A picture is supposed to be worth a thousand words
but the pictures of undocumented immigrant children in the US separated from
their parents and put in a Texas warehouse inspired a million denunciations and
defiant defence from the White House. But the most disturbing aspect of this
blame fest is how partisan and politically loaded the migrant question has
become, even in a country that owes it existence to migration. Throw them out, is
the US government’s only solution, an attitude reflected in the most unexpected
For this is not just about the US or even the presidency of Donald Trump. The migrant or refugee has become toxic almost everywhere. These days "the alien in my home" is blamed for everything that goes wrong. Colour and creed are less important than the fact of being an outsider. Brexit, the UK’s ultimate rejection of migrants, is as much about Polish plumbers and Bulgarian fruit pickers stealing local jobs as it is about mosques mushrooming in the backyard. That those plumbers were white and there legally is of no consequence. Whether “Mexican rapists” or “Moroccan scum”, migrants and refugees are no longer considered human but a symbol of loathing.
Equally noticeable is the indifference with which we view the refugee crisis. The civil war in Yemen is this year’s worst humanitarian crisis by far, with 22 million people, three-fourths of the population, in peril, says the United Nations. Over 2 million have fled their homes, the major cities are in ruins and over 8 million are at risk of starvation. Yemen is the world’s cholera capital.
Yet there is no real international effort to stop the war or to help the population, apart from piecemeal UN assistance. Security Council resolutions mostly focus on sanctions against Yemen. In the wider world the problem does not exist. The Indian media barely acknowledge the issue though other news from the Gulf gets ample space. Even closer home, the Rohingya refugee crisis is mentioned only in the context of the so-called security threat they pose by virtue of their being Muslim. The community is literally stateless; Myanmar does not recognise Rohingya as citizens. Citing security concerns New Delhi’s only response is that they should return to a country where they face genocidal violence. No neighbour except for Bangladesh has shown any interest in their fate.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says about 68.5 million across the globe have fled their homes; about 25.4 million are refugees and 40 million are internally displaced. This is the highest number ever recorded, but the Security Council shows little interest in their plight. It is possible that the world in general is unaware of the fact that every minute of the day sees 20 more people displaced. Jordan, with a population of 9.5 million has 2.7 million refugees, mostly from the civil war in Syria. The European Union, over 500 million-strong and immeasurably richer, is tearing itself apart over a million. Few tears are shed for Jordan but the EU has an existential crisis.
This is a region that arguably knows more about migrants and misery than any other, given its experience of two world wars, but there’s a cold welcome for people fleeing civil war and worse in their countries. Indeed, like Australia’s offshore detention centres, the EU made a deal with Turkey to keep Syrian refugees from coming to Europe until conditions at home are better. No one knows when or even if that will happen but at least they are out of sight and not in their homes, a major relief for Europeans.
Is there a way out? In terms of cold, hard cash the world has never been richer so the economic needs of refugees should not present a problem. But nations are reluctant to accept them despite the advantages they offer, of a work force with diverse skills and of individuals highly motivated to succeed. Even America, a nation that knows better than any other the ways in which migrants enrich a society culturally and materially, is closing its doors. Refugees or migrant are seen as economic opportunists waiting to undercut locals in every way.
The facts are no longer persuasive, as economists and social scientists are discovering to their dismay. The perception of refugees as economic predators or Islamist terrorists is growing, whether it is Rohingya in India, Algerians in France or Mexicans in the US. The reasons for migration, war, oppression or economic opportunism are many and varied and will always exist, but no one really wants to address the situation.