Help the refugees and stop the wars fuelling the crisis
The UN says that the overwhelming majority of refugees are fleeing from intolerable conditions and devastation caused by wars in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and beyond. In all of these wars, western countries have played a central role.
Iraq and Afghanistan were destabilised by the US-led airstrikes, occupations and the installations of sectarian proxy governments.
The NATO bombing of Libya in 2011, in a direct attempt by western powers to influence the course of the Arab Revolutions, contributed directly to the civil war and social breakdown that has allowed that country to become the main conduit for refugees fleeing across the Mediterranean. These refugees have been further exploited and victimized by heartless traffickers, leading to thousands of deaths on the shores of Europe.
The current Syrian conflict, from which most of the refugees are fleeing, began as a brutal suppression of peaceful protests by Assad’s forces, but quickly became a civil war. For some time now, the situation has developed into a proxy war between the west and Russia as part of a new cold war centered on Ukraine.
The rise of Isis was fueled by post-occupation US policies in Iraq, not least by installing Shia leaders and punishing many Sunni men in prison camps like Camp Bucca in Southern Iraq. Continued ongoing western funding, arming and training of opposition groups in Syria, mainly through the conduit of Saudi Arabia, only exacerbates the horror.
And it goes on. The richest Arab countries in the Middle East - Saudi Arabia and its neighbouring petro-princedoms - with physical, moral and military assistance from Britain and the US, are currently unleashing their military might against a poor country – Yemen. This is creating a huge humanitarian disaster and feeding extremism. According to the UN, but little noted in the western mass media, there are eight million children in Yemen already in dire need of food, shelter, medical treatment and safety, while huge amounts of money are being spent on arms supplied by the US, Britain and other western nations, weapons which very likely are being used to commit war crimes against a civilian populace.
Much of the political and media commentary has focused on the undeniable plight of the refugees, the suggestions of opportunism by some, the alleged inability of Europe to cope, etc. Appalling scaremongering from politicians and media commentators has been particularly offensive in Britain and France with facts distorted through shameful, dehumanising language pitched to appease right wing zenophobic galleries, despite the fact that many people in these countries wish to assist the refugees more.
The truth is that the actual numbers of refugees entering the EU are a tiny percentage of EU populations with most of the burden being carried by middle eastern countries and Turkey. Even Iraq, struggling with a war of its own, is home to more than 200,000 people who have fled Syria.
Apart from our responsibilities under the Geneva Convention, our first duty is to assist these refugees. Our second duty, and an equally important one, is to deal with the root cause: to stop fuelling and arming the wars that force these people to try desperate and dangerous means to leave their countries in the first place.
Here are several actions that could be taken immediately to address both issues:
1. The huge wealth invested in war and the arms industry by the US and EU should be diverted to assist a formal programme of organised settlement of refugees throughout Europe. An organised effort on the scale of the Dunkirk rescue or the post WW2 Marshall Plan is needed.
People may baulk at the cost of these proposals. But they should ask themselves - why is there always money for war but not for peace? In 2008, Joseph Stiglitz estimated that the combined cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars was $3,000,000,000,000. One Cruise Missile alone costs $1,500,000. How many of these rained down on Iraq and Afghanistan? How much needed health, education, housing, and environmental protection could have been provided by these funds wasted on destruction? And how many refugees would these huge costs provide shelter for?
Western governments need to reassess their foreign policies which have brought nothing but disaster to the people of the Middle East and beyond. The terrible humanitarian catastrophe of the refugees struggling to get in to Europe, many dying in the process, is only the most visible consequence. We should open the gates to refugees immediately, while simultaneously ending the wars that cause their suffering, so that those who wish to, and many would, could return to their homelands to rebuild their broken lives in peace.