THIS past Monday was World Refugee Day. As happens on the days earmarked for these international commemorations, a few meetings were held, a few articles written and an international moment of lament spared for the world’s most hapless and unwanted. In one picture, a group of African refugees (and they are the lucky ones) were shown breaking their fast in a refugee camp in Italy; other images showed the straggling survivors of one Mediterranean boat disaster — nearly 1,000 died over 10 days in April 2015, because the rich shore of this or that European country was unwilling to take them.
As also happens after the regular dose of outrage and attention is bestowed on issues such as this, the reality remained dire. An Amnesty International report released a few days earlier noted that for the first time since the Second World War, the number of the world’s refugees had exceeded 50 million. Turkey, Pakistan and Lebanon each host over a million refugees each, their own already struggling populations now mixed with war-torn others who have nowhere to go.
As the United Nations has repeatedly noted, during a time when the world is experiencing such a formidable refugee crisis, developed nations like the European Union and the United States have done very little to accommodate refugees even from conflicts in which they have played a part. Dying in war, it seems, is far better than surviving a war; being condemned to the hopelessness of camps and the derision of those at whose borders, the refugee millions seek refuge.
Refugees are, of course, only one portion of the world’s homeless and on the move. There are millions of economic migrants from developing countries who regularly risk their lives to make the journey to jobs.
Wealthy countries have, in the past decade, become even more adept at refusing them. A recent documentary focusing on Calais, a town where many refugees to France and the United Kingdom end up, revealed conditions far beyond appalling: bodies strewn in filth and men living in conditions worse than those of animals, all for the possibility of being permitted to stay in the countries that are so resolute in wanting to refuse them.
In 2004, the United Kingdom moved its border post into France so that migrants arriving at the border in Calais would not be able to claim asylum when they reached it. The French authorities have begun speaking about making the region a ‘migrant-free zone’. Protests from activists have prevented the planned demolition until now, but, given the French state’s increasingly anti-immigrant politics, it is quite likely that this will take place. The migrants who remain in the makeshift camps continue to hope that they will be able to catch a ride on the trucks leaving for the United Kingdom. For most of them, however, the dream of claiming asylum is unlikely to reach fruition in the prevailing circumstances.
Not only have European countries ignored the cruel conditions faced by refugees and migrants, they have, in fact, chosen to transform their xenophobia into political gain.
It has been seen that where respect for human rights and dignity are concerned, the world divides itself into two halves. The European nations make much of their good record, their efforts to protect the vulnerable, uplift the minorities and engage the dissenters. It is in the developing countries that the miseries of abuse, persecution and human ruthlessness flower and flourish. No issue exposes the hypocrisy of this belief more than the current refugee and migrant crisis that is faced by the world.
Not only have European countries — that are the proud signatories to so many international conventions and the valiant crusaders against injustice — ignored the cruel conditions faced by refugees and migrants, they have, in fact, chosen to transform their xenophobia into political gain. In both France and the United Kingdom, and several other European countries, anti-immigrant views run rampant and migrants are demonised as usurpers, as intrinsically lesser people. The situation is so dire that the United Nations commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra’ad Hussein, told the United Nations Human Rights Commission that he was “shocked and shamed by the frequent demonisation of migrants that we see in many countries whose people benefit from prosperity, peace and ease”.
His words, of course, mean nothing and are unlikely to soften the hard hearts of those who feel that their lives of ease, of long vacations and of homogenous populations, are all threatened by the arrival of the migrants. Europeans, for all their championing of human rights, for all their coming together after the Second World War to ensure that the war-torn were not left to die, seems uninterested in pragmatism when it comes to the issue of refugees and migrants.
The latter would suggest that Europe’s social welfare state systems cannot survive their current aging populations and low birth rates unless an influx of younger workers (immigrants) picks up the slack. Such an argument would, of course, require Europeans to change their predominant concept of the migrant, visualised now as dirty, lazy and unable to contribute to their society in any positive way.
The question of the migrant and the refugee, then, is perhaps as dependent on the human tendency to hate based on difference — however miniscule, however incidental. Pakistan may not have the riches of Europe to protect, but it does have its home-grown hatreds and prejudices. The architecture of elevating difference — however slight, however inconsequential — is in this sense universal, making its home in hearts all around the world.
Ethnicity, language, skin colour, etc can all be put into the service of this edifice and its instruments all manufacture the same product: a robust hatred that builds walls of exclusion in Karachi slums and Calais camps. No treaty, no international convention, no day of commemoration, it seems, can tear these down and so we remain, one and all, under their unrelenting shadow.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn, June 24th, 2015