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Image on Video: A European Crisis, or a humanity crisis?

Elsadig Elsheikh, the head of the Global Justice Program at the Haas Institute, presented, on Oct. 10, on his recent report on the global refugee crisis, titled "Moving Targets: An Analysis of Global Forced Migration." The talk, hosted by the Center for African Studies, provided an overview of contemporary and historical refugee crises, and contrasts the global responses to the displacement of people during World War Two with the current mass flow of refugees who are fleeing their homelands due to neo-liberal policies, land-grabs, conflict, and climate change.

At the talk, Elsheikh noted that in contrast to the numerous protections set up by international bodies following WWII for refugees, powerful countries are today shirking their responsibilities to accept and help refugees by building fences and shutting their borders. He also noted that contrary to common perception, the vast majority of refugees remain in countries in the global south, with Europe hosting a tiny fraction of more than 60 million refugees in the world.

Watch the talk here, and scroll down for a full transcript of the remarks. Download the PowerPoint presentation here.


Elsadig Elsheikh: Hello everybody. Thank you for the Center for African Studies. I always believed that they have the best venue for conversation and putting some of the vital issues that are related to the dark nations and the global south on the table. I'm really pleased to be here. And in the room my co-author is sitting right there. His name is Hossein Ayazi. He's a Ph.D student. And some other colleagues from the Haas Institute. So first of all I would just like to share with you how the talk will look like today. And I have to turn around sometimes. But I thought just to put in context why we did this report, and we go briefly through the major drivers for global forced migration. And I will explain why we call it forced migration versus global migration, or immigration. And also, because the report covers a huge area of issues I'm not able to go over each one of them, but to give them a coherency I would like to suggest just how the problem arose historically and contemporarily, very briefly, and what the reality of where those displaced persons or refugees are located despite the narrative we have in the world that it seems in a particular region. And lastly we have modest policy interventions that we thought might contribute to re-envision a new regime for refugee protections.

First of all I will start with the title and why we call it 'Moving Targets.' We deeply believe that the person who's been displaced as a refugee suffers the most the dehumanization process in their homeland, in the country of transition, and where they settle. Always they've been the target, even though they never chose to be a refugee or displaced person or asylum seeker and we thought that it seems from our understanding as investigators and researchers in this project that it’s nation states in recent years, especially probably in the last 50 years or so, that started to target citizens or noncitizens for their own political failures. You see that in countries that produce refugees or the countries that host refugees, so it's a hot commodity for both the political elite on both sides of the spectrum. But also before I start I would like to share with you a trailer from the Chinese director Ai Weiwei a new movie that he conducted in almost 23 countries around the globe to just look at these massive scales of human displacement. The trailer is only about two and half minutes.


Being a refugee is much more than a political status. It is the most pervasive kind of cruelty that can be exercised against a human being. You are forcibly robbing this human being of all aspects that would make human life not just tolerable but meaningful in many ways. The more immune you are to peoples' suffering, that's very, very dangerous. It's critical for us to maintain this humanity. 


If children grow up without any hope, without any prospects for the future, without any sense of them being able to make something out of their lives, then they will become very vulnerable to all sorts of exploitation including radicalization.


The officials came here and told them, 'look there's no way you're gonna get papers to continue, either you go voluntarily or we arrest you.'

It's going to be a big challenge to recognize that the world is shrinking and people from different religions, different cultures are going to have to learn to live with each other.

[Trailer ends]

When we start to think about this project, we've been about six of us thinking through this project since the beginning of 2016. Myself and another colleague, she's not here, Nadia Barhoum, we went to Lebanon to meet with some of those refugees from different countries and later she traveled to Greece three times, conducted massive interviews, just to see first hand people in Lesbos in Athens and Thessaloniki, to see how they settle in, and always the outcome was really just shocking all the time. The fundamental inquiry that we based our research on is we wanted it to humanize this massive amount of people because by dehumanizing refugees we dehumanize ourselves. We don't do anything else. And it seems across the board this was the common denominator. Refugees being accused of, being blamed for anything wrong in our nations, across the board, whether in Africa, Asia, the most advanced economies in Europe, particularly Europe, and in United States as we see unfolding since last year. But it seems to us that in late 2015, particularly in December the tragedy of asylum seekers, or refugees to European countries appeared to reach the public consciousness, particularly after two incidents that circulated widely in global media.

One is the story of the boat carrying about 2,000 refugee migrants from the shore of the African continent to Italy sank in the Mediterranean and over 1,200 people died that day, or drowned. And the second was even more terrifying to people, was the image of Aylan Kurdy, three years old. I refuse to put that image that shows him out on the shore, but I [prefer] rather to show his humanity over here, and that's his brother who also drowned along with their mother. So it appeared those two incidents shocked the European public consciousness and across the Atlantic on this side. But for us, from our research that we see that this crisis and tragedy has been in the making for such a long time but it was far away from our public consciousness and that suggested to us why that was the case, why we always ignore the suffering of those people who for many aspects they did not choose to do so, or to take a risk to travel in unsafe boats, they might survive or not. When we looked at the conditions that they lived through it was suggesting that they might also die while they are there and those are what we call the major drivers of global forced migration and at the outset I said I will explain why we call it forced migration because it's not by choice, and I hope the people in the room just, we can agree on this premise. This context of these people are not choosing to migrate. There is no option. And if any one of us are put under those circumstances, at least this is according to the interviews I conducted, I asked them, 'Why in the hell did you do that, how, what were you thinking to cross all this by foot for three months.'

I met a guy in the UK in London, he was telling me it took him three months to cross from Sudan to come to London, and mostly, 80% of the time, was on foot. And when he recounted the map and the countries, I said 'You are insane.' I said 'What's the purpose?' He said because if I stayed I will be killed. I will die. And at least I attempt to save myself in order to sustain myself and to help support my family. So the notion that immigrants, refugees, are coming here to take what we have is the most absurd thing. Because one of the first conditions, the reason they left, was because we took what they have, and make their lives extremely unbearable. Not necessarily us as individuals, but we will see that when we talk about those drivers. It might be harder for you to see this but it's in the report. And I'll try to just mention a few. Yeah it's very hard to see. But one of the, after six months of looking at the research and the issues surrounding why people move, we started to create this diagram to understand why people move. So we came up with a thematic area first, we didn't look at the one on the left. We tried to figure out what was the driver for each one of those, according to what we see unfolding on the world stage. I can't even see it myself. [laughter] I'm going to use this one, if I can read it. But mainly it was major drivers situated here which include privatization and financialization and carbon-based economy and modification of nature.

All this exacerbated, facilitated by neoliberalism since 1970. We can, if you really want to ask me anything, you can stop me and ask me what does that mean. Those kind of dynamic forces were unfolding particularly in the global south countries. And there's ample literature, that's not our claim, but it was suggested today, for example, the World Bank, one of the creators of this model, in 2001 came to acknowledge that the structural adjustment program was a complete failure and resembled, almost, colonial policy that was inflicted in African countries. So that's the creator of institutions. But today we have not departed from that notion yet. We are still there. So this condition created a lot of pressure on people, especially rural communities in the global south. But also governments, even national governments that sincerely wanted to do good in their own nation, they were unable to do so because of the conditionality of the law they obtained from foreign international institutions like, whether the World Bank or monetary international fund. What is it? [Audience]: International Monetary Fund.

Here you go. IMF. So those conditions paralyzed those governments from taking care of their own basic fundamental way of life in those countries. And every time will arise a new phenomenon. One that arose in 2000-2004 probably was the massive land grab which I will talk about a little bit down the road. But all of these conditions, the idea that we can have infinite growth based only on oil and extraction and exploitation of natural resources and the natural world that we could sustain the world. And the disaster that we inflicted upon our environment and climate, contributed to those massive difficulties and made their lives extremely unbearable. And violent conflict wasn't one of the characteristics of those nations, but it is the outcome of the scarcity of natural resources. So imagine a rural community that used to raise their cattle or producing their own food suddenly that piece of land is shrinking and it gets extremely hard for them to access water or other land by whatever means whether natural means or the expansion of land grabbing their regions, so they will enter into a conflict with the neighboring community, a neighboring community might spill over into another border, or another region, so we see those internal conflicts start to appear on the inter-state stage and suddenly we have that manipulation that we see by the elite of those places within a national government or otherwise to utilize or to manipulate ethnic divisions or religion divisions or otherwise with skin tone in order to keep people divided and to control what they wanted to control at the end.

And just by that dynamic, immediately we see a policy of exclusion start to appear in those countries, maybe one of the most ugly examples we see today is what's happening to the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. If you just look even deeper beneath the surface level of the conversation, of course they have been persecuted because they are different, but that wasn't the only reason why the Rohingya are being persecuted in Burma or in Myanmar. They are located in the most fertile land in that country. So they are being persecuted for such a long time by the elite of the Burmese state to push them away from that land and in order to justify that, they create or exploit the division between the Buddhists and Muslims and they deny their citizenship for such a long period of time. This is not happening in the last year, but probably in the last century or so, that the Rohingya Burmese in Myanmar suffer a great deal of exclusion. And we see that in many other countries too, for example the residents of Dominican Republic of Haitian descent that are being pushed out by the Dominican Republic to be relocated back to Haiti two years ago. This is another example of denying citizenship based on how you look or where you come from even though these people have their children born in that country.

And you see that in Cote d'Ivoire in West Africa and you see that in one of the longest conflicts happening in Palestine/Israel, the way in which occupation politics and practices of the Israeli state are inflicted upon the Palestinian people. So wherever you look you see this structure of exclusion being put in place. Also, another one of the elements that we see today, neoliberalism really facilities the creation of an elitist economy, especially a globalized economy that's benefited only the few, and this is not just true in the United States or Europe, but true everywhere. But it seems it comes back here at the later stage, but that's the story of most of these places that produce more refugees. And also lastly to tie all this up, the whole way of developing independent economies in those places or interchangeably with other nations is really not sustainable. By no means, no way you can sustain this mode of production or this mode of development plans, so always there will be a dead end, whether that's in food, whether that's in culture, whether that's in trade, or set up a service sector at the fundamental base for economy. So we see that manufacturing being completely abandoned, in those economies, including the United States. The devastation we see in rural and mid-America is the result of de-manufacturing all these places, so there's nothing. So again, elitists, in order to be able to reap the benefits of economic globalization, the majority of people are left behind. And all of this together creates another sentiment as you know for years, Islamophobia, xenophobia, all this, I believe, sentiment that we see to blame somebody else beside our failed political and economic project.

But like I said in the beginning, forced migration has historical backgrounds and contemporary backgrounds. So I will mention three of each very briefly. So the history of accumulation on violence that appear in most countries of the south, particularly the African continent and South America, the Caribbean and Asian nations, what was very foundational for the development of the economic prosperity of Europe and "The New World," whether that was also settler-colonial society including Canada, United States, Australia, New Zealand and also including Japan. So that history also manifested around the idea of pushing "the native" out of their land. So this forced migration has that long, long history weaved into that colonial apparatus of the empires. But particularly the enslavement of African peoples, the US has a huge setback on the society in the African continent, and they have to pay that burden for many generations. I agree that colonialism died except in one place or two, yet it is colonial mentality that still resides and still creates unfavorable conditions for the society to move on. And the second piece of that historical context is World War Two, which many in this country, we call it the good war that we fought against fascism and Naziism. And indeed people gave a lot of their lives to support a humane society. And during that time within the context of migration and forced migration, most nations, including the US and Europe, being guided by two particular principles, that morality and political will to help and assist and create a good condition for all people being forcibly displaced within Europe. During that time probably around 60 million people being displaced and forced out of their own natural habitat and their societies, so the international community with the leadership of United States, Soviet Union and other European countries had been able to create certain protocols and agreements that assisted to create this humane refugee protection regime. That includes the universal declaration of the United Nations in 1948, and many refugee conventions that followed it after that year in 1951, 1954, and 1961, and also included 1967 the protocol related to the statutes of refugees.

So all this consolidated refugee regime was very humane in creating really good conditions to absorb this tragedy, that the people on the move were a part of, perpetrated, again by their elite and their governments for completely different reasons. But that's to suggest today that when we look today, which I will come back to again, is what's the difference between those conditions that allowed government to have the political will and morality to create a very appropriate regime to protect the refugees and the displaced, but now we don't. What changed? As a researcher I investigated this in depth within the literature that is available. It seems to me [what changed was] the identity of the newcomers and the countries of origin. These two fundamental things became an issue for the Europeans and the United States and other societies. That's including countries in the south, like for example, the Gulf Arab countries, China and Russia. All of them are not absorbing enough according to their own means and capacity that they have. So to suggest that again we are building those structural barriers within our own societies of who we will allow in and not, and who we consider even reaching that level of humanity, or tomorrow might be a citizen or not. So all these structural barriers that seem to have been abandoned or been recreated the current status, but during World War Two, that wasn't the case. So the European refugees had the possibility to resettle and to have better outcomes. Another historical element is during the Cold War and particularly the race between the United States and the USSR. So always, if we look, these are stats from the State Department. We manipulated it a little bit to figure out who is the majority of people coming in the United States since 1975, but it seems to be following the same patterns.

When the United States had a particular war in a particular area, but also fighting "communism," it seems people from those places were allowed to come in by large numbers. We can see the largest if you combine those two will indicate that the Indochina war against Vietnam, Laos and that region. And also, just even by observation you see a lot of people from Latin America and the Caribbean indicated also the people of Cuba, if the United States is hostile to the Cuban regime [the US] will allow more Cubans to come and settle in. And you will see the Africans in dark green were very few, even though they experienced turmoil through the same era. So that's to suggest that even the setup of the regime of refugee protection during the Cold War was really for political utility. It has nothing to do with morality and humanity and humanitarian intervention. But I'm not gonna say that the United States and Europe always shut their doors in front of the people who need protection. That's not true. That's not true at all. They did [open their doors], but indeed governments at very critical points have been able to allow, to pick and choose, or to allow favorably people that are defectors from the socialist club. So that for them is another ideological propaganda that we have people come from the evil side to the more civilized side. So that's one of the main arguments during the Cold War. But again, I just really would like to underscore that does not mean that the same nations did not allow and accept refugees based on humanitarian grounds but there is a manipulation of those numbers.

So going back to the contemporary three major drivers of global refugees, in particular, there are many, but in particular one we touch upon is a structural adjustment program and its manifestation in the land grab. This is from Land Matrix, they are the only authority in the world collecting data on land being sold or grabbed by foreign entities, whether a government or a company, and the dot is not related to the size but to the locations. So till the time of this data, which till last week, there are a verified 220 million hectares that have been grabbed, leased or taken from communities. 70 percent of those are located in the African continent. And actually in sub-Saharan Africa. So that suggests that if we look at the origin of today's migrants, even if there is no war, let's assume that, their livelihoods, the possibility that they settle in their own [lands] became almost impossible. The majority of people in sub-Saharan Africa rely on the agricultural sector. So where will they go? Where will they move? How can they feed themselves? But that's not only just African countries. Other places have also been impacted greatly. And there's also many other dynamics within this, but I thought this is the most obvious, and people seem to just forget about it while dealing with the refugee crisis.

And the second piece has to do with the securitization. Securitization, just to keep everybody on the same page for us means states' condition of heightened security in the name of national security and national interest. And the states need strategically to manage expulsion, deportation, resource and power conflicts, and citizenship rights. So it seems in the few past decades of neoliberalism that, especially, particularly after 9/11, this war on terror became so prevalent all over the world. So in Ethiopia when they tried to fight against land defenders they legislated a terrorism law. So imagine that if a rural activist tried to defend his or her community and actually there is a case in court and the activist has been tried and sent to 15 years in jail in Ethiopia because they just defend the right against land grab. So they use even that as the law of terror for the persecution of minority group fall under the same thing. Even though this was created by United States for obvious reasons, but it seems the proliferation of this spans around the globe. And now we are almost nil, we're talking about state terrorism, but we talk about how the state wants to protect itself from terrorists whether an internal enemy or external enemy. And it seems most of the time it's bogus and unfounded exacerbation of fear of our national interest and a nation being a jeopardy. So we see this in many places, from Afghanistan to Colombia to the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Myanmar, Palestine, in South Sudan, Syria, Yemen and the list goes on and on and on. If you look at every single country of those and we looked into them, we find there is a war on terror going on somewhere and especially claimed by the state, have nothing to do with the people who have been inflicted upon them and those types of wars produce the majority of people who have been displaced today. So when you count again the people who've been on the move, you find them from these countries that I've mentioned, primarily.

So there is a quiet relationship between this idea of securitization, or patriotism or war on terror, or securing our border or national interests or geopolitical interests vis-a-vis the forced migration phenomena. So both of them are link together because without the first, the displaced person, their numbers, they might be the same numbers I'm not quite sure, but definitely it's not going to be because of instability. It might be because of other issues related to economic instability or climate crisis. The third element is climate crisis. As we all know that most of the nations that suffered greatly and became extremely vulnerable to environmental change and climate crisis are countries more or less that have nothing to do with creating the problem in itself. I should wrap it up. So our idea is to look at the 10 most countries that polluted or contributed to the emission of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. I mean there's many arguments, we can talk about how climate crisis came to exist but this is one of the elements that we have data to suggest who is contributing more, and in reality and how other people suffer the greatest turmoil. So most of the vulnerable countries are located in the global south or small nation states, there is no way for them to protect themselves from the vulnerability in their geographical location. And the climate crisis in itself created, as I stated in the beginning, massive displacement as well, a ripe condition. For livelihood, most nations in the global south rely on agricultural production, or food production. All this became extremely tied, extremely vulnerable sector and abandoned by the policy of structural adjustment programs that defunded all mega structures in agricultural sectors of rural communities so the two collide. Economic plans that are failing plus climate crisis that is exacerbating the livelihoods of people to stay in their homeland. I got to move quickly.

Here became the major question that related to the title of the talk. Is this a European refugee crisis, or really is it a humanity crisis? Any three clicks of research you will find out that Europe does not, even the global north as a whole, does not host more than 16% of over 63.5 million people. It does not, according to what research says through international agencies. So why is there a fuss about it? That's the critical question. Global south countries are hosting the majority of these people, almost 84% of the 60 million people. And you will be shocked to see countries that are extremely vulnerable, extremely vulnerable, like Lebanon. Of each 5 (people in Lebanon) one of them is a refugee. It's unbelievable a country that suffers from its own instability, but it's been able to host, absorb 20% of its size of its population as refugees. Do they do a good job? That's questionable. But at least they didn't shut the door, and they have the capacity to shut the door, but they don't. Other countries that have the capacity in the region like Saudi Arabia, do they do that (open the door to refugees)? No, they launch war against a vulnerable country? Yes they do that. They do that with the protection of superpowers and European liberal democracy as well. So it's very questionable about our humanity and how we continue shutting doors in the face of this massive human tragedy. If we look vis-a-via 100% of inhabitants, again we see the same countries of the south, maybe with the exception of Sweden, who are the major countries that host refugees. In the report there's a detailed narrative about those countries. You can download it online as well, both of these infographics.

But this is again, it shows we lack the political will and morality vis-a-vis humanitarian international law and the way in which we think about the protection, providing protection for the most vulnerable among our fellow humans. Our inability to be able to create a coherent or coordinated effort to absorb this tragedy is far removed from our leaders’ agenda. It has nothing to do, there is no one country that can absorb this massive human movement, and anybody that has any logic cannot ask any country, Germany or otherwise, no one can do that. But this is, it comes in one of our ideas of further suggestions. But the most critical piece of this is we believe that, if this is really a European crisis, I think I misplaced some of the slides,  instead of going further in thinking through a coordinated effort and policy in the EU or in European nations, the 28 countries of the EU, it seems that Europe is going to build massive borders and fences within their own nations, even though they are the European Union that diminishes the national borders for their citizens, so it's very contradictory in nature, and there's many claims by almost neo-fascist leaders on the world stage like in Hungary or Poland that's 'we are here to defend the Christianity of Europe against these infiltrators.' It's insane, I mean it's publicly stated and publicly debated and brought into the European Parliament so it's not, I'm not suggesting or accusing, but this is the reality and facts and that's another piece of this massive human tragedy, what can take us to where. When we start to blame the newcomer and build all these fences.

This is old data from the Washington Post, but if I look today maybe there will be more fences that they've built or tried to build in more than 10 countries in Europe. So fence in Europe is not far away from our framework of analysis that force migrants being treated as a political utility for internal crisis. Whether that's for European Union institutions, whether that was after the financial meltdown, and the Greek crisis, or Brexit or whose exit, I don't know, or who's staying in Europe. But in dealing with the hardcore question of economic prosperity and wealth-sharing in Europe, it seems there's the deviation to blame somebody else and, we see the rise of nationalist movements that really reminded us of the condition of pre-World War Two, so it's not a scare tactic, but it seems, I hate to say this, that historical condition repeats itself in some places, including our own nation, so we need to be conscious of that front. So I will go quickly, so to wrap it up to allow time for your comments and feedback and suggestions. It seems this kind of a human tragedy is insolvable by one actor or one nation or one body, so we believe from the community level to the interstate level and the global level there needs to be a real coordinated effort just to do that.

But the fundamental issue we think that we need really to reassess is the whole entire refugee protection regime. What we created in the 1950s and early 60s, it doesn't seem responsive enough, capable enough of dealing with this new human tragedy. We need to figure it out, there is no magic solution here, but if there is a will, and if there are morality standards, we could come up with a coherent way in which to look at how we could create right, appropriate, global refugee [regimes] to protect the most vulnerable among us, and that could include something we are not doing at the moment. For example in countries that in the global south host the most vulnerable, we could provide robust assistance and technical expertise. So for people not to have to cross and to go through hell in order to reach European shores or the United States or Canada or Australia, but they could be there, but in a humane condition. Not the condition that the European Union, providing like building refugee camps just like a concentration camp in sub-saharan Africa, and it's unbelievable to hinder refugees from reaching Libya or to get to the shore of Italy. This is not a humane or smart way of doing things. You cannot do that. That only increases human trafficking, abusing of fellow humans. The reports that come out of Libya and how the people go through Libya is just beyond belief when you hear testimony from people that go through that hell.

So, but that's what we have on the table right now. European Union bribing African countries to set up those kinds of concentration camps in order not to see the tragedy of forced migration. We really need to think deep about that. I'm not going to list all of them but they will be available for you if you would like, we will share the PowerPoint with you and the report also has the suggestions very well explained, but one of the most important pieces of it, we really need to think about the debt regime that really shackle most of those countries in any way shape or form to be able to move on with sustainable, appropriate development plans. So if we don't do that at the same time, thinking about new refugee regimes, I think we are just circling back in the same position so we are never gonna get out of it. And similarly, we need to increase collaboration between the private sector, NGO sector, humanitarian organizations, state, locality, and international agencies. And in particular we think that refugees themselves have to have some representation in the matter. My colleague when she went to Greece last summer, one of the hurdles is most refugees in that particular camp, all of them spoke Arabic. Most of the aid organizations they come in from Europe. There is no way even understanding what those people their fears are or their conditions or what they need, and culturally inappropriate conversations traumatize them even more. So even set up just that kind of capacity building, refugees themselves could be helped to have some kind of capacity in order to help other refugees as well.

And the more we include them in thinking about this kind of solution, these are not imaginary things. I worked with a group of refugees in Beirut, Lebanon. They created their own foundation and they're helping their own refugees. It's unbelievable their tenacity, their courage. They don't even want funding from large philanthropy. They want just to do the basic fundamental things like education, you know, knowing the laws in that particular place. They do that and there's many refugee organizations doing that run by refugees themselves. So with that I will leave it here, and I will welcome any comments, feedback, or questions. Thank you.