Monday, 30th October 2017

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Fear eats the soul

The refugee crisis in Europe is one of politics, not of capacity

By Sunanda K. Datta-Ray
  • Published 12.09.15

The world is on the move. The dramatic photograph of a drowned child has only highlighted a process that has been going on for years, and will continue until some kind of equitable North-South balance of which Willy Brandt, Julius Nyerere and Manmohan Singh would have approved has been established. To say so is not to support a painful process that is bound to cause some dislocation unless properly handled. But despite the cataclysmic impression conveyed by television pictures, Europe is in no danger of being swamped. Moreover, the movement is inevitable. Each time you think of that drowned Syrian child, you must remember the billionaire Asian tycoon in London, the Asian Nobel Prize winner at a hallowed European university or the influential Indian-American state governor nursing presidential ambitions. They made it. The dead child didn't. But they were all motivated by the same search for a better life.

There is a domestic dimension, too. I remember a smart luncheon party at Bombay's Taj Mahal Hotel in the early Eighties where passions ran high over an expected influx of unemployed working-class Keralans. The glitterati talked of roadblocks and entry and residence permits for the great unwashed until a middle-aged woman guest from Calcutta exploded angrily, "You mean if there are no jobs for Indians in one part of India, you won't allow them to seek jobs where they exist because they aren't your social equals!" Her outburst was met with utter silence and the topic of conversation quickly changed. The last thing those leaders of Bombay society wanted was a discussion of the social and cultural prejudices that underpin many seemingly rational economic arguments.

I had a meeting the next morning with Charles Correa, the architect. When I told him about the lunchtime conversation, he replied in his quiet reflective way that none of the world's great developments would have taken place if mankind had remained static. The emptying out of the countryside to flock to cities and consequent urbanization was his special interest. But he also recognized that the great waves of European migration to North America, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand extended the phenomenon globally. George Canning, the 19th-century British politician who was briefly prime minister, may have had this projection in mind in declaring, "I called the New World into existence to redress the balance of the Old." A Chinese saying has it that migrants will go wherever land and water are available. Indians are probably even less demanding. As we all know, Indian and Chinese immigrants surmounted severe obstacles in the countries where they now appear to be doing well.

As always in global affairs, race is a prime mover. There would have been far less panic in Europe if Eritreans and Iraqis had been white Christians. Or if they had been rich like the Russian oligarchs, Arab sheikhs and Chinese tycoons camouflaged as anonymous corporate entities buying up stocks, real estate, public undertakings and private industries throughout the Western world. Their acquisitiveness is changing the physical landscape. "All around me," the British journalist, Andrew Marr, noted of London, "small shops and cafés are going out of business because you can't sell sandwiches to investors sitting in Shanghai." The new migrants strike fear and provoke resentment because they are poor, coloured and Muslim. "European democracy faces an existential challenge" is the sombre verdict of a retired Danish ambassador who was my colleague in Singapore. Despite Germany's generous response, Angela Merkel calls the influx "the biggest challenge I have seen in European affairs in my time as chancellor". Italy's foreign minister, Paolo Gentiloni, warns that migrants could pose a major threat to the "soul" of Europe.

Before getting carried away by apocalyptic rhetoric, we should recognize that the crisis is of politics, not capacity. Demagogues like Marine Le Pen in France, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, Italy's Matteo Salvini, Miloš Zeman in the Czech Republic and the UKIP party in Britain are exploiting the challenge to aggravate traditional civilizational fears as thousands of desperate Asians and Africans risk their lives to reach Europe. Most of them are fleeing deadly conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia. Eritreans are victims of a brutally repressive regime. While persecution is the most obvious factor, too much weight should not be attached to the claim that only a minority of the surge of migrants is motivated by the goal of economic betterment. Whether they are victims of war, epidemic, repression or persecution, the primary refugee need is for roti, kapda aur makaan. Their own movement proclaims as much. They don't rush into the vast empty spaces of Central Asia to the north; they don't infiltrate the congestion of South Asia. Even in Europe, it's not Turkey or Greece they want. Nor countries outside the European Union. They even reject the EU's so-called Dublin system, which states that people must claim asylum in the state where they first enter the union. Migrants defy roadblocks, police barricades, and suspended rail links to walk, if necessary, to Sweden and Germany. Those promise the greatest economic security. They constitute the promised land.

As the European Commission's president, Jean-Claude Juncker, whose remarks suggest a realistic humanist, has rightly pointed out, there is far less fuss in Lebanon where refugees represent 25 per cent of the population whereas the latest influx amounts to a negligible 0.11 per cent of the EU's roughly 500 million people. Because outsiders don't stand out in polyglot multiracial Lebanon, they are not seen as a threat to the established order. Neither are the 11 million undocumented immigrants (about 3.5 per cent of the total) among the 320 million white, black, brown and yellow races in the United States of America. Some 20 million displaced persons roamed Europe at the end of World War II but they were all Europeans. Juncker wants the EU to provide for 160,000 refugees but recognizes that since 500,000 (mainly from Syria and Libya) have already entered Europe this year, this might be an underestimate.

Viewing the great chasm in standard of living that yawns along the North-South divide, Willy Brandt hoped that the 21st century would usher in "the prospects of a new civilization". He asked in 1983, "Could we not begin to lay the basis for that new community with reasonable relations among all people and nations, and to build a world in which sharing, justice, freedom and peace might prevail?" That didn't happen. Within a few years of Brandt's optimistic report, the South Commission (chairman Julius Nyerere, secretary-general Manmohan Singh) reported of Third World peoples, "Largely bypassed by the benefits of prosperity and progress, they exist on the periphery of the developed centres of the North. While most of the people of the North are affluent, most of the people of the South are poor; while the economies of the North are generally stronger and resilient, those of the South are mostly weak and defenceless; while the countries in the North, by and large, are in control of their destinies, those of the South are very vulnerable to external factors and lacking in functional strength."

The United Nations recommended a series of reforms on the basis of that report. But progress on this too has been slow. Other factors intervened, and the commission's warning that the South must also look for "justice, equity and democracy" at home has fallen on deaf ears. The South has therefore decided to take the matter in its own hands and seek redress in age-old fashion. Once begun, the process will not easily be halted, but wise management can ensure that far from overwhelming Europe, the accretion of manpower actually contributes to its productive strength.