Open door, open eyes

How the refugee crisis brings out the best in people – and the worst.

In one way it was much easier two months ago when the crisis hit the media mill with a vengeance. Back then we were faced with an unavoidable, seemingly unsolvable situation, and there were clear heroes and villains. The heroes were left-leaning media across the continent and countries like Germany and Sweden, who were doing the right thing and opening their borders to the poor victims, no questions asked. The villains, on the other hand, were the sizeable minority sentiments in all countries (also those two), and countries like Hungaria, Slovenia, the UK, and Denmark, who dared question the wisdom of accepting the full influx uncritically.

Since then the issue hasn’t actually gone away, but there are more nuances and thus a less clear picture in the media. Now we hear stories such as: a series of arson attacks on Swedish refugee centres; Angela Merkel dropping in polls; Austria building a fence on the Slovenian border; a Danish man who spat on refugees from a highway bridge being charged by the police; and refugees in Sweden protesting their new home because it’s too cold and far away.

When you look at some of the reader comments to the news coverage of these stories it is quite clear that not everybody is all happy and welcoming of the situation. On the contrary, these venues open, non-committed discussion seem to be a breeding ground for public anger and racism among a large number of supposedly ‘good citizens’.

People are jerks, yes, but the bottom line is that not everything is rosy. Of course the refugee situation will come at a cost, and present huge challenges to the societies where they have been accepted, reluctantly or not. In Denmark we have developed a public discourse where discussing the challenges is accepted, whereas some of our neighbouring countries still shy away from posing the difficult questions, out of fear of being accused of racism.

A naïve, black-and-white approach will not help anyone address the challenges, however. Closing our eyes to the problems in Syria is dangerous. Equally dangerous is closing our eyes to the problems of integrating the refugees who have fled from there. You can close your doors, and close your eyes. But if you do open your doors, you should also be prepared to open your eyes.

They’re coming – Coping with Europe’s migration influx

We cannot close our eyes any longer. Large groups of displaced people used to be something you would see on TV from faraway lands, far from the seclusion of Northern Europe. The refugees who did make it to our latitudes did so in an orderly fashion, their outward appearance hiding the scars that remain within their memories.

While Denmark is still on the outskirts of Europe, recent images tell us that something has changed. Boat refugees in Greece and Italy, border crashing in Serbia, tumultuous scenes in a Budapest train station, people suffocating in trucks in Austria, and tent camps in Northern France all cement that this situation is different.

Some reactions are predictable, with political quagmires in the UK, Denmark, and elsewhere. The EU is scrambling to agree on anything relevant; and heated arguments ensue as to whether borders should be opened or closed further.

For me personally I think the tipping point was this video, published by Save the Children in the UK (some time ago, but I just saw it recently. It may be because I’m a parent myself, but it affected me very strongly, and still does.

The point is that these people are fleeing from something. We may argue about where they should go and how and who should pay, etc., but at the end of the day most of these people are human beings who have been forced on the run, hoping to gain or regain a dignified life for themselves and their families.

Many people emigrated from Northern Europe to the United States around the turn of the 20th century. They were fleeing persecution and poverty, looking for a brighter future in the ‘safe haven’ of the day. Today there is no safe haven as such, no ‘new world’. There is no frontier left to populate, although you do start to understand the allure of colonizing outer space. This means that migrants – and it’s safe to say that global migration will not disappear overnight – will need to integrate into existing societies.

So what is the solution? The issue is hugely complex, unfortunately, but in my view a minimum of human dignity does lead to some immediate recommendations, and some new ideas:

De-criminalize transportation. It is inhuman and counter-productive to let criminals profit on human tragedy. Many of the deaths on the Mediterranean and recently on the Austrian freeway could have been avoided if the traffickers were pushed out of business. If a European country is willing to grant asylum, do it from a distance or don’t do it at all – but don’t reward those lucky enough to cross borders illegally at their own risk.

Split the burden. Right now it looks like Germany will take a lot of immigrants, and most other countries try to weasel of the responsibility. Splitting the burden means that all countries should receive some measure of refugees, also those in the near vicinity – they shouldn’t all have to travel as far as Western Europe if they can have new lives in Turkey. But clarity and alignment is needed.

Stop calling it a burden. In terms of financial and societal strain it is, of course. But let’s instead focus on developing financially sustainable solutions. There’s no room for creating a new country, but how about experimenting with new planned cities and societies? Places where newcomers could contribute in a semi-closed economy, using and building their skills in a local community, thus bridging the gap to integrating into normal life.

Make sure the receivers can reasonably cope. A lingering question for politicians is always, who should pay? They have good reason to defend the money of their taxpayers. But this is a global issue, so let’s find global solutions. One could be an emigration tax, imposed by the IMF on the troubled countries – for every person fleeing from Syria, for instance, the Syrian government would be taxed a relative amount to cover the expenses in the receiving countries. And if they won’t pay? I’m sure there are ways around that, such as withholding aid, deducting tax from international trade, or similar.

Fix the root cause. Yes, much of this is symptom treatment. Ultimately, what the world needs is a more peaceful and dignified Middle East and Africa. I don’t have the solution for that unfortunately. But I do hope that wise and influential people are actively pursuing one.

One war to remember, and one to forget

One hundred years ago, a force of Australian and New Zealand soldiers landed on a beach in Turkey, as part of the Middle Eastern campaign during World War I. Kemal Atatürk’s army wielded fierce resistance, and between them the two armies successfully killed more than a hundred thousand people at Gallipoli.

For the young Australian nation, losing 8,709 soldiers was a massive tragedy, and the event was a strong unifying force. Ever since, April 25 has been celebrated as Anzac Day commemorating the tragedy.

As with WWI in its entirety, many have wondered what, exactly, they were fighting about. Thus, while Anzac Day can serve a patriotic purpose, it should also be a reminder of the atrocities of war. Eric Bogle’s chilling song “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” captures it well:

“And the old men march slowly, old bones stiff and sore.
They’re tired old heroes from a forgotten war
And the young people ask, what are they marching for?
And I ask myself the same question.”

Today, 10,000 people, mostly Australians are gathered in Anzac Cove in Turkey for a memorial service. Turkey and Australia became friends and allies soon after the war, and they acknowledge a shared tragedy in Gallipoli.

It is ironic that modern Turkey welcomes today’s commemoration, but vehemently opposes the one yesterday: the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. Same war, same empire, different enemy. Across Europe, Turkey’s envoys raise the same objection whenever the massacre of the Armenian people is remembered: “hey, we didn’t do it”.

The foundation of peace in Europe is built on forgiveness between neighbours who readily acknowledge their previous mutual aggressions. It would become Turkey if it could live up to its atrocities towards neighbouring people, and not only those on the other side of the world.

Obama: 1, Osama: 0

Osama bin LadenRest in peace, Osama bin Laden. And in death may you find the peace that in life you fought so vigorously against. May God be the judge of your soul, even as your deeds on earth have been judged by Men.

You were number one on the CIA’s most-wanted list even before 9/11, after which, of course you became a household name. The Afghan people suffered from your support for the Taliban regime, but the hunt was prolonged, and even as you managed to stay alive, the Al-Qaeda network was severed, and your influence waned. In the end, it had to come to this, and while the war on terror is not finished, your death is a fatal blow to the survival of your ideas.

As rejoicing broke out in Washington and New York last night, some people questioned: should we be rejoicing the death of a man? While a solemn respect for the dignity of human life – even that of bin Laden – is in order, my answer is yes. We should be rejoicing the end of a regime of terror, just as there was rejoicing at the end of WWII, or when the Berlin Wall came down. Barack Obama said in his address that Osama’s “demise should be welcomed by all who believe in peace and human dignity,” and I agree. In the long run, the world will be a better place for his death.

Thus Obama sums it up: “For over two decades, bin Laden has been Al Qaeda’s leader and symbol, and has continued to plot attacks against our country and our friends and allies. The death of bin Laden marks the most significant achievement to date in our nation’s effort to defeat Al Qaeda.”

Politically, this is great news for Obama. He managed to pull off what George W never achieved, and his credentials as a warrior are thoroughly strengthened. Finally, the U.S. has good news to talk about. While much can happen in a year and a half, this will be remembered on Election Day in 2012.

On the other hand, history has moved on. Killing bin Laden was important, but it was the war of the last decade. The end of Al-Qaeda (if that be the result) also marks the end of terrorism as means for change in the Middle East. The uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria, etc., are the new way. Finally, the man on the street is having his say. As Fareed Zakaria points out, America now needs to move from supporting dictatorships to democratic forces in the Middle East, as they have done previously in Asia and Latin America.

Obama also pointed out that “Bin Laden was not a Muslim leader; he was a mass murderer of Muslims.” People everywhere acknowledge that, and they are choosing another way. The death of Bin Laden may not bring peace right away (he still has some supporters left), but is an important milestone, marking a new way forward.

A Reluctant World Leader

As it turns out, this time it was the tail wagging the dog. The tail being undecisive and pacifist Europe, the dog being the mightiest nation on Earth, and its Nobel laureate president, Barack Obama.

By the end of last week, it was clear to all that Gadaffi would not go down quietly like his Tunisian and Egyptian counterparts, but rather resort to fighting his own people. Which of course is a clear violation of international law and the U.N. Even so, America was unusually passive in deciding on a possible international intervention. Instead it was France taking the lead, and even the Arab League was in favour of establishing no-fly zones.

“Does Obama believe that the era of U.S. leadership should be seen to be over?” asked The Times columnist Rosemary Righter. Christopher Dickey noted: “One might ask, as many Arabs do, whatever happened to Obama’s oft-repeated rhetoric about Gandhi and Martin Luther King and getting on the right side—the people’s side—of history?”

In his inauguration speech, Obama said: “The true strength of our nation comes not from our the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity, and unyielding hope.” These words were obviously idealistic, but it seems reality is catching up. The strength of America may very well be its ideals, but if nothing is done when those ideals are threatened, what does it matter? What is the use of might of arms or scale of wealth, if they are not willing to use those forces to defend the people whose liberty, opportunity, and hope are threatened? Then it’s just a lot of talking. I don’t think the Libyan people care about Obama’s speeches. They care about Gadaffi’s guns. And speeches won’t take them away.

Nobody knows how this will end. Military operations are not always accurate undertakings, and dealing with a madman like Gadaffi could certainly prove dangerous. But something had to be done. In the end, the U.N. did authorise the use of force, and America did join the coalition. They’ll probably even try to take credit for it. Especially if the current bombings prove fruitful. Time will tell.

Meanwhile, the Danish Parliament voted unanimously in favour of participating in air-based military intervention, even before the U.N. passed its resolution. It is a historic event that even the far-lefties (who are usually opposed to pretty much anything) are in on something like this. It is, of course, election year in Denmark, and the opposition is eager to present themselves as willing to be responsible. Nevertheless, I’m proud of my country, and hope for the best for the people of Libya.

Nobel Committee Resumes Relevancy

The Nobel Peace Prize has been marked by some odd choices in recent years. First, there was the climate hype of 2007, which didn’t have all that much to do with peace. Then, there was last year’s obsession with Obama, who at the time hadn’t done much besides making speeches (which he doesn’t do nearly as much or as well any longer). One might suspect that mere jealousy that Obama visited Copenhagen twice last fall spurred the Norwegians into wooing him to come to their party.

Anyway, today’s announcement cannot be said to irrelevant. Controversial, sure. But that’s the whole idea. Liu Xiaobo is the first Chinese national living in the PRC to be awarded the peace prize, or any Nobel Prize. This is ironic, given that China in its rise to global power has been obsessed for years with winning a Nobel Prize in the sciences. Now that they finally do get one, it’s awarded to a dissident serving a prison term for “inciting the subversion of state power”. He wins the prize primarily for co-authoring a petition demanding human rights, political reform, and real democracy. The same act that got him jailed in 2008.

It is comforting that the committee still has guts to challenge the powers that be. China had threatened Norway that awarding the prize to Liu would seriously damage relations between those two countries. Of course the committee is independent of the Norwegian government (probably an unknown concept to the Chinese), but essentially, this is the Nobel committee telling Red China: “Up yours!” Well, someone had to.

Naturally, the announcement has made headlines in media across the world, including CNN and BBC, but also Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya. China’s national news agency, Xinhua, however, is silent. For now.

The Fragility of Peace

Th 1-13
I photographed this local Thai, relaxing in the heat in Lumphini park when I was there a year ago. These days the park is deserted, and part of the protest zone. It’s hard to imagine the change in mood.

I have usually been optimistic about peace. I have argued that, as living standards increase globally, so does world peace. This has been the reality of the last half century. Poverty is still a problem, but as a proportion there are many fewer really poor people than ever before. And while the 20th century is often portrayed as especially brutal, this is not the case for the latter half of that century. Despite highly publicised wars in Vietnam, Iraq, Bosnia, Afghanistan, etc., the world is actually a safer place now than ever before. Thus would have been my argument 5-10 years ago. But perhaps peace is more fragile than hoped.

Recent events in Bangkok have saddened me in particular, after spending quite an amount of time there myself just one year ago. Now you have people fighting in the streets, and 17 killed yesterday in anti-government protests, in this usually, if not quite, then at least peaceful city. After spending a month in Thailand, I even began toying with the advantages of Buddhism, since these people seem so content, and happy, and peaceful. Well, not any more. Perhaps Thailand is unique. But perhaps not.

I watch these events unfold on CNN in a hotel room in Slovenia, a former Yugoslav republic. This is my first visit to the Balkans, and what struck me the most by flying to Zagreb, Croatia, and the short drive across the border to Slovenia, was the complete lack of signs that 15-20 years ago, this was a civil war zone. Granted, Slovenia probably fared the best of these countries. But it still amazes me that after less than two decades, this place looks and feels just as safe and wealthy as Northern Europe. How could such things have happened here?

But dire circumstances lead to desperate measures. Take Greece, long-time EU member, where the financial situation is driving people to violent protests on the streets. One can always argue who is to blame. But the point is, such extremities are unfortunately not quite as extreme as we’d like them to be.

So what about the financial crisis? In a bleak article in the latest edition of Newsweek, titled “Depression 2010?”, Robert J. Samuelson suggests that we haven’t seen the worst yet: “Greece’s plight challenges [the] optimistic interpretation.” Many other western countries are seriously indebted, and there is a crucial need to, e.g., save more and spend less, rein in expensive welfare systems, and adjust global trade so things don’t run out of hand. The problem, partly, is one of leadership, says Samuelson. “The United States’ leadership since World War II is eroding before China’s ascent. There’s a danger now, as then, of a power vacuum. […] As for Britain’s place as global leader, the United States assumed that role only in World War II.”

How does the future look? “Will the recovery encourage conscious changes? Or is recovery providing a false sense of security?” asks Samuelson, and adds: “The stakes are, of course, enormous, because – as everyone knows – the economic suffering of the Great Depression transformed many countries’ politics for the worse and led to World War II.”

Could this happen again? Yes. Could it happen in Denmark? Yes, why not. We have grown accustomed to decades of economic growth and prosperity, and we’ve been too comfortable to have the need for stigmatising and declaring enemies. That can change. For people in Thailand, Greece (or Iceland, for that matter), it’s a matter of life and death, of the ability to support yourself. That makes you desperate. And others could follow.