Refugees Everywhere

The Long March

Saral Sarkar

The media are bubbling with the refugee-migrant crisis, the new great crisis of the EU, the significance of which dwarfs that of the Greek economic crisis. It may appear that everything that can be said on this subject has already been said and written. But it is not so. What is missing in the discussions till now is an in-depth understanding of the crisis, without which even highly competent and experienced politicians and administrators would not find a lasting solution to it.

There are three categories of "refugees" : (1) Those who were suffering political persecution in their native country and are therefore seeking asylum are political refugees. (2) Those fleeing because of some kind of war or violent conflict should better be called war refugees. (3) Those who are leaving their native country in search of a better life or a better job in another country should be called (economic) migrants. They may be just poor people from underdeveloped countries or people who are unemployed for a long time. This categorization cannot be a clear-cut one, for people may have two or all of the above reasons to flee, their native country. In truth today it is a global problem and exists since long.

There are today worldwide 60 Million such people. Some 11 million Latino migrants are illegally living in the USA. It is not as if only rich countries like the USA and EU attract refugee-migrants. Even countries that are not really rich but are only perceived to be a little better off and having relatively better job opportunities (actually, only a little less unemployment) than the neighbouring countries attract migrants from the latter. Thus India has an unknown number of illegal migrants from Bangladesh, Malaysia has a large number of legal and illegal migrants from Indonesia, the Republic of South Africa from the neighbouring African countries. In Kenia, the largest refugee camp of the world (in Dadaab) is the temporary home of half a million Somali war refugees. In the Sahel Zone too there is a regular—legal and just tolerated—intra-regional flow and outflow of migrant workers. Some years ago, illegal Chinese migrant workers were reported in the UK. Russia has legal and illegal migrants from central Asia- most of them Muslims.

At several international borders, walls and fences have been built to keep unwelcome refugee-migrants away, e.g. between the USA and Mexico, between India and Bangladesh, and most recently between Hungary and its neighbouring countries. The EU created the Fromex, a high-tech border police organization, to prevent illegal entry. Australia uses force to prevent all ships carrying illegal migrants from touching its shores. Those who succeed in illegally landing in Australia are immediately deported to the neighbouring pacific island of Nauru. Malaysia expels illegal Indonesian workers and even legal ones who have lost their job. Sometimes, the poor ones among them, who generally take cheap and unsafe boats for returning home, die of drowning in the sea. So one can say that the present acute refugee-migrant crisis of the EU is only the latest manifestation of a long-standing global problem.

For many European officials it is outrageous that hundreds of thousands of foreigners are gate-crashing one European country after the other—openly, illegally and without being registered by any authority. As a Bavarian politician recently said, it is tantamount to capitulation of the state if it cannot protect its borders.

They are mostly young men and women. There are hardly any purely political refugees among them. And not all are fleeing only because of some war or violent conflict in their native country. It is clear that most of them are, at least partly, migrants. They are in search of a better life in one of the rich countries of the world. They are simply trying their luck. Proportionately perhaps not many, but in absolute terms significant numbers of them are going to the emerging industrial countries, such as India, Brazil and South Africa. Those who are migrating from North Africa, the Sahel region and central Africa are mostly poor and unemployed. Their hope is to get work, some work and income. In TV interviews they even say that openly, do not pretend to be a refugee. A young Ghanaian said: "I have no problem with my state, politics here is all right. But here there is no job for me". An elderly poor peasant couple in a Senegal village told the TV journalist in the presence of their twelve-year-old son: "We told him, son, there is no future for you in this country. Go to Europe, somehow, we shall give you the money." Even the refugees from Syria, where the strong push factor of war is operating, are not at all thinking of leaving Europe and going back home once peace has returned there. They too want to build up a better future for themselves and their children. One Syrian man with a child on his shoulders said after arriving in Lesbos: "Thank God, I have now arrived in Europe. Here I can live in safety. Here I can fulfil my ambition." Another man from Syria said he has studied economics in Aleppo. His wife and children would come later, after he has settled down here. His ambition is to do a doctorate in Germany. A young man from Lahore was asked why he left Pakistan; after all, no war is raging there. He answered, it is because of the Taliban. They are making living there very difficult. Contrast this with the Somali refugees in Kenia's Dadaab camp, who are very happy to be able to return home.

One should differentiate the immediate, i.e. the superficial, causes from the root causes. Most European politicians are saying the really effective solution of their current refugee-migrant crisis would require removing its root causes, which they identify as the civil wars in Syria and Iraq and poverty in Africa.

But political persecution and civil wars, even poverty, are, generally speaking, the superficial causes of migration, only the symptoms or effects of a disease, not the disease itself. More often than not, particularly in such crisis conditions as are prevailing today in the EU, politicians cannot and do not take cognizance of the disease behind the symptoms, i.e. of that which makes political persecution necessary, of the root causes that give rise to conflicts and wars. Much less can they do something about them. They must first, so to speak, quickly suppress the fever. The root causes mostly lie at much deeper levels of reality, and they build up slowly over a long period. They are therefore imperceptible to ordinary people like politicians before they explode onto the surface creating the clearly visible crisis at any particular time.

The root causes of the refugee-migrant crisis can be summed up in the following words : the continuously growing demands, aspirations and ambitions (for short, DAAs) of a continuously growing population, while global resource base is continuously diminishing and the environment continuously degrading.

These DAAs go so much beyond the really basic needs of any human being, namely satisfying hunger, quenching thirst, protection from adverse weather, sexual satisfaction, and belonging to a group in society. The continuous growth of DAAs are being propelled by, as it were, autonomously proceeding technological developments, which have their roots in human intelligence and greed, i.e. wanting to have more than one really needs. The catalogue of things the UN declared in 1948 to be universal human rights include "a standard of living adequate for the health and wellbeing... including food, clothing, housing and medical care,... necessary social services,... the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widow-hood, old age.... education.... full development of the human personality " etc. (articles 25 and 26). In 1948, even these simple things were totally unrealistic for the greater part of humanity. Moreover, many expressions in this formulation are vague. How much is "adequate"? And what is "wellbeing"? And what is "full development of the human personality"? But this "holy" declaration and pictures and narratives transported by TV etc. from the rich countries of the West to the remotest corners of the undeveloped countries fired the aspirations and ambitions of all poor people of the world.

Today, 67 years later, in the greater part of the world, they still remain largely unrealized. What is more, the hope that they would be realized in the near future has evaporated. Many scientists and general observers believe that things would become worse—for objective reasons, namely continuous population growth, deepening global ecological crisis, extreme weather events due to global warming, rapid resource depletion, spreading desertification etc. Even in Germany, one of the richest countries of the world, there are many citizens who are homeless; the number of the "working poor" is growing, i.e. they cannot make their living although they work full-time, which is why they have to apply for social welfare doles.

In the past, leftists used to say this kind of poverty exists due to inequitable distribution of the global and/or national income in capitalism, imperialism etc. They also proffered lack of sufficient development or wrong kinds of development as explanation of the misery in the underdeveloped countries. That was and still is largely true. But today one must say that is not the whole story. As Otto Ullrich wrote:
" a system that tries to satisfy needs through material products there will always be, for every attained level of material prosperity, new unsatisfied material basic needs, above all because this system is necessarily very ingenious in the production of new luxury goods, which then become models for new material 'basic needs'. This system will always be too poor.... What was day before yesterday the radio, was yesterday the black-and-white TV, is today the color TV and will tomorrow be the three-dimensional picture projector." (Ullrich 1979: 108).

There is no difference between Ullbrich and the present writer. As people know, even the socialist system could not satisfy all the "basic needs" of all its citizens in countries where it held sway till 1989.

Also managers, share holders, and ordinary employees of companies and corporations, even small shop owners, refuse to accept any upper limit to profit/income. Therefore, in globalized capitalism there will always be a prosperity gap. As people know, this gap is continuously growing, not only between the countries, but also within each country, even within the richest ones. The world is also seeing a growing discrepancy between the great development promises made in the past by ideologies of both capitalism and cornucopian socialism on the one hand and the glory reality of the present and prospects of future catastrophes on the other.

Now, various countries of the world are since long getting ever more connected. After all, people nowadays talk of the world having become a global village.

Capitalism, feudalism, imperialism, inequitable distribution, particular famines, dictatorship, oppression, wars, civil wars, violent conflicts etc are only superficial or secondary explanations of the phenomenon, sometimes only the immediate causes of particular waves of migration. The real and deeper causes of the permanent phenomenon of migration are what has been stated above. For some individuals, however, who are not really unbearably poor, the lure of greener foreign pastures in the relatively prosperous countries of the West is too great to resist.

To say that the civil wars in Syria and Iraq have caused the current refugee-migrant crisis is not very original. One should also  know what caused these wars.

The state of affairs mentioned in the above section toward explaining poverty-related migration has also led, directly or indirectly, to many kinds of violent conflict over distribution of resources—both between nations and within nations. They too cause people to flee their native country. Iraq's invasion of Kuwait for oil (1991), Morocco's occupation of Western Sahara for phosphate, and the Jewish people's occupation of Palestinian land for founding their state Israel and subsequently for settlements building are some examples.

Within nations, in most countries, the ruling and dominant class(es), race(s), ethnic(s), regional population(s). religious and language group(s), that presently own(s), rake(s) in or claim(s) the lion's share of the nations resources and national income, must oppress, in one way or another, those below them who feel deprived and demand their fare share: ordinary workers, poor or landless peasants, the unemployed, and the underclass. But why must the former group(s) oppress the latter, who may (or may not) constitute the majority of the population? It is because in the greater part of the world there simply is not enough to satisfy all the demands and wishes of all groups of the nation. When some violent conflict appears to be the cause of a particular flow of refugees from a country, it is, in the final analysis, mainly, though not exclusively, the prosperity gap prevailing in that country that is the real and the deeper cause. Of course, cause-and-effect models of explanation are never that simple. Remember Tunisia in 2011? There, after 4 weeks of popular demonstrations the despotic ruler left the country and the matter took a good turn. But not so in Syria.

It is logical to fear that in future there would be many more such conflicts and they would generate many more streams of refugees—especially if one considers that in the immediate future the on-going ecological and climate crises will further worsen.

A special phenomenon in this category has been the renaissance of piracy on the high seas. At least Somali pirates said that they were originally fishermen by trade, and that they had no other alternative but to take to piracy when trawlers from distant rich countries began to empty their fishing grounds. At the same time the country's population has been growing at the rate of 3.48% (2002) to 2.81% (2011) per annum. More recent figures are not available or unreliable because of civil war and-large scale emigration. "... 2014 population was estimated at 10.8 million, up from the 2013 estimate of 10 million. The country is rapidly expanding with almost 3% annual population growth and a high fertility rate of 6.26 children per woman, which is the 4th highest in the world." As for the size, Somalia is a very large country. Its population density is just 17.1 per km². But it is also a very arid country; arable land is just 1.64% of the whole. One can then imagine how the environmental situation might be. A Somali NGO activist writes: "I was born in 1947 and until I was seven years old I lived in an area that was savannah-like, ... I first visited Somalia again about thirty years ago—the land that I had remembered as lush green savannah was total desert, with only huge sandstorms blowing." In this and other texts there is also mention of overgrazing, deforestation, and production, even export of charcoal, which surely contributed to desertifi-cation. Another Somali activist writes:
"Environmental issues play a key role in conflicts in Somaliland (the northern province of Somalia]. I would go as far as to say such issues play a daily role in conflict situations across Somaliland. Confrontations frequently occur over disputes over grazing lands, watering holes and land that has been sealed off by individuals for private use.

It is therefore not very meaningful to point only at the foreign trawlers to explain the phenomenon of piracy on Somalia's coast.

"In northern Nigeria soil degradation has destroyed the traditional way of life of peasants and cowherds, and impaired the paths of nomads. Several hundred villages have been given up. It resulted in migratory movements that have destabilized the region. In this way the ground was prepared for the Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram."

"The great crush of refugees at the borders of the prosperity-island of Europe will become stronger in the 21st century. For, at the time, at least as many people are fleeing the consequences of environmental destruction as from violence and wars".

The current civil war in Yemen is often being depicted as a war between the Shia Huthis, the minority supported by Iran, and the Sunni majority supported by Saudi Arabia. In reality, however, the Huthis are fighting against the Sunni majority because they are not getting their fair share of power and resources. One also finds in the internet the following information: Between 2000 and 2008, Yemen's population grew at an annual rate of 3. 36% to 3.46%. Then the rate started slightly falling. In 2014 the population was still growing at the rate of 2.72%. On the state of the environment : "Yemen's main environmental problems have long been scarcity of water, soil erosion, and desertification. Water pollution is a problem due to contaminates from the oil industry, untreated sewage, and salinization. Natural forests in mountainous areas have been destroyed by agricultural clearing and livestock overgrazing."

This is, however, not to deny that the Shia-Sunni schism that took place in the 7th century AD plays a big role in the current conflicts in the Middle East. But it would probably not cause such severe conflicts if the material conditions of life had not been deteriorating. That may be the reason why in the oil-rich Gulf countries, such as Saudi Arabia—despite the existence of the Shia-Sunni divide—no violent conflict between the two sects has come up. Bahrain is the only exception.

In Rwanda, an ethnic conflict led to a genocidal massacre (1994) and ended in a large refugee outflow. Asked why they are killing the others, although both ethnies worship the same Christian God and whose holy scripture demands of them : "...thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself", one participant replied : "In Africa, blood is more important than faith". But that was certainly only the superficial cause. The real and deeper cause was ecological degradation and dwindling resource availability.

"...Rwanda's mountainous topography and growing human population have resulted in increasingly severe environmental degradation: soil erosion from cultivation of steep slopes; pollution and sedimentation of water sources; and loss of forests, protected areas, and biodiversity to new human settlements".

Although defending existing prosperity gaps and/or striving for (more) prosperity are the main reasons why individuals and ruling and dominant groups exploit and oppress the others and the others revolt, there is no denying that on both sides there are—people who also enjoy having power itself. So they may also fight for power for the sake of power, i.e. without thereby intending to increase or defend their prosperity. Then also groups not defined purely by economic interests but, e.g., by race, ethnicity, nation, language, religion, sect etc. may do that. All kinds of liberation struggles fall under this category. In reality, however, what one finds in most cases is a contingent mixture of several motivations.

In the process, a strong group identity, a we-feeling, comes into play. Then the fighters may not (only) be fighting for advancing or defending their economic interests or against usurpers, exploiters or oppressors; they may (also) be hating and/or fighting against the others because they are in some way different. In this way, the oppressed and the exploited of one group may be fighting against the oppressed and the exploited of the others. Thus white racists in the USA and their militant groups (e.g. the Ku Klux Klan) hate, oppress and persecute the blacks not because the latter somehow threaten their economic interests, but because they are different, black. In India, Hindus and Muslims may fight against each other because they worship different gods in different kinds of temples. Similar is the case in Myanrnar, where the Rohingyas—who are dark-skinned and are, moreover, Muslims—are hated and persecuted by the fair-skinned and Buddhist Burmese majority. The fight of Al Qaida, IS and Al-Nusra against the West can be understood as the fight of the "faithful" against the "infidels". In this sense, the civil wars in Syria and Iraq can also be declared as a Shia-versus-Sunni conflict. One can then say that many violent conflicts—on-going and of the past—at least partly owe(d) their origin or intensification to non-economic identity conflicts.

Such conflicts often get fed by historical memories. The Shias cannot forget nor forgive the murder of their religious leader and his followers by the Sunnis in Kerbela in the 7th century AD. The Hindu-nationalists cannot forget that Hindu kings were defeated by and lost power to Muslim conquerors about one thousand years ago. The struggle of the Islamist Jihadists can also be seen as a process of taking revenge on the imperial West for the humiliations it inflicted upon the Muslims in the past. The Crusades have not been forgotten. That also may be one explanation for the persecution they are meting out to Christians, even Arab Christians. Such conflicts can be triggered off by the slightest provocation. The majority may then think of teaching the others a lesson, which then escalates into a big thing. Conflicts of this kind of origin too have often led to emigration of the underdogs or the defeated.

Vol. 48, No. 25, Dec 27, 2015 - Jan 2, 2016