Europe (NI) – Oh, the power of a photograph.
For months, our esteemed leaders have been tripping over themselves to spin the refugee crisis as being anything other than humanitarian in nature.
British Home Secretary Theresa May told Radio 4 in May that the vast majority of migrants were Africans travelling for economic reasons. Foreign Secretary of State Phillip Hammond told the BBC in August that migrants ‘marauding’ around the sea was nothing new, since ‘there will always be millions of Africans with the economic motivation to try to get to Europe.’
Finally, David Cameron himself got in on the act: ‘A lot of people coming to Europe are coming in search of a better life. They are economic migrants and they want to enter Britain illegally.’
On Wednesday 2 September, one photo blew the absurdity of this fiction wide open. The image of 3-year old Aylan Kurdi washed up on a beach in southern Turkey did more than any words could have done to capture the desperate plight of those escaping conflict in Syria.
Never mind the pathetic spectacle of a Prime Minister shifting both posture and policy on the basis of a single photograph that was merely illustrative of something that has been happening every day for the last 4 years. The story had changed and the ‘R’ word had finally been spoken.
But there is, perhaps, an even more egregious misnomer being thrown around.
This isn’t a ‘European’ refugee crisis, and it certainly isn’t a ‘German’ refugee crisis as suggested by Hungary’s odious leader, Viktor Orbán. This is a ‘global’ refugee crisis unprecedented in scale since the Second World War.
The cause of this crisis is not any single conflict, but an unparalleled confederacy of catastrophe reaching from Nigeria to Afghanistan, from, Burma to eastern Europe.
Bizarrely, UKIP leader Nigel Farage pointed to the eclectic nature of the refugee population to diminish the urgency of action. ‘Many that come are from Eritrea, Somalia, Nigeria, The Gambia or Senegal,’ Farage noted: ‘they are not all from Syria. Just coming from one of those countries does not make you a genuine asylum seeker.’
Farage’s quote is curious. In July, the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) escalated its offensive against Somalian terrorist group Al-Shabaab – committing acts of sexual violence and arbitrarily shooting unarmed civilians in the process – and a few days ago, Al-Shabaab responded in kind.
Nigeria’s struggle with its own militant Islamists, Boko Haram, has also intensified over the past year, with the number of children fleeing for their lives doubling to around 800,000. Eritrea meanwhile has become one of the most repressive countries in the world, recently beating North Korea to the title of most heavily censored country.
Have we really become so desensitized to the plight of refugees that we now recognize a hierarchy of persecution, with only those at the top now considered ‘genuine’ refugees?
The Rohingya in Southeast Asia or pastoralist nomads in Eastern Africa don’t lose their claim for protection just because their persecution isn’t ostentatiously broadcast on social media.
Just coming from one of these countries does not, of course, make you a genuine refugee (I’m going to ignore Farage’s cynical conflation of ‘asylum seeker’ and ‘refugee’ here). It is, however, powerful evidence to suggest that the hundreds of thousands of people finding a way into Europe are not just ‘trying to make a better life’ for themselves.
As the head of the UN’s refugee agency succinctly put it, the ‘world is a mess’. Around 1 in every 122 people in the world is currently either a refugee, internationally displaced or seeking asylum.
Despite fewer wars around the world, a recent study found that the number of deaths from armed conflict has trebled since 2008 from an ‘inexorable intensification of violence’. These conflicts are being perpetuated by groups – whether ISIS in Iraq and Syria, Al-Shabaab in Syria, Boko Haram in Nigeria or the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan – unparalleled in their sadism and gleeful brutality.
Nowhere in the world is untouched by the crisis. I am writing this from Hargeisa, in the self-declared Republic of Somaliland, officially recognized as an autonomous region of Somalia.
You don’t have to travel far in Hargeisa to see the effects of displacement in Yemen – another conflict zone that has recently exploded into civil war – or south-central Somalia, with dozens of refugees visible outside many of the NGO compounds in the city.
The refugee crisis has been caused by unprecedented global displacement, not by scummy traffickers or opportunistic Africans. But it’s not just in its causes that the crisis is global in nature. It is a global crisis because it is everyone’s problem, and requires everyone’s help in solving.
It is obvious to even the most stubborn Daily Mail reader that attempting to solve an intractable long-term problem (civil war in Syria) is not going to make a difference to the short-term loss of life on Europe’s doorstep.
It is true, however, that the crisis we are now seeing so graphically illustrated in our newsfeeds and newspapers is the product of a problem far more profound and pervasive than many would like to admit.
The flow of refugees will not end through sniffer dogs, heavy-handed military deployments, border fences or squalid Hungarian camps. When staying put means putting your life in danger, such attempts at hard-line deterrence are futile.
Only through a global response to the global displacement – both through an international or at least regional resettlement programme, so far resisted by the British government, and through a more cohesive approach to problems on the ground – will things change.
In the meantime, British leaders need to catch up with the people they represent and accept the reality of the situation: this is not a ‘swarm’ of economic migration, but rather a humanitarian crisis of singular proportions.