Misreading the Refugee Crisis

By Ramzy Baroud

So far this year, “nearly one quarter of a million migrants have crossed the Mediterranean to Europe”, reported Al Jazeera’s Inside Story, citing the International Organisation for Migration. The situation is indeed bleak, not only because the number of refugees is constantly on the rise, but also because Europe appears rather disinterested in addressing the root causes of the problem.

The guests who appeared on Inside Story were all quite articulate and well-informed. Yet, not one of the three made even a fleeting mention of the fact that Europe should feel a slight moral accountability towards these refugees for it, either directly or indirectly, instigated or contributed to conflicts in the Middle East. In fact, a sensible question by the host on whether European countries’ lack of sympathy towards the refugees may have been caused by deep-seated racism was rejected as being untrue by one of the guests.

But why the insistence on disconnecting the discussion of the refugee crisis from its proper narrative — that war begets war refugees and Europe, as with other warring parties, should be called to account for the involvement — to some other marginal discourse?

Another take on the crisis was offered in a recent article in the Guardian by Ellie Mae O’Hagan (republished in Gulf News on August 21) who latched onto the old argument that the Syrian conflict is rooted in climate change. The article was summarised as such: “What’s the common factor between the tragic deaths of refugees in the Mediterranean and the Arab spring? Food shortages driven by global warming.”

Again, not a single word about the western world’s contributions to the wars in the Middle East. Although blaming global warming for the ‘tragic deaths of refugees’ might rightly address an interesting aspect behind the social upheaval that preceded the war in Syria, one remains baffled by the fact that such intellectuals are oblivious to the commonalities between the fact that the thousands of refugees who wash up onto the Greek shores come from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

What do these countries have in common, aside from war, one may ask? They all have US-European hands in their conflicts, a reality that remains largely ignored. Also ignored is the fact that most refugees who brave the perilous seas into Italian shores come from Libya. Italy’s connection to the crisis is particularly interesting and poignantly telling.

On April 26, 2011, a meeting that can only be described as sinister took place between the then Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, and the then French president, Nicolas Sarkozy. The most pressing issue discussed at the meeting in Rome was how to deal with North African immigrants. Sarkozy, who was under pressure from his right-wing and far-right constituencies to halt immigration originating from North Africa (resulting from the Tunisian uprising), hoped to strike a deal with the opportunistic Italian leader. Italy was accused of allowing immigrants to cross through its borders to the rest of Europe. Thus, in exchange for an Italian agreement to join a French initiative aimed at tightening border control, France would resolve major disputes through a series of takeovers, involving French and Italian companies. Moreover, Italy would then secure French support for a bid by Italian economist and banker, Mario Draghi, as the head of the European Central Bank.

Another point on the French agenda was active Italian participation in the war on Libya, initially spearheaded by France, Britain and the United States, and later championed by Nato.

Initially, Berlusconi hesitated to participate in the war, although hardly for any moral reasons, considering that the war was deliberately based on misconstrued interpretations of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973 of March 17, 2011. To place this comment in context, the resolution called for an ‘immediate ceasefire’, the establishment of a ‘no-fly zone’ and using all means, except foreign occupation, to protect civilians. The war, however, achieved entirely different objectives from the ones stated in the resolution — a regime change, the bloody capture and murder of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, and a bloodbath in which thousands of civilians were killed, and continue to die due to the chaos and civil war that has gripped Libya since then.

Berlusconi’s change of heart had little to do with common sense or moral integrity, and much to do with oil and gas. He was walking a tight rope. On one hand, about a quarter of Italy’s oil and nearly 10 per cent of the country’s natural gas, was imported from Libya. Destabilising Libya could interrupt the flow of Libyan energy supplies at a crucial time — Italy was desperately attempting to recover from its deep economic recession.

One would recall that following the Libyan war, France marched to Mali. Thus, it appeared to be inclined towards intervention and holding all the cards in Libya could be devastating for Italy.

“The Franco-Italian spat over immigration follows sharp differences over Libya, where Rome has been dragged into a war it would rather avoid, fearing a Paris-Benghazi nexus will freeze out its substantial interests in Libyan oil and gas,” the Financial Times reported at the time.

The successful meeting between the two leaders paved the way for Italian intervention, which occurred in earnest in the Libyan war, on April 28. In the meanwhile, France honoured its part of the bargain, and on November 1 of that same year, Draghi succeeded Jean-Claude Trichet as the president of the European Central Bank. Both countries benefited, despite Libya being destroyed.

Now, few in the Italian government would care to remember their country’s role in the war on Libya which, despite initial hesitation, was embraced with utmost enthusiasm. The refugees who are lucky enough to make it to Italy’s shores are constantly and particularly demonised by the Italian media and perceived as a burden on the still-struggling Italian economy.

Even Greece (which displays little patience or regard for humanitarian laws in its treatment of the many thousands of refugees arriving from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, via Turkey) fulfilled a minor part in the war in Libya (2011) and provided assistance to the US-led war on Iraq (2003).

The relationship between war and the rising challenge of refugees, immigrants and asylum seekers cannot be overstated. It is both ironic and particularly tragic that the many thousands of war refugees are seeking shelter in the same European and Nato countries that either directly (as in Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan) or indirectly (as in Syria) contributed to the destruction and destabilisation of their countries.

However, the countries that should be confronted most about their moral responsibility towards war refugees are those who ignited these wars in the first place. While Libya continues to descend into chaos, and Syria and Iraq subsist in a state of bedlam, both France and Britain discuss the problem of refugees attempting to cross into both countries as though the refugees are swarms of locusts, not innocent people who were victimised mostly by US-European wars. Meanwhile, the US, geographically removed from the refugee crisis, appears completely unperturbed by the chaotic scenes of desperate refugees, capsizing boats and pleading families. Those who wage war should, at least, shoulder part of the moral responsibility of addressing the horrible and devastating consequences that armed conflict inflicts upon innocent people. The Italian example is a display of how economic interests trump morality and not a single Nato country is innocent.

Now that the refugee crisis is worsening, it behoves Nato to deal with this problem at least with a degree of humanity and dare one say with an enthusiasm comparable to that which led them to several devastating wars in recent years.

– Dr. Ramzy Baroud has been writing about the Middle East for over 20 years. He is an internationally-syndicated columnist, a media consultant, an author of several books and the founder of palestinechronicle.com. His latest book is My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story (Pluto Press, London). His website is: www.ramzybaroud.net.


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