Politicizing a Humanitarian Crisis, Stop playing pass the parcel


The rising number of people entering Europe in 2015 in search of safety and a better life has captured the world’s attention with scenes of heartbreaking tragedy. Travelling hundreds and thousands of miles over land and over water, from Africa, the Middle East and Asia, people are risking everything in the hope of reaching their goal, and the danger does not end at a border crossing. There is a dire need to solve the crisis on humanitarian grounds and stop efforts to politicize the issue because Migrant children and women, especially those migrating without documentation, are vulnerable to trafficking, abuse and exploitation.

To explain the extent of the current refugee crisis, comparisons are frequently made with major European crises of the 20th century. People who fled the Balkans in the 1990’s are interviewed. Pictures of trains packed with refugees during World War II are shown next to similar images of Syrians, Eritreans and Afghans being hoisted aboard trains headed for Germany.

Although the similarities are often striking — the sight of human suffering is remarkably timeless and universal — the impact these stories and pictures have on the modern public is markedly different.

Thanks to ubiquitous social networking sites, discussion forums and more conventional news media, the public nowadays is not only confronted with the images of a drowned boy or a family in despair. People are also urged to form their own opinions on this humanitarian crisis.

The upshot is that reports about the refugee crisis are more liable to become politicized. An image of a Hungarian camera woman deliberately tripping a father and his child is eagerly interpreted as a symbol of European inhospitality. Footage of young Syrians posing for a selfie on a Greek island is presented as irrefutable evidence that the refugees are little more than spoiled scroungers.

Besides using such images to discredit certain groups, reports about relief efforts are also used for self-promotion. An interesting example of both these tendencies can be found in the recent scrutiny Gulf monarchies have received over their role (or lack thereof) in the Syrian refugee crisis.

Politicizing Inhospitality

Crisis 1After a few articles were published detailing the limited number of refugees resettled in rich Gulf countries — Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Oman — the Internet ran wild with the story. Anti-Saudi sentiment was in popular demand. Dramatic statistical depictions of Gulf Arab inhospitality were tweeted and re-tweeted.

The Saudis were slow to react to this latest threat to their public image. Once they did, their response was an utter failure. In fantastical fashion, they tried to counter the allegations by making outrageous claims about giving shelter to 2.5 million refugees.

The UAE did better when it declared that 100,000 Syrians had been given refuge in the country. The Emirate’s presenting of more realistic numbers was quickly echoed by Saudi officials, who quickly toned down their initial figures by roughly 2.4 million. However, the damage had already been done. Saudi Arabia’s response was too little, too late.

This is not to say that Gulf countries should be entirely absolved. The efforts of these states are dwarfed by the burden countries like Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey have had to bear. More importantly, Gulf States like Saudi Arabia and Qatar carry a special responsibility, as money from these countries has fuelled the insurgency that has left Syria in ruins.

But, it would be unfair to immediately condemn Gulf monarchies for their inaction, without first allowing them to explain their side of the story or otherwise consider possible alternative explanations — as happened in this case.

For instance, it is possible that the route to Europe is simply more convenient for refugees than travelling through the Arabian desert. The Gulf States are also less stable, in some cases at least, than most European countries, and may be less equipped to handle an influx of refugees from both a social and security perspective.

Some have argued that Gulf States may be downplaying their humanitarian efforts because of cultural norms that prohibit boasting and promote humility. Seen as an obligation to God, rather than personal charity, Gulf countries may be reluctant to recount the contributions they have made to relief efforts in the region.

These arguments may well turn out to be baseless and false. But, they should have nevertheless been considered. When they are not and the other side of the story is not at least given an opportunity to be heard, then fair criticism can easily turn into a form of prejudiced moralizing.

From Politicizing to Moralizing

In the wake of the all-out criticism of Gulf refugee policy, articles started to appear with such suggestive titles as “Europe is the New Mecca for Refugees” and, even more grotesquely, “Syrian Refugee Crisis:  Is Germany More Islamic than Saudi Arabia?”.

These kinds of articles are not about merely criticizing the Saudis for not doing their bit. Instead, they paint a picture of Gulf Arabs, as well as Muslims more generally, as hypocritical misers. Europeans, by contrast, are presented as paragons of honesty and humanitarian values. The German tabloid Bild concisely formulated this moral supremacy as a 21st century reinvention of ‘The White Man’s Burden’.

It is the West, and the Western world alone with said free press, its free media and their financial, humanitarian and military capacities who are able to powerfully and truthfully stand against such chaos.

What the official English translation of the article leaves out is an explicit reference in the original German version to Western values (Werte), which supposedly enable European countries to confront the refugee crisis.

At the very least, with regard to the current refugee crisis, this presumed moral superiority does not hold up under scrutiny. Lest we forget, Europe only began to realize its Samaritan roots this past summer, when the stream of refugees that had been growing for years became too massive to keep at bay or ignore. Before this, most Europeans appeared content to remain blissfully unaware of the millions of refugees camping near Syria’s borders, who were hosted by countries like Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.

It is easy for Europeans to forget these facts and to comfortably soak themselves in self-congratulation, when there is no one to contradict them. When the media only targets Gulf countries for collective disapproval, when refugees are only allowed to become a serious object of concern when they arrive on Western shores, it becomes all the more easy for a Western audience to think of itself as the sole source of good in this world.
This is not only a misguided and harmful perspective; in the long run, it is also likely self-defeating. This sense of moral superiority feeds into a categorical idea of East (hypocritical and miserly) versus West (truthful and altruistic). It is precisely this dichotomy that lies at the root of growing Islamophobia and intolerance toward these refugees and other Arab/Muslim immigrants in Europe and the United States, and which is already causing divisions in Europe over how to deal with the current crisis.

It is critical for Western media to give voice to all parts of the world, even oil-rich monarchies. These countries may be wrongheaded in their actions, but, in considering and listening to their views, we remind ourselves that we may not always know it all.

How Many Migrants to Europe are Refugees?

Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s prime minister, has said that the “overwhelming majority” of migrants in Europe are not refugees but are merely seeking a better life. Robert Fico, his Slovak counterpart, says up to 95% are economic migrants. The distinction matters, for under the 1951 Refugee Convention and a string of EU laws, European countries must offer refuge or other types of protection to asylum-seekers who can demonstrate that they are fleeing war or persecution. They are under no such obligation to those looking to improve their prospects, even if they have left behind lives of destitution. So if Orbán and Fico are right, Europe’s migration crisis amounts largely to a problem of border management and repatriation; not relocation, integration and the rest of it.

Let’s look at the numbers.

Crisis2According to the EU, in the first quarter of 2015, there were seven countries whose nationals obtained a “rate of recognition” — some form of protection in an EU country — over 50%. How many of these people are reaching Europe? The UNHCR says that Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq account for nine in ten of the quarter-million-odd migrants detected arriving in Greece this year. Citizens of Eritrea, Somalia and Sudan comprise 41% of the 119,500 arrivals in Italy and another 6% come from Syria. In other words, citizens from countries that usually obtain protection in the EU account for fully 75% of illicit arrivals by sea this year. Crunch the numbers further and we find that at least 81% of those migrants entering Greece can expect to receive refugee status or some other form of protection in the EU. The figure for those entering Italy, who are a far more diverse bunch, is 46%. Many Nigerians, Bangladeshis and Gambians, among others, fail to obtain protection after crossing the Mediterranean.

Another way to look at the data is that under the European Commission’s new proposal to relocate 160,000 asylum-seekers from Italy, Greece and Hungary to most other EU countries, only nationals from countries with acceptance rates over 75% will be eligible. For now that means Syrians, Eritreans and Iraqis. This matters because it is only these people, once they are relocated, that will trouble the likes of Mr Fico. Mr Orbán has the misfortune to govern a country that many migrants traverse en route from Greece to Germany. According to the UNHCR’s figures, these three groups account for 62% of total arrivals by sea this year. We might also note that 227,169 Syrians, Eritreans and Iraqis have already been detected at the EU’s borders so far this year. The Commission’s proposal aims to cover the next two years. Even if it is enacted, the plan will cover well under half of the total number of eligible nationals who reach Europe in that period.

These numbers capture only those entering (and detected) by sea — some European countries, Germany in particular, have a separate problem of asylum-seekers travelling overland from Balkan countries like Kosovo, Serbia and Albania, the vast majority of whom are denied protection — and cover only “first-instance” decisions. Still, the headline numbers suggest that the vast majority of illegal migrants reaching Europe will be eligible for protection once they arrive. In Mr Orban’s defence, it is true that the legal distinction between refugees and economic migrants often fails to capture the complex mixture of motives that drive migrants to make their epic journeys. War may be the catalyst for a journey that refugees will then seek to make as economically beneficial as possible. But in dealing with large numbers of migrants who, the data show, have fled countries stricken by war or the caprice of dictatorship, European politicians should strive for a more generous approach.

Courtesy: The Economist

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