There are some times in refugee policy and crises when the world’s nations reveal their true colors. The problem is it’s happening with such frequency these days it’s hard to keep up. Granted, I wrote about Denmark two weeks ago and should have followed up with a post about Sweden’s new policies in the interim, but haven’t had the time. But when it comes to hypocrisy, Greece and Turkey abhor a vacuum., and now both are taking steps to make the humanitarian refugee crisis in the eastern Aegean go from bad to worse.
According to yesterday’s New York Times, that celebrated humanitarian organization, NATO, is now getting involved to patrol for refugees fleeing to Europe via Turkey, or as the Times headline puts it, to “deter human trafficking.” First of all, before we even get to the moral arguments, just on the facts this is all wrong. What is happening in the Aegean is not “human trafficking”; by definition, “trafficking” is the coerced movement of people by smugglers for the purpose of labor or other exploitation. While “smuggling” refers to all movement of people by agents across borders without proper documents or inspection, “trafficking” specifically means there is an element of coercion, and usually exploitation involved. (And in fact, traffickers can also sometimes move people across borders legally, because people can enter a country with a work visa only to find out that the job they were promised bears no resemblance to the job in which they (usually she) find themselves caught – sex work, domestic work, indentured servitude, farm labor.) That is not what is going on between Turkey and Greece. The vast majority of migrants passing from Turkey to Greece are from Syria and Afghanistan and are fleeing war, and while there are also political refugees and economic migrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and other countries, the numbers of people being involuntarily or coercively “trafficked” is quite small. Calling it “trafficking” wrongly categorizes the migration as labor exploitation when in fact, as we well know, in most cases it’s about escape from war and persecution.
So just on its face, this is not a mission that calls for a police or military solution. That said, the mission as described is going to have three objectives. One is to interdict the refugees at sea. What will be done with them is as yet unspecified, but since they will not yet set foot on European soil, it’s unlikely NATO will kindly usher them to land where they acquire the legal rights they are seeking. They will probably be the big losers in this, and will, in order to avoid capture by NATO, engage in riskier crossings and maneuvers. More refugees are going to die in the process of the crossing.
Second, the mission is to break up the smugglers’ networks and to put them out of business. But then what? The fantasy depiction of the situation that the major governments would have us believe is that the smugglers are taking advantage of the refugees – and they are, but only because other, legal options are simply not available. If you are stuck in a refugee camp in Turkey, or in Jordan, Lebanon, still inside Syria, or in Iran or Pakistan in the case of Afghans, it’s not like there’s a place you can fill out an application to get to Europe. If you need to flee, your choice is a refugee camp – for five or ten years or even longer – or trying to get somewhere better so you and your children can have a future. Even if you have relatives already in Europe, countries are now lengthening family reunion times, even though that is directly contravened under the Geneva Convention. Refugees turn to smugglers not because they are coerced, but because smugglers are their last, and sometimes only, resort. Arrest them and put them out of business, and then what? People who are desperate to survive are going to find a way, a way that will likely be even more dangerous. NATO nations’ belief that putting smugglers out of business is going to solve the problem is fatuous. Smugglers will become more devious, more dangerous and violent (this is what has happened in Mexico), more expensive, and the routes will become riskier and more roundabout.
This new policy then is another example of disingenuousness on the part of the major world powers, who identify the smugglers and their networks as the main problem, preying on refugees. And to be sure, there is nothing lower than someone who knowingly makes and sells defective life-jackets to refugees or who sexually abuses migrants. But more important is to focus on the fact that the smugglers don’t create the refugee “problem”; smugglers exist and profit because there are no legal alternatives in response to at least two of the greatest human catastrophes of the past 75 years. That’s what no world leader (outside of the U.N., like Antonio Guterres) is going to admit: the problem is there are millions of displaced civilians trying to survive, either in their own country (Syria, where they are subject to hunger as well as bombardment and possible persecution), or in neighboring countries (Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, where they may live in camps but will likely face a decade or more of enforced poverty and a precarious and unproductive future). The only “legal” channel for moving to a country where they can integrate and be economically productive is resettlement, which typically takes at least five years, and even then for a tiny percentage of refugees at most. (Last year only 100,000 were resettled out of a worldwide population of over 18 million recognized refugees.) Smuggling is the symptom, because there are no realistic or safe alternatives within the legal system. Arresting a few smugglers, even a few hundred, is not going to mend the wars in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, nor is it going to address the real issue which is providing not only safe but decent places for people to settle and get on with their lives or to return to their postwar homes. These fictions – that the smugglers are the problem, and that, as the mayor of Lesbos told France24 in an interview, the need is to get Turkey to stop “sending” refugees to Greece – are convenient for finger-pointing purposes but are small diversions from the central problem. Our political leaders know this. Millions of people have been displaced by fighting and there are no practical avenues to help them survive in dignified and safe living conditions where they can continue their productive lives in careers or as parents, or where they can provide sufficient nutrition or education for their children.
Third, then, if you read the Times article further, is that the ultimate objective is to disrupt the flow of refugees to Europe, which is what this is really about. Europe, which is only receiving about 15% of the refugees (85% of whom remain in the Middle East), wants to protect their wealth and their illusion of homogeneity, in short, their privilege as European nation-states, even colonizing ones. The big fear is that the refugees dislodged by civil war and European and American invasion (even the centrist Thomas L. Friedman as much as admits this, but more on him later), are going to bring the problems they face back to Europe, on a grand scale. Keep the refugees out and it’s not really your problem, even if you then magnanimously donate funds to their humanitarian relief in tent cities and camps. It’s really just an act of glorified xenophobia, with the phony and transparent veneer of claiming it’s about protecting refugees from dangerous and unscrupulous traffickers and smugglers.
To paraphrase Archbishop Oscar Romero, it is as if our neighbors’ house is on fire and instead of rescuing people, we are effectively slamming the door, by sending in NATO to make it more difficult for people to escape by dismantling illegally-built fire escapes because they are not up to code.
A more appropriate and effective – even cost-effective – and dare I say humanitarian response would be to give the same funding to the U.N., UNICEF, or even NGO’s to set up refugee welcome centers where basic food, clothing, services and registration can be provided on the Greek islands, where rescue patrols can go out to sea and help refugees (many of whom are children) make the crossing safely, and then help them get on their way, even consulting with those refugees who don’t have family in Europe and encouraging them to go to countries with fewer refugees and more vacant housing and job opportunities. That would be a response Europe could be proud of one day. Right now, if you follow the news or any number of video reports on YouTube coming out of Lesbos, Kos, and elsewhere, there are still no decent registration centers or housing options for refugees, even after the ordeal they have gone through (escaping from our mutual enemies, I might add). Refugees have to wait weeks, without housing, food, or clothing, just to get registered by the Greek authorities, while a massive response from an international humanitarian team could make things move much more smoothly, quickly, and with less disruption for the locals. And after all that, they then have to go from Athens to points north and west, usually on foot, seeking safety in whatever country will accept them. We could do this if we had the will.
It’s important to point out here yet again that this is cost-effective in the long run, because the faster that refugees are integrated into their new countries and get back to work, the quicker they will be paying taxes back into the economy, creating businesses and jobs, and contributing economically into the system (and even providing humanitarian relief for their relatives back home). I may have cited this before, but the evidence is already showing that refugees in Europe, even in this crisis, are already a net gain to the economy by the European Commission’s own estimates.
It is deeply disappointing (though perhaps not surprising) that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as knowledgeable as she is and thus ought to no better, even in last night’s debate showed her support for NATO’s actions to break up the smugglers’ networks and stop the flow of refugees into Europe, as if the flow into Europe is a worse problem than the displacement of millions of refugees or the unsustainability of life in the refugee camps in the first place. Then she repeats the known, and dangerous, misconception that the refugee “crisis” is an economic drain on Europe, even though she would have access to all the sociological data that show that in the long run, and with proper investments, refugees like all immigrants grow the economy. (It’s also self-defeating, because if she then turns around and wants to accept more refugees for resettlement in the U.S., as she claims, she then has to argue against her own economic argument spewed back by opposing governors, when in fact the economic data, especially in the U.S., would support greater resettlement numbers. She’d be better off embracing the economic data from the beginning and adopting the platform that refugees are a net gain, and not only economically but also in the ingenuity and experience they bring to their new country.)
In sum, if this really were about humanitarian protection, then NATO and a military response would be the wrong way to go. No, this is really about national security and about appeasing nationalist, xenophobic parties, about keeping the people out of Europe they don’t want. Otherwise, they have to explain why a military response, whether by NATO or Frontex, is preferred over a humanitarian one and why they need to make the process more dangerous as a deterrent.
Finally, a special word on Thomas L. Friedman, who makes the claim in the same article that Germany, one of the largest and wealthiest nations in Europe, cannot handle an influx of refugees. He writes, “it was also reckless of [Angela Merkel] to think that so many immigrants, primarily Muslims, could be properly absorbed so quickly into society in Germany — a country that took two decades and billions of dollars to absorb East Germans.” The scale is so disproportionate here that any comparison with East Germany is absurd. In 1990, the year of German reunification, the West German population was about 63 million and the East German was about 16 million – meaning in the new, united Germany, one in five citizens had been an East German. Currently, the German population is over 83 million and the number of new refugees to be absorbed is one million. So even if that number were to double, we’d be talking about a ratio of one in forty, or maybe as low as one in eighty, needing to be integrated. One in five — of course that could take two decades. But the current “crisis” is nothing of that scale, not to mention the fact that many of these refugees are already well-educated and ready for the labor force, even as they learn German.
But we keep the misconceptions flowing in order to shirk our humanitarian responsibilities, and resort to trumped-up military responses to justify our unwillingness to share the world’s resources or embrace the common humanity we will need in order to survive.