The Refugee Crisis in Context

A report issued by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) last week provided a jarring statistical glimpse at the unprecedented crisis facing 59.5 million people who are currently displaced.[1] With ongoing wars and sectarian conflicts raging in Syria, Iraq, Ukraine, South Sudan and Somalia, and record numbers moving in search of economic betterment, an additional 8.1 million people were uprooted in 2014. If all of the world’s refugees were to form one independent country, it would be the 24th largest, just behind Italy and ahead of South Africa. This country would contain .8% of the global population, which means that if it were instead composed of the world’s richest people, it would possess nearly half of the planet’s wealth.[2]

What’s more, these two hypothetical countries would represent opposite sides of the same coin. It is no accident that the concentration of global wealth is accelerating alongside the numbers of the dispossessed. It is the very predictable result of a US-led system of economic and military hegemony that values the mobility of labor and capital, but not of people, and that reflexively destabilizes any regime it views as being inadequately obsequious. Meanwhile, the market fundamentalism it espouses effectively turns farms into agribusinesses and cities into slums. It displaces as a matter of course. This is the part that the UNHCR report missed: the refugee is neoliberalism’s refuse.

Unmanaged capitalism produces unmanageable waste, human included. The reserve army of labor has long been filled, and so the remaining population is superfluous. Meanwhile, the scope of neoliberalism is practically global. There is no longer a hinterland, nor much space for an alternative such as subsistence agriculture. Precarious, low-wage labor is the international norm, even increasingly so in the industrial north, where social-democratic protections are under steady assault. Nonetheless, conditions remain superior enough in these countries to attract millions of migrants each year, though the centrifugal force that propels people out of their home countries continues to operate in their adopted lands, driving them to the margins. Quite often they will find themselves veritably stateless: lacking any foundation to return to, and having no visible path forward. They become trapped in a state of “liminal drift,” as Michel Agier calls it. They are permanently transitory, forever seeking a resolution that stubbornly remains out of reach.

Some migrants wind up in camps that are essentially prisons, often for protracted periods. Last year, Americans gained familiarity with their own numerous border detention centers and the abominable conditions that prevail therein, with people being held for months at a time awaiting determination on their cases. In Africa, the process can go on for decades. In Dabaab, Kenya, there are three migrant towns operated by UNHCR, primarily housing refugees from the Somali Civil War. There are currently about 450,000 people in an area originally designed to handle only 90,000, and some have been there since the formation of the settlement in 1991.[3] In April of this year, Kenya’s Deputy President William Ruto demanded that UNHCR close the camp over security concerns stemming from the al-Shabab attack on the town of Garissa.[4] The government has since back-peddled, though inhabitants continue to live in fear.

In all, the UNHCR reports that sub-Saharan Africa accounts for 3.7 million refugees, with most coming from Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic.[5] The catalyst for these migrations is the growing instability of African states amidst civil war and regional sectarian conflicts, and the concomitant proliferation of terrorist organizations throughout the region. The blame for the conflagration on the continent rests with the Obama administration and its substantial expansion of military operations under the auspices of AFRICOM, with 674 missions last year, up from 172 in 2008,[6] together with its disastrous intervention in Libya. As the U.S. moved to depose Qaddafi because he did not always bend to American dictates, the country was thrown into prolonged chaos, during which the former leader’s weapons were dispersed throughout the continent, with many landing in the hands of militants in Mali, thus stoking the ongoing civil war there.[7] Meanwhile, the continued conflict in South Sudan must be viewed as the result of a failure of state building by the United States, which was the principal proponent of the founding of that country. These examples provide but a small sampling of the ways in which Washington is responsible for the worsening situation in Africa.

Of course, the U.S. role in creating humanitarian crises is nowhere clearer than in the Middle East. The conditions for the creation of ISIS, which is now the primary driver of refugees in Iraq and Syria, were born of the resentment fueled by decades of American meddling and provocation. Meanwhile, a recently declassified Defense Intelligence Agency document from 2012 evinces the fact that the Pentagon understood that their support of the Syrian opposition would most likely benefit radical Salafists.[8] Despite months of talk about supporting some imaginary, moderate rebels, we now know that the Defense Department knew better. They may not have appreciated just how brutally puritan the resulting form of Salafism practiced by ISIS would be, but certainly possessed enough sound intelligence to prevent further exacerbating regional instability by throwing weapons and training at the then amorphous opposition.

Eventually, the group that coalesced into ISIS was able to commandeer a vast array of weapons from the demoralized Iraqi Security Forces. This includes 74,000 machine guns, and 2,300 of the 3,500 Humvees that the U.S. provided, which are now busily being converting into mobile suicide bombs.[9] From exploding tanks to graphic beheadings, this spectacle of terror has led to millions fleeing persecution. As such, Syria has now surpassed Afghanistan as the world’s largest source of refugees.[10] Among them are 2,000 Palestinians that had to flee from Yarmouk during an ISIS and al-Nusra takeover earlier this year. Like the aforementioned African migrants, many members of this community were caught in a liminal state for decades, only to then become double refugees: leaving one indeterminate situation for another. The displacement of the already displaced is an unmistakable characteristic of the neoliberal order.

In contrast to the long-term camps seen in third world countries, their industrialized counterparts have been markedly less hospitable and patient in the face of the growing crisis. This lack of compassion is witnessed in Australia’s refusal to accept members of the Rohingya community from Burma, desperately fleeing political persecution there. Meanwhile, tensions have flared in Europe over how to distribute the refugee “burden.” France has returned some 6,000 migrants to Italy so far this year, claiming that the latter has failed to properly process them. Most recently, France has closed the border near Ventimiglia, prompting Italian police to forcibly close a camp of mostly Ethiopian and Eritrean refugees. The Italian state is desperate for help from its European partners to absorb the flow, as some 57,000 displaced people have landed in the country so far this year.[11]

For its part, France has played a particularly disgusting role in this saga, which is hardly surprising given its recent history of treatment of minority communities within its borders. This is the land of the burka ban, where Nicolas Sarkozy rose to power on promises to hose the scum (“les racailles”) out of the streets of the suburban ghettos, and both he and his Socialist successor, Francois Hollande, forcibly expelled Roma communities in 2010 and 2012, respectively. Likewise, the French government has broken down several makeshift camps in recent years in the port city of Calais, and Human Rights Watch has documented widespread police abuse and harassment of migrants living there. Reports include unprovoked beatings and deployment of pepper-spray, even on people obeying orders. Volunteers have found evidence of physical abuse, including scars and broken bones, which victims claim were inflicted by French authorities.[12]

News coverage of these stories of the dispossessed tends to look at the issue in isolation, while policymakers generally seek easy scapegoats. Smugglers are often portrayed as the cause of the crisis. Other times, Western leaders point to war and poverty in the Global South, without acknowledging the forces behind the privation prevailing throughout poor countries of the world. Rarely do mainstream commentators draw lines between the Mediterranean, the Rio Grande, and Yarmouk. If they were to, they would see that the story of the refugee has some terrifying implications for all of humanity.

Neoliberalism has transformed the secure into the precarious and the subaltern into refuse. It has created previously unknown flows of information and capital, while holding the displaced in captivity. Indeed, the ever-rising American prison population must be seen as a connected phenomenon. Far from enshrining freedom, market fundamentalism converts flesh into monetary quantity. It also provokes fear, because we are able to witness the hardships endured by the underclass, thus reminding us of our own expendability. Zygmunt Bauman notes: “Rather than remaining a misery confined to a relatively small part of the population, as it used to be perceived, assignment to ‘waste’ becomes everybody’s potential prospect – one of the two poles between which everybody’s present and future social standing oscillates.” As long as one of us is deemed rubbish, the rest of us have a vested interest in identifying and addressing the underlying cause. The refugee crisis riddle will not be solved until we repel the forces that created it.

Matt Reichel is a freelance writer and PhD student at Rutgers University.







[6] 674 missions in Africa last year, up from 172 in 2008