In early September of 2015, the photo of a small child, Aylan Kurdi, whose lifeless body had washed up on the shore near the Turkish resort town of Boldun, appeared in newspapers around the world. For one short moment, it seemed that this horrifying picture might convey the essential humanity of these refugees and change the attitude of Europeans and others to the terrible trials facing Syrian and other migrants fleeing war and instability in their home countries.
Kurdi’s mother and his older brother were also lost to the sea, along with nine others, including three more children, during the attempted crossing from Turkey to the Greek island of Kos.
Those who believed that the sympathy produced by the photo might rein in the irrational panic that greeted these desperate refugees were soon proven wrong. To her credit, the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, promised them sanctuary but this remarkable demonstration of political will produced a backlash that was quickly seized upon by Europe’s growing far right, both in Germany itself with the swift rise of the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AFD) and elsewhere on the continent.
In nearby Hungary, Viktor Orban has since called Middle Eastern refugees ‘Muslim invaders’, a turn of phrase we’re hearing more and more from the reactionary right throughout the world.
As Aylan’s father, Abdullah, who described how he’d tried desperately to save his family after their crowded boat tipped over, explained to the British Daily Telegraph a year later, “Everyone claimed they wanted to do something because of the photo that touched them so much. But what is happening now? People are still dying and nobody is doing anything about it.”
Ignored by the press at the time and in the years since was the fact that in both Syria and Libya, Western powers led by the United States bear a great deal of responsibility for the chaos created by their own bellicose foreign policies and their arming of dubious rebel groups. Another unmentioned factor in Syria was a years long drought believed to have been exacerbated by climate change, which brought formerly rural people to growing urban slums in search of work, leading to legitimate dissent.This protest was crushed by authorities before the government, and soon a host of oddly well funded and equipped militias, began their orgy of mutual violence at the expense of ordinary citizens in the country.
With the migrant surge having slowed from the near east to Europe (as has the route through Libya although the new minister of the interior in the country, Matteo Salvini of the far right Liga party, has made it clear even smaller numbers are not welcome), the focus of paranoia about human migration has once again become the United States.
Lies and fear on the campaign trail
Led by the U.S. President, who took the unusual step of holding a large number of fevered, campaign style rallies in the lead up to a midterms, derogatory language that was once relegated to the fringes has been mainstreamed, with migrants dehumanized by the use of terms like ‘illegal alien’ by Republican proxies on mainstream platforms like CNN.
While caravans of people fleeing crime ridden, insecure countries in Central America have become a norm in recent years, the most recent one, believed to contain aaround 5000 people, has just reached Mexico City, about 600 miles from the U.S. border, where many of these migrants are being sheltered in a soccer stadium.
Their arrival in Mexico City may end their usefulness to Trump, somewhat conveniently just as the midterm elections have ended.
As Edgar Corzon of Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission, who has seen these caravans in the past, told the Associated Press, they tend to break up once in Mexico, “Each one goes to the place that he considers best, mainly wherever is closest to where they have relatives or friends already in the United States.”
Having served their purpose as a prop for perennially terrified Republican voters, a majority of whom live in areas that simply don’t draw immigrants, these mainly Honduran asylum seekers will probably be forgotten as quickly as they became the focus of reactionary attention.
Echoing Hungary’s Orban, these desperate people were portrayed as ‘invaders’ by the US. President and other right-wingers. Helping to spread the cynical, manufactured panic, the caravan received breathless, often ridiculous, coverage on outlets like Fox News, where the Central Americans were accused of carrying long forgotten diseases like leprosy, tuberculosis and smallpox with them.
In an act that many deem unconstitutional under the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act, Trump went so far as to send U.S. military personnel to the already heavily policed southern border, long before any of these migrants could ever possibly arrive. Trump first said he was sending 5,000 then increased the number to 15,000 troops and told the press that he would advise them to reply to hypothetical rocks with bullets.
Further increasing the risk of some tragedy unfolding along the border after the midterm election, armed and unregulated militia groups have taken the President’s words as encouragement to head to the border to ‘help’.
As Shannon McGauley of the Texas Minutemen told MSN.com, his group has at least 100 people heading to the Rio Grande, with more on the way, “I can’t put a number on it. My phone’s been ringing nonstop for the last seven days. You got other militias, and husbands and wives, people coming from Oregon, Indiana. We’ve even got two from Canada.”
The demonization of these asylum seekers, many of them families with young children fleeing the same MS 13 criminal group, itself the product of a uniquely American gang culture, that has become a favorite right wing villain, was extreme even for Donald Trump. Americans were told that the ragged travelers besides carrying disease, were infiltrated by criminals and even, “people of Middle Eastern origin”, statements so over the top that they can’t even be called dog whistles.
The rhetoric left one wondering what impact what became the main topic for Republicans in the lead up to the November 6th vote would have on election day. While Democrats did take the House and there were some significant progressive victories, with 6 candidates endorsed by the DSA winning at the national level and many more associated with Our Revolution and the Justice Democrats, a good start for bringing the concerns of working people to the U.S. Congress, the divisive rhetoric didn’t seem to hurt Republicans very much and may have actually helped get out the (racist) vote in some places.
While the exodus from Honduras and two of its neighbors may be driven by crime and instability, the future seems sure to bring many more people fleeing the slowly intensifying effects of climate change and biodiversity loss across borders. Americans had a view of this future after Hurricane Maria when hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans fled the island for the mainland.
If some of the worst predictions being made by climate scientists play out, the Middle East will be unable to produce enough food to feed its people. The waves of migration that future famines could cause would make the migrant crisis of 2015 seem like a drop in the bucket and will be global rather than regional in scale.
One thing we can be sure of is that the mainstream corporate press has no interest in covering these issues at all, at least until they can no longer be ignored. After a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that the world has just a dozen years left to confront the problem, the New York Review of Books reported that, “An analysis of the fifty biggest US newspapers showed that only twenty-two of them bothered to put a story about the report on the homepages of their websites.”
If policy makers were thinking in human rather than in electoral and market terms, and this is as true here in supposedly ‘liberal’ Canada, which is denying entry to asylum seekers at our southern border under the U.S./Canada Safe Third Country Agreement, governments would planning for this increasingly likely future.