A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Völkerwanderung 2015

Not since the end of World War II and the mass displacements then, and two years later after the partition of India and Pakistan, and the Chinese Civil War,  have we seen such massive human displacements as we are seeing today, not just the Syrian refugee crisis, though that is the most acute, but the ongoing flow of Sub-Saharan Africans, Somalis, Libyans, and others seeking to flee across the Mediterranean to Europe.

Some may ask why the migrants cannot remain in the Middle East. One answer is "Sorry: Full." There are already nearly 2 million in Turkey. There are over a million in Lebanon, a country with less than 5 million population and a longstanding host to a significant Palestinian refugee population. It is said that a Syrian refugee camp is now the second largest city in Jordan. One such camp is seen here:
And if the map below is accurate, nearly a quarter of a million Syrian refugees are now in Iraq, which suggests the level of desperation.
Now the map clearly shows that not every country in the Middle East is opening its borders, and this is a justifiable reason for criticism. But if some of the richest countries are turning a blind eye, others, particularly Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan, are bearing the burden.

There is an irony in the fact that the Gulf states are not yet shouldering a share. When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990-1991, many Kuwaitis sought refuge elsewhere. The photo below is said to show Kuwaiti cars backed up at the Syrian border in 1991 (I cannot verify the identification), but Syria did open its borders to Kuwaiti refugees at the time. Kuwait has yet to return the favor.
The reality is that, however much we may deplore the policies of individual countries, this is a crisis of global scale My own country, once the welcoming haven for refugees, is to my regret going through one of its periodic nativist spasms, so that the words on that statue in New York Harbor may seem quaint today:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
The massive deaths and displacements of the 1930s and 1940s from Europe to China are the most recent precedent for the scale of human migration we are seeing today, though there are others (Indochina in the 1970s, Africa more recently) that are more recent. But unlike, say, the example of Kuwait in 1990-1991 mentioned above, the present migrants are unlikely to be going home anytime soon.These may be long-term refugees, like the Palestinians or the population exchanges accompanying Indian partition. As a descendant of Irish who fled to the New World during the  Great Famine, and of Ulster Scots who fled rack-renting a century earlier, I can attest that migration is a constant in human history, and not always a bad thing.

But we seem to be dealing here with an issue of scale. Again, it is not just Syria. Iraq and Libya and Yemen in the Middle East are also seeing outflows, as is sub-Saharan Africa.

Historians of the Ancient World speak of the Völkerwanderungen, the wanderings of whole peoples, at key points in history, notably during the massive disruptions marking the end of the bronze Age (the "Sea Peoples," the legends of the Fall of Troy, etc.), and again in Europe accompanying the decline of Rome and the "Barbarian" invasion. We may not yet be dealing with a modern
Völkerwanderung on that scale, but we do face a global challenge and global challenges should not be met with narrow national responses, driven by domestic politics, but by a genuine sense of global responsibility.

No comments: