US seems to be a version of this. Meanwhile, Nigel Farage’s United Kingdom Independence Party is another, the Le Pens’ National Front in France is yet another, and there are analogues and copycats all across Europe these days. And, en masse, waves of immigrants are scarcely welcomed in any East and Southeast Asian nation.

But simultaneously, advocates for intervention – whether it be on behalf of geopolitical goals, for purely humanitarian goals, or for the economic salvation of persecuted people – must demonstrate that their proposed interventions will demonstrably improve things somehow rather than make them even worse than they would be without yet another participant in a chaotic scene. All of this is a very tall order – and perhaps it may be an impossible one.

Perhaps the best – and rather unsatisfying – thing that may happen, in the absence of any broadly accepted international gold standard for humanitarian interventions is for the international community as a whole to sort out more effective responses to the dreadful, sudden mass migrations that come about because of man-made disasters. At present, the global response in such crises is almost inevitably an ad hoc one.

In practice, this means coalitions of international agencies under the UN banner, international foreign assistance bodies from various nations together with various allied, specialised teams (such as search and rescue teams from fire departments around the world), along with experienced private groups such as Doctors Without Borders, the International Committee of the Red Cross, or South Africa’s own Gift of the Givers. Along with this, there will continue to be much arguing over which countries must bear the burden of accepting refugees or paying for their care and the costs of their relocation.

At present, however, the prevailing international order still means that individual nations will decide what is best for them to do, or what is possible within the realm of their national politics. Sadly, perhaps, the best that may come from the universal acknowledgement of Alyan Kurdi’s sad, needless death is that the international community will somehow move more quickly and forcefully in responding to the next mass migration from some great calamity. But don’t expect the impact of his death to trump individual conceptions of national interest. DM

Photo: A refugee girl looks out from inside a bus after her arrival at the port of Piraeus, near Athens, Greece, 05 September 2015. EPA/YANNIS KOLESIDIS.


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