Is the West responsible for the current Refugee Crisis?
Despite the lack of recent coverage by the media, the world is still in the midst of the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, there are currently 68.5 million forcibly displaced people across the globe and around 25.4 million of them are refugees. Of these vast numbers, approximately 5.2 million reached Europe by the end of 2016. Causes of the modern refugee crisis are diverse but some of the most common factors leading to people fleeing their home country are the fear of persecution based upon their race, religion, political beliefs or sexual orientation. Many are simply fleeing humanitarian crises caused by war, hunger or climate change.
The sheer scale of this crisis has resulted in the tightening of immigration and asylum laws as well as an increase in anti-refugee sentiment in many Western countries. Recently, the world has seen the Supreme Court ruling upholding President Trump’s infamous travel ban and the French National Assembly’s tough new immigration law that will make the rules around asylum claims stricter. But while the West closes its doors to refugees and asylum seekers, is it possible that they have a greater role in the refugee crisis than they might like to admit? Has the West erased it from its collective memory, shaken off any responsibility and closed the doors to its victims?
To unpack the complex causes of the refugee crisis and the West’s role in it, one must first understand how Western and European colonialism shaped the face of the world, and indeed, the injustices that still resonate in ex-colonies. It is undoubtedly no coincidence that the countries with the highest refugee origins are former European colonies.
Syria is often cited as an exceptional catalyst in the origins of this crisis, with around 5 million refugees having fled its borders, however the African continent is bursting with examples of colonialism directly inspiring the current refugee crisis. Several African nations are experiencing dire humanitarian crises and poverty-stricken circumstances that are causing one of the world’s largest mass exoduses of people. Sudan, for example, is the origin country of 2.7 million refugees and is a de facto ex-colony. Its current predicament can be directly linked to Europe’s involvement in the region and indeed the continent.
The Scramble for Africa that occurred between the 1880s and the First World War was responsible for dividing up land, separating different ethnic groups and draining the continent’s natural resources, such as gold and rubber. The borders that can be seen on maps today were drawn up by Europeans who had little knowledge of the geography or ethnography of the areas that they were dividing up. Many Africans were locked out of the economy by the colonial states who were undertaking a monopolisation of the African economies.
Why is this problematic? Simply look at the Rwandan Genocide in 1994 which can be exclusively attributed to colonial legacy. Although its boundaries were not influenced by European rule, from the late 19th century Rwanda was controlled by German and then Belgian colonisers. During this time they provoked the escalation of antagonism between opposing Hutu and Tutsi communities. They institutionally alienated the Hutu majority for long periods, treating the Tutsi minority as superior, before tacitly supporting a coup to ensure a Hutu-controlled independent Rwanda by July 1962. This massaging of hostility, led to heightening tensions and resentment between the two groups that eventually resulted in the massacre occurring decades later. Most of the estimated 800,000 who died were Tutsis, and many more were forced to flee.
From the 1950s, as the wave of independence began to sweep across the continent and the notion of pan-Africanism took hold, the European colonisers slowly began to decolonise. What should have been a chance for political sovereignty, economic independence and prosperity for the decolonised nations, the reality was in fact far from the optimistic hopes of those who had campaigned for independence. The European colonisers left behind countries plagued with widespread poverty, little industry or infrastructure and poorly prepared governments and institutions. When Tanzania gained independence in 1961, the country only had two trained engineers and nine doctors within a population of nine million people.
Nor did the colonisers strive to educate the subjugated African continent in a way which would allow them to industrialise and thrive in the modern world. When the [now] Democratic Republic of Congo gained independence in 1960, there were only 16 Congolese college graduates among a population of 14 million. Such intellectual paralysis, paired with the need to establish efficient working governments consisting of multiple ethnic groups and cultures, led many newly established African polities down the dark road to dictatorships in order to fill the void of power left by the colonisers.
If one believes that it is a stretch to claim that these dictators and their regimes of oppression are the result of colonialism, it cannot be disputed that they have been sustained by funding from the West. It is no secret that Britain has supplied millions of pounds in loans to some of the world’s most brutal dictatorships including Egypt, Sudan and Iraq. In Ethiopia, the British government have supplied funds used to systematically destroy rural communities and, as one refugee claimed, foreign money is being directed towards programmes designed to murder its citizens.
Of course, it would be a sweeping generalisation to say that all countries in Africa are poor, authoritarian nations which force huge numbers of people to flee their oppressive and tight grip on freedoms. Take Botswana, an ex-British colony whose per capita wealth has increased more than 100-fold in 50 years. It has seen low poverty rates, good education investment and a growing economy (although this could perhaps be due to its impressive diamond deposits that have granted it some economic independence and prosperity). However, European colonialism and Western funds are the prime suspect for stunted growth and internal problems in many other young, ex-colony nations. The plight of those who feel forced to flee violence, poverty and persecution, in search of a better, and safer life, cannot be denied, and the West must take responsibility, not plead ignorance.