June 7, 2016
Over the past week, the UN Refugees Agency says that eight hundred and eighty people died in the Mediterranean Sea. They had been trying to get to Europe - for many, the beacon of a future that they have not been able to build in their own countries. These migrants left from the Sabratha region - the northwestern coast of Libya - where the local economy now relies upon the refugee trade. Almost fifty percent of the Gross Domestic Product for this region comes from the human traffickers.
Europe worries about what is perceived in the continent to be an invasion into its lands. Far Right groups are open about their antipathy, but they reflect - in some measure - the petty bigotry of sections of society. It is easy to turn on the migrants and refugees, for their desperation makes them prey to all kinds of fantasies - that they steal jobs or are violent or that they are importing antique social mores into civilized Europe. These are old ideas, as ancient as the 19th century. When the cholera swept through Russia in 1831, the French parliament believed that the disease would stop at the borders of France; no antediluvian disease could penetrate the democratic soil of Europe. Cholera broke the barriers and swept through Paris. The 'Oriental disease' could not be stopped. Prejudice is not a firm enough wall.
Last year, close to ninety per cent of the million refugees and migrants who attempted to enter Europe did so through Greece. Harsh retribution along the axis of Eastern Europe and terrible illiberalism by the Greek government has now substantially closed off that pathway. A European Union deal with Turkey on 18 March has now pushed the refugees to camps in Turkey. Those who risk the journey do so at great peril. But Turkey has been no real haven.
An Amnesty International briefing from June 3rd shows that Turkey's policy towards refugees is under great strain. Official numbers indicate that there are almost three million Syrian refugees and half a million other asylum seekers from parts of Africa and Asia (including Afghanistan) plagued by war and poverty. These numbers are beyond the scope of the Turkish authorities. Amnesty's report shows that most of the refugees are living in substandard housing, with little opportunity to make a living (which is why children amongst the refugees seek employment in large numbers). One asylum seeker told Amnesty, 'Maybe we will die, maybe we won't arrive - but it doesn't matter because we can't stay in Turkey anymore.'
Where could the refugees go? Routes out of Turkey are difficult. Re-entry into Syria is beyond imagination. Greece has shut its doors. The modest numbers of refugees taken in by Europe and the United States - with great fanfare before the cameras - do not make a dent in the crisis. Even the Dalai Lama has come out saying that Germany has taken in sufficient refugees. His statement is as outrageous as a reality itself. The Dalai Lama and a large section of the Tibetan population came to India as refugees in 1959. They have enriched Indian society. What does the Dalai Lama think these desperate refugees are supposed to do?
Most refugees out of Syria would like to return home - but home has vanished in the endless war. The Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad and the rebel forces toy with the UN attempts to get vital humanitarian aid into besieged cities. This produces acute suffering among people, for whom flight becomes the only alternative. But where can they flee? Jordan and Lebanon are saturated. Only the end of the use of aid as a weapon of war and the end of the war could solve this exodus from Syria.
Tensions are high between Germany and Turkey because of the German parliament's censure for the genocide of the Armenians by the infant Turkish state. The March deal might collapse as a result. Nationalism is a fragile sword in the hands of the current Turkish government. It cannot afford to take this condemnation quietly.
Meanwhile, in Libya, large numbers of refugees gather to make the dash across the dangerous Mediterranean Sea to the Italian island of Lampedusa - the beachhead of Europe. These are migrants who have long abandoned the destroyed economies of Western Africa and the war ravaged Horn of Africa. They are in the hands of human smugglers who operate across the Sahara Desert, with well-known hubs in Niger. They are taking advantage of a Libyan state broken by the NATO war of 2011.
What stops the refugees is the dangerous sea. Already this year, over two thousand people have died in the waters - 'making the odds of dying as high as one in 23,' says the UN Refugees Agency (UNHCR). Last year, at this time, less than two thousand refugees drowned, while in the year before the number stood at only fifty-seven. The increased numbers should be worrying to the world community, but they are not. The UNHCR's William Spindler said, '2016 is proving to be particularly deadly.'
Refugees from Western Africa - from Gambia, Senegal, Nigeria - flee decades of IMF-induced structural adjustment policies and a cotton industry wrecked by unfair European and US domestic subsidies. The IMF recently noted that its schemes have created 'disquieting conclusions,' but this internal criticism will be worth nothing. It is easy for the IMF to say it is sorry for its actions, but harder yet for it to pick up the pieces of its policies. Since Europe was a key player in the IMF, one could imagine that it would be contrite about the devastation in Western Africa and provide some respite to the desperate people who live there. But Europe would like to delink the IMF created problems from the West Africans who sit in rusty fishing vessels and overcrowded rubber boats.
Those who come from the Horn of Africa flee the destruction of their countries by decades of the War on Terror. Somalia's descent into madness in the 1990s was compounded by the invasion of the country by Ethiopian troops between 2006 and 2009 under the aegis of the US government's Global War on Terror. These fleeing people are the cognate of the Somali pirates, pushed into this industry by corporate overfishing and pollution dumping in the Somali coastline. Games with these fragile states continue to displace more and more people who are fed up with the endlessness of conflict and the fragility of their homelands. Conscription in Eritrea has sent thousands of men towards Europe - making Eritreans the largest group of desperate men in Libya.
Libya's own ability to deal with this inflow of migrants is limited. The Europeans are eager to bolster the new Libyan unity government. But this is a very low horizon. What Europe seems to want is for the Libyan government to be the border gendarme against the refugees. A strong Libya can only close the door to the refugees. It cannot tackle the crisis that produces them - namely, the kind of policies imposed on the countries of West Africa.
The 1951 Convention on Refugees is anachronistic. It is a Cold War document, which encourages the 'unfree' to seek refuge in 'free' societies. Such an anachronistic definition allows states to disparage certain refugees as merely economic migrants - as if these are not refugees of distress. A new international conference of states is imperative to reconsider the definitions and to highlight the new challenges - such as those produced by IMF refugees, climate change refugees, regime change refugees and so on. States should not be allowed to arbitrarily decide who is a 'deserving' applicant and who is not. Countries of the Global South, campaigners for refugee rights and refugees themselves need to take the lead in calling for such a conference.
The entire discourse on refugees and migrants is suffused with racism. When Americans and Europeans live overseas, they are called expatriates - not migrants. It is the darker bodies who are migrants and refugees. These dark bodies are seen as a threat to the 'white nations' of Europe and North America. Could there be any other way to understand the ferocious rhetoric that emanates from the Atlantic states? There is no real refugee crisis. There is, however, a crisis of humanism in Europe and North America.
Last year a West African refugee - Famara from Gambia - told me that the transit to Europe had robbed him of his sense of his identity. He is no longer a Gambian he said, let alone an African. 'I am a refugee,' he said, looking me in the eye. 'That is who I have become.'
Vijay Prashad is professor of international studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. He is the author of 18 books, including Arab Spring, Libyan Winter (AK Press, 2012), The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South (Verso, 2013) and the forthcoming The Death of a Nation and the Future of the Arab Revolution (University of California Press, 2016). His columns appear at AlterNet every Wednesday.