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AROUND 17 years ago, I had predicted in a column that this century would be dominated by the mass movement of people.

I had suggested that poverty, wars, drought, dysfunctional governments and sectarian and ethnic violence would push people from their homes.

Apart from these factors, there is the universal desire to provide children with the opportunities that come with security and a decent education and health care.

Finally, for young men from poor countries, the West has acted as a magnet with its bright lights, job opportunities and the possibility of making enough money to send back home to support parents and younger siblings.

Also read: The perils of Pakistani migrants heading to Europe

If conditions were normal where people grew up, few would think of migrating. But what kind of future can, say, a young Afghan look forward to in his war-ravaged country?

For Myanmar’s persecuted Muslim Rohingyas to Syrian refugees fleeing seven years of a murderous civil war, home is now a hellish memory. Millions are on the move to escape horrors most of us can barely imagine.

But as this mass movement builds, doors are shutting for economic refugees as well as asylum-seekers. After the death and destruction caused by the Second World War, an exhausted and war-weary Europe enacted progressive legislation to admit those fleeing persecution.

Many countries that had lost large numbers of young men in the fighting allowed in foreign workers to man their factories, transport systems and a number of other services. Over time, these guest workers sent for their families and made a home in host countries that also benefited from their presence.

However, as the number of immigrants and their families rose, so did the resentment of many locals who began to see this perceived invasion by people with different values and cultures as a threat to their way of life. Muslim migrants, in particular, clung to their traditions and religious teachings more tenaciously than most other immigrant groups. They were thus the targets of an Islamophobia that came into the open after 9/11.

But it was the series of wars launched by Western powers led by the USA in this century that has precipitated the largest movement of people from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

The removal of Muammar Qadhafi by Libyan rebels backed by France and the UK, among others, has opened the floodgates to waves of African refugees fleeing military conscription, poverty and wars from Eritrea to Nigeria.

Thousands have drowned in the Mediterranean as ruthless people smugglers have stuffed them into unreliable boats.

Ominously, evidence is emerging that as Niger has cracked down on gangs of these traffickers, they have taken to abandoning migrants in the desert rather than incurring jail terms.

On the other side of the world, Australia is keeping boatloads of Sri Lankan Tamils, Rohingyas, Afghans and Pakistani Hazaras at bay by locking them up in offshore facilities in New Guinea that resemble concentration camps.

In the United States, Donald Trump has long declared his intention to build a wall to prevent Mexicans as well as South Americans from entering the United States.

View from abroad: As political divisions grow, Europe gets (even) tougher on migration

In Europe, an intense debate on the refugee crisis is underway as Angela Merkel struggles to maintain her generous open-door policy. In fact, the entire Schengen structure of free movement across much of Europe is under threat as more and more countries, specially East European ones, refuse to accept any immigrants.

Italy, with its new nationalist coalition, has turned away a ship containing over 600 illegal migrants. Being closest to Libya, it has seen hundreds of thousands of mostly Africans entering its borders over the last few years.

The divisive debate on how to cope with these waves of humanity is increasingly chipping away at the cohesiveness of the European Union and eroding its shared values.

View From Abroad: Lies, immigration and the battle for Europe’s soul

But while discussing this crisis, few Western commentators accept the truth that it was their governments, with their invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and their unlawful interventions in Syria and Libya, that are to blame for much of the mess.

Take Syria as an example. While Bashar al Assad is undoubtedly a ruthless dictator, he ruled a heterogeneous country with Shias, Sunnis, Alevis and Christians in relative harmony.

When anti-government demonstrations broke out in Homs during the Arab Spring seven years ago, he cracked down viciously instead of addressing the concerns of the anti-regime crowds. As the mayhem spread, anti-Bashar elements were joined by various groups of jihadists who sought to impose their version of an Islamic state on a secular Syria.

Soon, idealistic Syrian protesters were marginalised or joined the Islamic groups, and the character of the protest movement changed.

The Islamists were initially helped by Turkey, Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia who pumped in arms and money via an open Turkish border. Western states also contributed with equipment and training. But as the war dragged on, and Iran and Russia stepped in to help their Syrian ally, enthusiasm for regime change waned, and Bashar al Assad’s forces have now reclaimed much of their lost territories.

The savage civil war has led to Turkey taking in 3.57 million refugees; Lebanon is host to a further million, while Jordan has close to 700,000, and nearly a million Syrians have made their way to Europe. These are huge numbers in a country of 22 million.

According to The Economist, Syria was enjoying double-digit growth before the civil war, and its GDP was $60 billion; this has now dropped to $12 billion.

In the event the fighting finally ends, few expect many Syrians to return, especially from Europe. The reality is that the demographic and sectarian character of the country has changed: the protesters and jihadists were mostly Sunnis who have now fled.

Those who supported the regime for their own survival are Alevis, Shias and Christians. Many of them have been rewarded for their loyalty by being allotted properties that belonged to anti-Bashar rebels who are now abroad.

Civil wars are almost always brutal affairs. The one in Syria is an object lesson in the law of unintended consequences.

irfan.husain@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, July 9th, 2018