Refugees, migrants and asylum-seekers have been part of the international scene since Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt in search of a promised land. The vast majority of the U.S. population can trace its roots back to emigrants who followed in the footsteps of the Pilgrims. In the modern era, periods of international conflict and domestic upheaval have spawned vast flows of people fleeing conflict and persecution. World War II set millions in motion and reconfigured the demography of Europe. The Balkan wars of the 1990s sent new waves of migrants westward. Now, once again, Europe is in the crosshairs of a major refugee crisis — and it is not alone. In Southeast Asia, a very different population of desperate people is on the move. In both arenas, most of the refugees are moving by boat seeking sanctuary and opportunity in lands very different than their own.
These two waves of migrants — involving thousands now, probably hundreds of thousands in the near future and quite possibly millions in the not distant future — are challenging governments and the very fabric of international affairs in a fundamental way. In both cases, we are seeing strongly held values pitted against one another — human rights and humanitarian obligations vs. social stability and cultural identity and state sovereignty.
This has all happened very suddenly. Ten years ago refugees posed a difficult but manageable problem and international agencies and organizations led by the United Nations provided a rickety but functional system for care and resettlement. This all changed with the “Arab Spring” that sparked a series of upheavals across the Middle East. In just one example, civil war in Syria has already displaced half the entire population. The initial American reaction to the “Spring” was sympathetic; we wished the demonstrators well as they demanded the overthrow of corrupt autocrats. But the law of unintended consequences proved painfully appropriate. Libya, sandwiched between Egypt and Algeria, was a case in point. There was nothing attractive about the Qaddafi dictatorship that ruled its predominantly Arab population. The dictator was oppressive, brutal and half crazy. But under his iron fist, Libya was as stable as a penitentiary. When Qaddafi was overthrown, he was replaced not by a democracy but by a chaotic mix of anarchy, warring tribal militias and terrorists. As central state authority broke down, a number of enterprising criminals saw there was money to be made by providing Libyans who wanted out and Africans who wanted a better life a way to get to the new Promised Land — Europe. Soon these human traffickers were buying up old boats and overloading them with migrants who paid for illegal passage across the Mediterranean. If successful, it usually meant that they were dumped somewhere along the coast of Italy, Spain, Malta, Greece or one of the small islands flying a European flag. If they were unlucky, they encountered bad weather and the boat sank. If a European fishing boat or patrol craft was nearby, some might be rescued. But since most migrants could not swim, survival rates were low. In one horrific incident in April, more than 850 migrants drowned when a single boat went down.
The choices facing Europeans and their governments are stark. On the one hand, these are people in desperate need and simple human feeling demands that they be given succor. But European societies are already dealing with the strains that come with a large influx of Muslim migrants. The recent terrorist attacks in France are symptomatic of a broader problem. How many hundreds of thousands of Muslim and African migrants can Italy absorb before it ceases to be Italy anymore? Do the people of Italy have the right to say at some point, enough!?
In the case of Southeast Asia, we see a similar drama of ironic wish fulfillment. Burma was ruled for more than 50 years by a primitive military dictatorship. In this case, change came, not from the streets, but from the top. The generals decided to civilianize and democratize the government. Press restrictions were relaxed, political prisoners released and democratic elections held. Washington cheered and President Obama paid a visit. But one consequence of the new freedoms was to allow intolerant, racist views new opportunities for expression. Militant Buddhist organizations formed dedicated to the expulsion of a Muslim minority population called the Rohingya. The Burmese population is predominantly Buddhist and many see Islam as a threat. Their battle cry became that the Rohingya (or “Bengalis”) are alien, illegal immigrants that must be forced out. The government, with elections in mind, has been afraid to confront this sentiment. The result has been violence and deprivation that have produced an outflow of desperate “boat people” who have paid criminal syndicates to take them to Malaysia or Indonesia. Both are predominantly Muslim countries but neither wants thousands of impoverished Rohinga washing up on their shores — particularly since they know there are well over a million Rohingya that may follow if the migrants are accepted.
In the last few days, police in Thailand and Malaysia have found what were jungle prison camps where migrants were held while their families were extorted for more money to free them. With thousands of Rohingya currently adrift at sea, Malaysia and Indonesia have reluctantly agreed to let them land — under the strict understanding they will be resettled elsewhere. Meanwhile, over the weekend, 4,243 migrants were rescued at sea and brought to Italy in one day.
If you like an insoluble problem, this is it.