Thursday, September 10, 2015

Merkel sehr gut

I have a niece who works for the UNHCR, the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees.  Frankly, I don’t know how she does it.  She’s been all over the place, from Ivory Coast to Nepal to Pakistan to Libya, and there have been times when I worried about her health.  People in her position have to go to bed at night knowing if they just stayed a little later at the office they might have saved another family, another life.

These are heroic people.  Not all are on the front lines, of course, and I don’t want to overdramatize here, but the nearly three thousand deaths in the Mediterranean that are part of this last week’s daily focus on the Syrian refugee crisis make the case for me.  This is a world crisis and it demands more of our attention.

According to UNHCR statistics, about half of the refugees are coming from Syria.  Another 13% from Afghanistan.  Third in line are the Eritreans at 8%.  Then, it goes down from 3% to 1% for Nigerians, Somalians, Pakistanis, Iraqis, Sudanese, Gambians, and Bangladeshis.  And stopping at the top ten is a completely arbitrary decision here.  The world is a hostile place, and it is estimated that the total number of refugees is about 60 million.

And speaking of arbitrary, notice how when you focus on one part of the picture somebody’s going to come down on you for not focusing on another part of the picture.  Why all this fuss over the Syrians, says Arthur Chrenkoff in the Observer a couple days ago.     I don’t know where he is getting his numbers, but he claims most refugees are not Syrians but “a miscellany of African, Middle Eastern and South Asian…”  He makes this point to cast aspersions on the lovefests going on in Munich and Hamburg and Dortmund where volunteers are rushing in with smiles and hugs and chocolate and shoes and diapers and signs in Germanized English reading: “Welcome in Germany!”  Most refugees, he points out, are single, healthy-looking young men.   So they’re looking for jobs, right?  Not desperate.  Not fleeing from persecution.

What’s the implication here?  That they ought to stay in refugee camps in Lebanon, where they are now a quarter of that overstretched nation’s population?  Or Greece, where their hopes of a future are worse than dismal, given the country’s financial crisis?  A PBS News program last night documents the tale of a Palestinian refugee in Lebanon, a doctor, now trying desperately – and failing – to gather five thousand dollars to get his family to Europe.  Economic refugees?  The closer you look for a meaningful distinction between these categories, the murkier it gets.  All refugees are to some degree economic refugees.  There is a difference, and while you need to be sure you don't let in a rich kid at the same time you leave a poor kid outside the door, prefacing that term "economic refugee" with “merely” is seriously unworthy.  And you need to show me much better evidence that this is an either/or situation and not a both/and situation.  

Chrenkoff has it in for bleeding-heart liberals.  Born in Poland, the erstwhile apologist for the Iraq war lives in Australia and is among many who have made a life work of bewailing the West’s ignorance about the full extent of life's miseries behind the Iron Curtain.  That makes him a darling of the right and when I first saw his name on the article I was tempted to dismiss it out of hand.  But with the word “crisis” being bandied about, it seems to me we ought to give everybody a hearing.  It’s so easy to get carried away with our own sense of right when the media floods us with images of adorable children at risk of life and limb.

So what is it Chrenkoff is saying, exactly?  And how well does he represent the reasonable conservative's position that opening the doors and letting the world flood in is a policy that is going to hurt us in the end.  

Here’s what Chrenkoff has to say about the big picture: 
  • He cites the UNHRC figures – 60 million displaced people, about 20 million officially classified as refugees.  Many of those are “economic refugees.” 
  • 1.2 billion people survive on less than a dollar a day; 2.8 billion on less than two dollars.  “If the answer to ‘my country is awful/war torn/poor’ is ‘just move right in’ the West better get ready for a couple billion new arrivals,” he warns.

There’s no mistaking his intention here, and the title of his article sums it up - Europe’s compassion for refugees is phony.  We’re not really serious about helping those most in need.  Whatever we think we’re doing, in the end we’re serving our own self interest.  Chrenkoff doesn’t go into specifics, but let me put on a cynic’s hat for a minute and make his point for him.  (Note he gets to deny he ever intended any of my implications.)

Merkel, for starters.  For some time now she has been criticized for not having any views of her own, for being the consummate politician who follows events finger to the wind, and serves the interests of global corporatism in making sure Germany’s economic miracle stays the course.  Now here she is, mother of the planet’s current “most beloved nation,” her picture plastered everywhere.  Headlines read “Merkel sehr gut” (Merkel very good!)   Oh, happy day for Angela Merkel.

What this is really about, cynics say, is not a change of heart by ordinary Germans.  It’s about the fact that Germany cannot keep the engine of industry running without importing workers. What looks like a crisis is in fact a great stroke of luck fallen right into Mutti’s lap.  Syrians are relatively hard-working people.  They are white.  Pretty much.  They are educated.  Very trainable.  Good future prospects.  A win-win situation.  We take in refugees from Syria, make an effort not to look smug and superior while Poland and Slovakia put up their “Christians Only” signs, and the Americans are shamed – Germany takes in 800,000, the U.S. 1500? 

Aside here: Just saw a news item that Obama is promising to up that to 10,000.  Nice big jump.  But that's still only one in 400 Syrians in need compared to Germany's one in 5 Syrians in need.   Could do better than that, seems to me, particularly since you'd imagine the cheap labor argument would be a winner with Republicans.  Have I got that wrong?

But back to alleged German opportunism vs. the argument against alleged foreign hordes.  As always, when you make the cynics’ argument for them, it’s like shooting fish in a barrel.  The cynics are often right, and even when they’re not, they’ve usually got a point.

The problem with this line of thinking, though, is that it’s an ivory tower position.  From up on high, those little ants running around on the surface don’t amount to much.  And there’s always somebody in greater need than the homeless person you encounter outside your grocery store you give a dollar to.

You’ve got osteoporosis?  Well, I’ve got it too, and arthritis besides, so don’t expect a flood of tears from these eyes.  Relativizing pain and discomfort is one of the nastiest tricks of otherwise decent rational people.

Most of the refugees are men, and that means they’re only after a better life?  Isn’t it obvious that most of these men, if they succeed, will be sending for families, or at least sending money back to those families to feed and clothe and educate them?  How do you construe that as an illegitimate pursuit?  And did you really think families from Africa and the Middle East would send their daughters, maybe, and not their sons out into the world to seek a way out of a life with no good prospects?  Are you really only a refugee if you come with the entire family?  Here we are surrounded by the enemy.  We could send out a scout to go for help, but we’d better send out an entire family or people will not take us seriously.

Merkel may not be as heroic as she is currently being portrayed, but she is not just a manipulator of current events.  She still has to contend with a significant number of people in her own party, the CDU (and even more in the CDU's twin, the Bavarian CSU) who are anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, anti-foreigner. 

Merkel was given an honorary degree in Bern, Switzerland, the other day.  Following the ceremony there was a Q&A session.  “You’re doing a lot to help the refugees,” one woman asked.  “What are you doing to protect our Christian values?”

Call me naïve for not spotting the self-serving politician in her answer, if you will.  But I thought she did a bang-up job of answering the question. 

First off, she said, we in Europe should recognize that we are responsible for a lot of the misery in the Middle East.  It’s not just that problems are coming to us.  In some cases there are even IS fighters of German origin.  “We can’t behave as if this had nothing to do with us.”  Of course we have to arm ourselves against terror, but Europe’s history is so filled with gruesome confrontations, it seems to me, that we ought to be very careful when we complain about things going on elsewhere in the world.  We have no reason for arrogance.  “And I say that as German Chancellor.”  The best approach to take in the face of religious people of another faith, she suggested, is to arm yourself with greater knowledge of your own faith.

Not too shabby, it seems to me.

For a self-serving politician.

photo credit and source for the title of this article is the Frankfurter Rundschau,1472778.html

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