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Noam Chomsky on the crises of immigration
By Noam Chomsky
November 15, 2016 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — Pope Francis captured the essence of the crisis of immigration: “Migrants are not the danger. They are in danger.”
The implication is clear - the so called crisis of immigration is an indication of a bigger moral crisis in the wealthy countries of the world; those societies that have resources to help those who are in severe danger and to mitigate or resolve the circumstances that lie at the roots of their flight.
Reflection on these matters is essential if we are to face the moral crisis honestly and realistically, which is a prerequisite to a humane and constructive response to an enormous human problem that is right before our eyes, and is very likely to become far worse in the near future unless decisive actions are undertaken. And it is instructive, I think, to reach for these reflections, to reach beyond the events, that are before our eyes which are shattering enough. That includes the report in yesterday’s El Pais that more than 4,000 desperate refugees have drowned in the Mediterranean this year, fleeing from misery and violence. Migrants are often in extreme danger as we see every day.
That is not to deny that migrants can sometimes become a serious burden on the society that receives them. The most extreme case is a devastating catastrophe that is rarely considered a crisis of immigration, although it should be. The rise of settler-colonial societies where the migrants arrive with the intention of displacing or exterminating the indigenous population, the most savage form of imperialism, and indeed the foundation of much of global society. The most prominent cases are the world’s richest and most developed countries. We cannot properly use the term crisis of immigration in such cases. That is far too mild.
A better description would be the words of U.S. President John Quincy Adam, the intellectual author of the Doctrine of Manifest Destiny that justified the settler conquest of what is now known as the United States. In his later years he recognized the fate of “that hapless race of native Americans, which we are exterminating with such merciless and perfidious cruelty, [to be] among the heinous sins of this nation, for which I believe God will one day bring [it] to judgement.” In all of the countries of the Anglo-sphere, the offshoots of England, the aftermath for those who survived the onslaught remains severe today and the painful tale is repeated in other parts of the world as well.
Another crisis of immigration, also a foundation of the modern world, is the forced migration of captives to slavery, again not usually described as a crisis of immigration. The practice reached its most extreme and vicious form in the plantation economy of the American South, where under hideous conditions, slaves produced the most important commodity in the world trade throughout the 19th century - cotton - which to an extent, not generally realised, served as the basis for modern advanced economies, particularly those of the United States and England, but other countries as well. Production of cotton by slave labour provided the basis for the development of manufacturing, finance, commerce and retail industries. Contemporary scholarship is now only beginning to portray the implications of the slave system for the modern economy, and not to speak of its role in imperial conquest in North America, India, Egypt and elsewhere. It was also a major factor in the American Revolution, which was fought in part to preserve the institution of slavery, from the growing opposition to it in England.
The history of slavery, much of it just being unearthed by contemporary scholarship, is horrifying and, as in the case of the remnants of the settler-colonial onslaught, the aftermath remains grim today. It should be unnecessary to dwell on the severe moral crisis that history poses for the rich societies or on the moral depravity of the evasion of the terrible history and the unwillingness to attend to the aftermath to the limited extend possible.
While keeping to the less colossal crises of immigration, the country most severely affected by the flood of refugees today is Lebanon. A poor country, where some 40% of the population are refugees, some from recent wars in Iraq and Syria, and many of them tracing back to Israel’s explosion of Palestinians in 1948. In Lebanon and elsewhere, the refugees are still confined to miserable camps. Jordan, too, has absorbed a huge refugee population, as did Syria, before its recent cataclysm. The poor African country of Kenya has hundreds of thousands of refugees, mostly fleeing from violence and repression in Somalia, surviving in miserable conditions under constant threat of illegal deportation. Meanwhile, in wealthy France, the squalid Calais refugee camp, known as “the Jungle”, has been demolished. But there’s also a streak of Western compassion. Britain has agreed to take in a few hundred unaccompanied children from the camp, who have families in the United Kingdom, bypassing the complex procedures of providing proof from persecution, so the lofty values of Western civilisation are being upheld.
Ranking high among the most the most miserable countries in the world is Afghanistan. It ranks high in another dimension as well - receiving refugees, by now, an estimated 1.5 million this year, many of them expelled from rich countries of the West, where they have been refused asylum. The plight of refugees today cannot fail to bring to mind the painful moments of recent history. The United States was known as a haven for European immigrants, while oriental immigrants were excluded by law as soon as they became a significant presence and most of them were brought in as virtual slaves, like the first African immigration.
But even within favoured Europe, problems arose from the beginning. Benjamin Franklin, the leading American figure of the Enlightenment urged that Germans and Swedes should be excluded because they are too “swarthy”. But that proposal was put aside in the 19th century. Most of those fleeing from the awful Irish famine were treated almost as badly as African-Americans, but were finally absorbed, and the same for others. This lasted for as long as the country needed for the European population to settle what was taken from Native Americans. The first barrier to Europeans was in 1924, with Italians, Jews and other Southern and Eastern Europeans. That barrier lasted until 1965. And the consequences were dire, particularly for Jews, as Nazi Germany descended into depths of barbarism. In 1938, the Evian conference was feeble and failed international effort to deal with the flight of Jews in Nazi Germany.
The one enthusiast was Adolf Hitler, who expressed his hope that “the world, which has such deep sympathy for these criminals [Jews], would at least be generous enough to convert this sympathy into practical aid. We, on our part, are ready to put all these criminals at the disposal of these countries for all I care, even on luxury ships.” Only the Dominican Republic and Costa Rica were willing to offer help. The result was a green light for genocide. And even after the war, the Holocaust survivors were still living in concentration camps under miserable conditions, and there was no longer any question about the hideous crimes. The barriers were maintained, an ugly story that should be better known, and one that tells us something about Western values that are coming to the fore again today.
One partial exception to the general pattern for refugee absorption today by the poorest countries is Turkey. An OECD member, with a modern, developed and highly productive society, but also at the low end of the OECD, and still reality poor in the social and economic development. In the United Nations Human Development Index, Turkey is ranked 72nd, even below Lebanon and Iran, another country that has absorbed much of the refugees of the Western rampage in the region. Turkey houses 2.5 million refugees, including the bulk of those fleeing Syrian horrors, 90% of these are estimated to be women and children. Turkey has now largely closed its doors to the tens of thousands of desperate people fleeing the latest horrors, which are so grotesque right now in Aleppo, under the cruel aerial assault by the Assad government and its Russian ally. Tens of thousands of them are stranded at the border, with many more to come.
In response, the rich European countries pressure and bribe Turkey to absorb even more refugees and to keep them away from their borders, while harshly condemning Turkey for closing its own borders. I’m no fan of President Erdogan, but his charges of hypocrisy [against European leaders] are hardly without merit. The September report of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees outlines the scale of the Syrian migrant crisis - some 11 million Syrians have fled their homes in the past five years of escalating destruction. 13.5 million Syrians are in need of humanitarian assistance within Syria. Almost 5 million have fled to Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt, and Iraq, while 6.5 million are internally displaced within Syria. One million have requested asylum in Europe. The top receiving countries of the European Union are Germany, with more than 300,000 accumulated applications; others have a much more pathetic record. The United States is far behind, having absorbed only a few thousand.
The US is not only the richest and most powerful country in world history, with incomparable advantages, but also has major responsibility for generating the refugees. The record for Britain is hardly better, and part of the motive for Brexit seems to make the record even worse. We should never overlook the fact that the US-UK invasion of Iraq, the source of a large part of the migrant crisis today, was a text-book example of criminal aggression without any credible pretext. In the words of the chief American prosecutor in Nuremberg, justice Robert Jackson, “to initiate a war of aggression is not only an international crime, it is the supreme international crime, differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of all of the evil that follows.” He was speaking of Nazi Germany, but the words apply to the present situation, in this case, not only to destruction of Iraq, but also the incitement of sectarian conflict that’s tearing Iraq and the entire region apart, and the generation of millions of refugees from the invasion itself, and those fleeing the aftermath including the appearance of the monstrous ISIS. The West could also do well to listen to Justice Jackson’s stern words for the Nuremberg tribunal. He said “we must never forget that the record on which we charge these defendants is the record on which history will judge us tomorrow. To pass these defendants a poisoned chalice is to put it to our lips as well. We can now judge how well the Western civilisation has risen to this challenge.
These reflections apply not just to the torrential flight of refugees from Iraq and its aftermath, but also to the refugee crisis generally. It’s a rather striking fact that the countries with the least responsibility for generating refugees are handed the responsibility of somehow caring for them, while those with the greatest responsibility for generating refugees are self-absolved. That holds not only for refugees fleeing the Middle East disasters, but also the refugees fleeing the wreckage left by US intervention in Central America and those fleeing Honduras, the leading source of refugees since the Obama-backed military coup of 2009 that expelled the reformist president and restored the harsh, brutal rule of the traditional elites, turning Honduras into one of murder capitals of the world. And the US reacted much the same way Europe is, pressuring and bribing Mexico to keep the victims away from its borders. The same reflections apply to the huge flood of refugees from Africa to Europe, including the 4,000 who have already drown in the Mediterranean this year in their desperate flight. Here too, of course, there is a history stretching back hundreds of years, reaching right to the present, which we should not have to review, and which underscores another severe moral crisis for the West.
The general attitude of Western civilisation towards this history was revealed rather clearly in the US global planning at the end of WWII. It was understood by planners that the US would be displacing its European predecessors as the dominant global power and naturally, careful plans were laid about how to organise the world. The general picture was well described by Henry Kissinger, he put it “Europe and others should focus on their regional interests, while the United States, which has global interests and responsibilities, will manage the global framework of order, serving as the respected and legitimate law enforcer that the world needs.” Each region was assigned its functions within the global system. The function of South East Asia was to provide resources and raw materials to the former colonial masters and the United States. When it turned to Africa, it had little interest in the continent, so it should be handed over to Europe to exploit - for the European reconstruction. Economic development was added, but that was a window dressing and not to be considered seriously. It was suggested as well that exploitation of Africa would lend to the idea of Western European Union that tangible objective for which everyone has been rather unsuccessfully grasping in recent months. In other words, the kind of a psychological lift, while the United States was taking responsibility for the overall framework of global order. The plans are considered to be unremarkable. I have found no mention of the idea that, after many horrific centuries, Europe’s relation to Africa should be to exploit Africa for Europe’s reconstruction from war-time damage.
This is by no means ancient history, it continues to the current period, in ways that we should know very well. And it’s a prime reason why Africans are seeking to escape to the lands of their traditional tormenters, creating a refugee crisis or, more accurately, adding another layer to the moral crisis that Europe is facing. The more immediate reason for the current flood of African immigrants is the attack on Libya, initiated by France and Britain, and led from behind by the United States. The attack on Libya greatly increased casualties, by a factor of ten, according to the analysis in the major US establishment journal, Foreign Affairs. The attack also opened a flood of weapons and jihadis primarily to Western Africa, now the leading center of Islamic terror, according to UN figures. The attack also helped ISIS establish an African base and it opened a funnel for the flood of refugees to Europe, creating the crisis of immigration.
It is a considerable interest, that throughout the Libya crisis, the African Union put forth serious and feasible proposals for peaceful diplomatic settlement, which might well have avoided the catastrophe. These have been reviewed in details in the scholarly literature, which also points out that the proposals were ignored by France, Britain and United States, who were intent on pursuing their traditional mission. For the masters of the world, Northern Africa is not a regional interest of Africa, but rather of Europe and more generally of NATO, now that it’s mission has been expanded after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Another relevant question is whether Africa might have developed had it not been for Western conquest. Perhaps so. One of the leading historians on Africa, Basil Davidson, wrote that modernising reforms in West Africa in the mid-19th century were similar to those implemented in Japan at about the same time. He argues that the potential for development was in substance no different from the potential realised by the Japanese after 1867. He comments that the same object was before them, but the Africans’ attempt was ruthlessly crushed and their plans frustrated by imperial force. West Africa, therefore, joined the Third World, but not Japan: the one part of the Global South that resisted colonisation and the one part that developed with its colonies. Japan was brutally colonised, but its former colonies - Taiwan and South Korea, have followed the state-led development programs that Japan had borrowed from Britain and the United States, rejecting the Western-imposed neoliberal model. 60 years ago South Korea was at about the economic level of Ghana. The outcomes are quite different. Taiwan as well. And of course, China, which also rejected the Western development programs designed for the colonial and post-colonial world.
Questions like these should be explored when confronting the moral crisis, which the migrant flow has created in the West. The migrant crisis extends far beyond the flight of refugees from violence, chaos and harsh repression. The huge droughts are already threatening survival for hundreds of millions of people. And there are also factors in some of the most horrendous conflicts, as in Darfur and Syria. Some 25 million people are displaced by disasters such as floods and storms every year, with predicted and increasing effect of global warming. That’s one person every second. Considerably more than those fleeing war and terror. And the numbers are bound to increase. Particularly as the huge Antarctic glaciers continue to melt. In Bangladesh alone, tens of millions of people are expected to have to flee, in coming years from low-lying plains because of severe sea level rise. Weather creating a migrant crisis that will make today’s pale into insignificance. Once again, this coming crisis of immigration poses a severe moral crisis for the rich societies. With considerable justice, Bangladesh’s leading climate scientist says these migrants should have the right to move to the countries from which all these greenhouse gases are coming. Millions should be able to go the United States and other rich countries that have grown wealthy, while bringing about a new geological era marked by radical human transformation of the environment. These catastrophic consequences can only increase, not only for Bangladesh, but for all of South Asia, as temperatures, which are already intolerable for the poor, inexorably rise and the Himalayan glaciers melt, threatening the entire water supply for South Asia. Already in India, some 300 million people lack drinking water.
We may soon be facing indescribable catastrophes unless we act quickly and decisively.
Returning, finally, to Pope Francis’ words, migrants are indeed in danger, and severe danger, and we should be devoting ourselves to remediating their flight in all of the many ways that we can by addressing the causes of their flight, by greatly increasing humanitarian aid, by welcoming them into our midst.
And at the same time, we should be reflecting seriously on another familiar phrase - “physician, heal thyself.”
On Saturday, November 5th, Noam Chomsky presented the "Crises of Immigration" talk at the Palau de Congressos in Barcelona, within the framework of the Annual Guest Lectures of the UNU Institute of Globalization, Culture and Mobility (UNU-GCM). Denis Rogatyuk covered the lecture for Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.