Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Halt the Scape-goating

Razor-wire fences, detention centres, xenophobic rhetoric and political disarray; nothing illustrates the tendency of governments to aggressively pursue nationalistic interests than a humane response to refugees fleeing conflict and war. Across the European Union is the mounting pressure of far-right and anti-immigration groups to influence and skew the public debate on how governments should deal with refugees and immigrants. European nations are are increasingly adopting a cynical and questionable interpretation of international refugee law that lacks any sense of justice or compassion.

The real emergency and urgency is taking place outside of Europe, where there is a desperate need for more assistance from the international community. For example, Turkey is now home to over 3 million refugees; Jordan hosts 2.7 million refugees – a staggering 41 percent of its population; and Lebanon has 1.5 million Syrian refugees who make up a third of its population. Unsurprisingly, social and economic systems are under severe strain in these and the other countries that host the majority of global refugees – especially since they are mainly based in developing countries with soaring unemployment rates, inadequate welfare systems and high levels of social unrest. In stark comparison (and with the notable exception of Germany), the 28 relatively prosperous EU member states have collectively pledged to resettle a mere 160,000 of the one million refugees that entered Europe in 2015. Not only does this amount to less than 0.25% of their combined population, governments have only relocated a few hundred have so far.

The 1951 Refugee Convention states that governments need only safeguard the human rights of asylum seekers when they are inside their territory. In violation of the spirit of this landmark human rights legislation, the response from most European governments has been to prevent rather than facilitate the arrival of refugees in order to minimise their legal responsibility towards them. In order to achieve their aim, the EU has even gone so far as making a deal to intercept migrant families crossing the Aegean Sea and return them to Turkey against their will. Instead of providing ‘safe and legal routes’ to refugees, a growing number of countries on the migration path from Greece to Western Europe are militarising boarders and constructing barbed wire barriers to stop people entering their country. Refugees (a majority of them women and children) who are trying to pass through Europe are at times subjected to humiliation and violence or are detained in rudimentary camps with minimal access to the essentials they need to survive. The response of many EU member states to those risking their lives to escape armed conflict is tantamount to officially sanctioned racial discrimination. There can be little doubt that the European policy to refugees has been discriminatory. It’s crucial that the pervasive myths peddled by right-wing extremists are exposed for what they are: bigotry, hyperbole and outright lies designed to exacerbate fear and discord within society. By promoting solidarity between people and nations, citizens can begin overturning prejudiced attitudes and supporting progressive agendas geared towards safeguarding the common good of all humanity. Ordinary citizens are leading the way and putting elected representatives to shame by providing urgent support to refugee families in immediate need of help. In their thousands, volunteers stationed along Europe’s boarders have been welcoming asylum seekers by providing much needed food, shelter and clothing, and have even provided search and rescue services for those who have risked their lives being trafficked into Europe in rubber dinghies. Nowhere is this spirit of compassion and generosity more apparent than on Lesbos and other Geek islands, where residents have been collectively nominated for the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize for their humanitarian efforts. The selfless actions of these dedicated volunteers should remind the world that people have a responsibility and a natural inclination to serve one another in times of need – regardless of differences in race, religion and nationality. Instead of building militarised borders and ignoring popular calls for a just and humanitarian response to the refugee crisis, we should heed these people of goodwill and prioritise the needs of the world’s most vulnerable above all other concerns. This instinctively humane response to the refugee crisis – which is based firmly on the principle of sharing –holds the key to addressing the whole spectrum of interconnected social, economic and environmental challenges in the critical period ahead. 

Forced migration is a global phenomenon and, compared with other continents, Europe is not being subjected to the ‘invasion of refugees’ widely portrayed in the mainstream media. Of the world’s 60 million refugees, nine out of ten are not seeking asylum in the EU, and the vast majority remain displaced within their own countries. Most of those that do settle in Europe will return to their country of origin when they are no longer at risk (as happened at the end of the Balkan Wars of the 1990s when 70% of refugees who had fled to Germany returned to Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Albania and Slovenia). The spurious claim that there are insufficient resources available to share with those seeking asylum in the EU or that asylum seekers will ‘take our homes, our jobs and our welfare services’ is little more than a justification for racial discrimination. Aside from the overriding moral and legal obligation for states to provide emergency assistance to anyone fleeing war or persecution, the economic rationale for resettling asylum seekers throughout Europe (and globally) is sound: in countries experiencing declining birth rates and ageing populations – as is the case across the EU as a whole – migration levels need to be significantly increased in order to continue financing systems of state welfare. Evidence from OECD countries demonstrates that immigrant households contribute $2,800 more to the economy in taxes alone than they receive in public provision. In the UK, non-European immigrants contributed £5 billion ($7.15 billion) in taxes between 2000 and 2011. They are also less likely to receive state benefits than the rest of the population, more likely to start businesses, and less likely to commit serious crimes than natives. Overall, economists at the European Commission calculate that the influx of people from conflict zones will have a positive effect on employment rates and long-term public finances in the most affected countries.

If migrant families contribute significantly to society and many European countries with low birth rates actually need them in greater numbers, why are governments and a growing sector of the population so reluctant to honour international commitments and assist refugees in need? The widely held belief that public resources are too scarce to share with asylum seekers is most likely born of fear and insecurity in an age of economic austerity, when many European citizens are struggling to make ends meet.  Just as the number of people forcibly displaced from developing countries begins to surge, economic conditions in most European countries have made it politically unfeasible to provide incoming refugees with shelter and basic welfare. Voluntary and compulsory austerity measures adopted by governments after spending trillions of dollars bailing out the banks in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis have resulted in deep spending cuts to essential public services such as healthcare, education and pensions schemes. The resulting economic crisis has led to rising unemployment, social discontent, growing levels of inequality and public services that are being stretched to breaking point. Instead of pointing the finger of blame at governments for mismanaging the economy, public anger across Europe is being wrongly directed at a far easier target: refugees from foreign lands who have become society’s collective scapegoats at a time of grinding austerity.

Adapted from an article by Rajesh Makwana on the Common Dreams website 

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