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Daily Maverick 2015 International Person of the Year: The Refugee

After considering a roster of other challengers, Daily Maverick has decided the refugee most clearly represents the person of the year internationally. J. BROOKS SPECTOR looks at the competition, and then sets out why refugees – from that small, frail child drowned at the seashore and who never even made it to Western Europe, to the many thousands of desperate people now tramping their way through the Balkans to the promised land of Germany or England – deserve our nod in 2015.

For decades, in fact, since 1927, Time magazine has picked their man, now person of the year – and in 1982, a machine, the personal computer. In the years after Time first began this annual rite, numerous other news organisations have had their own say on who – for good or evil – has most influenced the world in the preceding year. Here at The Daily Maverick, we have selected both a global as well as a local person of the year. And so here is our brief for the 2015 international person of the year.

On the international scene, initially at least, this year’s first choice might seem to be an unusually hard one to settle on. Yes, it would be easy to make a case for Russian President Vladimir Putin for his unceasing efforts to unwind the original post-Cold War dispensation, and return Russia to its – by his lights – rightful place globally, just as it was during the half century from 1940 to 1990. His decisions that have led to Russia’s stealth military engagement in Ukraine, and his quick movement into Crimea, making use of a re-energized, well-equipped military, and, now, above all, much riskier moves in Syria to flex international muscle, could all contribute to making Mr Putin a logical choice.

Similarly, a case could be made for Chinese President Xi Jinping and his continued shepherding of China’s own resurgence internationally. This has ranged from China’s step-by-step consolidation of control over those strategically important islets in the South China Sea and China’s strides in creating a “blue water” navy, as well as his nation’s increasing global influence in international economic terms. For the latter, this includes the country’s growing impact as a global trading giant (even if Gross Domestic Product growth and commodity purchases have taken hits in 2015), the country’s very public, economic diplomacy in Africa, its increasingly assertive efforts in building an East Asian trade bloc in competition with the US, China’s international infrastructure bank, and the International Monetary Fund’s decision to include China’s renminbi as an IMF reserve currency along with the other big boys. Taken together, this roster of activities would easily mark Xi as a potent challenger for the person of the year title.

On the other hand, there is German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s rise and rise as the only real European states-woman who has actually been able to lead her continent through to a unified set of policies over the terms of the Greek bailout deal – even if you think her policies smacked of a kind of German bullying. Then, too, she has also led from the front in response to the rising immigrant crisis, when almost every other leader dithered and dithered, hoping it was all a bad dream. And there has also been her effort to establish a pan-European response to Russia in the wake of its Ukrainian misadventures, even if her efforts on that score have been less effective than she, herself, might have wished. In comparison to any other leader-candidate from Europe, certainly anywhere west of Warsaw, a strong case exists for Angela Merkel to be selected for her international impact this past year.

In contrast, US President Barack Obama’s year has been more troubled, what with that difficult-to-lose image of drift and indecision in his dealing with the overlapping crises in the Middle East (and the links of those issues to fundamentalist terrorism) that seems to cling to Obama in the final two years of his presidency. Nonetheless, this drift has, paradoxically, underscored the continuing centrality of America in any efforts to “solve” such conundrums, as well as a sad, growing realization that any engagement in the Middle East most likely will produce less than optimal outcomes. Put simply, this has not been Obama’s best year, even if the US domestic economy continues to grow much more strongly than many are prepared to give his administration’s policies any credit for nursing along this growth. Most of his other policy initiatives have, of course, largely been stymied by Republican Party obdurateness and as they control both halves of the US Congress.

Staying with America, while some might argue for Donald Trump or even Senator Bernie Sanders, given their break-the-mold politics, neither of these men have yet managed to make a real contribution to actual public policy, even if both have had a real influence on the conversation of America’s 2016 presidential race, at least so far. Maybe next year will be their year – for either or both of them – as 2016’s joint winners, unless Hillary Clinton wins the election and thus pips them both as she becomes the woman who finally shattered one of the most singular and enduring of glass ceilings.

But then, what of the shadowy Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the reclusive head of ISIS/IS/ISIL/Daesh? Could he qualify as person of the year for 2015? Well, he and his organization (admittedly more a violent criminal gang than a state, despite its popular moniker) have clearly been central in overturning a considerable portion of the global political dynamic and helping rewrite the international security climate. The group he leads has left a great many people, whether they live in the Middle East or anywhere else, deeply affected by the presence of IS, its actions, or the actions of its sympathisers or acolytes of its particular dark brand of eschatological activity.

But our choice ultimately must go with the refugee – or, more properly, the millions of refugees as a collective global force. They have been flooding across the Mediterranean Sea from North Africa, across the northern rim of the Middle East, and on to Greece’s Aegean islands, and then on to the Balkan nations, all in an effort to find peace and security in the prosperous nations of Western Europe. Moreover, beyond this massive movement of people transcending national borders in their movements, there are also vast refugee flows within nations such as Syria and Iraq, as well as yet millions more into Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon, overstraining and greatly stressing the global refugee support system, as well as the national responses of these reluctant host nations.

And, of course, this inventory of movement and misery does not even include the many refugees that still continue to move from places like Myanmar (where Rohingya Muslims have been fleeing persecution by the Burmese by their thousands). And there are still others on the move as well. There are the many young Central Americans desperate to find a way out of the chaos brought about by drug lords and gangs in their home nations, as they flee to the cities and barrios of the southwestern US.

In fact, in looking back over the past century, these current movements of people have probably only really been outweighed by the truly vast numbers of refugees who wandered across Europe in the immediate wake of World War II, all trying to find any place where they would be able to rest and survive. Or if not those movements, perhaps the comparison is the vast number of migrants who fled Eastern and Southern Europe because of poverty or religious and ethnic persecution, and on to the US and other nations like Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Argentina between 1880-1914, along with the earlier Irish migration in the middle of the nineteenth century. Regardless, this current movement is the largest flood of desperate people in recent times – and it is already poised to effect large effects on the politics, societies and economics of nations throughout the world. And yet more impact is on the way. 

These refugee and migrant floods are already changing the texture of European and American politics, encouraging nativist populist politicians like Marine Le Pen and Donald Trump, and putting stress on countries where their economies are barely growing. Despite the fact that virtually none of the Middle Easterners have yet reached American shores (although Latin Americans certainly have), the US has not been spared the political fallout of these great migrations. In America, the nation’s politics has already been deeply affected by a choleric discussion about Mexican migrants at the hands of Donald Trump. Added to that has been a growing national fear of some kind of terrorist Trojan Horse embodied by a possible handful of Syrian immigrants and echoed in the words of pretty much every other Republican contender for their party’s nomination for the presidency – even if they have all, finally, opted out of supporting Trump’s latest hate screeds.

Given this vast movement of people, there is now the real possibility of significant social and economic change across Europe, as a whole wave of people eager for employment and opportunities in their new homes of refuge are becoming available. This can bring young, energetic labour to the workplace, even as it pushes forward social dislocations on the part of many others – both old residents and new immigrants. But the longer-term political impact of the nativist populists remains difficult to fathom fully, yet. It may well be that one troubling legacy will keep on giving for years to come as the Republican Party is being transformed into a 21st century version of the Know Nothings, even as the demographic changes in America will marginalise them at the national political level.

At least for the present, there are no credible political or economic mechanisms that will lessen the continuing movement of refugees and migrants – the social, economic and security problems they are fleeing from are simply too immense and too compelling to hold them back from getting on the move. Still, we are only beginning to see the outlines of the social impacts coming from these new waves of migrants. Of course, there is also the possibility that in a few decades, we may come to see this great migration in the same positive light as what happened in American society after the great migrations at the beginning of the last century.

Or, as novelist Henry Roth described it in his classic novel of immigration and assimilation, Call It Sleep, “It was May of the year 1907, the year that was destined to bring the greatest number immigrants to the shores of the United States. All that day, as on all the days since spring began, her decks [the ferry transferring new arrivals to immigrant arrival processing at Ellis Island] had been thronged by hundreds upon hundreds of foreigners, natives from almost every land in the world, the joweled close-cropped Teuton, the full-bearded Russian, the scraggly-whiskered Jew, and among them Slovack peasants with docile faces, smooth-cheeked and swarthy Armenians, pimply Greeks, Danes with wrinkled eyelids. All day her decks had been colourful, a matrix of the vivid costumes of other lands, the speckled green-and-yellow aprons, the flowered kerchief, embroidered homespun, the silver-braided sheepskin vest, the gaudy scarfs, yellow boots, fur caps, caftans, and dull gabardines….”

Or, perhaps, the social ructions in many places may come to resemble more the effects depicted in the very controversial, dystopian, futurist novel by French author Michel Houllebeq, Soumission (Submission) in which the author described a France in which a Muslim party, upholding traditionalist and patriarchal values, leads the vote in the France of a decade hence and in which that party ultimately forms a government with the support of France’s Islamo-Leftist Socialist Party. If one were to believe Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen or Donald Trump at least, that is what these great waves of refugees will inevitably lead to in their respective nations.

For optimists, the refugee crisis represents an opportunity to demonstrate a real adherence to the liberal values so often given lip service by politicians. But to pessimists, these same refugees now represent the preeminent challenge of our time to those very same values – and to the civilizations they underpin. Either way, this vast movement of people has transfixed us all. They are in the process of changing our societies, and in that way they have clearly earned their right to be named as the persons of the year. DM

Photo: A boy carries his belongings upon his arrival on the island of Lesvos after having crossed the Aegean Sea from Turkey in a rubber dinghy, Lesvos island, Greece, 11 October 2015. EPA/YANNIS KOLESIDIS.

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