Something changed when three-year-old Alan Kurdi’s body washed up on a Turkish beach on September 2, 2015. Until then, life had gone on as usual in the European Union (EU), even as more than 2,500 refugees perished crossing the Mediterranean on flimsy dinghies.
But the iconic photograph of Kurdi’s face, half-buried in the sand, was a hammer blow that cracked Europe’s frozen conscience. It could no longer pretend that the thousands landing on its beaches were ‘only migrants’. So long as the discourse was about ‘migrants’ — that is, people who were only seeking a better life in Europe and not fleeing war back home — Europe was under no obligation to give them even temporary sanctuary.
But the desperate, avoidable death of a child was too powerful an image of truth, and the convenient fiction crumbled. Overnight, the world was forced to acknowledge three things: that these people were to be treated as refugees even if they were actually migrants; that it is inhuman to turn them away; and that they were the entire world’s responsibility.
Anti-refugee sentiments in Europe
Two months later, the wave of solidarity evoked by Kurdi’s death has ebbed. Xenophobic violence is on the rise across Germany and Europe. A pro-refugee German politician, Henriette Reker, was wounded in a knife attack in Cologne. A refugee shelter was burned down in an east German town, Meissen. Germany’s anti-immigrant group, PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West) has been drawing thousands of supporters to its rallies.
Beyond Germany, Hungary’s right-wing government is building a wall to keep out refugees. Serbia and Croatia are having an ugly spat. France and the United Kingdom, both of whom are supposed to take in 650,000 refugees each, are unwilling to do so. While the EU received 626,000 refugees in all of 2014, Germany alone is bracing for an influx of 800,000 this year.
Media reports suggest that Chancellor Angela Merkel is already in talks with Turkey, which currently hosts nearly two million refugees, to work out an agreement that has a provision for ‘taking back’ of refugees — which would be illegal as per the UN Convention on Refugees.
There are three big lessons to be learnt from Europe’s refugee problem: one, an effective solution is no longer possible at the national-level. The bulldozing by Germany that has so far worked on the economic front may not work here.
Two, the world needs to rethink the way it looks at refugees and migrants, if for no other reason than that their numbers are only set to grow. Not just Europe but every country in the world will soon have to — if it’s not already doing so — reckon with large influxes of refugees/migrants. Forced migration due to war and persecution is one thing. But the very structure of the global economy — premised on free movement of capital and goods but not of people — is a contradiction geared to produce economic refugees.
One sign of things to come is the rising global inequality. Today, the richest one per cent owns 50 per cent of the world’s wealth. As this inequality sharpens, ever greater numbers of those who’ve lost the economic lottery will migrate in search of livelihoods. This phenomenon is encouraged within national borders — we call it urban migration — and is considered essential for economic growth. But it is strictly regulated between national borders.
At present, economic migration is the privilege of those who can afford it. But this is set to change, and this is the final lesson of Europe’s refugee muddle: the new refugee is the economic migrant who cannot afford the legal route — and his claims for refuge and a decent life are as valid as those fleeing war and persecution. In a world of structural economic violence, the distinction between refugee and migrant is breaking down.
Human beings have been nomads for much longer than they have been agriculturists, labourers, or passport-holders. To be able to move freely from place to place was not a right — it was a part of nature, like sunlight or river water. It was fundamental for survival. It is even embedded in our biological constitution — the mechanism we call ‘fight or flight’.
National identity and exoduses
Significantly, Nature did not equip us with a ‘stay and die’ instinct. That had to come from culture. It came with the invention, first, of private property, and subsequently, of the nation-state, which was essentially a club of landlords coming together to protect their property interests.
This club manufactured for itself a symbolic cache, a veneer of cultural homogeneity, – better known as ‘national identity’. This was necessary to get a buy-in from the landless masses, who would become cannon fodder for wars with other such landlord clubs. It is not just a quirk of sub-continental history that the birth of two nation-states was accompanied by the bloody irruption of 14 million refugees, in what became the largest mass migration in human history.
Thus, the original refugee is the person displaced from his land — his refuge and source of his sustenance. The enclosure of the commons in England unleashed a mega flow of refugees. Luckily there were continents waiting to absorb them — Australia and North America — not to mention colonies in other continents.
What this also means is that if there are no nation-states, there can be no refugees. There may be slaves, as in ancient Greece, and orphans, but not refugees.
Today’s refugee, therefore, is a child of modernity, a gift of human progress. The first ever global document on the treatment of refugees, the United Nations’ 1951 Refugee Convention, was basically meant to protect the Europeans who became refugees due to World War-II. Today it is the operative framework for treatment of refugees anywhere in the world.
Three basic protections
The Convention offers the refugee three basic protections — non-discrimination, non-penalisation, and non-refoulement. Of these, the most critical is the principle of non-refoulement, which mandates that no one can ‘return’ or expel a refugee against his will back “to a territory where he or she fears threats to life of freedom”.
The Convention also states that a refugee is entitled to basic rights such as access to the courts, primary education, work, and travel documents. These are excellent principles. Over 140 nations are signatories to it. But the sad reality is that these statutes are observed mostly in the breach.
According to figures put out by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are 13 million refugees in the world. And these are just the ‘refugee’ refugees. The UNHCR also documents other categories of people who are, existentially speaking, no different from refugees but are classified differently.
These include, for instance, internally displaced persons (IDPs) — people forcibly displaced by, say, the violence of ‘development’ (by a dam, a mine, a nuclear plant); by communal violence; or even a Salwa Judum. The UNHCR estimates that as of end-2014, “a record-breaking 38 million people were forcibly displaced within their own country by violence.” Then there are the stateless: people with no nationality. There were 10 million of these at last count. These are people who cannot open a bank account or go to college or board a flight because they have no identity papers.
Finally there is the asylum-seeker: a person who, as per UNHCR’s definition, “says he or she is a refugee, but whose claim has not yet been definitively evaluated.” There are about 1.2 million of these as well. And none of these include the 5 million Palestinian refugees — a whole population victimised because somebody wanted a new nation and snatched away their land.
Add up the numbers and we get about 67 million — more than five times the official number of 13 million — who are living like refugees. These numbers include only those registered by some official agency or the other. There are thousands more who have not been counted, not to mention those displaced periodically by an earthquake or a flood. Already, the spectre of global warming has led to furious debates about ‘climate refugees’.
The bottom line is that, for one reason or another, due to human persecution or nature’s fury or the way our wonderful global economy’s been rigged, an ever greater number of people are fleeing their place of habitual residence and will continue to do so. As Europe is discovering — though for now it enjoys the luxury of being in denial — the present system of national borders and passport control cannot control this migrant tide for long.