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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How to solve London’s immigration problem?

This week the Evening Standard organized a public debate on immigration in London where the speakers’ panel represented a wide variety of opinions which have been expressed in the public in the context of EU enlargement, upcoming General elections in 2015, London’s public services, multiculturalism, unemployment etc.

On the ‘no to immigration’ side the argument is that immigration hurts people at the bottom of the society – those local low-skilled British people with low-income, therefore London should be controlling immigration in terms of quantity and quality (they do not mind though having highly-skilled immigrants who make high added value to the economy and boost UK economy’s competitiveness globally). They say that in the last 10 years about 1 million people have come to London which creates a massive pressure on the public/ social services here – health care, schools, transport system, housing and employment opportunities. Those who oppose immigration argue that whilst London celebrates its multiculturalism, there are also lots of segregation, safety problems due to immigration; it makes downward pressure on wages and increases competition for public services.

Those who support immigration argue that immigrants make greater net contribution to the economy than local people. They also challenge the very concept of who the pure British person is as almost every Londoner can name their own ancestors coming from another country and culture. They say that British people are just lazy, spoiled, with different work ethics and salary expectations than the immigrants. Local people lack technical skills and therefore building and construction sector, which is one of the drivers of economic growth, is attracting lots of immigrants who can easily out-compete and outperform the local people. Is this the fault of UK education system or the people itself? I guess, that’s one of the ‘1 million dollar’ questions.

But, what i really missed in this discussion and all the other public debates on immigration generally, is a perspective of an immigrant. And, not only that but an ability to see this ‘problem’ or ‘phenomenon’ (whichever word you use; depends on how optimistic or pessimistic one is) in a much wider, global context. Human workforce rotates around capital, therefore – the higher the concentration and centralization of capital (London – the centre of global capital market!), the higher attraction of people to the place where this capital is. It’s a common sense. And it is fair. One country cant support and gain from freedom of movement of capital on the basis of the competitiveness of the business without supporting and accepting also the freedom of movement of labour/ human capital. If that’s not the case, then it’s a robbery on a global scale.

If UK and London really thinks that it cant have endless streams of people coming over to live on this island (there have been worries of overcrowding), then it should be ready to promote more equal distribution of the capital (de-liberalization of the financial markets, closing tax havens to prevent multinational companies from avoiding tax in countries where they work, stopping race-to-the bottom etc), let other countries to grow (prefer fair over free trade and not promote brain-drain) and therefore prevent people from moving (they will have good enough jobs back home). London should admit that there is a direct correlation between it’s concentration of global wealth and concentration of global population. If London thinks there are limits as to how big it can grow in terms of its population, then probably the sad truth is that there are also limits as to how big financial/ capital centre London can become.

From immigrant’s perspective, London or UK is definitely not the place where one would move because of the weather or nice climate; also, London is very fast-pace, competitive, stressful, expensive. So many people (just imagine all the Caribbeans, Italians and Spanish! they suffer here) would simply prefer to stay where they are but due to the economic situation in their home countries, they are coming over to London for jobs.

If UK really wants to limit immigration, it should think of ways then how it can help improve employment opportunities in the countries from where the most immigrants come. That will not only improve UK’s image, but also support growth of other economies, let people make enough money to prevent them coming over to UK and give then more jobs to the local people in UK. Everyone will be happier!

Another solution i would offer is increasing the minimum salary to a level when even doing the simplest job – cleaning, shop assistant, picking and packaging berries etc – will let someone to earn decent salary to live a decent life without relying on social services (check out Norway as a case study). It will increase the costs for businesses, but it will also then maybe solve the problem of dependency of British economy on immigrants who are not work-shy and are ready to work for 5-6GBP/ hour. For candidates in the next General elections it is now a political choice: to stay on the side of British people (getting votes) or British/international businesses (getting financial support).

on Cameron’s immigration saga

Whenever David Cameron complains about the immigrants in UK from other EU countries, he should be reminded that because of the same 4 freedoms of European internal market (movement of goods, services, capital and persons) which allow EU citizens to come and live/work in UK, 1) about 1.5 million British citizens can study, work and retire in the EU without requiring a work permit; 2) about 48-50% of the UK exports of goods and services are going to the other 26 member states, 3) ‘golden goose’ City of London can flourish selling its products and attracting investment (about 40% of new financial institutions are choosing London as their headquarters in the past seven years).

If David Cameron is a true believer in competitiveness then ‘pick-and-choose’ approach is obvious hypocrisy. People will always follow capital, therefore the more unequal EU will become through aggressive ‘race-to-the-bottom’ competition for investment, lower taxes and looser regulation, the higher concentration of capital in places like UK will take place and attract masses of people from other EU countries.

on immigration

This week British mass media have again relaunched the debate on immigration in a response to recent remarks from Tories about limiting flows of immigrants from the new EU countries (this time particular focus is on Bulgaria and Romania) as they will very likely put an extra pressure on UK’s social budget. Since I am living in UK, i have not really heard an honest discussion about immigration which has not been taken out of much bigger context. Therefore, i felt i need to make a point, and so I did and the Evening Standard also published it yesterday. Your thoughts?

immigration

Cameron does not like immigration. But what about causes??

British Prime Minster Cameron today has angered people especially his Coalition partners by re-opening the dabate on the sensitive issue of UK immigration policy. Tories unlike Lib Dem want to limit the immigration in order to avoid creation of a society where people are unable to speak English or unwilling to integrate thus making a “kind of discomfort and disjointedness”.

Indeed, on average about 1/3 of Londoners are born abroad and potentially many of them have difficulties to integrate in society due to lack of English language skills and their general ability to find a job and become an active members of community.There are thousands of them who depend on British social benefits and are clearly ‘takers’ rather than ‘givers’.

However, Cameron is hypocritical. Most likely, consciously. Why? The more competitive UK will be, the less competitive will be other countries, especially the ones, from where the non-English speaking poor immigrants are coming from. In a way UK governments acts, it is not a win-win game. It is a zero-sum game – the more someone is winning, the more someone else is losing. Moreover, if UK wants to win this game, it has to pay a price: if it wants to have the biggest and most successful business companies, the smartest students, the most advanced science, the most competitive tax system etc etc etc, it should understand that in such a way UK is not only getting richer, but it is also making some other countries poorer.

This redistribution of resources (financial, intellectual, human, economic, social) which is driven by wealthy countries results in having thousands, hundreds of thousands desperate, hopeless people leaving their home countries for UK or other wealthy countries to survive. If UK would do all it can to enable poorer countries to develop and provide decent, human social standards to their people, immigration would decrease. Tax policy (including disastrous tax havens’ system), aid policy, IMF (where UK has a relatively powerful voice), promotion of export in global South by depletion of their natural resources and privatization of profit by western multinationals, etc etc are just some of the areas which could make a huge difference.

Cameron should for once go and meet some immigrants and ask why they, first of all, have come to UK. He has to think a bit what are the causes. Why so many people leave their home countries? And, he will learn, that it is not about British weather, Big Ben, high prices or living in a different culture. For many this is escape, the only chance to stay alive, therefore he must understand that as one of the global leaders he is responsible for the causes of this problem partially created as well as maintained by UK. Dealing only with consequences will not stop immigration and all the side-effects Cameron is worried about. He should face the causes and see UK’s role in it.