On Refugees

You would have to be extremely hard-hearted not to be moved by the images and stories emerging in recent weeks about the huge number of people drowning in the Mediterranean, suffocating in lorries and living in unimaginable conditions in ad hoc refugee camps around the edges of Europe.  Much has been said and written about this … this word is terribly overused, but is surely appropriate … crisis, so I am going to set out my view.

What’s Going On?

Whenever there is conflict, there are refugees.  This, as far as it goes, isn’t new.  It’s no secret that large parts of the Middle East and North Africa are in turmoil.  But what we are seeing now is not similar to any of the previous refugee problems witnessed in the modern era.  What makes it different?  Let me explain.

First, the nature of warfare has changed. In the 20th century, war was (largely) an international business. One country went to war against or invaded another and the allies of each joined in.  On the whole, that is not what is happening now (with some exceptions, such as Russia/Ukraine).  Instead, we are seeing intranational conflict – sectarians battling each other for control over territory that doesn’t respect international borders.  This brings about many new issues.

  • The rules of war that the international community set out in response to the carnage of the World Wars (such as the Geneva Convention) do not apply to this new paradigm. The participants don’t care about them and can’t be held accountable.  Thus, we see dreadful atrocities such as those committed (and proudly recorded) by ISIS, some of which match the worst excesses of the dictatorships of the 20th century*.

“Syria and Iraq are as dead as Monty Python’s parrot”

  • While foreign national governments are of course involved, it is generally at arm’s length, protecting them from being held accountable. Rather than invade, they finance, arm and train a group or groups, as Iran does with Hezbollah in Lebanon/Syria.
  • There are no “front lines” where battles take place, and no safe areas behind the front lines where people can find refuge. Instead, there are constantly shifting zones of influence and battles are never won or lost, just re-fought over and over (the Syrian town of Azaz has changed hands 4 times in 3 years and the “battle of Aleppo” has been raging since July 2012).
  • War is no longer fought by two or more opposing armies with uniforms and clear chains of command, but by loose alliances of militias and barely trained civilians.
  • It is therefore much harder to
    • conduct diplomacy – who do you talk to?
    • destroy an enemy by targeting the leaders – note the lack of impact the killing of Osama bin Laden had on Al Queda;
    • destroy an enemy at all – given the fact that they are dispersed widely and intermingled with civilians; and
    • distinguish civilian from combatant – you can’t target them militarily and, if you can’t tell whether an individual is a genuine refugee or a terrorist, the temptation is to assume all strangers are a threat.
  • War is regional, which makes finding a safe haven much harder. When Iran and Iraq were fighting their bloody 8-year war in the 1980s, the refugees could at least be relatively sure that the conflict would not follow them outside those countries. The current chaos pays no attention to international boundaries, spreading almost seamlessly from Turkey to Yemen, Lebanon to Afghanistan, Lybia to Nigeria and Kenya and (nearly) everywhere in between.
  • In fact, it seems more and more the case that the 20th century post-imperial nation state has ceased to have any real meaning in those parts of the world.  Large parts of Nigeria are entirely out of Abuja’s control and the states known as Syria and Iraq are, to all intents and purposes, as dead as Monty Python’s parrot, and no amount of nailing them to their perches is likely to resuscitate them.
  • The conflicts are driven by extremist nihilists, which means that ordinary people simply can’t just keep their heads down. In Nazi occupied Europe, you could get by even if you weren’t a Nazi (as long as you weren’t Jewish, gay, gypsy, communist etc). If you kept your head down, the soldiers didn’t generally bother you. ISIS are not so generous. Unless you demonstrate total conversion to their particular brand of Islam, you are vulnerable to being sold as a sex slave, being burned alive, beheaded and worse.

With all this, it is hardly surprising that hundreds of thousands of people are making desperate journeys across continents and oceans to find refuge in a peaceful Europe where you can live without having to fear for your life from day to day.

So what’s to be done?  Europe

In one way, it’s remarkably simple. All nations not suffering from a national crisis should agree to take in a fair share of the migrants.  Currently, Angela Merkel is right. Germany is by far the EU country who have made the biggest effort to welcome and provide for this tide of humanity.

And that is a disgrace.

In my country, the UK, we have just been through a general election where “immigration” was the most talked about topic – yes, even more than the huge budget deficit.  The tone of this debate was clear (and none of the major parties dissented): Immigration is not well controlled, there is “too much” of it, and immigrants are a burden on society, negatively affecting the welfare system, the housing and employment markets and so on.

“Britain MUST take more – it is the responsible and moral thing to do.”

In this climate, it takes a brave politician to stand up and say that we will welcome tens of thousands of desperate, poor people – especially as they are (clears throat and looks over shoulder) brown and look like the people who attacked London on 7/7.  Indeed, as recently as June, David Cameron magnanimously committed to expand the number of Syrian refugees Britain would accept – to 500 by the end of 2017!

But that is exactly what we should do.  It is the responsible, moral and right thing to do.  Yes, we CAN afford it – certainly more so than the countries currently bearing the brunt as they are nearest to the areas of conflict – Greece, Italy and Hungary.

Frankly, if “ordinary working families” (that hackneyed phrase rolled out by British politicians ad nauseam) have to suffer a slight drop in living standards so that 10,000 or more people can make new homes and lives for themselves – well, that seems like a trade worth making to me.

So what’s to be done? Middle East

So wealthy, comfortable Europe is morally bound to do its bit, but we should not have to take on the whole burden alone.  What else can be done?

The obvious long-term solution is to stop the conflicts that create the refugees. Now that is a problem to which I don’t have the solution – and I would suggest nobody else does either, otherwise it would have been implemented.  So, given that the conflicts are happening and will, for the time being, continue…

The countries close to the conflict zones should be pressured into helping – and, if necessary, provided with assistance to keep the refugees local. While I have acknowledged that these conflicts transcend nationality, there ARE countries both close geographically and culturally to those in turmoil.  Saudi Arabia is one very obvious example.

I know that these countries have difficulties of their own, and large numbers of refugees from other conflicts.  But 1 in 4 of the 20 richest (per capita) countries in the World – including 3 of the top 5 – are Arab/Muslim.  Perhaps those Muslim/Arab countries not directly affected (such as Singapore and Brunei) could either volunteer to take some refugees on or at least support those countries who are currently bearing the burden.

I know it’s easy for me, sitting behind my keyboard in cosy Hertfordshire, to preach, but I know that, should life in the UK become dangerous to me and my family, I would much rather seek refuge in a place where the language and culture are not too dissimilar from the one I am used to.

There are many Muslim countries – it just seems obvious to me that Muslim refugees may prefer to be accommodated in Muslim countries, and Arabs (of whatever faith) in Arab countries.  This will also make it far easier for them to return home should it become possible and practical in future which is surely the best outcome for all concerned.

So what’s to be done? Rest of the World

There are wealthy countries outside Europe who could and should step in to help.

The US has, to date, taken shockingly tiny numbers of Syrian refugees – according to the Guardian, only 141 were admitted between October 2012 and October 2014 – and, in today’s small world where travel is cheap and ubiquitous, there is no reason why some of those currently beating down Europe’s doors could not be re-directed across the Atlantic.

“The total number of Syrian refugees make up less than 1 in 200

of the populations of the EU, US and Japan alone.”

Only tiny numbers of refugees from the Syrian conflict have made their way to South America, and Japan, despite being one of the wealthiest countries on the planet, has to date closed its doors entirely.

There are an estimated 4 million Syrian refugees at the moment. That sounds like (and is) a huge number, but that is less than 0.5% (1 in 200) people in the EU, the US and Japan alone.  That doesn’t sound quite as daunting.

If all these countries – and more – perhaps through the medium of the UN, were to take this matter seriously, it is not beyond possiblity that scenes of dead babies washed up on the shores of the Mediterranean can be banished to the memory.

Speak soon


* Yes – I do include Nazi Germany in that statement. The evil of ISIS is not quite as systematic as the wholesale destruction of European Jewry or Pol Pot’s Killing Fields, or the Rwanda genocide, but it is no less sick.

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