(This article and its content were first published on thebubble.com, September 16, 2015).
Argentina, distant and guiltless in the current crisis engulfing Europe and the Middle East, has offered a coherent and consistent refugee policy.
If the refugee crisis currently unfolding in Europe has exposed a drastic lack of unity among European states, it has also shown a clear divergence in policy between Europe — which, along with Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan is currently bearing the heaviest burden of the influx — and other parts of the world.
In the Gulf States close to Iraq, Syria and the Mediterranean, the response has been a consistent refusal to provide for refugees. Saudi Arabia, one of the largest, richest and most powerful countries in the region, has taken in some refugees (reports differ wildly as to how many) but not offered a single concrete resettlement program. It’s the same case for UAE and Qatar, as wealthy as they are.
Then there are far corners of the world which are not affected by the same extreme urgency but where governments are still aware of the international nature of the problem. Post-modern globalization increasingly means that no country is an island.
This brings us to Latin America and Argentina.
Today, as a destination for people seeking a life better than that which is possible in their homeland, Argentina as a state is unambiguously welcoming. It’s constitutionally bound, in fact, to be this way. After all, it’s what the country was essentially built on. “To govern is to populate,” said Juan Bautista Alberdi in 1852 (he’s a key historical figure as well as a stop on the Linea A Subte).
For the last decade or so, Argentina has specifically enshrined migration — the umbrella term that includes people fleeing war, famine, poverty and so on — as a human and therefore inviolable right (more on this later).
Fast forward to the current situation and the international refugee crisis in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East in particular. The President’s latest foray into the issue came last week, when she emotionally pleaded with Latinos across the region not to follow the example some nations were setting in “the North.”
THE EUROPEAN CONNECTION
So has the North, and Europe in particular, really been so bad? The answer, of course, is a bit more complicated than that. Something Cristina’s outburst last week forgot to mention was the overwhelming humanity of thousands and thousands of ordinary Europeans that have gone out of their way to help those arriving at that door: the mountains of donated food and clothing, the coordinated refugee-welcome campaigns across major European cities… this is the other, grassroots and altogether more positive side of the coin.
But examining government policy in Europe on its own, one thing that stands out is the sheer lack of a coherent strategy. Let’s take this article’s author’s own homeland as an example.
In October 2014, UK Prime Minister David Cameron announced the UK was formally withdrawing support from the search and rescue operations currently saving lives every day in the Mediterranean. Hundreds, possibly thousands of men, women and children died on the dangerous crossing before he quietly reversed the decision months later.
His xenophobic opening salvos during the height of British summer (the word “swarm” was used by Cameron, not to describe ants ruining a picnic but homeless refugees forced into a Hooverville in the French port Calais) were forced to beat a hasty retreat as more human and humane public opinion united behind the refugees and pushed him and his knee-jerk Daily Mail appeasing flirtations (“send in the army”) back to the stinking pit they came from.
The Prime Minister then made an overtly heartfelt speech a few weeks ago telling the world he had been “moved” by the image of a drowned six-year-old boy lying face down in the Turkish surf, that Britain was now completely changing her Conservative summer position on the issue and could we please stop putting pressure on him thank you very much.
Now, 20,000 is the latest number of refugees the UK will take in, over five years. Sounds impressive enough, but when we scrape just a hair’s breadth beneath the surface, we discover that in fact this only equates to around 12 refugees per day, while Germany has taken in reported tens of thousands in the last weeks alone and tiny, impoverished and war-torn Lebanon currently shelters 1.1 million Syrians. Cameron’s latest commitment is “Barely even a response,” as Green Party MP Caroline Lucas remarked after the announcement.
Still, at least he has changed his stance and bowed to the great swing of public opinion on the issue while other EU states continue to stonewall, scapegoat and even abuse the needy arriving at their front door.
Hungary was a case in point, as underlined late last week when Hungarian police were filmed forcing starving refugees to compete for food as they threw sandwiches into outstretched hands of a desperate crowd, or when Hungarian riot police refused to give water to refugees waiting on the wrong side of newly erected barbed wire fences.
Other low-lights from the right-wing central European government included the forcing of thousands of refugees to walk the hundreds of miles from central Budapest station to the Austrian border, and the crypto-fascist prime minister telling his population that they are under attack from a “rebellion of Muslims,” etc.
Add to this the complete U-turn of German policy which now closes the borders once more, and this tiny glimpse offered by such stories help expose many European government policies on Eurasian migration and refugees for what they are: an utter shambles.
MEANWHILE IN ARGENTINA
This is not something that can be said in candor of Cristina and the Argentine government on the issue, who, physically more distant from the crisis than their European counterparts and so with a far more comfortable degree of flexibility, have issued a robust, clear-cut and extremely timely policy response featuring the single most important thing lacking in Europe: regional integration of policies.
As the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) analyzed following the Cartagena+30 process which gathered South American nations to discuss and form policy reponses to global migration and refugees:
“PARTICULAR ATTENTION AND CONSIDERATION HAS BEEN GIVEN TO THE REGIONAL MIGRATION FRAMEWORKS UNDER MERCOSUR FOR THE BENEFIT OF REFUGEES, PARTICULARLY REGARDING TRANSNATIONAL LABOR MOBILITY. COUNTRIES IN SOUTH AMERICA, MAINLY BRAZIL AND ARGENTINA, HAVE WITNESSED A NOTABLE INCREASE IN ASYLUM-SEEKERS IN THE REGION, PARTICULARLY SYRIANS.”
While the numbers taken in have been modest, Cristina and Co’s decision to further widen the non-discriminatory door to refugees only emphasized how enlightened their immigration policy had been in the first place.
The amnesty extended to Syrian and Palestinian refugees for two years is, in fact, in part outdone by existing laws in Argentina, which guarantee migration as a human right and therefore — technically at least — as inviolable and guaranteed without recourse to bureaucracy.
Argentina has one of the most progressive set of rules and legislation regarding the free movement of peoples anywhere in the world. In 2004, Law 25.871 enshrined human movement — migration, call it what you like — as the fundamental human right it probably ought to be everywhere. It did away with the lingering fascism of “Videla’s Law,” from the dark years of the dictatorship (1976-1983), which saw authorities screen all migrants depending on their “cultural characteristics and possibility of successful integration,” as the law specified with a heavy dose of racism.
Law 25.871 explicitly states that migrants of all kinds, especially refugees, will be accepted regardless of the current status and availability of the necessary paperwork.
And even though the blanket implementation of the Law has encountered a number of hurdles, its very existence puts other countries’ immigration policies to shame as far as human rights are concerned, at least according to a Cornell University study into Argentine migration policy past and present:
“THESE PROVISIONS [FROM LAW 25.871] ARE EXCEPTIONAL IN A GLOBAL CLIMATE IN WHICH NATIONAL SECURITY CONCERNS AND EXCLUSIONARY AND RESTRICTIVE POLICIES DOMINATE THE IMMIGRATION DEBATE.”
Also, the Argentine policy casts a necessarily wider net than some European countries regarding who is eligible to seek asylum from the war-torn regions of the Middle East. Alongside Syrians, Palestinians are also directly welcome under the new emergency legislation, unlike in numerous European states’ rapidly hashed policy responses and vague, confused soundbites.
In the UK, the media zeitgeist and often-corresponding political rhetoric surrounding the refugees is shamefully short on mentioning the current humanitarian crisis in the occupied territories of Palestine, most especially Gaza which will be literally “unlivable” by 2020, according to the UN, if Israel’s illegal and inhumane siege — not to mention sporadic massacres of civilians — in the region does not stop.
GEO-POLITICS AND ITS DISCONTENTS
Cristina made another point in her calculated, emotional outburst last week that also bears consideration.
“AND WHO CREATES THOSE WARS? WHO SELLS THEM THEIR WEAPONS? WHO PROFITS FROM THEM? WE HAVE TO ASK THOSE QUESTIONS SO THEY KNOW WE’RE NOT STUPID.”
Somewhat clumsily, she hits the causal nail on the head. A further fact to set apart Europe and Latin America generally on this issue is the geo-political, economic and industrial connections to war in the Middle East.
Just look at Libya, for example, a source of many thousands of refugees since it was plunged into chaos in 2011 by intervening powers intent on removing an undoubtedly nasty despot who they had nonetheless happily supported for years beforehand when it suited them. All to the benefit of the corporate sponsors of some of those NATO powers involved: Total (France), Marathon Oil (US) and so on swiftly carved out stakes in the nation’s oil supplies.
Latin American governments have not been paragons of perfect behavior since 9/11 themselves, but one thing they are not guilty of (in fact, for the most part blissfully incapable of anyway) is imposing unilateral regime change via armed conflict on an immensely complex political arena (the Middle East) with little credible plan for making whatever comes next work.
The botched removal of mass-murdering Saddam Hussein in the 2003 Iraq War, who was supported for years by Washington and London beforehand even as he committed his atrocities, created a power vacuum into which ISIS emerged where it could not under the dictator’s iron grip.
It’s a similar story with the arms trade. Afghan refugees flee from Russian Kalashnikovs and US cluster bombs that were either given directly to the Taliban (in the case of arms from the US) or else acquired by them after the Cold War proxy between the West and the Soviet Union in the country wound down.
Syrians meanwhile run from the Russian guns and bombs pumped into the Civil War by Moscow, while Gazans unprepared to stay and risk death for themselves and their families whenever the next invasion by the IDF falls are fleeing bullets, white phosphorus, shells and more essentially paid for and supplied by the United States government.
In each case, the assorted lethality currently making the mass killing in the Middle East possible was overwhelmingly made in the North, be it Russia, the UK, the US or elsewhere.
Add to this the shameless flip-flopping NATO policies about which bad guy to bomb in hellish Gordian knot of the Syrian Civil War, which seems to change with the seasons and be lifted directly out of the Ministry of Peace handbook from Orwell’s dystopian classic.
Definitions of friend, ally and enemy to the Northern military powers, particularly the US and UK, change often and easily. Cristina made this very point at the UN last year, which needs saying far more frequently.
Of course, the xenophobia that exists towards many Andean migrants from Bolivia, Peru or Colombia in some corners of Argentine society; the coercion of many of these impoverished economic migrants into situations of quasi-slave labor in countless underground sweatshops here in the Greater Buenos Aires Area in particular; not to mention the abhorrent existence of widespread hunger and malnutrition in Argentina — these are all shameful realities that need to be addressed by the government and lawmakers urgently.
But they don’t exist as a result of state policy. A severe lack of it, more likely, but this bares no direct or especially helpful comparison to the immediate and pressing issue of the refugee crisis revolving around the Mediterranean.
On this, Argentina’s state policy and existing progressive laws show coherence, nuance and above all consistency that, along with a region-wide concensus, is lacking across the Atlantic. So we can maybe forgive Cristina a small bout of point scoring this time, as ugly as it was. Just this once.