Sunday, May 17, 2015

Migration - let's get to the source of the problem

The humanitarian crisis in the Andaman Sea, with boatloads of migrants adrift, dying of hunger and starvation, illustrates the futility and inhumanity of addressing the migration problem symptomatically. We have to tackle the root causes of migration on a global basis. There are four causes of migration: war, human rights abuses, poverty, and environmental degradation. In this instance, human rights abuses are the most important.

The Rohinga are a complex problem. They are effectively stateless, denied  citizenship and persecuted in Burma, their home country.  They are rejected by Malaysia, their preferred destination as a Muslim country. In WW2 their behaviour to some of their non-muslim neighbours was not good. This is a massive problem: there are 1.3 million Rohingya in Burma, and 120,000 -10% of the total - have emigrated in the past 3 yrs.

The historical roots of their predicament are complex, and go back at least in part to the days of the British Empire, when we moved Rohingya from Bengal to Burma for workforce reasons.

This fact, as well as our colonial past in Burma, gives the UK a responsibility to help to resolve the crisis. But sadly we have no moral leverage. The Coalition Government cannot criticise Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia for refusing to help, because it has taken a similar position to with regard to the migrants crossing from Libya to Italy. In defiance of the laws of the sea, we (or rather, the UK Government) withdrew from the Italian operation to rescue drowning migrants, reasoning that eventually, if enough of them drowned, the word would get back to the source, and people would stop putting to sea. For this strategy to work efficiently, it would require the Government at very least to take photos of drowned bodies and publish them, with the back story,  in newspapers and on TV in Syria, Somalia, Eritrea and Mali. We may ask why they have not done so.

So the UK has no moral authority to advise Malaysia, Indonesia or Thailand to change their "pushback" policy.

What is needed therefore is for the international community to bring pressure, and donate support, for Malaysia and its neighbours, in the name of humanity, to take in the unfortunates who are at sea right now. Next, the UN needs to press Burma to give the Rohingya citizenship, and to stop the human rights abuses being perpetrated on them. The National Lead for Democracy, Aan San Suu Kyi's opposition party in Burma, has called for the Rohingya to be given citizenship.

Easier said than done: but it must be done, and, eventually, will be done. The problem is that this kind of action in the UN always comes about with glacial slowness, as the media gradually unfold the picture, so that ordinary people begin the press the politicians, who eventually instruct the diplomats to begin to work in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to bring pressure onto Burma. All it takes is for one member of the UNSC to decide that its bilateral trade or military relations with Burma to be more important than any humanitarian considerations for action in the UNSC to be set back for years.

This has got to change. The UN's way of working has to be updated.

First, the veto in the UNSC must be abolished, and the reason for its abolition must be given as Putin's abuse of his veto to prevent action being taken to stop Assad of Syria from destroying his own nation.

Second, The UN has to change its stance from being reactive to proactive. It must cease from coming to each crisis on a basis of "Oh my goodness, what is going on here, and what, if anything should we do about it?" Instead, the UN needs to lay down a set of rules that apply to how governments should work.

Rules are important, because rulers are in many ways like toddlers: they want to manipulate the rules to their own advantage in every situation. Only when they find that the rules cannot be bent  will they start to recognise that they have to behave as part of a larger society. Rules have to be applied with consistency, without fear or favour, if they are to work. These principles are based on sound and universally accepted psychology. There is every reason to apply them within the United Nations.

Only two rules are required:
Rule 1: The purpose of government is to protect the rights and well-being of all who live within its borders.
Rule 2: If Governments fail in their duty, there will be a tariff of consequences which become increasingly severe according to the degree in which the regime is failing.

A certain amount of complexity is involved in setting out the details of a tariff, but the basic principle is clear. If a ruler is setting off on the well-defined path towards dictatorship, a set of sanctions targeted on the president and the ruling clique will be applied consistently. Conversely, if the human rights performance of the regime improves,  the sanctions will be removed.

This will not be easy to achieve. Resistance will come from many quarters, from established dictators, from wannabe dictators like Putin, and also from decent, established UN diplomats who believe that the world in which they operate is the best of all possible worlds.

This is a formidable opposition. On the other hand, we face a more than formidable problem in migration, not only in the Andaman and Mediterranean seas, but worldwide. We only need to remind ourselves of the human misery, the tragedies being played out on the seas, to realise that we cannot go on as we are. We have to progress beyond dictatorships and the self interest of blinkered regimes towards a world in which behaviour is governed by universal rules, and governments know that their duty is to protect the people who live within their borders. We have to address the root causes, not just the symptoms of migration.

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