By Yohannes Woldemariam*
Asylum quests have become toxic issues in just about every affluent country. Even saving lives along the Mediterranean worries some as a lure that will encourage and facilitate more migrant arrivals.
An empathetic story in the NY Times by Suzanne Daley titled “Refugee Crisis on the Beach in Greece” drew a mere 10 comments as compared to 173 comments reacting to Ross Douthat’s opinion piece. Douthat’s sensationalized framing of the issue as “Africa’s Scramble for Europe” only serves to induce fear of refugees. It really is farfetched to draw parallels between the European scramble for Africa and the current desperate effort by poor Africans fleeing to the shores of Europe. Most refugees arriving in Europe, far from scrambling for European resources as Europeans did in conquering Africa will, if successful, be engaged in hard work most Europeans would not want to do such as cleaning toilets, performing arduous farm labor, the service industry and taking care of the elderly. What is more, in reality only a small fraction of asylum seekers is knocking on the gates of Europe with 86% languishing in camps in poor neighboring states.
Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch during an interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now said: “And yes, 310,000, 320,000 people [in Europe] are a lot of people. But Europe’s population as a whole is about 500 million. So what we’re talking about, the number of people who have come this year is less than 0.1 percent of Europe’s population.” So, is this a real crisis or a fabricated one because the asylum seekers are of a darker complexion?
An Op-Ed article by Goodwell Nzou, a Zimbabwean PhD student titled “In Zimbabwe, We Don’t Cry for Lions” evoked 1,257 passionate comments about the late Cecil, the lion. Nzou quipped “we Zimbabweans are left shaking our heads, wondering why Americans care more about African animals than about African people.”
Personally, I grieve for lions, elephants, rhinos and all the wonderful endangered animals in Africa just as I do for the humans drowning in the Mediterranean. I, however, do understand where Nzou is coming from. Reading through the comments in the NY Times about asylum seekers, I am distressed by the bigotry and total lack of understanding for the plight of refugees. Cecil galvanized a global movement and empathy. In contrast, refugees seem to elicit contempt! It is a paradox to witness a pairing of love for animals with disdain for humans as if the two are mutually exclusive.
The responses are mostly intended to perpetuate a “Fortress Europe” mentality, ranging from threatening military action against traffickers, outsourcing of asylum seekers to poorer countries in exchange for money, to building walls and fences, surveillance, border protection, indifference to life saving measures in the Mediterranean by scraping the Italian rescue operation Mare Nostrum, and warehousing refugees in detention centers.
What is yet to enter the public discourse is Western complicity for the circumstances that generate refugees. The contributions of the U.S.-British “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq and the U.S.-British-French “Mission Accomplished” in Libya to the refugee exodus is rarely acknowledged. Moreover, there is little discussion regarding the obligations of European countries to their former colonial empires. Does Europe owe Africa anything for inflicting structural damage through exploitive practices, and the legacy of drawing arbitrary borders resulting in chronic conflicts and stolen riches? The typical Western response to this is that it is all “in the past”, and that this generation of Europeans cannot be held responsible. Get over it. Clearly, the West has failed to put structures in place for justice and is guilty of glossing over the events that shaped the reality of post-colonial states, further widening the gap between the developed and developing worlds.
Another theme within the comments, including Douthat’s opinion piece, is that population growth drives asylum seekers to make these dangerous journeys. The solution presented is to help Africans with family planning. This solution and the perceptions that surround it is simplistic, at best. It is an excuse to curb the flow of refugees and asylum seekers to affluent countries that would appeal politically to some people who oppose asylum seekers but who don’t want to be accused of racism or xenophobia.
Arguing that underdevelopment contributes to persecution, war and refugees is a stronger argument. However, how underdevelopment occurred would be a necessary inquiry for it would reveal the lopsided and unfavorable terms of trade and wholesale historical injustices perpetrated by European colonialism and slavery.
In his seminal book, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, Walter Rodney argues that both European power politics and European economic exploitation and oppression led to the impoverishment of African societies. In the contemporary era, war, civil strife in conjunction with political persecution (in Syria, Iraq, Eritrea, Sudan and South Sudan), aggravated by the involvement of Western powers, is causing untold loss of life as well as economic dislocation. One would think that the affluent world has a moral responsibility to accept people as they flee violence. Nevertheless there are usually no more than occasional references to this obvious and glaring truth and moral exigencies.
The refugee exodus is the result of many factors, one of the most common being war or fear of war. Overpopulation, while it may be a contributing factor, is not the main cause. Billions of poor people prefer to stay put in their homes and familiar surroundings unless threatened by war or persecution. In addition, a conversation about population growth that ignores unequal patterns of consumption and its effects is disingenuous: “the poorest three billion people on earth, short of half the world population accounted for about 7% of carbon emissions, while conversely, the richest 7% of people accounted for about half of all emissions.”
Language is another potent weapon used to demonize asylum seekers and to frame the issue. Refugees are being described with words laden in negative meanings akin to propaganda – for manipulation of public opinion. Refugees are abused and ridiculed in ways that African American slaves were labeled as “chattels,” “property,” and “beasts” and Native Americans were labeled with dehumanizing language defining them as “non-persons,” “savages,” and “Satan’s partisans.”
Politicians make misleading generalizations for electoral gains while neglecting the main factor that triggers displacement and movement of people: war. British Foreign Minister Philip Hammond refers to asylum seekers in Calais in terms of “marauding,” whose presence will undermine the British “standard of living.” David Camren described asylum seekers as “swarms.” An Israeli Member of the Knesset Miri Regev, referred to asylum-seekers as “a cancer in our body,” and former Minister of Interior Eli Yishai, labeled asylum-seekers as “infiltrators,” “criminals,” and a “demographic threat.” Such incitement has led to a significant increase in hate crimes against Africans in Israel.
However, it is simplistic to think this is just about race. Of course, race is the underlying factor with concerns about assimilation and integration of refugees. But asylum seekers and migrants have not fared better, even in black ruled and relatively prosperous South Africa. South African mobs have doused other Africans with gasoline and burned them alive. South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma’s son, Edward, an African twin of Donald Trump, described foreigners [i.e., African migrants] as drug dealers and a “security threat” who must be deported. According to a SAMP survey, this entrenched view is “held by 55 percent of South Africans.” To be sure, South Africa maybe ANC ruled but economic power is still firmly in the hands of the white minority. The country has very high black unemployment and economic inequality which pits refugees and asylum-seekers against black South Africans.
There is also the attempt to dismiss African refugees as mere migrants looking for economic opportunities. Somini Sengupta of the NY Times writes about how migrants are legally different from refugees. However the vast majority of those crossing the Mediterranean are clearly refugees even by the definition of the 1951 UN convention. According to a UNHCR report, they are fleeing war, persecution and deteriorating conditions in countries hosting refugees. One can also make a case that even the so called migrants are also refugees. While acknowledging that there are people who leave their homes for economic opportunities and to better themselves, the distinction between migrants and refugees is often quite arbitrary and made to suit those trying to justify exclusionary policies.
In retrospect, the 1951 UN convention on refugees is mostly ignored when it comes to Africans and more recently Middle Easterners. When the convention was created, it is safe to conclude potential refugees from Africa were hardly even considered. The world then was a different kind of place with only two African countries as independent states. The rest were colonies. The convention was designed for European victims of Nazi Germany and for defectors from the Soviet bloc. Clearly, the goal behind the dehumanization of African and Middle Eastern asylum seekers is to deny them the right to invoke the 1951 convention.
* Yohannes Woldemariam teaches international relations at Fort Lewis College in Colorado, USA.