Call them what you will – economic migrants, refugees, asylum seekers, or whatever other name you choose, you won’t change their circumstances or stem their flow. Hate them, rail against them, close your borders or send your police to push them back, you won’t wipe away their existence.
They will keep coming as long as the conditions that create them have not changed.
This is the simple fact that the West is discovering, but which it is not ready to face.
In the United States, politicians, especially from the conservative wing of American politics, do not want to see or hear about them. They are better off staying in their countries south of the border. Never mind that nearly every American is a descendant of a migrant.
Going by Prime Minister David Cameron’s comments on the matter, the British, who, over the centuries, have cultivated an image of a compassionate people, have recently been shown up as not being very charitable.
The rest of Europe, except perhaps Angela Merkel’s Germany, does not know how to deal with wave after wave of refugees. Most want to keep them away from their territory.
The plight of the refugees or migrants is dreadful and the world can’t escape from it. The media has made sure of that. At the moment attention is on Arabs and Afghans crossing to Europe on foot, breaking walls and other barriers, fighting police, getting tripped by racist journalists, sleeping in the open for days on end, and other hardships, but pushing on still.
These are harrowing pictures and, for anyone who has ever experienced refugee life, bring back horrible memories of suffering, deprivation, discrimination and, quite often, being treated as less than human.
Barely one month ago, the picture of migrants to Europe was different. Focus then was on boat people, mainly from Africa, crossing the Mediterranean. The picture was of hundreds of people crammed into unseaworthy boats, dying of starvation, dehydration and stress, and drowning in the hundreds.
A few lucky ones were rescued, weak but alive and determined to go on to Europe. Like their counterparts taking the overland route, they kept coming despite the drowning and other calamities.
The boat people of the Mediterranean have now been forgotten – they have certainly disappeared from TV screens. Of course, they have not stopped making the dangerous attempt to cross the sea to Europe.
They are still drowning and dying. But not a word. Not a picture. Probably not a tear. The attention has shifted to the overland migrants, perhaps because their ordeal, although harrowing, is easier to deal with than death on the sea. Or maybe their sheer numbers make for better footage.
It is not the first time that the media has helped shift attention from one evil deed to a lesser one. It happened in Rwanda in 1994.
International media coverage of the Genocide against the Tutsi was abandoned the moment the next big story broke out. Gravely wounded people and corpses of the victims of the genocide were left lying in the streets and on the hills for dogs and vultures to devour.
The big happening then was the throngs of fleeing Rwandans herded into exile by the genocidaires. Reporters and their camera’s followed them and recorded their every move. Apparently this mass exodus tagged at the charitable hearts of relief agencies and they rushed to help the new “victims”.
The mutilated bodies and the wounded still fighting for life did not exert the same moral and emotional anguish. They were simply an old story, and in any case, too emotionally involving.
It didn’t help matters that Nelson Mandela was released from prison around the same time. All the attention shifted to the liberation hero. You see, the world loves heroes almost in the same way it adores villains.
Rwanda was forgotten. Twenty one years later, a similar thing is happening in Europe. How time changes, but much remains the same.
There is now a big quarrel about how to accommodate the refugees or migrants (incidentally the choice of name is supposed to dull the moral and emotional connotations). The excuse given by various governments is that their economies cannot handle the influx, or that if they have to take in any, they have to be Christians only.
Yet the countries with the least means – Lebanon and Jordan – have taken in millions of refugees. Ordinary European citizens have shown more generosity to the refugees than their governments. In this part of Africa, Rwanda has always kept its doors open to refugees from neighbouring countries, some of them infinitely richer. Clearly, it is not a question of means but a willingness to help, to do right.
All talk about the migrant crisis avoids one thing: the source of the problem and who and how to end it. Everyone knows that the refugees or migrants are a result of massive dislocation by wars, mostly initiated by the West. Refusing to face up to the problem is merely avoidance of responsibility.