16 November 2014

Finding Solidarity in an Unequal World (1)

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“Migrants rest after they were rescued by the Libyan coastguard when their boat sank off the coastal town of Garabulli on 15 September 2014.” Photograph: Mahmud Turkia/AFP/Getty Images “Migrants rest after they were rescued by the Libyan coastguard when their boat sank off the coastal town of Garabulli on 15 September 2014.” Photograph: Mahmud Turkia/AFP/Getty Images http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2014/sep/29/europe-deadliest-destination-migrants-report

In a twist of events one could hardly imagine in a horror film, a boat owned by smugglers deliberately destroyed their human cargo. They rammed into a rickety boat jammed with four or five hundred migrants (who had paid them a minimum of $2000), capsizing it instantly. Over one hundred children and many more adults perished in the instants that followed. And as the boat circled around them, the smugglers laughed sadistically.

Despite their cruelty, over one hundred managed to cling to various objects. They then locked arms to keep warm in the cold sea a hundred miles or so from the island of Malta, but most slipped under the waves as the hours turned into a day and then to almost four days. The handful who survived had resorted to drinking their own urine and struggled with hallucinations.

One of the survivors was picked up by the Pegasus, a ship that had just rescued 386 other migrants from another shipwreck. According to the survivors, all Palestinians from Gaza whose houses had been destroyed in the recent war with Israel, there were also migrants from Libya, Eritrea, Sudan and Egypt.

Just that week six other ships brimming with migrants went down. But this case was different. As the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein (a Jordanian national), declared, these smugglers are likely guilty of “mass murder” and should be brought to justice.

Some grim facts about migrants

 A couple of weeks after this particular disaster, the Geneva-based International Organization for Migration (IOM) published a study conducted over six months entitled, “Fatal Journeys: Tracking Lives Lost during Migration.” Here are some of its stark figures:

  • 8 migrants die every day, trying to reach richer and more peaceful countries
  • The IOM estimates that up to 800,000 people are trafficked across borders annually (this is part of a larger number of extremely vulnerable persons caught up in the sex trafficking and labor trafficking rings – representing altogether about 21 million people)
  • Since the year 2000, over 40,000 migrants have died worldwide – 22,000 of those trying to reach Europe; 6,000 died on the Mexican-US border; 3,000 in the Sahara desert and in the Indian Ocean
  • The pace is accelerating: over 4,000 have died in the Mediterranean this year alone; the Italian authorities estimate that 112,000 “irregular migrants” crossed into their borders, a threefold increase from 2013
  • Over 40,000 migrants arrived in Italy from North Africa in just the first half of 2014; 2,750 of those were unaccompanied children; 13,000 arrived in Greece and 2,000 in Spain crossing from Morocco
  • Libya, now a country descending into chaos, is the place of choice for departures
  • The study also documents general indifference to these migrants’ plight: apart from the IOM, there are no agencies anywhere tracking these deaths – quite a contrast to the media attention and millions of dollars spent on tracking the remains of the Malaysian MH370 flight!

I could not agree more with IOM’s director-general, William Lacy Swing:

“The paradox is that at a time when one in seven people around the world are migrants, we are seeing an extraordinarily harsh response to migration in the developed world. Limited opportunities for safe and regular migration drive would-be migrants into the hands of smugglers, feeding an unscrupulous trade that threatens the lives of desperate people. We need to put an end to this cycle. Undocumented migrants are not criminals. They are human beings in need of protection and assistance, and deserving respect.”

What’s behind these population flows?

The IOM Regional Director for Europe – which we now know to be the number one destination for migrants – is Bernt Hemingway. In a June 2014 blog he noted two realities dramatically clashing at the moment: the desperation of all of these migrants willing to risk their lives to survive, or at least find a better life, and the shrill and strident voices of condemnation of them in European societies. Those traveling include some of the most vulnerable – women, often pregnant, and children. On the other side, these people are painted as invaders, and even criminals seeking to steal their hard-earned benefits.

“Emotive language colours the landscape with visions of surges, hordes and invasions, and this has been amplified in the various national debates surrounding the EU elections,” notes Hemingway. Yet when you stop to think about it, his starting point is inescapable from a moral standpoint: “But we must understand that for most the situation is desperate, and work from there.”

He then adds, “The complex flows of people across the Mediterranean are a result of conflict, poverty, inequality and the quest to support or protect families when all options are exhausted at home.”

I have to inject here what I just learned and experienced in watching a jarring and gut-wrenching 42-minute documentary about thousands of deaths of migrants in Brooks County, Texas. Entitled “The Real Death Valley”, (improbably) sponsored by the Weather Channel and Telemundo Investigative. I didn’t just cry. I wept. These weren’t just statistics, but real human beings and in particular the story of two brothers marked for killing by gangs in San Salvador.

Brooks County is not on the Texas border. It’s 70 miles north of the Rio Grande river, which the travelers cross with their “coyotes” (smugglers). They are then taken in trucks to just a few miles of a major checkpoint where agents with dogs check for migrants. Then they are guided around the checkpoint by traversing huge private ranches for two or three days. But anyone sick or not able to keep up in the oppressive heat and humidity is simply left behind. Most of those who die fall into this category.

Back to the two brothers. The sick one, now terribly dehydrated, is close to death and the older brother calls 911. The local police, with only one officer at a time able to respond, usually calls the border police who are much better staffed. But sometimes the waiting time is too long, as in the case of this young man who dies after several hours. Fortunately, his brother is saved. I’ll let you watch the film to catch the rest.

Globally, however, war and the breakdown of law and order are not the leading causes of such hazard-laced migrations. In the MENA region (Middle East & North Africa) there is no doubt that the series of uprising in 2011 (optimistically dubbed the “Arab Spring” at the time) have left behind bitter conflict and several million refugees. But that is not the whole picture. Before this and still today, migration is caused by “poverty, inequality and the quest to support or protect families when all options are exhausted at home.”

Hence the topic of inequality I touch on here and in the second hald of this post.

Inequality is a moral and theological issue

Some good news, to start with. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in May 2013 announced to the General Assembly as he rolled out the 2013 Human Development report that “[w]e are at the beginning of an historic journey.” This report aimed to build on and expand the original Millennium Declaration of 2000 and the ensuing Millennial Development Goals (MDGs) and chart the way forward past the 2015 goal. Ban summarized the objective thus:

“The post-2015 process is a chance to usher in a new era in international development – one that will eradicate extreme poverty and lead us to a world of prosperity, sustainability, equity and dignity for all.”

Growing up as I did in France, the French revolutionary slogan “liberty, equality and fraternity” was drilled into us school children. In the American version, the three “inalienable rights” trumpeted in the Declaration of Independence are “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The latter, I fear, has been reduced with time to economic opportunity. But equality of opportunity was never mentioned and, much less, emphasized. And that’s just at the national level, whereas the Secretary General is speaking about all humanity.

We certainly can rejoice that this 2013 report informs us that the share of extreme poverty in the world has dropped from 43 percent in 1990 to 21 percent in 2013 and that by 2030 most middle-class people will live in countries no longer considered “poor.” What is more, we can applaud the conclusion of the 25-member panel as to the proposed revision to the MDGs – specifically, “five major transformational shifts”:

  1. “move from 'reducing' to ending extreme poverty, leaving no one behind . . .
  2. “putting sustainable development at the core of the development agenda . . ."
  3. “transforming economies to drive inclusive growth . . ."
  4. “building accountable institutions, open to all, that will ensure good governance and peaceful societies . . ."
  5. “and forging a new global partnership based on cooperation, equity and human rights.”

That said, we’re still left with the IOM’s yearly figure of 800,000 people trafficked across borders. Grinding poverty still accompanies the daily suffering of a quarter of humanity and leads many to entrust their fate to the wiles of criminal smuggling gangs.

I am in the process of writing (or rewriting “Muslim Theologies of Justice,” as seen on my homepage) what is so far entitled, “Justice and Love: A Muslim-Christian Conversation.” My thesis is that justice – and I mean “primary justice” here – is about human rights. It’s about the basic rights of human beings simply because they are human beings. I started moving in that direction in my article (see it in Resources), “A Muslim and Christian Orientation to Human Rights: Human Dignity and Solidarity” now published in the Indiana International and Comparative Law Review.

All I’ll say here is that the UN body in the three decades following the historic Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was on the right path when it attempted to hammer out a more legally binding version of it in two covenants – the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). The United States is among a few countries that never ratified the ICESCR. Economic rights remain controversial in societies that pride themselves on individualism and the least possible regulation on the exploitation of capital.

The Prophet Muhammad was an orphan and the Qur’an constantly rebukes the rich who callously neglect or especially exploit the poor, the widow and the orphan. That’s why one of the Islam’s five pillars is zakat – the duty to redistribute 2.5 percent of your assets for the benefit of the poor on an annual basis (for more on this, see “Zakat and Poverty Allieviation”).

Jesus was the archetypal migrant, who owned nothing and “had no place to lay his head.” His teaching also reveals that he firmly believed the radical social justice discourse of the Hebrew prophets, as for instance Isaiah’s portrayal of “true fasting”:

“Free those who are wrongly imprisoned . . . Share your food with the hungry, and give shelter to the homeless. Give clothes to those who need them” (Is. 58:6-7 NLT).

Jesus summarized this in the two commandments in the Law of Moses: love God with all your heart, mind and soul; and your neighbor as yourself (see Mark 12:30-31 and parallels).

Solidarity is not only the right attitude to adopt toward fellow human beings in great need. It’s an attitude of love God calls us to put into action. More on this in the second half.