Janine Jackson: In scale and complexity, the crisis of the world’s displaced—65.9 million people, according to the UN Refugee Agency—is difficult to grasp. The need for a public reckoning, a working through of a societal response to this unprecedented circumstance, is clear.
And there’s little doubt that a roomful of media producers would agree that the issue was newsworthy. Pressed, they might say something about how they wished they had more time to devote to such important fare. Except that there seems to be room for several stories saying, for example, there are no new developments on White House/Russia ties, but here’s a rehash of previous reports.
The serious reporting that does exist often presents refugees as the problem, rather than displacement and its drivers, leaving you to wonder how much media help, not just in the fight to ensure that people’s humanity is respected, whatever their status, but in the effort to understand the roots of this global phenomenon and address it in a humane way.
Vijay Prashad is professor of international studies at Trinity College in Connecticut. His most recent book is The Death of the Nation and the Future of the Arab Revolution. He’s author of many others, including Arab Spring, Libyan Winter and The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South. His columns appear on AlterNet every Wednesday. He joins us now by phone. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Vijay Prashad.
Vijay Prashad: Yeah, thanks, Janine.
JJ: The scale of displacement around the world, including within countries, is at new levels, and you’ve just written about this. Can you give us, first, just some sense of the scope of things today, and then what you’ve learned about the No. 1 driver behind displacement?
VP: The UN Refugee Agency has said that the number of the world’s displaced—those who are both internally displaced and displaced out of their countries—is about 66 million. This is a very high number, but it should come with a caveat, namely, that this is also an approximation. It is my feeling that the number is quite deflated; very large numbers of people don’t come into the statistics that the UN Refugee Agency collects. But nonetheless, this is a very illustrative number.
When I looked at it, I decided to see how this number compares with populations. And it turns out that the 66 million refugees in the world would comprise the 21st largest state among the 190-odd states we have in the world. It’s a very large number of people, so this scandal should awaken the humanity of people.
I’d just like to say that, before we talk about the No. 1 driver of refugees, it might be interesting to think about how refugees are reported in the media. And it’s my sense that, you know, if refugees inconvenience people in the West, if they come to Western countries seeking asylum or seeking refugee protection, then there are stories written about them. But even that is not often about why people leave their homeland, it’s more about the inconvenience caused by them to people in the West.
Which is why the question of Syria is so important here. Syrian refugees have been coming into Europe, and that flood of refugees has indeed raised the question of refugees in the Western imagination. But from Libya, there have been fewer refugees. This doesn’t mean that the war against Libya was any less destructive than the war in Syria. But the density of population in Syria is far greater than the density of population in Libya, which means that when a war strikes a city or a town in Syria, people live much more densely, and therefore the impact of the war is felt by civilians, so they flee. In Libya, where the density of population is much lower, people have been moving inside the country, protecting themselves as best as they can, but they haven’t been fleeing from Libya, as Libyans, into Europe, and so Libya is off the agenda. So, too, South Sudan, from where refugees have been fleeing into Uganda, not to the United States and not to Europe.
There’s a way in which the refugee crisis gets portrayed in the Western media that I think is an additional source of concern, which is that it is driven by the inconvenience of Western citizens rather than the actual story of the refugees themselves, and this is something that I think people need to be aware of. We don’t get to hear the stories of why people leave, because it seems as if the public in the West is more invested in how to deal with the refugees than what their lives are about.
JJ: That’s an excellent point. To the extent that the story is presented as an interconnected, as a global story, it’s presented as, how will certain countries be able to absorb refugees. And there’s also a kind of a distancing from the humanity of the people who are refugees that I think interferes with people’s understanding. You know, we’re encouraged to think, well, I would never make that choice to put my family in that kind of danger. We’re encouraged by a kind of individualistic focus, when we really need to be looking at bigger pictures.
LA Times (7/4/17)
And so I want to ask you specifically about Libya, because the interconnectedness of things is not something that media encourage us to see. So here is the Los Angeles Times with an explainer on the problems of displacement, and they say:
Why are migrants headed to Italy? Italy has long been a destination for those hoping to reach European shores because of its proximity to North Africa, specifically the lawless nation of Libya, which in recent years has become a launch pad for Mediterranean crossings.
So this is media’s explanation for why migrations are following this particular flow, and it’s because Libya is lawless. Well, there’s an opportunity to teach readers in the US something there, but the history is missing.
VP: Yes. There are two things here that are very important. One is, yes, Libya is lawless, but why? And that is something that not only the Los Angeles Times, but Western media in general, vacate; they don’t enter that question. Libya is lawless because NATO intervention destroyed the state, and in a sense put Libyan society at great peril.
But Libyans—and this is the second point—Libyans themselves are not crossing the Mediterranean in large numbers. Libya has quite correctly become a launch pad, but Libyans are not crossing. And the reason they are not crossing is what I mentioned, in other words, the density of population question, and that they’ve been able to find, at great social cost to Libyan society, they’ve been able to find a way to protect themselves. You know, Libya is in great peril, but Libyans have found a way to at least manage this crisis for themselves personally.
For a very long period, the economies of Western Africa and Central Africa have been racked by war, and by economic policies that have undercut people’s ability to make their lives. These are economic policies related to mining, allowing large companies—many of them Western companies, some of them Chinese companies, that have been allowed to open up large mines and displace people. Secondly, there have been agricultural policies, cotton subsidies, for instance, in the United States and Europe, that have impoverished many West African countries and destroyed cotton farming, so they have been displaced. And thirdly, people have had their climate seized from them. As climate change comes into great focus in West Africa, every culture has been damaged, and so people have been displaced by that.
They have been moving from their countries in West Africa through Gao in Mali, and Agadez in Niger, up into Libya, and this crossing across the Sahara is very dangerous. People are dying every day crossing the Sahara before they get to Libya. But then they are, of course, dying in the Mediterranean. And I’m interested, again, to just point a little finger here. It’s come to the media’s attention that people are dying in the Mediterranean, but there’s virtually no reporting about how dangerous the Sahara is to cross. This suggests again, to repeat the point, that when something is right before the eyes of Europe or the United States, it becomes a matter of great interest. When it is slightly far away, it’s less a matter of interest.
Similarly, with migration into the United States, the Rio Grande is something that people in the United States pay attention to. What they’re not paying attention to is the southern Mexican border, where there are also virtually concentration camps, set up at the behest of the United States, to hold Central American refugees, who are also climate and agriculture policy refugees, trying to move somewhere where they can make a livelihood. And those camps are not being reported on. What’s reported on is President Trump’s statements about building a wall. So, somehow, there is a kind of myopia in the Western media covering the refugee crisis.
JJ: And certainly an unwillingness to explore the role of major powers, and particularly the US, in creating these circumstances and driving the wars and driving the climate disruption and the extractive policies and the austerity prescriptions that grow misery and that are such powerful forces behind the movement of peoples.
Well, I want to talk about response now. You spoke to Paul Spiegel, who’s formerly of the UN Refugee Agency, or have a quote from him in your piece, in which he said, “The current humanitarian system is not simply overstretched, it is no longer fit for purpose,” which you aptly describe as “shattering words.” What does it mean; what was Paul Spiegel saying?
VP: The current system, namely the UN system and nongovernmental organization system, is set up to deal with a crisis. And by “crisis,” what is understood is a short-term issue. Let’s say there is a war; people flee war, so the UN system and the ancillary nongovernment organization system kicks in to help people who have fled a war. The understanding is that the war is going to end, and then people can return to their lives.
The example of Palestine, of course, is there, that for 60-odd years, people have been displaced. There is no resolution to the conflict, and people have been living as refugees in camps for generations now. So earlier there were one or two incidents where there were refugee crises that seemed to go on forever.
Now we’ve reached the situation where there are multiple crises that seem to have no solution. So whether it is, as you say, the austerity crisis, the climate crisis, or wars that seem not to come to resolution, tens of millions of people have become permanent refugees. And it is in the context of this condition of being a permanent refugee, that the UN system and the ancillary NGO agencies are simply not capable of dealing with it. They don’t have the resources and they don’t have the policies in place to deal with the condition where very large numbers of people have become permanent refugees. And I think that’s what Spiegel was referring to, and I think it’s about time we have a public international conversation about this permanent condition of refugee that looks to be without resolution.
JJ: And then, speaking to the media piece of it, you’ve talked about it being also long past time to shift from this security frame, from this idea that if we police people harder, they won’t move, to a humanity frame, to a different way, a fundamentally different way of looking at this phenomenon. First of all, not just that it’s not temporary, and we have to look at that, but also that it’s not about security; it shouldn’t be seen through the prism of danger and fear.
VP: It’s a basic rational issue that if somebody is doing something, you want to know why are they doing it. If somebody says, I want to come into Country X from Country Y, I think it’s a fairly rational thing to ask, why would you like to do that? And most people would say, look, I don’t want to come to this country, but it’s too difficult to live where I’m living. I think that’s a very fair conversation to have. If it’s too difficult to live where I’m living, that means the solution to the problem is either to make the conditions of flight different—in other words, to make it easier to live where I’m living—or to figure out how to rearrange populations if areas of the world are becoming impossible to live in.
If islands are disappearing, then we need to have a concept of climate change refugees. If islands are not disappearing, and there’s war or there’s starvation or, you know, it’s becoming harder to grow cotton, then perhaps it’s a good idea to think about, well, how should the global cotton market work, how should cotton farmers be recompensed? These are, it seems to me, rational conversations to have.
Instead of having these conversations, the discussion that is there on the table is how best to prevent migrants from entering countries. So the world leadership at the G7, presidents and prime ministers of countries in the West, merely talk about the question of security, terrorism or building fences, building walls, policing the Mediterranean. In fact, one columnist quite spectacularly in Britain wrote a column saying that it’s perhaps useful to shoot refugees to deter them from making the crossing in the Mediterranean.
So this framework of security has become normal, and the framework of humanity has been seen, not only as idealistic, but as ridiculous in a way. And I think people need to reconsider that. Is it quite ridiculous to ask people why they want to move? I think it’s far more ridiculous to have a conversation about shooting boats in the Mediterranean. But, of course, that’s not the way things are right now.
JJ: Yeah—in the case of Syria, which is beyond the beyond, the United States displaces 200,000 Syrians with military action, and then Trump says they should be barred as refugees because they’re Trojan horses. And it’s not just illogical, it’s perverse. You, of course, teach international studies, and so are accustomed to a global prism in which you see things on a broader system. I do feel that media are so locked into this nationalistic frame, but that doesn’t mean that people are. In a way, there’s a different conversation going on among human beings than perhaps among powerful folks.
VP: Oh, certainly. I mean, the question that somebody asks somebody who is in distress is, how can I help you? One would hope that that’s the way that scholarship functions, that’s the way that governments function. But I’m sorry to say that even in the field of international relations, security studies, of a very narrow way, is beginning to dominate the thinking.
But security for whom? I would say that the regime of borders and policing actually makes the condition for a great deal of abuse to take place. Because the Mediterranean crossing is so fundamentally difficult, and because the Sahara crossing is so difficult, the migrants have to put themselves in the hands of professional human traffickers. And here we see evidence of a great deal of abuse, where somebody puts themselves in the hands of a human trafficker and then becomes trafficked themselves—sex work, young people sent to labor camps in Libya—and a great deal of abuse has been documented.
So the question is, security for whom? The security frame, again, is security for the wealthy, it’s security for the West, not security for the migrants. Nobody is thinking about what are the rights of a migrant, what is the security of the migrant. I think that has disappeared from our public conversation.
So occasionally there’s a scandal, people are scandalized by the fact that somebody who’s a refugee is mistreated. But the question isn’t that this refugee is mistreated in a one-off way. The entire system is constructed in such a way that abuse is normal. I think that’s how we need to understand this: The question of security is not about security in general, but it’s security in a very particular way, for those who are powerful and those who have means.JJ: We’ve been speaking with Vijay Prashad, professor of international studies at Connecticut’s Trinity College, and author of Uncle Swami: South Asians in America Today, and the award-winning The Darker Nation: A People’s History of the Third World. You can find his weekly columns on AlterNet.org. Vijay Prashad, thank you very much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
VP: Thanks a lot, Janine.