One of the first places Pope Francis visited after he became pope was a small island in the Mediterranean Sea called Lampedusa. Lying just 180 miles away from the coast of North Africa, this Italian island has been a mute witness to the perilous flight of refugees from war, violence and chaos. There, where countless bloated bodies of migrants have washed ashore in recent years, Francis celebrated Mass on a makeshift altar made from the debris of shipwrecked boats. During his homily, he wept and begged for forgiveness for a Europe that has shown little compassion and will in the face of this humanitarian crisis.
From January to April 2015 alone, close to 2,000 migrants from North Africa have died crossing the Mediterranean. Almost all were from Libya, a country that disintegrated in the wake of the destruction of Moammar Gadhafi’s autocratic regime. Like all refugees who seek entry into Europe in this manner, they paid thousands of dollars to unscrupulous human traffickers for a place in rickety boats not meant for long distance sea travel. Their hope was to be able to reach a European port before running out of food and water, or, mercifully, to be rescued at sea by a passing cargo ship.
Only a few have made it to safety. They have calculated the risk of drowning at sea, and chosen it over the horrible certainty of dying in a civil war, or of living under the barbaric rule of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis).
It’s a reality we Filipinos have a hard time comprehending. We can’t reconcile the picture of a crumbling Libya being abandoned by its own desperate people with the troubling reality of our migrant workers choosing to remain in that war-torn country despite the government’s repeated offer to bring them home. I have heard many OFWs say they prefer to take their chances abroad than to come home and face the certainty of slow starvation. I’m sure that’s an exaggeration born of resentment and reckless ignorance.
What is happening in the Middle East and North Africa today is something no one had foreseen. So long as the autocratic Arab rulers cooperated with the West and delivered the single resource they controlled, oil, to the global market, they were left pretty much alone. Gadhafi’s Libya once styled itself as the financier of revolutions and did everything to earn the sobriquet of a rogue state. But the West never considered its eccentric dictator a real threat to world peace.
The events following 9/11, however, changed all that. First, the United States identified a new enemy: global terrorism, and assigned it an Islamic face. For giving Osama bin Laden refuge, America invaded Afghanistan and relentlessly pursued him. US forces eventually caught up with Bin Laden in a mountain resort in Pakistan and killed him, yet Islamism has continued to spawn new adherents. Second, it invaded Iraq, accusing Saddam Hussein of harboring weapons of mass destruction. Not finding any, America later rationalized the invasion and the overthrow of Saddam as a catalyst to the democratization of Iraq.
The impulse to democracy, however, did not come until 2011. Called the “Arab Spring,” this explosive phenomenon quickly swept through North Africa and the Middle East. Originally touched off by the self-immolation of a young Tunisian street peddler who was protesting a simple injustice, its true catalyst was the social media—Twitter—which young Arabs discovered as a weapon to document and communicate the brutality of the regimes that had held sway in their societies. That year, the governments of Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya fell one after the other. The rest of the region’s autocrats were forced to make concessions to liberal reform in an effort to mollify the awakened Arab youth.
The momentum of the Arab Spring has slowed down, but the transformative force it unleashed continues to wreak havoc, mobilizing old conflicts and loyalties in the most unpredictable way. With the collapse of military-backed dictators, the battle for political supremacy has been dominated by the most organized elements of society. In Libya, tribal affinities have clashed with Islamism amid the ruins of Gadhafi’s state structures. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood won the elections held after the ouster of Hosni Mubarak. Not long after, the military arrested its Islamist president, pouncing on the excesses of the new government, and has since ruled the country. Over in Iraq, the Isis now occupies the oil-rich northwestern portion of this vast country, where ethnic Kurds are keeping up a fierce resistance against the Islamist group.
Yemen’s civil war has turned into a proxy war between Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran. Tunisia, where it all began, is stable for now, but Syria, where Bashar al-Assad keeps a tenuous grip on government, has become the complex battleground of various fighting forces. Three million Syrian refugees have crossed over to neighboring Turkey to escape the raging conflict, even as jihadists from Europe enter Syria through Turkey to fight on the side of the Isis.
At his homily in Lampedusa, Pope Francis repeated God’s question to Cain, “Where is your brother?” and followed it up with the harder question: “Who is responsible for this blood?” Not us, said Europe’s leaders. Judging from their pronouncements, they want to run after the human smugglers who operate the boats but reject the idea of opening their communities to refugees as a shared responsibility. Italy has practically stood alone in its insistence on a willful humanitarian response by the entire European Community.
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