Tuesday, 9 June 2015


I am writing about a disaster before it happens. The study of disasters is, of course, not only about so-called 'natural' impacts such as volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and floods, nor is it enough to add technologically induced emergencies. There are also social and intentional crises.

The invasion of Iraq on a pretence in 2003 set off a chain of instability in the Middle East, fuelled by earlier interventions, including the partition of 1920 that created modern Iraq, British interventions in Iran in the 1930s and 1950s designed to safeguard British oil interests at all costs, and bombing of the families of Arab nationalists. Despite massive mortality in Iraq as a result of war and sanction, the same sort of intervention was employed in Libya, where, as in Iraq, there was no follow-up strategy that might have helped create a peace. So Iraq and Libya have turned into sectarian wars dominated by ideological extremism and Syria has become another proxy war between the great powers. It is therefore hardly surprising that there is a human tide of refugees from these conflicts, and from those in other parts of the Middle East and Africa.

It is plausible to argue that the disaster I mentioned above has already begun. Some 3,400 migrants died attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea in the first five and a half months of 2015. In a year, 150,000 were saved from a similar fate. Many others have struggled towards Europe across the land bridges of Greece and the Balkans. And still others are facing analogous dangers in Southeast Asia, the Pacific and Central America.

Europe has faced its migrant crisis like a rabbit in the middle of the road, mesmerised by the approaching headlights of the car that will crush it. On the one hand, everyone recognises that not to save the lives of those who will otherwise drown is a dereliction of moral duty, and in most cases international obligation. On the other hand, Europe fervently wishes that the migrants would simply go away. There is a school of thought, that has proved to be surprisingly influential, which argues that the migrants should be left to die as a warning to others who would make the crossing. How quintessentially Victorian: "If they would rather die," said Scrooge, "they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population." Malthus was actually a kinder man than his apostles, and it is that latter that Dickens was lampooning.

Everyone agrees that the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees is an instrument designed for a world that no longer exists. It has not been replaced by anything more appropriate. In Europe, the front-line states, Greece, Malta, Italy and Spain, have struggled to cope, while northern countries, with the exception of Sweden, have done their level best not to help in any way. For years, Italy has been arguing that the burden is too great for it to bear alone. So it is, but the governments of the other countries have no sympathy for Italy's predicament and have withdrawn into a defensive position.

Paradoxically, migrants are not necessarily a bad thing for our economies. They tend to be light on health services, and, given the chance to work, on social services as well. They tend to make an energetic and positive contribution to the economy, and at the same time, by being relatively young and fertile, they help counteract the fiscal effects of a low indigenous birthrate. These are the conclusions of a report commissioned by the British Government and suppressed, not once, but three times, as a cabinet minister stated (rather bare-facedly) on British news television. Migrants are, of course, unpopular because of people's fear of unfamiliar cultures, ignorance of the benefits they bring and exaggerated ideas about the proportion of migrants. All of these negative attitudes are energetically fomented by the tabloid press, and the main political parties appear to be terrified of gainsaying them by pointing out the real evidence.

The sight of refugees in detention centres and the xenophobic quality of debate on migration is quite reminiscent of the early 1940s. Not infrequently some of the detention centres are compared with concentration camps, and not necessarily in irony.

Those who argue that the European Union is an anachronism would be well advised to remember that it was set up to prevent any return to the situation that prevailed in 1940. Nevertheless, the EU has performed remarkably badly on the migration issue. The reason is not hard to find. Although many Europeans imagine that the EU dictates policy to its member countries, it does not. Policy is the result of negotiation and consensus, to be implemented by national governments, and it is here that the cowardice lies. Adequate policy would involve rapidly resettling some immigrants in Europe and sending some back to Africa and Asia (I fear), as well as energetically fighting the human trafficking system and devoting very large resources indeed to the process of clearing up the mess in the Middle East (and African states) so that peace can be restored. Our politicians and governments seem to be terrified of the idea of having a joined-up strategy, even though knowledgeable advisers have told them what needs to be done.

In June 2015, there is absolutely no sign that a solution is imminent.

Right across the political spectrum, parties in Europe have preferred to feed the xenophobia rather than try to reduce it. With the exception of the front-line states, Europe's nations have simply tried to shut their doors. Where that has not worked, they have tried to pretend migration is not happening. When moral qualms are prevalent, we are treated to the spectacle of the Royal Navy saving migrants from leaky boats and then dumping them on the shore at Catania: "here you are, Italy, they're all yours!"

The G7's Middle Eastern policy is in tatters, and the crisis is worsened by the effect of the Ukranian proxy war in preventing East-West cooperation to bring order to Syria and Iraq. There are also negative influences from other conflicts or proto-conflicts, from Afghanistan to China.

In mid-2015 we face a summer of rapidly increasing migration, which will inevitably lead to social tensions. To be balanced, it is as well to recall that in 1968 the right-wing politician Enoch Powell predicted  that the arrival in Britain of 30,000 Ugandan Asian migrants ousted by Idi Amin would result in 'rivers of blood', whereas it actually resulted in prosperity and integration. However, there is every chance that a different kind of racial war will take place: one designed to keep the migrants out by force. One reason why this is such a danger is the utter lack of a strategy for coping with the influx.

Since the start of the recession in 2008, Europe, and very especially Britain, has become a substantially less egalitarian place. There has been a massive transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich. Billionaires in the United Kingdom have doubled their wealth: the poverty rate has doubled as well. Given the disenchantment that this situation brings, no politician has the courage to propose a strategy for tackling the migrant issue, because it would inevitably be thoroughly unpopular, and bluntly opposed by the opinion-forming mass media. Hence we are faced with a resolute failure to act on a disaster in the making.