Saturday, 3 January 2015

Boat People

The spate of migration across the Mediterranean and the shocked-and-surprised reaction to them by people anxious about being swamped by dusky-skinned foreigners reminds me of something that happened 35 years ago when I was a new reporter in Bradford.

Ragged sail-boats full of people fleeing Indo-China were turning up all over the place. They came from South Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia/Kampuchea seeking refuge from wars and unsympathetic political regimes. The West looked on as the Chinese and the Vietnamese army of General Giap combined to batter Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge into submission. The Khmer Rouge were fundamentalist Maoists - an earlier version of Islamic State - who tried to obliterate history and more than a million people by sending Cambodia back to an imagined state of ideological purity. The West, which was prepared to make heart-rending movies such as The Killing Fields, suddenly found it was expected to help hundreds of thousands of orientals. We tried to back out by declaring them economic refugees. A few were. Many weren't.

I don't recall feeling especially sympathetic at the time. It was just a case of more foreigners from far away seeking shelter from the storm which hadn't troubled my life. Politicians, of course, cannot and should not think like that even if they feel antipathetic to dealing with problems not directly of their own making. The poor and the distressed will always be with us and, as a rule, we no longer believe in letting them sink or swim - if the sharks don't get them first. Thirty-five years ago the world did something, even if at the time the accusation was that it wasn't enough.

This summary from the History Learning site is a sobering reminder:-

No one can be sure how many people took the decision to flee, nor are there any definitive casualty figures. However, the number who attempted to flee has been put as high as 1.5 million. Estimates for deaths vary from 50,000 to 200,000 (Australian Immigration Ministry). The primary cause of death was drowning though many refugees were attacked by pirates and murdered or sold into slavery and prostitution. Some countries in the region, such as Malaya, turned the boat people away even if they did manage to land. Boats carrying the refugees were deliberately sunk offshore by those in them to stop the authorities towing them back out to sea. Many of these refugees ended up settling in the United States and Europe. The United States accepted 823,000 refugees; Britain accepted 19,000; France accepted 96,000; Australia and Canada accepted 137,000 each. 

Professor Paul Rogers, of Bradford University's Department of Peace Studies, has been telling me periodically over the past two or three years that globalisation has failed millions of people. When they move en masse, he said, it usually means they are desperate.The situation has been made much worse by IS and the Taliban. They are the dragon's teeth, the Spartoi, that sprang up in the wake the West's invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. In Greek mythology Cadmus threw a jewel in the midst of these armed warriors and they killed each other to get at it. Is there a contemporary Cadmus in the wings?  

Meanwhile, global organisations such as the UN and the EU should rouse themselves. They could make a start by looking back at the Vietnamese Boat People problem which seemed insuperable at the time.

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