The vast majority of the men, women and children crossing into Europe from the south refugees from war and persecution in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia. But there are no migrants anymore. Not in this crisis. The three furies of conflict, climate change and chronic poverty have wrought instability throughout the global South. It’s usually some combination of these factors that drive people to risk their freedom and their lives in illegal border crossings. They take that risk for the same reason any of us would: they have nothing left to lose; their freedom is already lost, their lives already in danger. And that is precisely what makes a refugee.
The 1951 Refugee Convention defines a refugee as someone with well-founded fear of persecution in their home country “for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” Those in power tend to interpret this in the narrowest possible terms, curtailing the numbers owed meaningful protection for their human rights. But the moment we recognise the poor as ‘a particular social group’, an entire spectrum of structural persecution reveals itself. Well beyond the most obvious forms of persecution – the torture, murder and violence sweeping its way across the Middle East and parts of Africa and Latin America – we find a broad and systemic denial of the right to food, water and shelter; the right to work and fair wage; to healthcare, education and social security, all of which are enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Such persecution reveals itself not only in the home countries but also in the ‘developed nations’ where these people hope to re-build their lives. The UK is an excellent example of this, where basic welfare and even civil rights are increasingly conditional when applied to asylum seekers and – to put it as bluntly as political correctness allows – ‘low income earners from non-Caucasian backgrounds.’
As lawyer Frances Webber writes in her ground-breaking book, Borderline Justice, one way or another most ‘illegal migrants’ are in truth “refugees from globalisation, from a poor world getting poorer as it is shaped to serve the interests, appetites and whims of the rich world, a world where our astonishing standard of living, our freedoms, the absurd array of consumer novelties, fashions and foods available to us, and thrown away by us, are bought at the cost of the health, freedoms and lives of others.”
It’s a reflection of the depths and endurance of racial prejudice in Europe today that term ‘economic migrant’ is being bandied about at all in the midst of the greatest refugee crisis since World War Two. This is not to mention the array of brazenly derogatory language, from ‘welfare tourist’ to near-genocidal cockroach comparisons and ominous references to ‘swarms’ at our borders. This rhetoric reflects a deeply rooted culture of disbelief: from a position of extraordinary privilege, it makes deplorable assumptions about the character of human beings based on nothing more than their class, their birthplace and yes, the colour of their skin.
To understand this crisis – its causes and consequences – we need to look at the big picture.
‘The War on Terror’
For almost fifteen years now we have watched our governments fight their War on Terror with incredible military and social violence. The rise of ISIS and the steady disintegration of stability in the Middle East is testament to their failure, or their success depending on how cynically you want to look at it.
Now, with what they disparagingly call ‘the migrant crisis’ (as though the problem is this mass exodus of civilians rather than the war itself,) there can be no more pretending they are just after this or that dictator, like drug addicts promising each fix will be the last. “But you must understand, this next guy’s really bad, if we can just take him out, we’ll have peace.” That sort of rhetoric is laid bare now it’s the persecuted and pro-democracy dissidents being imprisoned, beaten and gassed on European soil. This is total war not on terror, but on the poor.
Of the hundreds of thousands risking their lives to reach Europe this year, the vast majority are refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan – two of which NATO has already invaded and occupied. Furthermore, it’s no coincidence this crisis unfolded following NATO’s bombing of Libya to oust Muammar Gaddafi, a long-time ally whose dissidents and refugees Britain had been detaining without trial and deporting straight back to him up for years. (Thank you Wikileaks, for telling the world.) Even so, once they decided ‘Gaddafi had to go’, to that end the US, UK and France were willing to shower with weapons the very terrorists they had sworn to oppose. Now they are in ISIS hands and pointed at innocent people. So, fighting terror with war has proven about as strategic as fighting fire with petroleum.
The War on Earth
We might also do well to note also that the same corporations that cashed in big on oil profits after the attacks on Iraq and Libya are now waging a titanic battle against climate action. Their lobbying efforts threaten to force us off the cliff into the abyss of unstoppable warming.
Leading scientists are warning that without radical change, we can expect a temperature increase of 6°C, meaning catastrophic implications for our species. Cities and islands will be swallowed by the sea, entire communities will drown in tsunamis and mega-storms, extreme drought and poisonous pollution will make great swathes of the planet uninhabitable. That will tear societies apart, trigger new wars and create millions of environmental refugees.
So when you look at the big picture, these stories are intimately linked. Climate change is on track to become the biggest driver of forced migration, dwarfing the historic 56 million people already displaced by conflict. Not to mention the fact that war and climate change are intrinsically connected, and not just in terms of the role oil interests play in foreign policy. A growing body of research highlights the significance of severe drought in sparking conflict in Syria and throughout the Middle East. Environmental factors were also been critical in the Rwandan genocide more than a decade ago, so it’s nothing new – but it is getting worse.
Globally, natural disasters have increased fivefold in the past forty years, with floods and storms claiming 1.45 million lives. Between disasters, the steady warming of the planet puts poor societies under incredible strain, spreading hunger, conflict and disease. The warming of the Indian Ocean has irreversibly altered the continent’s weather patterns and the scorching of East Africa has begun. Environmental legislation and a rapid transition from fossil fuels would be the single most effective and humane method of border control. To quote Ellie Mae O’Hagan: “mass migration is no crisis: it’s the new normal as the climate changes.” Her observation will prove prophetic as long as powerful interests are able to obscure this obvious connection.
War on the Poor
And then there’s austerity. This too is an ironic tragedy fit for the old Greek epics. For much of Europe, austerity is a post-crisis nightmare. But of the global South, it has long been the law laid down by a united West. The theft of public wealth and welfare being carried out by the Troika in Greece elsewhere in Europe, for all its horrors, is really just a more cautious version of World Bank and International Monetary Fund policies tested in developing countries the world over. For forty years they have made vital aid and loans conditional on the neoliberalisation of Southern economies and the deliberate strangling of public healthcare, education and industry. And in the event of uprisings like the Arab Spring, the governments which dominate those development institutions are at the front of the queue to sell the weapons and information technology necessary for effective repression.
Ostensibly, this is all in the name of mutually beneficial economic growth: the consistent neoliberal solution to conflict, climate change, economic crisis and just about any other chronic social issue. But this is a growth model that in promoting conflict, inequality and environmental degredation, fundamentally contradicts the kind of economic development that can improve wellbeing. What it does do, is serve another well-documented if not well-publicised agenda. As US strategic planner George Kennan said of the USA back in 1948: “We have about 50% of the world’s wealth but only 6.3 of its population. [Our] real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security. To do so we will have to dispense with… vague — and for the Far East — unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standards, and democratization.”
Capitalism has always had its sacrifice zones: the places and people whose extinction and exploitation are deemed acceptable in the name of growth. But what the bank bailouts and Great Recession have facilitated, and what austerity reflects, is an unprecedented expansion of those zones northward, into the industrial countries once protected by a social democratic consensus. As competition for public services, housing, and jobs is artificially intensified by spending cuts, it becomes that much harder for progressive parts of society to argue for a humane response to the refugee crisis.
In a better world, this would highlight the common interests between the poor and persecuted in all nations and promote solidarity; but the great tragedy of our times is that it’s threatening to drive millions of refugees to the North at precisely the moment it is least able and willing to receive them. As Tsveta Dobreva writes: “In times of crisis, people search for an explanation for their sudden difficulties. Ultimately, immigrants, both regular and irregular, have become this crisis’ scapegoats.”
To defend itself against an enemy it sees everywhere, Europe is building walls. Concrete barricades are springing up across the south, bristling with barbed wire and armed guards. Over the coming months, I’ll be traveling across Europe to report on the refugee crisis and the broken system that created it. I’ll be relaying stories directly from refugees themselves and joining the dots between the wars, warming and austerity that drive them from their homes. And, I’ll be meeting some of the remarkable people raising their voices to say that migrant lives matter, and fighting back against the powerful interests that drive corruption, conflict and climate change all over the world.