In the summer of 2005, the national science academies of the G8 nations combined with Brazil, China and India – three of the largest emitters of greenhouse gases in the developing world – signed a statement on the need for a global response to climate change. They argued that the scientific understanding of climate change was sufficiently clear to justify nations taking prompt action and called on world leaders to take a raft of united measures to tackle the crisis.
The response to the threat of climate change is far from perfect. Indeed, many campaigners will argue that the pace of change itself is too slow to reverse, let alone affect the threats facing our planet’s ecological balance. But the recognition of this shared crisis spurred governments into the type of international cooperation which sought to identify the causes of our global ecological imbalance and devise solutions to redress them.
Compare this to the international response to the so-called “migrant crisis” that is finally obvious from European suites. There is no global discussion over the roots of the problem, no unified solutions envisaged, and no willingness to recognise the true causes and devise a long term strategy to reverse them.
Instead, short term visions have dominated with discussions focused on the Faustian question of whether to send rescue boats to aid drowning people, debates over how many “African” migrants European societies can absorb and the construction of ever higher walls.
So far, solutions to the crisis have been framed by discussions of marauding “hordes” at the doors of fortress Europe, threatening our “standard of living”. And yet, the truth is the majority of migrants who have reached the EU so far this year have come from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Somalia and Syria, countries profoundly affected by conflict and human rights abuses. They are not so much criminals as victims, who according to Judith Sunderland, a researcher for HRW, make the crossing “because they have to, not because they want”.
Despite Europe’s grandstanding on the issue of absorbing migrants, it is actually the world’s poorest nations which have so far shouldered the burden of dealing with millions of refugees, while Europe has offered to resettle a mere 20,000. Meanwhile, thousands have died at sea thanks to what French-Senegalese author Fatou Diome has denounced as a “dissuasion tactic,” Europe’s unofficial “let them drown” policy, as even limited rescue efforts have been hampered by cooperation issues between different countries.
The UN Convention defines the term “migrant” as “where the decision to migrate is taken freely (…) and without intervention of an external compelling factor”. This is a definition which clearly distinguishes migrants from refugees or others compelled to leave their homes. This is no “flood of migrants”. It is a refugee crisis brought on by a state of profound global economic and social imbalance.
Global elites in a failed global system
Those who stand at the gates of Europe are evidence of the failure of a global system in which an overstimulated global elite enjoys a disproportionate allocation of global resources as a consequence of historical – and huge current – imbalances. The truth is, our illusion of perpetual growth as a societal and economic ideal rests on the increasingly violent and ruthless exploitation of the people and natural resources of the global south, and eventually – chickens come home to roost.
In a damning report published last year, Oxfam warned that the world’s richest 85 people share a combined wealth equivalent to that of the poorest 3.5 billion, a fact it cautioned threatens political stability and drives up social tensions. What’s more, the charity emphasised that this inequality is driven by a “power grab” by wealthy elites, who have co-opted the political process to rig the rules of the economic system in their favour.
Beyond the blinkers which impede Western elites from recognising the profound global inequalities which they have not only contributed to but are deeply and profoundly entrenched, is the seeming unwillingness of some of the world’s wealthiest states to acknowledge their responsibility to uphold the principles they are so keen to militarily parade as the basis for encroachments on the sovereignty of other nations.
Just as the discussion on climate change required a sea shift in attitudes whereby a majority of the world’s countries came to recognise the impact of their pollution and the consequent need to address the very viability of the planet, there needs to be a sea change in attitudes within the global north whereby we come to recognise that our wealth, our growth, and our security cannot come at the expense of others and that ultimately, our future on this finite planet is intimately linked to the viability of life for all other humans on it.
There are no walls high enough, no tunnels deep enough to ultimately keep out those who’ve seen the promises of the good life through satellite images and coca cola ads and been told to settle for their role as a cog in the global slavery industry.
Those seeking their share of the wealth accrued by the world’s richest economies are typically the victims of modern empire, which dresses up its imperialistic intentions in pretentions of freedom, democracy and human rights, then violently rejects those who cross entire oceans to try and experience those values for themselves.
Those same values – it should be stated – which were weaponised in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, as part of the destruction of entire nations, including the sorts of infrastructure which might render a nation habitable.
The very nature of our global capitalist system relies on inequality and until we come to realise that we cannot simply dispose of our human “junk,” we must find common solutions not simply to the destruction of our natural habitat, but to the increasingly perilous nature of life for the majority of the world’s peoples. We are merely displacing an inevitable reckoning.
The precariousness of their life increases proportionally to the growth of northern economies, a necessary trade off as a wealthy elite absorb an overwhelming amount of the world’s riches.
Both the migrant crisis and climate change are symptoms of our ongoing struggle for a monopoly over finite resources – an attempt to arrogate as much of those resources to a limited few, to the detriment of the vast majority.
These refugees are not the consequence of floods or other natural disasters, they are the product of the systematic decimation and appropriation of the majority of the world’s wealth by an increasing small and uber wealthy minority.
The charade of democracy and human rights
The truth is the charade of democracy and human rights becomes ever more salient as those who have been berated for their inability to demonstrate their commitment to such values arrive at the very alleged source of such rights – but find them sadly lacking.
No longer can corrupt regimes, backwards cultures or regressive religions be blamed for the inability of the global south to access basic rights, as they stand at the edge of Europe, demanding Europe hold itself to the standards it berates the rest of the world for foregoing. Its people are here and they are asking: where are those rights?
Alessandro Bechini, Director of Oxfam’s programmes in Italy, captured the current tension stating: “Refugees fleeing persecution need safe and legal avenues for claiming asylum. These are principles to be upheld, not empty statements to be ignored in favour of building a more fortified Europe.”
The truth is, there are the deserving and the underserving of human rights. To quote Diome, “If those drowning out there were white, the entire earth would be shaking. But they’re Africans and Arabs and when they die, it’s cheaper.”
There are those worthy of clean water, security, health and education and those who can be sent back to death camps and war zones by virtue of their global postcode.
Is it any wonder when you propagate a vision of western supremacy as the basis for the West’s right to politically infantilise other countries – that the oppressed of this world will seek to flee to the promised land of Europe, banking on its commitment to the ideals it has been so keen to disseminate and in many cases, militarily enforce, on the rest of the globe.
To paraphrase the anti-colonialist Frantz Fanon, of those who were told they were incapable of human rights and democracy, they have seized those ideas as the grounds for the assertion of their humanity, holding up a mirror to Europe – these are the values you said were universal, these were the principles for which you shed our blood; well we are here – now where are those ideals?
Refugees are the carriers of the seeds of western supremacy, convinced by our international posturing that we in the West will stand for the kinds of rights we portray as the cornerstone of our societies, not knowing that those rights are not bestowed upon all. They are unspoken hierarchies of humanity and our national borders serve a useful function in justifying the selective bestowing of those rights.
The “migrant crisis” is a European moral crisis, the ultimate test of our principles not simply in how we treat those who have made the Herculean journey to escape oppression, but also those left behind.
It is time for a global response to this human crisis.
This article was published on the Middle East Eye on August 20, 2015.