13 Sep 2015

Special: On Refugees

Hail readers! As a departure from my usual musings on poetry and other literary endeavours, I have today a special post on the refugee crisis. Being, indeed, special, this post—and all future works like it—will be prefaced ‘Special’ (funnily enough). Such technicalities aside, let’s get down to the difficult questions: what is the refugee crisis, why is there a refugee crisis, and what can and should we do about it?

The What

The refugee crisis is a term coined for the current situation in Syria (primarily) and the resultant impact on Europe.

To elaborate: Syria, at present, is suffering from a severe civil war. The incumbent Head of State, Bashar al Assad, is a hereditary dictator masquerading lackadaisically as an elected president; his regime is an authoritarian one, having pursued military action on largely peaceful ‘Arab Spring’ protesters. On top of this, he has instigated the murder—and tortue—of 11,000 people in detention centres reminiscent of Auschwitz.

The UN has even implicated Assad personally in war-crimes 1, and he is currently due for prosecution by the International Criminal Court 2.

In essence, the first cause of the Syrian civil war—and the resultant refugee influx—lies with Assad.

It is worth noting that the Assads have been ruling Syria since 1971, following a coup d’├ętat. Though this history is not directly relevant to the situation at present, it is worth knowing. Syria was actually established as a French colony—bearing no national identity to its citizens—in the 1920s, with the consent of Britain. 3 Initially a feudal state, it was later replaced by a class-ridden rentier society, whereby two percent of the population received 50% of the income.

In 1946, Syria became an independent state. However, things had not changed; indeed, they worsened in 1948 following a war with Israel. Thereafter, military dictatorship became the norm.

Eventually this was forcibly replaced by a military committee of discontented peasants, nationalists (Syria was created arbitrarily without national identity) and a movement comprising radical socalists and pan-Islamists called Ba’athism.

As you can see, Syria’s history is long, complex, and—to put it bluntly—disastrous. We can point the finger at Britain and France, of course, but that was decades ago. The fault of the conflict now lies clearly with Assad.

‘Alex! But what about the refugees?’ you ask. And this is where the situation worsens once more. Aside from a bloody civil war between (understandably) angry rebels and a ruthless dictator—a conflict which has already involved several uses of chemical weapons, with death tolls in the thousands 4—there is one more fire in the pan: Isis.

This particular entity needs little introduction. Composed of murderous, raping, Islamic fundamentalists, it has made quite a name (or is it names?) for itself, what with beheading journalists and enslaving Yazidi girls into sex slavery. This particular unsavoury group has activities in both Iraq and Syria.

The situation is complicated by the fact that Isis is being opposed not only by the Iraqi army, and by Kurds, but also by Assad himself. Of course, Assad isn’t doing it for humanitarian reasons (ha!)—no: Isis is a major threat to his power (being determined to create its own caliphate) and is therefore being resisted.

Anyway: let’s leave such deliberations aside and get back to the problem of the refugees.

Refugees, Refugees...

The Syrians are fleeing their country for obvious reasons. On the one hand, Assad is busily torturing and killing dissidents; on the other, there’s a dangerous civil war going on. And to top it all off, Isis is also in the fray, busily pillaging and killing away.

It should be mentioned that the Syrians aren’t the only ones fleeing. In addition to their 9 million 5—a million of which are in the tiny country of Lebanon, with many more in Turkey and other neighbouring countries—there are also Libyans fleeing a failed state, various victims of Egypt’s wonderful rulers, and several disaster zones in the Congo, in Somalia, and in much of Africa.

Whatever to Do?

Several solutions and workarounds have been proposed. Firstly among these is accepting more refugees; a noble quest, but there are questions to be addressed.

Britain—nor any other country—cannot and should not support a large group of dependent, non-working people. It would be a substantial drain on our already damaged and inequality-ridden economy. And besides: none of us were in power when colonialism was about; we share no culpability for this.

However, this is not to say that we shouldn’t let the refugees in. No. My suggestion is a simple one: let the refugees work. Abandon arbitrary and tedious conditions on asylum; and let them be productive members of society. Because, whichever way you look at it, the situation in Syria is not going to get better anytime soon. Might as well enjoy the popcorn.

There are other concerns with these refugees. Some have expressed worries that they will be like some of our Muslim citizens—i.e. dangerous, fundamentalist, and batshit crazy. We can already see those ‘British’ Muslims getting plane tickets to join Isis.

But there’s a problem with this argument: the vast majority of these people were persecuted by Isis, and have every reason not to engage in that type of behaviour. And if they did fancy joining Isis, chances are they would have done so already. Also, to be blunt, if they are that way inclined—deport them! Let them sow the fruits of their harvest.

But let’s not get carried away by these fears. The vast majority of these refugees are impoverished, traumatised, and desperate. They are people just like you and me—people with dreams, with hopes, with ambitions. People who lost their children in a gas attack; people who faced being shot, bombed and beheaded as part of their daily lives. Do we really want to abandon them to the mercy of Assad?

But What About Assad and Cronies?

There is an important argument to be had here. We can take on 20,000 refugees, or a hundred thousand, or—like Germany—we can take on 1% of our population: 600,000.

And with a convincing pan-European plan, we might get a few million refugees safe.

But there are millions more living in a destitute Lebanon; millions more still waiting to escape Syria. This cannot be a permanent solution. Europe cannot be the lifeboat for the Middle East; we have neither the capabilities nor the culpability to merit such action.

So: what do we do about Syria?

Taking on Isis would be a start. Being a non-state entity, it isn’t subject to the pesky technicalities of international law in quite the same way as a state is. But defeating it is easier said than done: like all guerilla forces, it is tenacious, capable of hiding itself, and thus not defeatable by a bombing campaign or a simple Blitzkrieg operation. It is like a virus.

Isis itself isn’t that powerful—its oil revenues are modest, it has no aircraft or tanks, and its soldiers don’t possess the level of training or armament that a developed nation can bring to bear—but it exists in a region filled with weak governments, civil war, and nations barely capable of providing for their citizenry (let alone creating the Wermacht).

But this leads to a possible solution. Can we not help the Iraqi government, the Kurds, and the Turks to take them down? Can we not arm them, train them, and equip them?

The danger is that we may create a situation similar to the Mujahideen. Formerly armed in a similar fashion by the CIA, these Jihadists were initially employed to beat back the Soviets from Afghanistan many years ago. Unfortunately, they went on to create the Taliban, Al-Qaida, and now Isis. Reluctance to engage in anything similar is understandable.

But the Kurds are not the Mujahideen. They have been ruthless at times, as anyone in their position may well need to be; but they fight ultimately to defend themselves, their husbands and wives, and their children from Isis barbarity. They are not ideologues and warlords.

Although I do not profess to be an expert, it seems to me that the situation is not analogous to that of Afghanistan. It is a proposition worth considering.

Aside from that, there are other possibilities. Britain may continue to employ airstrikes and drone attacks—which have some limited effect—but as Tom Watson, the deputy Labour leader, has said: no airborne campaign will succeed in beating Isis without ground support.

Which leads us to another possibility. Can we, and should we, bring in the army? I am not opposed to this on a moral and practical basis. There is no danger of creating another Mujahideen; and it would be substantially more effective than dropping bombs.

Still, it is fraught with problems. A force like Isis will not be defeated in an a year; for it can hide, and it can recruit. As long as there are angry, bloodthirsty fundamentalists and murderers about—well, you may need to keep those troops in there for a while. Maybe for a decade, or so. It will cost money, and lives.

Morally, I am not opposed to a couple thousand soldiers giving up their lives—and a few billion to be spent—if it can save millions from suffering. But I know that my view will be unpopular among many; and there are other, less expensive possibilities to consider.

Jeremy Corbyn, newly elected leader of the Labour party, has proposed cutting off Isis by controlling the Turkish border. While the intent is effective—cutting off Isis supply lines and oil revenues will certainly weaken them—controlling the Turkish border is easier said than done: Turkey’s border spans more than a thousand kilometres between Syria and Iraq, along with Iran. Even if the Turks somehow manage to patrol and control such a border (an improbable feat indeed) it is well known that Iran tacitly supports anything that will weaken its neighbours.

The final problem alluded to previously is one of ideology. There is little doubt that Isis promises of heaven, and virgins, and killing the infidels (and all the rest) finds itself home among a region dominated by fundamentalist Islam. Devotees certainly do find solace in the various scriptures of Islam—that support Jihad and violent action—as well as the precedents set out by Muhammad and centuries of warlords thereafter.

Saying this will no doubt solicit some ire, but is is ultimately true. Richard Dawkins is right to point out that religion is a major part of what is going wrong in the Middle East—as indeed has gone wrong for the last millennia. The statistics are frightening to bear. The entire Islamic world has translated fewer English texts in a thousand years than Spain has in one. 6 Illiterary is rife, particularly among women; and it has been so for thousands of years. Imams and scripture regularly call for and defend the subjugation of women.

There is little point in continuing. All of the Abrahamic religions have long and bloody histories, with long and bloody Bibles. The fact that Isis devotees genuinely believe that killing thousands of innocent people in a suicide attack will send them to heaven is, really, a testament to how violent religion really is.

What Are We to Get from This, Alex?

Dealing with Isis is a complicated matter. Sending in the army would be a good step, but the cost may be too high to bear—and without a broader plan, it is ultimately futile. Isis must be fought along several frontiers: the Kurds must be aided in their fight against them, but cautiously; airstrikes should be continued, but faith must not be placed on them; and borders need to be controlled as best as feasible.

But more than anything, in the long term, the Middle East needs education. Its citizenry must learn of science, of the Enlightenment, of liberal democracy and tolerance. We should support attempts to replace violent dictators—because ultimately, there will never be progress so long as they remain in power.

That’s right: realpolitik has failed. It has failed time and time again. By all means, be careful to avoid creating power vacuums and anarchy; and if you’re not willing to invade and control a country in order to depose a dictator, don’t do it. But don’t be afraid to support forces that desire prosperity and freedom from doing so either.

Wrapping Up

I have discussed at length on this matter. The situation is undoubtedly complicated, and poses many difficulties for Britain and the EU. But there are solutions, both short-term and long term.

In the short term, we need to work with the European Union to adopt a Europe-wide asylum policy. We need to accept our fair share of refugees; and I do mean our fair share—the same as Germany and France. We need to do this not because Europe wants us to, but because it is within the scope of our shared humanity.

It sounds corny, I know, but it’s true. If you’ve a heart, for the love of all that is good—give these people safety. If you lived with the daily threat of gas attack, bombing and beheading; would you be any different?

On a more practical level, the refugees need to work. And the root causes need to be addressed.

Europe cannot be the lifeboat for the Middle East. Instead, the Middle East needs to become a prosperous place: it must became safe, so that millions need not flee for their lives; it must grow economically, for destitution has no place in the 21st century. If you don’t support their wellbeing for their sakes, at least support it for ours; for millions will enter Europe, no matter how many barbed wire fences your erect—nor indeed for how many will drown in the Mediterranean.

Doing so will require destroying the forces of evil, be it Isis or Assad. It will require education, and emancipation for women; for minorities; and from the toxic clutch of religion.

Some may call me fanciful. They will continue with their realpolitik, with their dodgy deals and dictators. And on one level, deals will need to be made—not with the evil, but often with the unsavoury. Politics is a dirty business.

But politics can also bring hope, and vision, into life. And that’s something we’re going to need.

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