Monday, February 1, 2016

Answering Europe's migrant crisis

John BondA million migrants reached Europe last year from the Middle East and Africa, half of them from Syria. A million more are expected this year. This will not stop until peace prevails in Syria and Iraq. People fleeing for their lives do not obey border controls.

We Europeans need to do all we can to resolve the conflict. And we need to care for the refugees.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has set the lead, and many Germans have responded wholeheartedly. Other countries have dragged their feet, not least Britain. This is shameful. We led the invasion of Iraq along with the USA, and the ineptitude of our post-invasion policies are a major cause of the war from which the refugees are fleeing. More than any other European country, Britain has a moral obligation to care for them, and we are shirking that responsibility.

In so doing, we are missing a vital opportunity. Because refugees are not just victims, they are potential peacemakers. In many countries, returning refugees have played a significant role in developing structures capable of maintaining peace. Europe, after centuries of war, has had a large measure of peace for 70 years, and the lessons we have learned can advance peace on other continents. Here Syrians can gain insight into what it takes to enable a multicultural society to function harmoniously. Many of them will return when conditions improve. We can help them return with a greater understanding of how to work for a governance which serves all citizens.

We need to offer this help because of our history. A century ago Britain and France grabbed the territory of the defeated Ottoman Empire and divided it up, creating Syria and Iraq. In Britain’s case, to ensure a supply of oil. There was no thought of creating coherent nation states whose peoples could live in harmony with each other. And we British promised the same land to different peoples. The region has been paying the price of our duplicity and short-sightedness ever since. As the British Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, said in 2002, Britain’s record in the region is ‘not entirely honourable’.  

He spoke with British understatement. If we ask why such a destructive organisation as ISIS attracts thousands to its ranks, one answer is to look at the decades of humiliation of the peoples of the region. As psychologist Evelin Lindner has said, humiliation is the ‘nuclear bomb of feelings’. We British cannot deny that we have helped cause the explosion of anger and hate we see in ISIS, and the resultant flow of migrants. If we recognise this, we will then be able to develop policies which unite British of all backgrounds in tackling extremism, rather than policies which do the opposite because they stigmatise Muslims for our misdeeds.

Much of this also applies to our record in Africa. For several centuries Europeans have exploited Africa - taking slaves, minerals, oil, agricultural products, fish, and giving little in return. African diseases receive inadequate attention until they affect richer nations. Weak African governance is tolerated, perhaps because it makes exploitation easier. And then there is climate change, which is largely caused by the industrialised nations, but which impacts most on Africa’s drylands, severely reducing their agricultural potential.

The overall result is that some countries are so poor and so poorly governed that many enterprising Africans see no hope, and leave for Europe.

This will continue until Africa thrives. That is a challenge to Africans; there is much that only they can do to improve governance.

But it is also a challenge to the rest of the world including Europe. We need to end the exploitation. Let Africa’s fish feed Africans, not the rich nations whose factory fishing vessels plunder African waters. Let us pay adequately for the minerals and oil we take from Africa. Let us end the trade agreements which thwart African development. Let us tackle the European corruption which enables African corruption. Let us build the partnerships between Europe and Africa which will strengthen human rights and inclusive democracy on both continents.

That is the realistic answer to Europe’s migrant crisis.

John Bond grew up in Britain and has worked with Initiatives of Change on several continents, including eight years in Africa and 25 in Australia. There he gave leadership in initiatives aimed at healing the harm done by tragically misguided policies towards Aboriginal Australians, and was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia. He is now a co-convenor of the Caux conference on Just Governance for Human Security. He and his wife Mary Lean live in Oxford.

NOTE: Individuals of many cultures, nationalities, religions, and beliefs are actively involved with Initiatives of Change. These commentaries represent the views of the writer and not necessarily those of Initiatives of Change as a whole.