The refugee crisis

The refugee crisis

Europe has tried to hide from this basic fact, that nothing but a sea separates them from the millions seeking a better life. In the immediate future, it might look to the model of the North American Free Trade Agreement, through which the US looked to increase trade and development to begin creating conditions for Mexicans to have a better life where they already live.

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By Gerard M. Gallucci

The Economist reports that since the beginning of this year, some 1300 persons – men, women and children – died while crossing the Mediterranean toward Europe on their quest to begin a new life.  In the same period, perhaps 35,000 have done so successfully.  One million more await the same trip on the shores of north Africa while another million are in camps in Lebanon.  Four million Syrians have fled the war in that country with another eight million internally displaced.  Hundreds of thousands of persons flow toward the European promised land every month.  Over 200 thousand persons made it to Europe in 2014 to be joined by another 300 thousand this year at the current rate.  They come from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Horn, South Sudan, Libya, West Africa and Southeast Asia.  While the first stop is usually the southern European countries – with Italy now taking the brunt – as many as can try to make it further north, especially to Germany and Scandinavia.

That the crossing is dangerous has not stopped the flow.  With the recent headlines, the EU now has moved into “crisis” mode and plans to increase spending on interdiction, action against smugglers (including targeting their boats) and repatriation.  The Economist recommends going beyond this by speeding up the processing of asylum requests and perhaps doing it on the southern African side before anyone tries to cross.  This might be a good idea but its hard to see how it would work without also assisting the many waiting there by providing them with decent food and health and safe camps.  Such “generosity” would itself probably serve to draw even more.

The draw is in fact the real issue.  Those seeking to make their way to Europe are desperate for a better life, one they can see through the global media but in such stark contrast to what they face day to day.  The draw is an expression of a fundamental and pervasive inequality that is not just economic but also about politics, rule of law and security.  Those seeking refuge essentially are trying to escape the equivalent of a Hobbesian state of nature.  Western Europe – the land of the “haves” – is the shining city on the hill with everything they – the global “have-nots” – lack at home.  Who would not risk much to cross that line?  There is no easy way to counter this draw.

Europe has tried to hide from this basic fact, that nothing but a sea separates them from the millions seeking a better life.  And Europe has reasons to hide.  The Western European countries were the colonial powers in the various places from which people are now fleeing.  They extracted wealth to fuel their own development and riches and eventually left behind half-baked regimes living within arbitrarily drawn boundaries.  These inevitably fell into the hands of local despots who at least would hold things together.  The West – including the US – was quite happy to help these rulers and overlook any human rights shortcomings during the Cold War.  But little effective was done to gradually reduce the economic and institutional inequality.

Meanwhile, a new war began, the one against “terrorism.”  Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld engineered a unilateral and disastrous intervention in Iraq while continuing the ineffective effort in Afghanistan descended from the previous Cold War effort to destabilize the country by aiding the Mujahideen.  To those broken states, the Obama administration added Libya and Syria out of its misguided notions of an “Arab Spring.”  If the rule of “you-break-it-you-own-it” is fair in commerce, it seems just to say that Western Europe and the US “own” the results of the countries they have broken over the last two hundred years.

So one could argue that the West has a moral responsibility to do more than stop or send back those seeking escape from their broken homelands.  But it also would be unwise to expect that interdiction and anti-smuggling efforts alone will be enough to end the draw and stop the flow of refugees.  As the essential problem is inequality, in its various forms, it would seem more useful to take efforts to reduce it.

Effective efforts to reduce economic, political and institutional inequality would require a massive, prolonged and coordinated international effort at nation building.  There is no merely military approach adequate to this task but – as the extremists are unlikely to cooperate –  a robust peace-enforcing and peace-keeping element would be essential to begin creating the space and stability for the work to begin.  No one country could, would or should try this on its own.  It would of course be very, very expensive.  Also, serious conceptual, legal and practical issues would have to be considered, including which current state boundaries might have to change and how to include in a meaningful way the populations of the places we try to “fix.”  But the UN provides many of the mechanisms for action and the Security Council the political forum for agreeing on terms and approaches.

This all seems pie-in-the-sky.  Who would lead an effort to build the necessary international support for such an approach and who would volunteer the tremendous sums necessary to fund it?  But the problem is that gross global inequality in living standards – like climate change – will not go away on its own.  The choices seem to be limited to three:  living with the practical and moral implications of trying to stem the flow of the dispossessed, finding a new generation of autocrats to somehow hold their people in place, or acting strenuously to begin repairing what is broken so people don’t feel compelled to flee where they are.

The first tack – trying to stop the flow – is unlikely to work but rather to contribute to the festering instability that produces, protects and exports disorder.  For the second to work we would have to stomach the occasional Qaddafi and Assad, treasure the Mubaraks and hope for more Sisis.  As for the third approach, obviously it is a reach.  It would seem to require an alternative way of living, a new form of political action and international cooperation.  Our current way of doing things seems out of balance. (The Hopi apparently had a word for that: Koyaanisqatsi.)

In the immediate future, the EU might look to the model of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).  The US realized in the early 1990s that it would be better to undertake efforts to bring Mexico into a relationship providing economic benefits to both sides of the Rio Grande River.  It built a fence but also looked to increased trade and development to begin creating conditions for Mexicans to have a better life where they already live.  (The concept was extended a decade later to Central America.)  Further change must occur – including immigration reform – as the draw still brings many to try the crossing.  But it has worked out better than a moat.  The Europeans may feel they already have a moat but even the Mediterranean is not wide or deep enough.

Gerard M. Gallucci is a retired US diplomat and UN peacekeeper. He worked as part of US efforts to resolve the conflicts in Angola, South Africa and Sudan and as Director for Inter-American Affairs at the National Security Council. He served as UN Regional Representative in Mitrovica, Kosovo from July 2005 until October 2008 and as Chief of Staff for the UN mission in East Timor from November 2008 until June 2010. He has a PhD in political science, taught at the University of Pittsburgh, University of Arkansas, George Washington University and Drake University and now works as an independent consultant.


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