Refugees Risk Perilous Journeys, Fleeing War and Years of IMF-type Policies

The UNHCR says at least 2,500 have died in the Mediterranean this year. The European Union predicts another 500,000 refugees will head to Europe through the end of the year.

These people are fleeing political and religious turmoil shaped by the global war on terror and “economies evisercated by IMF-type policies” throughout Africa and the Middle East, says scholar Vijay Prashad.

Instead of accepting the primary responsibility of European actors to provide humanitarian relief and passage, “the main framework for this refugee discussion is how to allay Europe’s anxieties,” says Prashad.

He also thought the European Union’s discussion of adopting a policy of militarizing the Mediterranean was “scandalous.” “There needs to be some accountability by agencies” like the IMF “for what they’ve done in these countries.”

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Story Transcript

SHARMINI PERIES, EXECUTIVE PRODUCER, TRNN: It’s the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.

Just hours ago another boat full of refugees capsized in the Mediterranean. According to Italian authorities, another 100 people drowned in unstable vessels off the coast of Libya. They were approaching Italy. An Italian general reported that the seas are so rough that he’s not sending out his own coastguard crew vessels, so the survival rates of the refugees in small, unstable dinghies of the kind you see in these pictures are not very good.

According to UNHCR, so far almost 2500 people have perished in the Mediterranean just this year. Europe is expecting nearly half a million more refugees to be heading to Europe from Libya and North Africa, says the EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini. She stresses that the chaos in Libya, meaning the governing crisis in Libya, means that Europe will have to bear the brunt of this crisis.

Now joining me to discuss all of this is Vijay Prashad. Vijay Prashad is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and professor of international studies at Trinity College. His latest book is “Letters to Palestine: Writers Respond to War and Occupation,” and he is also the author of “Arab Spring, Libyan Winter.” Vijay, thank you so much for joining us today.

VIJAY PRASHAD: Pleasure.

PERIES: Vijay, describe the reason why so many refugees have come to Libya, and what are they seeking refuge from?

PRASHAD: Well, you know, for a very long time, because of the economic collapse in Western Africa and the political turmoil in the Horn of Africa, thousands of people have tried to cross the Sahara and come across into Europe. This predates 2011 when the Libyan state was essentially destroyed. But when the Libyan state was destroyed in 2011, that chaos opened the door to human traffickers who now had an opening in north [inaud.] Libya to basically put these very desperate people onto old, rusty fishing [vessels] or rubber dinghies and push them off to sea so that hopefully they’ll get to Lampedusa, which is an island, an Italian island, and the entry point for the refugees to enter [Europe].

So, the collapse of the Libyan state provided an enormous opportunity. These human traffickers [inaud.] rooted themselves in a number of towns in northwestern Libya. Some people say that along [the] coastline now about 50 percent of the gross domestic product is being basically harnessed through this human trafficking trade.

What are the countries they are coming from? The old routes are people coming from Nigeria, from Gambia, from Senegal. They come in large numbers. These are countries that have essentially had their economies eviscerated by the International Monetary Fund, by the policies. They’re also coming from Eritrea and Ethiopia. There there is turmoil, political turmoil. Some of it is religious turmoil through the way in which the global war on terror has been fought. People have been fleeing, of course, from Somalia.

So, these populations are coming to Libya, have been attempting to cross over into Europe, and the numbers have been staggering, not because only now they’ve been leaving this part of Africa, but because, of course, the [chaos] in Libya has allowed the human traffickers a much greater facility to put people on these boats.

This is a very perilous journey, because already this year over 2500 people have died, according to the refugees agency, and at the same time last year the death toll was about 1800. So, we’re seeing increased numbers of people trying to get into Europe and we’re seeing increased numbers of deaths.

PERIES: Vijay, this week has been very painful. We have seen this very young baby who had drowned at sea and a photo of a Italian coastguard rescue operation holding the baby. Now an Italian general has said himself that the seas are too rough for them to go out. What kind of policies do we actually need in order to address this crisis we’re dealing with now?

PRASHAD: Well, look, as far as the international obligations are concerned, you know, there [needs] to be a [inaud.] embrace of people who are fleeing war, who are fleeing basically collapse of their lives. You know, there has got to be a humanitarian floor beneath any kind of formal law that we have on the books. The UN Convention on Refugees is inadequate to this, but there’s got to be [inaud.] humanitarian floor. And therefore when the EU, the European Union discussed militarizing the Mediterranean, you know, as an example of a policy, I thought that was a scandal. You know, there should be no militarization of the Mediterranean sea at all.

I mean, there are a couple of things that need to be done. The United Nations has gone towards the policy of creating a [unity government] in Libya. That’s good for Libya itself, but having a unity government in Libya is not necessarily going to stem the flow of migration. It’s going to help stop the migrants getting to Europe. In other words, the unity government in Libya that the Europeans are very eager to see is going to create a front line state for Europe in the same way as Turkey is a front line state for Europe with regard to the migration, the refugee crisis from Syria. So, the unity government itself is not going to help stem that flow.

A couple of important things need to happen. One is, the International Monetary Fund’s research department just released an important document called “Neoliberalism Oversold,” and in that document they suggested that their own policies have had disquieting conditions or outcomes in places where the IMF policies have been put into place, and I think the International Monetary Fund, the various international financial institutions need to take some responsibility for destroying the economies of these countries, for putting them in a position where millions of people are unable to make any kind of living and are fleeing to find better opportunities,

It’s the same kind of thing that happened with Mexico and the United States. The North American Free Trade [Organization], or NAFTA, eviscerated Mexico’s maize corn industry and sent small farmers into great distress. Some of them went into the drug trade and others desperately tried to come into the United States for employment. So there’s got to be [broader understanding] of why people are fleeing these countries.

We have to have a new category of, perhaps let’s call it IMF refugees, and there therefore has to be some accountability by these agencies for what they’ve done in those countries. It’s not enough really to just tackle this by creating a wall in the Mediterranean. There has to be a real sense that the causes, the root causes of migration need to be taken in hand and those people that are right at the doorstep of Europe need to be embraced, taken in and taken care of.

PERIES: Vijay, that report you referred to by some of the researchers at the IMF is very interesting. However, I don’t think this is the opinion of the leadership at the IMF, and so I will table that for now. However, I wanted to ask you if there are any conversations that are going on at the UN level about how to better manage the refugee crises and taking more responsibility by those countries who have created this crisis through neoliberal economic policies.

PRASHAD: Well, actually I don’t think they are having that conversation. The conversation they are having is about the crisis itself. It’s at the level of how to manage the so-called flow of migrants into Europe. You know, there are two different crises taking place. One crisis is the Syrian wars crisis which has impacted Greece, Turkey, Eastern Europe and all the way out to Germany. The second crisis is the crisis in Libya, which is really a crisis of economic policies in Western Africa of the nature of the global war on terror in the Horn of Africa.

The very fact there are these different authors of, you know, distress for people is not, doesn’t seem to bother the people who are having this conversation. They are worried about the fact that there are refugees entering Europe, and therefore they put all these people together and they’re trying to understand how to deal with all these people in the same way, which is why they’ve created these hierarchies of refugees. In other words, those who are so-called genuine refugees, meaning, say, of the war in Syria, they have to find a mechanism to deal with them. Then there are others who they say are not genuine refugees, and those are so-called economic migrants. You know, this is the term that they use. I prefer to call them IMF refugees.

So, they’re trying to parcel them out and deal with the problem from the standpoint of Europe, how to basically take care of Europe’s anxiety. They’re not actually thinking about how to deal with the fact that there are people in distress who are fleeing their homelands from which many of them don’t want to flee. You know, they would prefer to live in their homelands but they are in great distress. So the question of distress in the homelands is not on the table. The main framework for this refugee discussion is how to allay Europe’s anxieties.

PERIES: And thank you so much for joining us, Vijay.

PRASHAD: Thanks a lot.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.

End

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