About Aylan and your 10EUR T-shirt. What this refugee crisis is really telling us

Aylan Kurdi, a 3 years old Syrian refugee boy, who was found dead on Wednesday, September 2, laying on the beach near Bodrum, in Turkey and whose picture has gone viral shocking millions of people around the world, managed in an impressively extraordinary and stark way to tell and remind the developed world what it normally prefers not to see: people – a lot of innocent men, women, children, who dream and hope for happy, fulfilling lives, just like me and you – die every day as a result of war, conflict, insecurity, drought, famine, extreme poverty.

In the 21st century, when with wealth of information we wake up and go to sleep, Western world has developed and institutionalized a high degree of self-protection and self-censorship. Warning signs such as “this article/video contains images that readers/viewers may find distressing” have been introduced and considered as a norm to prevent people from being too disturbed, provoked, upset. If we don’t see things like suffering, pain, misery, hunger or death, we don’t know about it and do not feel connected or in any way responsible for what we see.

But, Aylan’s picture did not have this warning. And he was probably also white enough.

Its bluntness hit even the biggest cynics and sceptics. Mr Cameron, British Prime Minster, who has been trying very hard to reduce the number of refugees and immigrants coming to the UK, had to acknowledge that Aylan’s picture ‘deeply moved’ him.

But, before and after Aylan there have been many more children dying like this. Right in this moment there are about 60 million refugees worldwide escaping suffering, uncertainty, hunger, poverty and death. Many of them are refugees in their own countries. About 350,000 people, most of them from Somalia fleeing conflict and drought, currently reside in Dadaab, Kenya, the world’s biggest refugee camp. Lebanon with 4 million inhabitants is giving shelter to more than 1.5 million refugees from Syria and Palestine, which means – 27% of its total population are refugees. Also, Pakistan hosts about 1.6 million Afghan refugees. And, last but not least. Turkey is now hosting about 2 million refugees – half of total Syrian refugees.

In contrast, in 2013 28 EU countries together hosted less than 500,000 refugees and the USA was the only Western country, which made the list of the top 10 refugees’ hosting countries. This year more than 370,000 refugees arrived in Europe, which is about the same size as the total population in Dadaab camp.

Though many Western people have been deeply touched by Aylan’s death and have felt compassion for all the people searching safety, equally many people and governments have expressed concerns about the massive influx of refugees with wrong skin color, religion, and ethnicity, clothing, language, work ethics and moral values.

Moreover, dramatization or even criminalization of refugees seeking escape in Europe has transformed the initial ‘refugee crisis’ into ‘Europe’s security and economic crisis’, questioning refugees’ vulnerability and safety at home and presuming that many refugees together with many more economic migrants (about 20 million non-EU migrants currently living in EU) just come to Europe because they want to live as good as Europeans.

And, here are few important questions we all need to ask:

  • why a Syrian, Sudanese or Afghan girl or boy does not deserve to live as good as a European boy or girl?
  • Let’s think further – why Syrian, Sudanese or Afghan girl CANT live as good as European girl in their home countries?
  • If they could live at home as good and safe as they can in Europe, would they leave their home country?

I will not discuss here ‘common sense’ things such as – on the basis of the international law, refugees have the right not to be penalised for illegally entering a country if they request asylum and if their safety cannot be assured in their home country. Each country can come up with their own policies and programmes to ensure adequate solutions, which meets refugees’ basic needs and takes into account host country’s context with regard to social integration, employment, social benefits, eventual repatriations etc. But, there is no question that refugees should not be given shelter. Criminalization of refugees is against any humanitarian principles and human rights.

But, there are much more fundamental things which Europeans need to understand when thinking about this migration phenomenon in a broader context and with longer-term perspective.

For centuries Europe particularly has been the lead driver of the globalization and internationalization on all levels. Europe together with the USA have been passionately spreading the uber-liberal ideology arguing that’s the magic door to wealth, wellbeing, never-ending growth etc. Moreover, especially since 1980s international trade, foreign direct investment, open societies, privatization, single markets, financialization of economy, global competitiveness and ‘race to the bottom’ have been the main tools developed and advanced by the Western countries to liberalize inter-state relations and bring the promised economic benefits.

However, as we all know, there is no such thing as free lunch. That development, high living standards and welfare, which western societies have experienced during the last decades, has a price. Somebody is paying for that.

Just stop for a moment.

Look at the t-shirt or top you are wearing, for which you probably paid 10EUR or 10GBP or even less if you bought it in Primark. Ok, some of you may have paid even 50 or 100 EUR but probably it is only because of the label or a bit better quality fabric. We probably all think, that paying double or triple price for that T-shirt would be too expensive, but from the other side – think about the person who made that 10EUR T-shirt. He might very likely be a 12 years old child working 10-14 hour long work day in a factory, which would not meet normal health and safety standards, and who gets paid few dollars a day for that. And, he does that because 1) we love ‘race to the bottom’ so therefore – he is the most competitive one selling his time and skills for the most competitive price, 2) he has essentially no other choice (his parents may not be able to send him to school) and 3) the western societies love buying things at the lowest possible price. But, we would not, of course, make those T-shirts in our own countries ourselves, because we have labour unions, labour rights, and we would not accept such a low pay as it would not allow us to normally survive and live. But, you see, for some reason we think that it is ok for that child in the developing country to do that. It is ok for our western companies to move all their production to the developing countries so they can utilize this cheap labour to satisfy us – greedy consumers who love bargains and 10EUR T-shirts.

How much of the things you wear or eat or otherwise consume are actually produced in the western country where even the lowest-paid staff could relatively well survive? Think about how much your wellbeing depends on the people who work, produce all these nice goods but still live in poverty?

(p.s. Those who love KitKat chocolate should read this article)

Where next

It is not about compassion and charity what these thousands and millions of refugees and migrants ask or deserve. Though in short term indeed they need shelter, food, safety, protection and opportunities to support themselves (and yes, this is why Europe has to demonstrate its solidarity and open its borders to those who search refuge), what is required more than ever is acknowledgment that the current economic system designed and advanced primarily by the rich countries is fundamentally reliant on poor countries and societies essentially subsidizing wealthier countries and lifestyle of Western societies via liberalized economy’s principles – race to the bottom/ competitiveness on global level, cheap labour, import of cheap raw materials, liberalization and internationalization of domestic markets, unfair and unsustainable tax system. There are more than 230 million migrants, which is more than 3% of the world’s population, who leave their home countries for better living. Nowhere near that number would have been that high if it was not for the unbalanced, unfair international economic system we have, deteriorating environmental situation and inhumane political regimes. We need to support refugees today, now, but tomorrow we need to rewrite the international rules to make them more progressive, fair and just.

Moreover, the foreign aid politics and business (135 billion USD a year) should be revamped and reorganized to ensure that it does not become as one of the cornerstones of the donor countries’ national export and foreign policy strategies. For example, USA is the biggest food aid donor, but all food has to be produced in USA. Who this food aid is helping more in the long term – American agriculture mega-businesses or developing countries? Also, UN Office for Humanitarian Affairs this year has received only 35% of the required funds to help those in need. Why we then feel surprised that certain humanitarian crises escalate to a level, which gets out of control?

It does not matter at which level – municipal, regional, national, European, international – we look, but we all know the truth – human capital will always follow resources. global wealth distributionLiberalization promotes centralization of these resources. Therefore there are only 2 options: either we accept that we need liberalization of movement of people to make it compatible with liberalization of movement of capital/ resources; or we reform our international trade/ tax/ investment laws embedding fair and just redistribution mechanisms, allowing countries around the world to develop and flourish. If we want to build walls for people, we will need walls for resources as well.

Some of the liberals would also argue that obviously many of the developing countries have failed to develop because of corruption, money laundering, waste of public funds etc. But, if you ask then Western countries to carry out progressive tax reform, which would end tax avoidance, evasion and dodging and terminate the harmful, massive network of tax havens, thus making it so much more difficult for corrupt politicians and large companies to do their dodgy things, then somehow enthusiasm to fix the problem disappears.

Maybe Aylan’s picture will become an alarm bell awakening the conscious of the Europeans to make them realize that the West is shaping both directly and indirectly the conditions how people live across the world and therefore their misery is often a consequence of our own decisions/ actions and choices. So, maybe it is guilt what we need to feel not compassion? Or if we can feel compassion for Aylan, can we also feel compassion for all those right now sewing jeans and 10EUR t-shirts we will buy tomorrow, or harvesting bananas or coffee beans, or working in horrible conditions to get those shrimps for our seafood sandwich? Jamie Oliver recently said if it was not for workers from abroad “every one of my businesses would close tomorrow”. And, how many Western businesses would close tomorrow if they could not produce their goods for cheap in China, India, Bangladesh, Ghana, Nicaragua, Mexico etc?

We need to understand that our wellbeing and our life style is largely based on the poverty, insecurity, vulnerability of other people. Even if we don’t know them and don’t see them, they are there. But you see – you never know, one day they may knock on your door because you never cared what they deserve for making your life so comfortable, so safe and so good.

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who should be benefitting from aid: receiver or giver?

I already wrote in April here about the controversial and ineffective US food aid programme, which delivers about 50% of all the international food aid. Today Foreign Policy Journal has published a great article on this matter illustrating the big dilemma US politicians face: to be effective (feed more people for the same amount of money) or save American jobs in agriculture and shipping industry sectors. Farm bill, which is currently under revision, is still an opportunity for food aid reform proponents to suggest/ make the long overdue changes, however lobbyists representing farmers and shipping industry may again kill this hope.

It is understandable that politicians are prioritizing interests of their citizens, but this is not what aid is about. Aid, which in essence is a voluntary transfer of resources from one country to another, should be given in a way which maximizes the benefits to the receiver not the giver. But at the moment US food aid is a substantial instrument to subsidize and support US agriculture sector (all US food aid should be produced in the US) and shipping industry (which is shipping all the food aid to the respective places around the world) rather than the actual beneficiaries. Moreover, up to 75% of funds spent on food aid may at the end stay in the hands of US businesses which eventually makes it very difficult to label this food aid as ‘aid’.

If all the food aid would be purchased/produced locally/ regionally and delivered based on the principles of efficiency, effectiveness and long-term empowerment only, it would:

  • improve local/ regional economies through employment, industrial and agricultural development, investment;
  • decrease the risk of harming/ crippling/ destroying local markets through dumping free food aid and creating dependency on free food;
  • improve carbon footprint, reduce transportation costs and deliver more environmentally-friendly aid;
  • improve local capacity and self-sufficiency to produce/ store/ transport and distribute food;
  • improve the quality of the food (countries and regions around the world have so diverse habits and traditions with respect to food; just imagine, if from tomorrow you, who loves pasta, had to eat lentils or corn and just that);

This is extraordinary example of hypocrisy and commercialization of aid undermining its core principles and aims.

will aid effectiveness win over US national interests?

International food assistance has been one of the areas with the most controversies regarding its effectiveness and side effects, therefore positively unexpected is this Obama’s proposal to reform USA food aid. As a result of this, i would say, revolutionary change the same amount of funds currently spent on food aid could feed extra 17 million people a year (!!!) and local food producers would become important actors of aid system and boost local economic development. The problem right now is that food aid given by USA should be produced in the USA and shipped to the respective countries by USA cargo ships.

Last year I already wrote here about problems with USAID and how in essence it functions as an US export industry promoter rather than an international aid instrument. Because of USAID’s massive budget (around USD 12 billion) a change proposal which Obama is putting forward would mean that food aid could be purchased locally which is more effective and rational, cheaper, quicker, environment-friendly (imagine all the cargo ships currently shipping all the food aid from the states to countries in need?) and most importantly – would help more people in need. Moreover, such an aid may enable more countries to get out of their vicious circle of dependence on aid; currently food aid is counter-productive in terms of developing/ advancing local food/ agriculture sector.

I will be closely following the 2014 US budget negotiations to see if this ‘better later than never’ proposal will be killed by US national interests (lobbyists defending interests of shipping, US agriculture, transport industry) or not..