Pictures of desperate migrants fleeing the war ravaged regions of the Middle East and the economically ravaged regions of Africa and Asia have been with us for decades. But only recently has the pace, scale and the attendant TV and digital media coverage overwhelmed us and the authorities. Countries in the Eurozone are scrambling to cope with the crisis, but the response is not uniform. Some countries like Germany with their Willkommenskultur, have taken in the lion’s share of the refugees from war-torn Syria and Afghanistan. But, as is also becoming clear, there are limitations to how many refugees Germany and eventually the EU can accommodate. However, granting asylum is a temporary fix, a Band-Aid. Let us look at the problem from a different perspective.
As a scientist, let me use an analogy from physics. Imagine two chambers A and B filled with air and connected by a tube with a valve. Chamber A has air at a higher pressure than B. The natural tendency of air is to flow from regions of high pressure A to regions of low pressure B. How do we prevent air flowing from A to B?
Assume A comparable to a ravaged state (e.g. Syria), B to Europe and the migrants to air molecules. As long as the pressure to migrate is higher in Syria, people will migrate or flow to other law abiding, affluent countries in Europe whose citizens are happy and do not feel the pressure to migrate. Here, the flux of refugees is comparable to air flux. With this in mind, let us examine the following cases.
With the valve tightly closed there is no air flow. Similarly, we can shut the borders completely and stop the flow of refugees. Possible, but this is contrary to our basic, compassionate nature.
We can open the valve or borders in a controlled manner to keep the flow manageable. Theoretically possible, but as we have seen on TV and social media, it is almost impossible to control the flow with the pressure so high. The desire for a better life is almost as pressing as food, shelter and sex. Europe cannot resettle all the refugees (4 million from Syria alone and 59 million worldwide estimated by UNHCR). The early welcome mat is wearing thin.
The best, long term solution is to lower the pressure of chamber A to that of B, that is lower the pressure to migrate. That means we need to fix the problems why people are migrating from Syria in the first place; why are they braving choppy seas, rapacious human traffickers, and a very uncertain future. The reason; the situation back home is far worse. Anything is better than living with the constant threat of a barrel bomb, the knife that beheads or the tender mercies of the sex slave market. Unfortunately, no one is thinking of solving the Syrian quagmire as a solution to the refugee crisis. Instead, Syria is becoming a hot spot for super power rivalry which will only induce more people to flee the bombings and add to the crisis. Given a chance, people will migrate in search of a better future.
Here is why; migration is hard-wired into our DNA. It started millions of years ago when our Hominid ancestors in Africa gathered their families around them, shouldered their spears and started walking in search of better hunting grounds; the first economic migrants. For thousands of years, humans have been fleeing wars, famines, natural disasters and religious persecutions; the earliest refugees. Migration is an inseparable part of our history.
The picture of the lifeless body of little Alan Kurdi lying face down on the sea shore seared our collective conscience and prodded chancellors, prime ministers and presidents to action. But, to put an end to this tragedy, we need to start by trying to understand what drives human migration in the first place. And those drivers are lack of food, shelter, and opportunities for a peaceful, productive and fulfilling life. Solving the present crisis will not be easy. We have to find solutions to the political and economic problems, wars, religious fanaticism, vast income and social inequalities, exploitation and lack of jobs and opportunities. Only when we have identified the real problem can we hope to find a true sustainable solution.
Ranjan Mukherjee is a scientist and writer.
This piece was first published in The Intelligencer, Oct. 2015.