For over three months now, a double-named crisis – sometimes called “refugee”, sometimes “migrant” – has been dominating the European mainstream news.
The first term indicates the rapid displacement of millions of Syrians and Iraqis due to the rise of ISIS; the second, “migrant crisis”, refers to the longer history of millions of souls from all manner of developing countries, struggling to come to Europe for a better life.
It is a crisis which tests the principles of both Christian and secular Europe. The continent has been woken out of a dream – a pleasant, prosperous, post-war somnambulance it has been enjoying since the late 80s. Up until this last summer, many of us were intellectually conscious of how incongruously situated our wealthy archipelago was, sitting across from the poorest continent on the planet.
Some of us were dimly aware that we shared a sea with Africa – a northern shore, sprinkled with tax havens and film-star resorts, facing southwards towards the coasts of Libya and Algeria. Some of us had even heard that there was poverty Somewhere Outside Europe – and that this poverty was trying to reach us, on buses, boats, rubber dinghys and even the insides of airplanes.
We had seen small Afghan children in shopping malls, encountered mothers sitting on floors speaking Arabic to us outside cafes and restaurants. In our provincial towns and cities, we had begun to see Sudanese and Somali families appear in state housing. Our right-wing newspapers warned us of swarms and invasions; our liberal media expressed ‘concern’ and ‘unease’.
Here in Britain, fearful hatred of this most recent wave of immigrants reached a peak when one commentator called them “cockroaches” and urged the government to send gunships out to meet the refugee boats. It took the horrifying image of a single child, face-down, washed onto a beach, to puncture this bubble of loathing. For the time being, at least, xenophobia has had to give way to kindness.
The paradox inherent in any crisis is that it is both a focus and a distraction. The Syrian refugee crisis delivered an intense, concentrated version of what has been going on for over a decade. The Hungarian fences and railway stations, on the borders of Europe, jammed up against a sea of hungry, exhausted impatience, has shocked many. Such images offer the purest, single, most literal expression of an entire, complex problem.
And yet, the crisis is also a distraction. The immediate assistance and short-term engagement with the vast influx of refugees is absolutely necessary. What is equally necessary, however, is a serious analysis of how we have arrived at this crisis – one which should take place in our mainstream media, not just in a series of fringe, academic workshops.
If a crisis is a crack through which another reality disrupts our own sense of the ‘normal’, then we have to try and understand what kind of ‘normal’ this was, and how it got to be there.
For economic migrants, at least, this means asking how it was ‘normal’ for the capital and resources of so many African countries to be drained away and re-concentrated in the cities of Zurich, Frankfurt and London. It means asking what kind of post-war financial system – capital flows, commodity exchange, foreign investment – was able to produce a world in which one of the richest continents sits right next to the one of the world’s poorest.
To use just one of many possible examples: the British, German and Spanish water companies who, sanctioned by the World Bank and the IMF, buy up water rights in Namibia, Ghana and Gambia, so that they can charge local people over five times the normal price to use their own water, drawn up from their own land.
Or the way in which African countries were forced to liberalize their economies, and have the West dump huge amounts of subsidised products onto them – a policy the economist Tobin has cited as one of the five biggest single causes of world poverty.
With regards to the Syrian crisis, a much wider and historically-conscious series of factors needs to be discussed – certainly wider than the Isis-source-of-all-evil narrative we use at present. We need, for instance, to consider the bombardment of Iraq and the establishment of a corrupt government (al-Maliki) which had no serious interest in establishing a professional Iraqi army; the decision of Western governments to arm the ‘anti-Assad freedom fighters’ who would ultimately become the monster that is ISIS; the Western (particularly British) arms manufacturers who have happily supplied weapons to the region, not to mention the Saudi/Turkish/Qatari ‘allies’ who have played their own part in the arming of Islamic State.
Against this fractal background of shared blame, ISIS is an a posteriori effect which is being sold misleadingly as an a priori cause.
Perhaps it is time for an Instability Tax. Any capital-possessing entity, private or governmental, which has contributed to the de-stabilizing of refugee-producing regions, should be liable for such a tax.
If you are a hedge-fund and you have made money out of commodity-trading in African minerals and precious stones, you should fork up some of that profit for the thousands of migrants fleeing the Democratic Republic of Congo. If you are a weapons manufacturer and have made money out of selling arms to the Middle East (the top hundred arms companies sold nearly half a trillion dollars’ worth of weapons last year), you should be the one providing housing and sustenance to the millions of human beings your products have displaced.
If you are a water firm, oil company, bank or food multinational who has profited in any way from the systemic degradation or de-stabilization of a poorer country, you and your shareholders should be held accountable for the consequences. Perhaps even Tony Blair, whose personal wealth is now an estimated 90 million dollars, can be approached for a contribution (I’m told he has a soft spot for good causes).
The absence of any systemic, historical analysis of the migrant crisis is something which characterizes both right-wing, anti-immigrant discourse as well as liberal, multicultural language on this topic.
As Europeans, we need to start asking ourselves serious, systemic questions about how we live: what does it mean, as a European, to own things, and to want to own more? What does it mean to have a pension plan, or a share portfolio, or a savings account?
How much longer, as our planet shrinks, can pockets of prosperity like the European Union co-exist alongside larger areas of poverty? Should we always want the DAX and the FT index and the DowJones to go up and up and up – and who has to suffer to make this happen?
Ian Almond is Professor of World Literatures at Georgetown University-Qatar. He is the author of five books, most recently The Thought of Nirad C. Chaudhuri (Cambridge UP, 2015). He has spent most of his life outside the UK, and has lived in the Middle East for eight years. His work has been translated into nine languages.