Europe’s tribalism underlies refugee problem

Friday 04/09/2015

There is a clear pattern emerging: Every week, even every few days, another tragedy occurs involving refugees fleeing war-torn Middle Eastern and North African nations for Europe in search of life. Not a “good life”, necessarily, just life itself. Survival.
Following each tragedy, Euro­peans wring their hands, convene high-level EU meetings and vow this time to resolve the ongo­ing crisis. They then do nothing, another tragedy occurs and the macabre pattern repeats itself. It would be comic if it weren’t tragic.
One wonders what level of tragedy it will take, what horrific images television viewers will need to see, before the pattern is broken. The UN High Commis­sioner for Refugees has confirmed that more than 300,000 refugees have attempted to reach Europe in 2015 and that 2,500 of them have either died or gone missing in the process.
But neither these shocking numbers — nor the grotesque images of rotting corpses being removed from a truck in Austria — have been sufficient to generate determined action by the Euro­pean Union.
Prior to the global economic collapse in 2009, Europe was chugging along and economists talked of the euro one day chal­lenging the dollar for supremacy. What a difference six years makes: The European Union nearly tore itself apart debating how (and whether) to save one of its mem­bers, Greece. A bitter divide grew between northern Europeans, who regarded their southern fellow un­ionists as lazy Mediterraneans and southerners, who regarded the northern portions of their union — and especially the part where German is spoken — as arrogant and domineering. And one of the European Union’s pillar nations, the United Kingdom, is contem­plating a divorce.
Is there any surprise that the so-called union cannot figure out a unified policy and quota system for sheltering asylum-seekers?
One of the many ironies in this situation is that most European countries — including mighty Germany — are fast on the road to becoming glorified retirement communities with shrinking populations. One would think that these nations would be eager to welcome refugees, most of whom are far younger than the average European and many of whom — especially those fleeing Syria — are blessed with education and substantial job skills.
The underlying and unspoken problem, of course, is tribal: It seems as if most European na­tions would rather endure gradual decline as long as they remain tribally “pure”.
This is far from being just a European syndrome. In the United States, a country built by refu­gees and immigrants, the leading Republican candidate for presi­dent — billionaire casino-magnate and television personality Donald Trump — is running on essentially one issue: The pledge to build a barrier as thick and tall as the Berlin Wall along the US-Mexican border and to “round up” the 11 million immigrants who entered the United States over the past decades without legal authority.
And Israel, a nation whose leader travelled to France in 2014 to encourage French Jews to move to Israel, is wrestling with how best to rid itself of the thousands of non-Jewish African refugees who have sought shelter there from wars in Sudan and Uganda.
The fact is, whether we are talking about Syrians and Libyans trying to enter Europe or Central Americans trying to enter the Unit­ed States, most refugees would prefer to remain in their homes, their communities, their cultures.
People seeking refuge are not doing so in order to “invade” or “conquer” other countries; they are doing so because the option of staying at home has become unbearable. They are doing so because they love their families and want their children to have a future. The fact that they are willing to undertake such high-risk journeys is indicative of the hor­rors they face at home.
But while Europeans are run­ning in circles, and Americans talk of building walls, the root causes of the refugee crisis remain curiously unaddressed. After the Soviet Union bid adieu in 1991, the West proceeded to channel tens of billions of dollars into Central and Eastern Europe in the form of direct aid, investment, educational exchanges and security support. Many of those former commu­nist nations now enjoy the same standard of living as elsewhere in Europe and the western part of Europe no longer expresses fears of being inundated with “Polish plumbers” and other migrants. It helped immensely that the people in Soviet-controlled Europe were white and, at least culturally, Christian.
It’s not all economics, of course. The former Soviet satellites never descended into the kind of civil war and terrorism that inflicts much of the Middle East and North Africa. Who in their right mind would invest in Syria or Yemen today? The priority must be to bring an end to the violence and establish some type of stable political order. But where that has been done — Tunisia is the shining example, despite the Bardo and Sousse attacks — the economic support and investment have been slow to follow.
In the meantime, refugees will keep coming and will keep dying. And the world, most likely, will keep wringing its collective hands.