What kind of civilisation leaves 60 million people without a home?
Kevin Rafferty despairs at the plight of the record number of refugees escaping war and harm in their homeland, only to be turned away by those who helped to sow conflict in the first place
Just before dusk, gunfire and heavy weapons resounding not far away reminded us that it was not safe to stay after dark, so we made our way back to the safety of the river. Crossing the fields about 2km before the river, we encountered an old man with a flowing dirty white beard clutching the hand of a small boy and pushing a cart laden with pots and pans, bedding and clothes, and everything but the kitchen sink going in the opposite direction.
“Grandfather,” I asked, “Where are you going?” “I am going home,” he responded, and his tears flowed.
Every time I see stories of refugees fleeing, from Syria, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, North Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, Rwanda, Congo, or – today – caught between Greece and Turkey, I think of him. He was just one of millions who ran for their lives from one of the biggest terrors of the 20th century.
The so-called civilised world had failed him, just as the world is failing millions today. The old man was a Bengali whose family was killed by Pakistani soldiers in East Pakistan, and he was returning to what would become Bangladesh, but not for another month until after Pakistan, encouraged by the US and China, had gone to war with India, egged on by the Soviet Union. People become refugees when their lives are threatened at home; and they will return home as soon as it is safe. Yet the number of refugees worldwide, including internally displaced people, has risen to a record 60 million.
Who will help them? Their last desperate hope might be a reformed United Nations. Optimists claim selection of a successor to secretary general Ban Ki-moon at the end of the year offers an opportunity for updating the UN. But this is a prayer thrown into a raging typhoon.
Some politicians who should know better claim that many people clamouring onto leaky smugglers’ boats are “economic migrants” seeking their fortunes in the prosperous West. What a fortune, to be stuck in wretched camps and forbidden entry to Europe.
Economic migrants are another story, more often to be found among well-heeled upwardly-mobile classes whose children attend foreign universities and go on to work for international banks or computer companies.
They include Ashraf Ghani, who graduated from the American University in Beirut and graduated to Berkeley, Johns Hopkins and the World Bank. Ghani is now president of Afghanistan. In a thought-provoking BBC interview, Ghani called those fleeing the country economic migrants – on the grounds that they paid big sums to people smugglers – and challenged them to stay and fight for the country and their future.
None of the big powers has clean hands in the rise of refugees. China may claim it is more sinned against than sinner, true if your history starts circa 1840 with Hong Kong.
But Beijing’s unholy alliance with Henry Kissinger encouraged the Pakistani military into its atrocities in East Bengal. China’s stalwart support for Pakistani rulers of all shades of autocracy, in search of an ally against India, has helped create a country that is a nest bed for Islamic radicals, ironic when China faces its own Islamic separatist issues.
Of course, the US, as the land of the free and defender of democracy, is in the thick of the fights that have led to massive flights of refugees, particularly in the Middle East. Thirty years ago, president Ronald Reagan supported Saddam Hussein in his war with Iran, providing billions in aid, sale of dual-use technology, weapons (provided they were not seen to originate from the US), plus military intelligence and training in special operations.
Then Saddam Hussein became too big and threatening and, three presidents later, Washington took him down, and, in the eyes of critics, exploded the mess that created the self-styled Islamic State, spreading terror and sending refugees fleeing. Not only Iraq, but Syria and Libya, another state where Western intervention brought the downfall of another dictator and chaos, have been sucked in.
The downfall of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi after 40 years in power demonstrates the failings of policies of non-intervention in a country’s internal affairs. Sooner or later, even the cruellest dictators will fall, leaving the mess they have created to catch up with their successors. Dynasties, such as kingdoms, or ruling families or parties, may have greater longevity, but who would want to take over North Korea if the Kims fall?
Washington’s intervention policy is also fraught, not least because it has proved highly selective, tending to bully the weak while leaving more dangerous regimes in place. Saudi Arabia remains a close ally, even as its ideas and funds foment the Islamist terrorism going global.
Increasing complexities of a globalising world make it hard for any country to follow a straight line of high-minded principles. Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey is a case in point. The democratically elected president is following the classical route to becoming a latter-day strongman, including repressing the press. He has diverted energy and resources from the Islamic threat by attacking the Kurds. Nevertheless, he is courted by the West because Turkey is the buffer penning the refugees and preventing them from getting into the European Union, where popular feelings are rising against intruders. But, still, people flee for their lives in their thousands.
A globalising world needs global standards under a global authority, which is less subject to the whims and fancies of national rulers .
Unfortunately, the UN is still organised under the second world war victory mandate, 70 years out of date. Influential critics claim it is high time for change. Hurdles are high. Each of the wartime victors has a veto, frequently invoked over smaller matters, so it is unlikely that any would willingly surrender on a major matter of UN reform.
Some political scientists have faith in the general assembly as more broadly representative of the world. Every country has the same single vote, and the roll-call of states includes a rogues’ gallery responsible for much of the mess the world is in, especially for the plight of the refugees.
Sadly, the millions running for their lives don’t even qualify as pawns in this desperate game. And we call this 21st-century civilisation.
Kevin Rafferty is a political commentator