The World’s Your Detention Center: As humanity wrings its hands, the free market embraces the Global Migration Crisis

05/15/2017 10:26 am ET

Like many, I follow news about the Global Migration Crisis with trepidation. Every day brings harrowing accounts of survival and inhumane treatment. Reports convey drownings from failed water crossings, attacks along migration routes, torture and abuse in private detention centers, systematic rape and sexual exploitation, thriving human trafficking networks, and government policies ranging from cruel indifference to neo-fascist hostility. Calling it a Migration Crisis is inadequate in that it says nothing of its nature and causes. It is right to call it a test of humanity,[1] one that we are failing.

We need to pay close and constant attention. Human displacement is at its highest levels on record. According to official figures (2015),[2] an unprecedented 65.3 million people around the world have been forced from home. Among them are nearly 21.3 million refugees, over half are under the age of 18. There are also 10 million stateless people who are denied a nationality and access to basic rights such as education, healthcare, employment, and freedom of movement. Nearly 34,000 people are forcibly displaced every day as a result of conflict or persecution.

Scars of war. Eritrea 2001
John Pringle
Scars of war. Eritrea 2001

A confluence of crises is unfolding with multiple geographical centers, with maelstroms of war, oppression, poverty, climate change, and utter despair. The Global Migration Crisis is not confined to the shores of Fortress Europe. It extends from the Americas where women in flight are taking contraceptives given the likelihood of rape,[3] to South-East Asia where Rohingya refugees are fleeing state-sponsored violence that is “genocidal in intent”.[4]

For the naïve onlooker, the Global Migration Crisis may come as a shock. Following the hard lessons of World War II, international diplomacy and the United Nations were supposed to prevent this sort of thing. According to its Charter, the UN’s purpose is to “to maintain international peace and security”.[5] The mandate of its Refugee Agency (UNHCR) is “protecting and assisting refugees around the world”,[6] while the International Organization for Migration (IOM) is “dedicated to promoting humane and orderly migration for the benefit of all”.[7] These are cold comfort to desperate families and individuals traversing deserts and oceans, finding themselves penned in by razor wire, racist immigration policies, and abuse at the hands of border agents.

The hard lessons of World War II also gave rise to the Geneva Conventions and international humanitarian law.[8] Through these, we formulated collective norms and values. We agreed on the primacy of human dignity and the need to uphold human rights. These were not the reserve of ‘good times’, but most salient in times of crisis. We agreed that human beings cannot be illegal for simply existing. All are entitled to protection unconditionally.

Given the current scale of war and repression throughout the world, notably in countries such as Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Eritrea, compounded by extreme drought and food insecurity in Somalia and the Greater Horn of Africa, it is easy to comprehend why so many are in flight. Harder to comprehend is the hostility, derision, and contempt shown by restrictive immigration policies in the Global North. Here, privilege and affluence are antithetical to generosity and compassion. It seems that decades of neoliberal economic policies have entrenched themselves in the collective subconscious, creating obedient consumers stripped of concern for the ‘other’. This moral austerity comes from a compliant electorate readily distracted from the root causes of crises, looking past petro-capitalist wars, the climate crisis, and record-levels of inequality, and towards the next exciting consumer electronic.[9]

According to neoliberal logic, asylum-seeking equates with personal failure while immigration presents an existential threat. There is no shortage of bigots-cum-politicians using the opportunity to stoke fear and hatred in attempts at power and legitimacy. History proves the formula successful. Demonize the most vulnerable members of society under the pretext of national security. Peddle in lies and gas-lighting. Genuflect to xenophobia by invoking the War on Terror. Appeal to patriotism and invent palatable euphemisms for white supremacy. Say nothing of racist attacks against immigrants and visible minorities, particularly those perpetrated with impunity by police and border security.[10],[11],[12],[13]

There is another side, a formidable resistance embodied in movements such as “No one is illegal”, “Refugees Welcome”, and the many civil society organizations and agitations that are protecting, housing, and advocating for people in flight. This includes humanitarian organizations such as Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), which took the unprecedented step of providing search, rescue, and medical aid operations on the Mediterranean Sea (get live updates with @MSF_Sea). For the world’s surplus populations under global capitalism, humanitarian organizations are once again the hope of last resort.

With news headlines pronouncing “Refugee women and children 'beaten, raped and starved in Libyan hellholes',[14] our sympathy must turn to constructive anger. We need to expose and put an end to disaster capitalists peddling in human misery. In addition to the soapbox racists with their political windfalls, there are centers of power across the globe with profiteers of all stripes: smugglers and extortionists, traffickers of forced labor and sex, thugs running detention centers, and right-wing militias propped up as border and security agents. While politicians in the Global North are wringing their hands, the free market knows exactly how to respond. In an economy that profits from human rights abuses, indifference is permission. Complacency is a business plan.

We know what needs to be done.[15] Rescue people in immediate distress. Provide much needed medical care and mental health support. Open up safe routes to sanctuary. Allow people to cross borders with or without travel documents. Resettle people who require it. Prosecute hate crimes. Protect and uphold the Geneva Conventions and international humanitarian law. Erode the political economy of migrant exploitation, and oppose social and economic policies that perpetuate precariousness, war and forced displacement. Anything less is silent assent, empowering a pathological free market to commodify its own victims.

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[7] http://www.iom.hu/about-iom. Accessed 10 May 2017.

[9]Oxfam determined that the world's eight richest people own the same amount of wealth as half the human population. https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2017/jan/16/worlds-eight-richest-people-have-same-wealth-as-poorest-50. Accessed 10 May 2017.

[12] The article reports that The U.S. Justice Department did not hold the border agents accountable for his death.

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