'Each man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world'
-- Arthur Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms

'Artists are tricky fellows sir, forever shaping the world according to some design of their own'
-- Jonathan Strange, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Monday, 18 April 2011

Will the last person to leave the Maghreb please turn out the lights?

Refugee crisis points to humanitarian disaster on 'Europe's southern border' that will shift European politics to the right. And there was finally a Western ground force committed to Libya, but it was only a massive security detail designed to protect UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie on a visit to a refugee camp.

Angelina Jolie visits a Libyan refugee camp on April 4, 2011. 
The visit was reported by some sources as sparking a 'riot'.
More than 160 000 Libyans are encamped at the country's eastern and western littoral borders. At least 400 000 in total have passed into neighbouring countries - Niger, Chad, Sudan, Algeria, Egypt and the majority to Tunisia. The minority are returning nationals, leaving Libya because of the continued unrest. Against this backdrop, the UK has pledge to aid the 400 000 civilians in Misrata (the IOM estimates that 4000 migrants, ostracised and stricken, are still trapped in the city, the majority from sub-saharan Africa. Approximately 1600 have been taken by ferry to Benghazi and from there will be taken to Egypt). Estimates of the toll from the six weeks of fighting, from a doctor at the main hospital, stands at 1000 dead, 3000 wounded, and 80% of those are civilian.

The humanitarian plight across the Maghreb reverberates across Europe. On April 17, ten trains carrying Tunisian refugees were stopped by French officials and the Italian-French border. Italy has been giving temporary resident status to the 26 000 Tunisian refugees that have landed in the country.  Under the terms of the Schengen Agreement, free internal travel in 25 European countries is allowed by those nationals. The French officials cited 'public order reasons' for denying the entry and said that 'temporary nationality' was not binding. Already this refugee crisis is threatening cooperation between states and we are at the tip of the iceberg. 

The other factor is that we are in midst of a period of high inflation and relatively weak economic growth - against which the relative poverty of European nations is increasing. True Finns party has made electoral gains in Finland arguing against supporting bail-outs for stricken EU countries, whilst in Greece, calls grow louder to default on the debt. Increasing economic duress and added refugees invariably heightens a sense of 'Us' and 'Them'. 'We' become the Europeans, suffering economically because of the unstoppable influx of 'them' the Muslim refugees. And it will be the religion that gets distilled from this by the right wing politicians, not the ethnicity. 'They' will be Islamic and not North Africans - it increases fear and resentment and develops the clash of civilizations idea. Arguably, when the UK and French governments fought for a no-fly zone, preventing a refugee crisis that threatened the fundamental stability of European arrangements, was one reason they had in mind.

Marie le Pen of the far-right National Front Party in France toured an immigrant centre on the small Italian island of Lampedusa in early March and warned Italy to prepare to accept 'half the world's population' if it continues to take in 'economic refugees'. She said she learnt from her visit that the majority of the migrants were men aged between 20 and 30 and obviously 'economic refugees'
The Libyan uprising began in mid-February. It is now into its third month and there is no clear image of what the end result of this conflict may be. There is even less of idea of how the rebel force will now act. It is heterogenous, ill-trained, ill-equipped and bound to be losing morale - a NATO groundforce looks ever more likely unless talks with Kaddafi are progressing behind the scenes - but just how far he now controls the forces professing loyalty to him is unclear. Misrata is a classic civil war set-up - the battle is for control of the city and with that power, the pro-Kaddafi forces will rape and plunder, as war prizes. Currently there are 3-5000 rebel fighters, with questionable leadership, and the reported death of a 'rebel leader' in an attempt to retake a strategically important school building in the capital yesterday. An outright pro-Kaddafi victory in the city of 400 000 would precipitate chilling accounts and images - atrocities that could not be prevented by airstrikes. Libya as a problem embraced by the UK, France and the USA would then escalate by orders of magnitude because a ground force would account itself for images of killing that could then be used as anti-Western propaganda.

None of the ensuing scenarios are particularly optimistic. If Kaddafi flees, there are still pro-Kaddafi troops who have invested everything in fighting the rebels so that they will continue until they are routed. If Kaddafi is killed in a NATO operation then other elements may assume control. In the unlikely event that Kaddafi is routed, the post-conflict landscape would be absent of security of any kind and lacking visible leadership. It would be a country devoid of any coherent narrative and the economic hopelessness would precipitate mass migration. 

Democracy? We trumpet it from the rooftops yet we still teach the politics of Greeks, dead for two thousand years, who advocated benevolent tyranny and philosopher-kings. We proclaim democracy as bestowing political freedom onto a nation, as we go to the polls on May 5 to implement a change to our democratic system. We forget our own nation's history that is stained with the blood of thousands who have fought and died against regimes through the centuries. A transition phase to democracy would not create enough security on the ground to protect civilians from militias that would form in bids to develop local monopolies of violence. At some point, a United Nations or African Union ground force will be required in the country. Oh, and welcome to right-wing Europe.

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