The long sustainability shadow of the refugee crisis


For those of us working in the sustainability field for many years, sometimes decades, following the current discussion about the ‘refugee crisis’ hurts. We are used to think longer-term, at least those of us who are not just on the compliance path of following a reduced understanding of sustainability. Remember, wasn’t it people, planet and prosperity, wasn’t it intra- and intergenerational equity, and wasn’t it about human’s behavior to remain safe on this planet, offering limited resources for up to 10 billion people, recognizing that there will minimally be 3 billion more people by 2050-2100. Sustainability was asking us to get ready. The current refugee crisis painfully shows how far we are away from that. What surprises me most is the fact that none of this comes right out of the blue! Politicians saying to be amazed of what has happened in the last 12 months should look into the mirror and ask themselves why they couldn’t have seen the big lines of development and have allowed themselves to be eaten up by the daily nitty-gritty. What went so awfully wrong?

Let’s go back in time. Weren’t you amazed in school when you looked at a continent map like Africa and saw the straight lines that showed the borders of all these African and Middle East countries? This is one of the most visual leftovers of colonization, lines that got drawn 100-150 years ago. Why bother, a desert is a desert, so these lines were drawn in the interest of those colonizing, not those that lived there hundreds of years, tribal heritage, cultural sights, trade routes, etc.. While colonizing is over the scars sit deep in the minds of generations and generations of Africans and Arabs, remembering very well who abused their habitat for resources, threw money at dictator regimes in a broad variety of these countries, only to keep the revolt down and continue to ‘dig, baby, dig’ for the growing need of Western consumerism. Development aid for decades ran into the wrong canals, often only a little portion reached those in need, while Westerners remained rather easy on these fatal flaws, it simply continued to keep people quiet and secured easy access to resources. Most of the oil producing countries were or are based on a brutal regime of a dictatorship of a single or a couple of families that managed to keep the poor majority somehow in a ‘too much to die, too little to live’ state, while building a life of affluence for themselves. Sure, there was growing awareness that our country’s systems and ideas about ODA failed, we needed more help for people to help themselves, avoiding what went wrong in the past. But can we say we succeeded? In my view we can’t, we never solved this problem. Did we really do the best we can? Just look at how wimpy we created development aid programs, how unimportant a development minister always was and still is, and look at the history of cuts in their budgets to close other holes in the overall budget. Look at how many countries really succeeded to spend at least 0,72% of GDP for development aid, the minimum agreed upon, hardly ever delivered upon. And why? Because it was known it was mostly useless, the real problems were never tackled since it meant stop funding dictatorships.

And then climate change, demographic developments, poverty and transparency through social media created the brew that lead to the Arab spring. Dictatorships fell because of the inability to react to massive poverty created by more and more climate-related droughts. Look at Libya and Egypt as examples. The tragedy of that situation simply was that those revolted and took dictators down had no education and hardly any help how to build strong democracies, they never learnt it. This gave space to regained religious and tribal power, awakening from their decades of suppression. While the economy was down and no improvement in sight fights between myriads of little new parties, partially religiously motivated, went on and on. Instability, just droughts and poverty, no jobs, no trade, no life. People started moving.

In other parts of the Middle East existing regimes fight against religiously motivated groups, with IS the most radical one, trying to re-establish an Islamic caliphate. It created new alliances in which the West changed fronts all too easy, the Assad regime in Syria is the best example. While he was called a tyrant some years ago, throwing poison gas against his own people and the West condemned him for that, he is now a ‘partner in crime’ against the IS. The country facing climate-related effects and related poverty is now totally demolished. There’s no hope for anyone trying to raise a family in dignity, people fled to Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan in the first instance.

Two decades earlier Russia and the US failed in Afghanistan, and whoever is still there from the Western alliance faces the Taliban when they attack the semi-democratic leaders  through suicide bomb and other terrorist attacks. Together with Irak it remains unstable terrain, one can easily see the hesitation of Western countries to totally withdraw the remaining armed forces from there. Droughts and uncontrollable floods continue to pester these countries every year, including also Pakistan. No wonder more and more refugees also started to move from there. The ongoing struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran is on the surface one of tribal rivalry, but in the end it’s about power in the region, with the Wahabites being the most aggressive force.

Let’s be totally clear. While all of that turmoil is multi-facetted and overshadowed by tyranny, religious infatuation, tribal power plays, missing segregation of religion and state (one can say that Islam never had a renaissance like christianity) and lack of education of how to handle democracy, the root cause of this has been climate-related poverty and a disillusionment of being able to have a proper life for families. And here is where I don’t understand the Western governments: while the Arab spring was probably surprising, climate-related movements of people are not. Let’s not forget that many of the refugees now reaching Europe also come from countries like Eritrea or Sudan. So, besides historical effects, the West is now also paying back for their ignorance of climate change and climate-related poverty in these parts of the World, forecasted since decades.

Europe is at a make-or-break point of being able to solve this crisis. And while we have ignored the environmental source code of this crisis for long we utterly only have this one chance to at least show the social salvation potential of the crisis we helped to create in the first place. Europe doesn’t have a refugee problem, Europe has solidarity and humanity problem. While we always say we need immigration for demographic and economic reasons (just look at the demographic trees of our societies growing older and older) we don’t accept this opportunity now as a blessing in disguise. We have 380 million people in the European Union, one million refugees per year means 0,026% increase of population if we would be able to equally share the ‘burden’ of this immigration wave. It is in my view a devastating behavior of the majority of the EU member states, totally ignoring the mess created in the past, and a total blindness of responsibility today. As a European citizen I am ashamed of the year-long inactivity of the European Union in the light of repeating tragedies in front of the island of Lampedusa. More than once European Commissioners and ministers of various countries promised to help, the writing was on the wall for a long time, and nothing happened as soon as they were back at home. They helped to create the mess Europe is now in, and as politicians are, they are very easy to forget or blame an earlier Commission or Cabinet for purely disgusting political game plays. Let me not even start to talk about the rape of the refugee theme in US-American pre-election Muppet Shows.

While we could easily cope with this situation in Europe – and we have to as a whole – the ignorance of the past now creates the short-term problems that lead to new short-term devastation. Building fences, securing borders, the potential closure of the Schengen area, costing billions of tax-payer’s money and having enormous economic implications, are totally wrong moves and will play into the continued re-establishment of right-wing parties, partially extreme. Poland and Hungary are early warnings. Refugees are blamed for a situation we created in the first place, and honestly: it is not for the first time that I have a déjà-vu with the early days of the Nazi movement, where all of us always wondered: how on earth could this have happened? We are now seeing extremist right wing movements gaining power again, the police is met with no respect, in certain areas of our cities private groups organize ‘security services’, and all fueled by our authority’s inability to cope with the massive stream of immigrants, empowering criminal energy to recruit new herds. I am shocked that there is no streamlined immigration procedure in Europe, not even in my home country Germany, allowing system abuse. I am shocked by the fact that deportation isn’t equally enforced, and that people that now want to move back to their home countries because their immigration procedure could take up to a year and are unable to bring their families in for even longer can’t get their passports back and/or their home countries actually refuse to have them back. It is not the refugees to blame, it is a blatant failure of the European Union and its member states not being able to have organized at least a rudimentary streamlined procedure and enforcement.

So what does a sustainability expert recommend in such a situation?

First of all, those involved need to understand the broader context of the situation. We need to accept the long curves of history and establish an understanding of ‘climate refugees’. Separated from the ‘white noise’ of all of the religious, cultural and tribal aspects, we are moving into a future in which between 60 and 250 million climate refugees will be the new normal. Whatever the COP21 treaty will lead to the situation will still get worse for the next 30 years before their is a chance that it can get better. We are now seeing the effects of CO2 emitted 30 years ago. Also, understand the demographic implications of 10 billion people on Earth is essential. Immigration of 1-2 million climate refugees per year will continue. Any politician that thinks this can be solved through fences is naive!

Secondly, learn to understand the social implications of immigration. Immigrants want to work, want to learn our languages, want to put their kids into schools, and look for nothing else than a bit of dignity, and being able to make friends. Let all young people in our countries do a ‘social year’ devoted to help especially immigrants to adjust. We ourselves made friends with a Syrian family, now living close by, and offer our service as helpers when new refugees arrive. We made extremely positive experiences. The most important fact is quicker processes to get refugees into a position to be able to work and produce value-added. What has to be avoided vis-a-vis our own population is a feeling of greed in which refugees are prioritized when it comes to social housing, allowances, social services, etc.. Many of the refugees would love to help to create work to help themselves. We have architects, engineers, translators, nurses, doctors, social workers amongst them. Give them the opportunity to do something. If we created systems that don’t allow refugees to work as long as they are not fully accepted as immigrants, change that very system. Again, these people can and would love to work!

Thirdly, dry out criminal energy in our towns from the outset. We don’t get more criminals just because refugees come into the country. What needs to be avoided is that criminals can recruit disillusioned refugees into their groups, given our slow procedures. If 1 percent of the people in each country shows criminal energy the increase of the population through refugees is more likely to lower that percentage, but only if refugees get a positive vision of a potential life in our countries. It is simply not true that the refugees increase the crime rate. Simple statistics 1:1. Some culture shocks like we saw them at New Year’s Eve need to remain ‘anomalies’ in these early days of learning how to cope with such massive immigration.

Lastly, refugees are a blessing in disguise for our economies. Not only that the majority of the billions of extra budgets for handling immigration right now are already spent in our countries (and increase GDP), it’s the long-term economic effect of letting refugees work. There are many thousands of open vacancies in many industries, and our social services can themselves benefit from educated refugees. We need diversity to learn from. Infusion of new and different thinking will give extra impulses for growing strong together. We know that, the high priests of the global economy just told us in Davos this week.

It is essential to keep our inner borders open while existing law is enforced (and that includes securing the outer borders). It is a fatal flaw to close borders and blame the refugees for that. It is a flaw to think it will hold climate refugees back from coming into our countries. It is a flaw to allow right-wing extremists to fuel the fire. It is a flaw to think we need to defend our culture while all of us more or less come from immigrant families (just look back 2-4 generations in your own family history). It is a flaw to believe that Islam takes away anything from us, it adds a new colour to our society.

At this moment this is not the Europe I was born into, it is not the Europe I want to live in. I feel ashamed of what is going on. It was all foreseeable, so let’s be quick in remembering what we learned about sustainability and apply it as should have for the last 20 years.

PART 2 will come out in a couple of days.

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