The Global Crisis of Refugees

by Graham E. Fuller

The latest heart-wrenching images of desperate refugees fleeing across the Mediterranean for life and livelihood have finally sparked broader EU awareness of a shared problem. But it’s not just about the EU; it’s a global problem, sharing familiar and common symptoms.

The urgency of the immediate humanitarian crisis must not overshadow the deeper roots of this issue—which pose truly uncomfortable questions for our future. This fundamentally represents a “security problem” for everyone—refugees and host recipients. It’s become an assault of desperate peoples against the long-range security of the industrialized West and other functioning states.

Deploying better coast guard patrols across the Mediterranean represents only a momentary band-aid on a hemorrhage. It’s absurd to think that better walls and fences along the Rio Grande represent a “solution.” Only a rethink of the very meaning of security offers a hope of turning things around, and that’s going to cost a great deal of money. And demand reprioritization of our security spending.

I’m hardly an expert on immigration. But like many of us, I witness its consequences unfolding daily in numerous international issues of war, peace, disease, starvation, environmental deterioration, coups and radicalism. The raw reality is that life in the developing world seems to be growing more desperate while the industrialized world comes to represent the sought-after haven.

In an absolute sense of course, life in most of the developing world can be seen as better than a century ago—at least in terms of overall health, available food, international aid, and many benefits of technology that change daily lives and occupations. But deprivation has always been a relative term. Genuine improvements are invariably accompanied by rising expectations. Those in misery now see how others live. Those expectations have whetted a desire—a determination—to flee current desperate circumstances at whatever cost. The ambitious demand at least a small sliver of the rich western pie.

Thousands of books have been written about causes of underdevelopment. We know that western imperialism and colonialism left mixed economic, political and social blessings. Better agriculture and more food have cut the Malthusian knot yet have also stimulated massive population growth that sparks rising social conflict over resources. Political agitation creates radicalized ideologies that promise sweeping solutions –often through discrimination and violence. We also now know that most famine is politically induced—the failure of distribution systems—even more than by the quirks of weather. And now Global Climate Change further exacerbates many of these negative trends.

Global problems require global solutions. Unfortunately “global” solutions are often perceived as pie-in-the-sky, idealistic, unrealistic or utopian. Yet radical prescriptions in fact may now represent the only realistic response to radical problems. The patent failure of the Global War on Terror and the War on Drugs represent just two egregious cases of failed , truly utopian band-aids.

The problem must be dealt with at its source: poverty, despair, and the envy, hatreds and radicalism that spring from it. We cannot live forever in the gated communities of the West while Mad Max or Blade Runner rules operate outside the gates.

The distribution of the world’s resources are gross inequitable. We all know that. “I’ve got mine” may be a knee-jerk reaction by local elites, but the whispers of apocalypse can still be heard beyond the wall.

The problem of distribution of resources begins right here at home in the US where we see one of the highest gaps between rich and poor in the industrialized world. Studies clearly show the resultant fall-out in terms of crime, incarceration, child-mortality, health, education, and well-being. Competent governance more or less recognizes the serious, long-range political and social penalties that come with ignoring gross inequities. We attend to them not primarily out of altruism, but on quite pragmatic grounds—in order to preserve what we do have, lest it be seized from us in social revolution.

This same kind of pragmatism must now shape our global approach.

In spending trillions on pursuing a feckless and losing Global War on Terror (with de facto overtones of a war against Islam), are we making the world safer for all of us? Have our walls and wars settled international crises? Or exacerbated them, intensifying radicalism and the very causes of refugee flight?

We cannot of course simply attribute all these problems to the West. Clearly there are also local roots of corruption and misgovernance that generate conflict, desperation and refugees. But the international financial order has focused more on establishing financial orthodoxy than on meeting human needs.

How about employing those trillions used to support bloated military and security agencies and their contractor hangers-on to try to start to turn around economic, social, educational, health and infrastructural conditions in the developing world? To keep people at home. To treat what are becoming the true security issues.

Many may say it is a fool’s errand—such funds will be wasted through local corruption and incompetence. Yet don’t we read daily about the staggering corruption and waste attendant to the Pentagon or AID programs in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere? If we end up with real schools built through corrupt practices, are we not at least far ahead of the game than through corruption in alliance with destruction? Billions that stir more rage in the developing world? And generate refugee flows?

What if we seriously thought of throwing truly serious money—a trillion or so—at such problems? Would not jobs be created around the world and local industries flourish if such monies were similarly “squandered” on creative aid programs? Money for schools, hospitals, clinics, water, roads, scholarships? Living wages afforded? In the long run it might just be cheaper than waging war–with less collateral social damage.

So what would happen if the US, say, devoted half of its military budget to these kinds of agricultural, health, educational, and infrastructural needs in deprived areas? Would China or Russian suddenly attack or outflank such a “weakened” America the next day? Would American know-how and creative genius suddenly come to an end? Cease to be in demand? It seems unlikely our real influence would decline—in a world where America’s international image, respect and yes, clout is in fact already dragging in the mud.

Are we so insecure to believe that America’s security and influence lies ultimately in weaponry? I, for one, don’t believe it.

This article was first published by Graham E. Fuller and was reprinted here with permission. Copyright Graham E. Fuller.

Guest Contributor

Articles by guest writers.