Of Teeming Refugees and Empty TownsPosted: September 5, 2015
The City of Utica is nestled in Central New York State, away from main roads and seemingly in decline. But look further and listen closer and you will notice one of the main reasons Utica reversed seven decades of population decline beginning in the year 2000. Utica has a large population of Balkan emigrants, many settled there after the famous “Dayton Accord” that finally closed the book on the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, eight decades after its official demise. The events that started with the shooting of a Grand Duke seem to find their denouement thousands of miles away in an unlikely place.
The year 1918 saw the collapse of three Empires, the Austro-Hungarian, the Russian and the Ottoman. The last two are still in progress. The events in the Levant are a final echo (hopefully) of the Ottoman collapse. As always, the collapse of Empires is occasioned by much human suffering, wars for power that jostle men, women and children from their homes and send them as mendicants on roads. The latest wave is that of Syrian, Kurdish and Iraqi refugees, escaping fighting, the predations of the “Islamic State” and the general collapse of their native states. Refugees are never the teeming, faceless mass they are often taken to be. Among them lurk all the individuality, promise and errors of humanity. This wave is no different. Their plight has created waves of outrage, as well as defensive anger, but little by way of helpful action. Germany has promised to take in a million refugees, roughly a tenth of the estimated number of displaced civilians. Another four millions are spread out on the borders of nearby states, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Egypt; all states in a tenuous state. There is strong criticism of the wealthy Gulf states for not taking in refugees, but the criticism, however justified, glosses over significant issues and is unlikely to bring a change in course, or relief for the refugees. Europe, beyond Germany, is hesitant to absorb a massive wave of displaced persons at exactly the moment when its politics is nurturing noxious demagogues who traffic in fear of Muslims. Some are seeing the refugee crisis as a chance to push for their favorite outcome in the Syria, insisting that it will only be solved by the removal of Assad. We should shed no tears for him, but his collapse will send waves of Christian and Alawite refugees out of Syria. It will also bring ISIS to the borders of Lebanon and a chance to try to practice its genocidal policies on its population of Shi’a and Christians. It takes little imagination to play out this scenario.
Forgotten in the storm of outrage is the role of the US. The US has accepted more refugees from the Balkans, where it had a minimal hand in its wars, than from the Levant where it meddled extensively. The collapse of Syria has many authors; its Mafia-like leadership; many Gulf States who are nominal US allies; the chaos in Iraq occasioned by the smash-and-democratize dreams of 2003; and Turkish fears of Kurdish nationalism. Historically the US has been one of the largest, if not the largest, recipient of immigrants. Some sought riches and some wanted a safe distance from their potential executioners. Most have found some immediate suspicion but ultimate acceptance. Although the US immigration policies are now captive to fierce and unprincipled debates, mostly regarding “South of the Border” immigrants, there remains space for decency and assumption of responsibility if the right leadership claims it. There will surely be the usual noise about the lack of resources to manage the new influx, or the fear that many Jihadists will sneak in with the immigrants. But immigrants bring in resources in the form of sweat equity in the national enterprise, and the Jihadist problem exists regardless of immigration policy.
What is advocated here may seem fanciful. Eager workers to fill rust belt cities that lost millions in population over many decades. It you think this is a dream, ask the Mayors of these towns and cities.
— Maged Atiya