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Refugees represent the mass movement of history

European citizens must tell their leaders they want a continent with a conscience

October 4, 2015 2:00AM ET

Talking recently with newly arrived refugees from Syria and Iraq at the central train station of the Swedish coastal city of Malmo, I couldn’t help thinking of the refugees I met four years ago in Tunis, then newly arrived from increasingly war-torn Libya. Almost all had the same plea: Somebody, anybody, please, take out Muammar Gaddafi before he kills us all.

The Libyan refugees weren’t stupid. They understood, if pressed, that France, the United Kingdom, the United States or whoever would help rid them of Gaddafi wouldn’t have their interests at heart. They also understood that the price to be paid, whether in oil, other concessions or influence, would be steep. But it couldn’t be worse than Gaddafi’s wanton destruction of the “people’s republic” he had held together for decades through force, cunning and petroleum.

As I heard their horror stories, it was hard not to concur with their desperate hope that someone would just take Gaddafi out. If his brutal and corrupt regime was removed, was it too much to imagine that their country could one day become a North African Norway, which, with similar population and petroleum reserves, was a beacon for Libya’s future?

About 10 weeks later, the refugees got their wish, as Gaddafi’s bullet-ridden body was paraded through the streets of Sirte.

Soon enough, all hell broke loose. 

Imperial playthings

It could not have been otherwise. Libya has been a plaything of European and U.S. imperial, geostrategic and economic interests for more than a century. Criticism of NATO’s involvement in the civil war, however accurate, misses the reality that the West has been interfering in Libya’s affairs for decades, variously supporting and punishing (and always enriching) Gaddafi. He was just as intrusive in the politics of his neighbors, supporting brutal dictators and insurgencies across Africa that did as much to destabilize the continent as any foreign power.

A comparison between Libya and Syria is telling in this regard. Not only are both the products of long-term foreign intervention, but both are also rentier states par excellence. The former’s massive petroleum reserves and the latter’s strategic importance ensured steady support and income without much need for support from their citizens. This left them in the grip of far more oppressive governments than would otherwise be possible. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein’s republic of fear operated under a similar dynamic.

For all these countries, the only way to prevent the carnage would have been to avoid the conditions that made it inevitable. Had the U.S. and Europe — never mind Russia and China (and in Syria, Iran), which have no democratic pretense — not nurtured a system that demanded brutal and corrupt dictatorships and had they instead supported robust and independent democracy and civil society movements, it would have been a fairer fight between the regimes and pro-democracy protesters when the revolutions were sparked in late 2010.

We can think of the hundreds of thousands of refugees pushing their way into Europe as payback or at least blowback for a century of imperialism. But in fact they represent something more profound.

The groups that took the lead in those initially nonviolent uprisings would have had the chance to develop enough societal and strategic depth in the years leading up to the revolts to overcome less murderous crackdowns by governments that could afford to murder their people wholesale because they knew their foreign patrons and allies had their backs. And of course, had the U.S. not invaded and then effectively dismantled Iraq, there would very likely not be an Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) wreaking havoc across the Middle East and North Africa today.

For a better life

Criticizing past policies, of course, does nothing to help stop the slaughter once it’s in progress. Nor are barrel bombs and beheadings the only factors behind the massive flow of refugees attempting to reach Europe today.

The Iraqi Shia family from Basra that I met when they were newly arrived in Malmo most likely did not flee Iraq directly because of the violence; ISIL has no effective presence in southern Iraq. A little Syrian girl sitting in the station, among stuffed animals given to her by smiling Swedes, came by the sea, somehow avoiding the fate of Alan Shenu (identified by other media outlets as Aylan Kurdi) and the dozens more children who have drowned since his photograph moved the world to some sort of action. The Basran family’s motives for the monthlong journey through Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, Austria, Germany and Denmark might well be both economic and security-related; it was, as the father put it, “for a better life.”

It’s not quite as simple as the Internet meme that declares, “We are not chasing your benefits, we’re fleeing your bombs.” But as with Central Americans heading north after decades of U.S. support for brutal dictators and right-wing paramilitaries devastated their economies, security-related and economic motivations are rooted in the same system, which the U.S. and major European powers, including Russia, have sustained for decades despite the massive costs to local people.

So, certainly we can think of the hundreds of thousands of refugees pushing their way into Europe as payback or at least blowback for a century of imperialism, foreign interference, the Cold War and then neoliberal geopolitics. But in fact they represent something more profound.

As Lund University Islamologist Jonas Otterbeck explained as he left a pro-immigrant rally in Malmo on Sept. 13, “People are leaving now not just because of war but also because the chaos everywhere provides the chance to leave lives without any hope for the future. It’s a mass movement, a wave, and people are scared that if they don’t catch it now, it will be too late. Hopefully, it’s sparking a mass movement here, as Europeans tell their leaders that they want a Europe with a conscience.”

Before last week, Europe’s major powers and the United States could have decided that with upward of a million refugees entering Europe this year and millions more at the gates, the only solution to the Syrian crisis would be to put enough troops on the ground to remove both Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and ISIL and finally create the kind of well-conceived long-term stabilization and redevelopment plan that was never put in place in Libya, Iraq or Afghanistan. However, Russia’s entry on the Syrian battlefield all but precludes a military solution to remove Assad. As the unfolding disaster in Yemen shows, the involvement of yet more outside forces will assuredly make an already intolerable situation worse.

More likely, it is Otterbeck’s insight that will prove prescient. As in the 19th century, millions of people are on the move today, whether from war, environmental calamities, economic disaster, violent regimes or some combination of all these deeply interrelated factors. The U.S. and European powers most likely don’t have the will to ameliorate the push factors, and greater openness by European governments to refugees might well turn the wave into a tsunami. And yet the inspiring openness of European citizens to the refugees not only serves as the perfect antidote to the dystopian clash of civilizations and visions of both ISIL and the Islamophobes but also offers the hope of a truly open and globalized Europe that the EU project has so far failed to inspire.

Mark LeVine is a professor of history at the University of California at Irvine and a distinguished visiting professor at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies. He is a co-editor, with Mathias Mossberg, of “One Land, Two States: Israel and Palestine as Parallel States.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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