This is the first installment in Marienna Pope-Weidemann’s “Odyssey to the Other Side” project, a series of essays and an accompanying documentary (currently filming) on the roots of the refugee crisis. Follow the series here as Marienna travels throughout Europe in 2015-16.
The vast majority of the men, women and children crossing into Europe from the south are refugees from war and persecution. But there are no “migrants” anymore. Not in this crisis. The three furies of armed conflict, climate change, and chronic poverty have wrought instability throughout the global South. It’s usually some combination of these factors that drives people to risk their freedom and lives in illegal border crossings. They take that risk for the same reason any of us would: they have nothing left to lose; their freedom is already lost, their lives already in danger. And that is precisely what makes a refugee.
The 1951 Refugee Convention defines a refugee as someone with well-founded fear of persecution in their home country “for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” Those in power tend to interpret this in the narrowest possible terms. But the moment we recognize the poor as “a particular social group,” an entire spectrum of structural persecution reveals itself. Well beyond its most obvious manifestations—the torture and murder sweeping its way across the Middle East and parts of Africa and Latin America—we find a broad and systemic denial of the right to food, water, and shelter; to work for a fair wage; and to healthcare, education, and social security, all of which are enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Such persecution not only happens in refugees’ home countries, but also in the “developed nations” where they hope to re-build their lives. The UK is an excellent example, with basic welfare and even civil rights increasingly conditional for asylum seekers and—to put it as bluntly as political correctness allows—“low income earners from non-Caucasian backgrounds.”
As lawyer Frances Webber writes in her groundbreaking book Borderline Justice, most migrants are in truth “refugees from globalisation, from a poor world getting poorer as it is shaped to serve the interests, appetites and whims of the rich world, a world where our astonishing standard of living, our freedoms, the absurd array of consumer novelties, fashions and foods available to us, and thrown away by us, are bought at the cost of the health, freedoms and lives of others.”
To understand this crisis—its causes and consequences—we need to look at the big picture.
The “War on Terror”
For almost fifteen years, we have watched our governments fight their “War on Terror” with incredible military and social violence. Now, with what they disparagingly call “the migrant crisis” (as though the problem is the flight of besieged civilians rather than war itself), there can be no more pretending they are just after this or that dictator, like drug addicts promising each fix will be the last. “But you must understand, this next guy’s really bad, and if we can just take him out, we’ll have peace.” That sort of rhetoric has been laid bare now that it’s pro-democracy dissidents and civilians being imprisoned, beaten, and gassed on European soil. This amounts to total war not on terror, but on the poor.
Of the hundreds of thousands risking their lives to reach Europe this year, the vast majority are refugees from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan—two of which were invaded and occupied by the US, Britain and their allies. Recall that the current crisis unfolded after NATO’s bombing of Libya to oust Muammar Gaddafi, a long-time ally whose dissidents and refugees Britain had been detaining without trial and deporting straight back to him for years. (Thank you Wikileaks, for telling the world.) Even so, once they decided Gaddafi “had to go,” the US, UK and France were willing to shower with weapons the very terrorists they had sworn to oppose. Now they are in ISIS’ hands and pointed at innocent people. Fighting terror with war has proven about as strategic as fighting fire with petroleum.
The War on Earth
We might also do well to note also that the same corporations that cashed in big on oil profits after the attacks on Iraq and Libya are now waging a titanic battle against climate action. Their lobbying efforts threaten to force us off the cliff into the abyss of unstoppable warming. Leading scientists are warning that without radical change, we can expect catastrophic implications for our species.
Climate change is on track to become the biggest driver of forced migration, dwarfing the historic 56 million people already displaced by conflict. Not to mention the fact that war and climate change are intrinsically connected, and not just in terms of the role that oil interests play in foreign policy. For example, a growing body of research highlights the significance of severe drought in sparking conflict in Syria and throughout the Middle East.
Globally, natural disasters have increased fivefold in the past forty years, with floods and storms claiming 1.45 million lives. Between disasters, the steady warming of the planet puts poor societies under incredible strain, spreading hunger, conflict and disease. Robust climate policy and a rapid transition from fossil fuels would be the single most effective and humane method of border control. To quote Ellie Mae O’Hagan, “mass migration is no crisis: it’s the new normal as the climate changes.” Her observation will prove prophetic as long as powerful interests are able to obscure this obvious connection.
The War on the Poor
For much of Europe, austerity is a post-crisis nightmare. But in the global South, it has long been the law laid down by a united West. The theft of public wealth and welfare being carried out by the Troika in Greece and elsewhere in Europe, for all its horrors, is a diluted version of what World Bank and International Monetary Fund policies have been imposing on poor countries the world over. For forty years, they have made vital aid and loans conditional on the neoliberalization of Southern economies and the deliberate strangling of public healthcare, education, and industry.
Ostensibly, this is all in the name of mutually beneficial economic growth: the consistent neoliberal solution to just about any chronic social problem. But the evidence indicates that it serves another well-documented (if not well-publicized) agenda. As US strategic planner George Kennan said in 1948: “We have about 50% of the world’s wealth but only 6.3 of its population. [Our] real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security. To do so we will have to dispense with… vague—and for the Far East—unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standards, and democratization.”
Capitalism has always had its sacrifice zones: the places and people whose extinction and exploitation are deemed acceptable in the name of growth. But what the bank bailouts and Great Recession have facilitated, and what austerity reflects, is an unprecedented expansion of those zones northward, into the industrial countries once protected by a social democratic consensus. As competition for public services, housing, and jobs is artificially intensified by spending cuts, it becomes that much harder for progressive parts of society to argue for a humane response to the refugee crisis. In a better world, this would highlight the common interests between the poor and persecuted in all nations and promote solidarity; but the great tragedy of our times is that it’s threatening to drive millions of refugees to the North at precisely the moment it is least able and willing to receive them. As Tsveta Dobreva writes: “In times of crisis, people search for an explanation for their sudden difficulties. Ultimately, immigrants, both regular and irregular, have become this crisis’ scapegoats.”
To defend itself against an enemy it sees everywhere, Europe is building walls. Concrete barricades are springing up across the south, bristling with barbed wire and armed guards. Over the coming months, I’ll be travelling across Europe to report on the crisis and the broken system that created it. I’ll be relaying stories directly from refugees themselves and joining the dots between the wars, warming, and austerity that drive them from their homes. And I’ll be meeting some of the remarkable people raising their voices to say that migrant lives matter, and fighting back against the powerful interests that drive corruption, conflict, and climate change all over the world.
Photograph by Marienna Pope-Weidemann.