Migrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers

Being an island nation, we tend to be indifferent to the great human tragedies that are happening in the rest of the world. Our national media reflect and reinforce this insularity. These past few weeks, for instance, while Europe has been at its wits’ end trying to find a way to deal with the massive influx of migrants from the failed nation-states of North Africa and the Middle East, there has hardly been a stir over this in our media.

The early evening news on Philippine television typically begins with a litany of reports on the latest killing, rape, abduction, robbery, abuse of minors, and fatal road accidents. This is usually followed by a breathless lamentation on the rush-hour traffic in Metro Manila’s main thoroughfares and the helplessness of motorists caught in monstrous traffic jams.

I normally switch channels after barely 10 minutes, unable to bear the inordinate agitation and anger we pour into our daily troubles even as we give the scantest attention to what is happening elsewhere in the world. Having anchored the early evening news for the then newly-opened Channel 5, I am fully aware that getting viewers to stay with one’s program until the end is the name of the game. But I have always wondered why the news lineup should always open with shocking crime reports. One reason given is that threats to personal security and wellbeing (like crime, disease, scams and high prices) are uppermost in the consciousness of the ordinary Filipino family. I don’t buy this explanation, but this seems to be the orthodoxy across all networks.

I used to think that deploying 10 million Filipino workers to all corners of the world would somehow break this parochialism. Perhaps, it has, but, alas, only to a very limited extent. If a bomb exploded in Syria, Libya, or Iraq, or in Paris, London, or Boston, the first question we would ask, typically, is whether any Filipinos were hurt—not how many ordinary people were killed or maimed.

When millions of displaced Syrians, Iraqis and Libyans leave their strife-torn homelands and head for sanctuaries in Europe, the event conjures ancient images of the biblical exodus. Yet this powerful human drama fails to move or impress us in any meaningful way. We hear of Filipinos who continue to work in these countries, undaunted by the civil wars that have destroyed them, and we wonder how bad things can really be.

They are bad and, for the young parents with little children to look after, beyond endurance. Take a quick look at the faces of the thousands of refugees now stranded in Budapest, Hungary, waiting to board trains that would take them to Germany. It is difficult to miss the fact that these are mostly young men and women with a lot of years in their lives, and young families who are fighting to secure a bright and peaceful future for their children. Very few old people are among them because, obviously, they do not have the strength one needs to make the perilous journey across rough seas on rickety boats, or by land across the vast mass of land that links Asia to Europe.

They are Europe’s “other,” the figure of the stranger that triggers the most virulent forms of ethno-cultural racism. Europeans cannot agree among themselves how to deal with the strangers that are knocking at their door. Governments are wary of the political backlash these migrants could trigger whenever they are welcomed. Ironically, it is Germany, the country that once served as the capital of a deluded ideology of racial purity and superiority that is now showing the rest of Europe what it means to be part of a common humanity. Last year, Germany took in almost 200,000 refugees into its borders, giving them jobs, allowances and homes. Its no-nonsense chancellor, Angela Merkel, has announced that her country is prepared to accept another 800,000.

Merkel’s unequivocal stand on the issue of refugees is putting to shame the rest of Western Europe, where politicians continue to debate the content of a so-called comprehensive policy on the refugee crisis. People view the latter as shameless stalling. The other night, I watched Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron explain the need for a comprehensive solution and why, in effect, his country cannot support the approach taken by Germany.

Though his remarks initially struck me as a pathetic attempt to show that the United Kingdom is a moral nation that takes its responsibilities to the human community seriously, Cameron did make some valid points. He insisted that priority must be given to people displaced by war and to victims of persecution in need of protection. These are the genuine refugees and asylum-seekers, whose situation, he said, must be differentiated from that of economic migrants. He argued that priority for resettlement in Europe must be extended to those that have been living in refugee camps for years, instead of favoring those that, on their own, have trooped to Europe’s backdoor. To prioritize the latter, he said, as Germany’s Merkel proposes, only invites more people to take risks and pay human traffickers to ferry them to Europe.

Both positions are praiseworthy for different reasons. Merkel’s appropriately responds to the urgency of the problem. Cameron’s highlights its scale and complexity. But one wishes this problem would incite deeper soul-searching in Europe and in America. I can’t help wondering, in light of this humanitarian crisis, if the people of Libya and Syria, and for that matter Iraq, might not have been better off if the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the United States had left them alone to deal with their own dictators.

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