The timing of events can be a bit strange sometimes.
Last week, a 50 year old livestock ship loaded up with 350 Syrian migrants was set on a collision course with the Italian coastline, then abandoned by its crew. This is the latest example of a people-smuggling strategy that has been used at least four times in the past two months, carrying migrants from places such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. These “ghost ships” are the new face of the Mediterranean refugee trade, with each passenger paying thousands of dollars to be on board.
Additionally, the people smuggling route between Libya and southern Europe has long been plied by small, deadly vessels. The United Nations recently described the Mediterranean crossing from north Africa and the Middle East to Europe as the “most lethal route in the world”, with a record 3,419 migrants losing their lives on the route last year.
Meanwhile, next door in France
With the backdrop of so many people fleeing the violence and chaos prevailing in many of the Islamic nations of North Africa and the Middle East, this week we saw a terrible massacre in Paris, in which ten journalists and two police officers at a satirical newspaper were shot dead by French-born Muslims of Algerian extraction. The gunmen declared that the shootings were in the name of Allah, as revenge for cartoons depicting their prophet.
The whole situation can create some sort of dizzying mental loop, where violent Islamist regimes prompt people to flee to a place that they hope will be safe, but then the very values that cause the place to be safe prompt some in the migrant communities to kill the locals in an act of Islamist violence. It's ok if you need to read this paragraph twice.
So, about this dizzying mental loop
In many instances, the acts of Islamist violence in Europe aren’t carried out by the migrants themselves. The people who fled to safety are inclined to be grateful to their new country. In Paris this week, it was the kids of the migrants, perhaps feeling like they were caught between two different worlds.
With France’s five million Muslims disproportionately living in poverty, this alienation and disadvantage can be a common trigger for the radicalisation of people. Those young people, European by birth and passport, can feel like they don’t have hope or respect in their city, and can become seduced by a philosophy that promises them power, danger, and a warped sense of glory.
Lots of people in Europe are genuinely upset by how this is all panning out, and it’s fertile ground for angry right wing politicians to whip up anti-Islam hysteria. But really, that’s just playing into the hands of extremist Islamists who want to feel like they’re engaged in a cosmic struggle, and that Europe is a continent-sized Satan.
At the end of the day, it’s not possible to stamp out extremism by cracking down extremely hard on it. That would create a second, different dizzying mental loop, and I just don’t have the stomach for that right now.
Getting out of the loop
It’s easy to feel helpless. I mean… it’s not like we can prevent all conflict from occurring in the future, there’s always going to be the possibility of a political leader being destructive, and there’s always going to be one idiot in a million who goes and does something awful to strangers.
So let’s just give up.
Or, we can do something that will definitely make a difference. By pushing European governments to adequately fund aid and development right now, Global Citizens can help to provide access to basic healthcare and education in parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan that are currently missing out. The funding can improve the position of women in communities, help to improve accountability in public administration, provide economic opportunities that will give families hope and dignity, and reduce the appeal of turning to extremism.
By patiently enabling these conditions overseas, it makes it harder for extremist groups to rise to power and brainwash desperate communities. In turn, any successful effort in reducing conflict can be expected to also reduce the flow of refugees out of a country. So there’s a connection between helping kids read and write in Afghanistan, and having fewer of them die on boats in the Mediterranean Sea. Instead, more of them will be able to be safe, educated, and successful in their hometowns.
But there will always be some refugees. It’s important that European governments and societies support these people, offer them full participation in their new communities, and create pathways for them to succeed. When migrant communities feel valued and involved, it becomes so much harder to perceive their new country as being “against them”.
Now, lots of this article may sound like I'm making excuses for people who are actually doing disgusting things. But revealing the human element of international dysfunction is part of my job as an NGO guy, so I had a good go at it. At the end of the day, this is just evil. And I hope that our societies' collective response to these recent disturbing events includes a far-sighted resolution to continue to strengthen communities, both at home and abroad. That's really the only way that we can aim higher than just treating symptoms.