Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Thursday, September 10, 2015


Our dean has asked us for our thoughts about the refugee crisis currently afflicting the world and what the School of Public Health can do about it. I'm not sure how to answer because this is, obviously, fundamentally a political problem, with three major dimensions.

It doesn't take any particular public health expertise to see that, in the short term, the 60 million or more refugees on the planet, need water, food, shelter and sanitation. As Nicholas Kristof points out today, regarding those 650,000 or so refugees currently causing so much turmoil in Europe, you ain't seen nothing yet if the UN can no longer feed the millions of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. Which it basically can't -- the World Food Program just cut off 229,000 refugees in Jordan because it ran out of money. So that's dimension number one. The multiple crises, with Syria and Iraq being the worst but far from the only major ones, are draining the coffers of the international humanitarian infrastructure. If the millions of people currently harbored in the countries neighboring Syria all get desperate enough to try to make it to Europe or somewhere, anywhere, that they can survive . . .

So that's the second political problem. Ultimately, we can't warehouse all these people in wretched tent cities and truck in flour and cooking oil to keep them biologically alive. They need to be settled in communities, as human beings, with the chance to make a living and make a home. But the influx is, predictably, bringing out the worst as well as the best in people. It's obviously bringing out the worst in Americans. John Kerry says we should accept 100,000 people next year, but don't hold your breath. Not when this is happening.

Kristof touches on the third political problem: we have to stop the war in Syria, and while he doesn't say so, obviously by extension the various other circumstances around the world that are forcing people to flee their homes. Patrick L. Smith has something to say about that. The Syrian civil war, the Afghan civil war, the anarchy in Libya, the desperate poverty in central Africa and Central America that have brought about civic collapse -- these are all the legacy of colonialism and neo-colonialism, the presumption by European civilization that it can and should run the world. This is a lot of complicated history and it's not the story we are taught in school or see on the nightly news. While Kristof is obviously right in principle, I very much doubt that the western powers will ever try the right solution, which doesn't involve freedom bombs or giving weapons to "moderates," meaning our bastards --  until they turn on us.

Oh yeah, climate change. It was actually drought that precipitated the Syrian civil war. If you think 60,000,000 refugees is a lot, just you wait.


robin andrea said...

I read somewhere recently that the looming climate crisis may create 200 million refugees. It was a very bleak picture of the future.

Anonymous said...

Could be that's why the Department of Defense identified climate change as the number 1 threat to world peace.