Migrant crisis: West reaps what it has sown

Story highlights

  • The tide of migrants arriving in Europe has not emerged from nowhere, writes Simon Tisdall
  • It reaches back to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and colonialism before that, he says
  • European leaders need to recognize their responsibilities, Tisdall says

Simon Tisdall is assistant editor and foreign affairs columnist at The Guardian. He was previously foreign editor of the Guardian and The Observer and served as White House correspondent and U.S. editor in Washington D.C. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely his.

(CNN)There is something almost Biblical about the mass exodus of desperate people fleeing Syria and other war-torn and impoverished countries. For European governments, struggling to manage the crisis engulfing their borders, the Bible has a succinct lesson they might do well to ponder: "For whatever one sows, that will he also reap."

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This fatal flood-tide of human jetsam, surging haphazardly across the Mediterranean, has not suddenly materialized out of nowhere. The crisis has been building for years, reaching back to the U.S.-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and much further still, to the era of European colonialism in the Middle East and north Africa.
The shocking photos of the limp, lifeless body of Aylan Kurdi, the two-year-old Syrian toddler who drowned off Turkey last week, does not come as a total surprise. At least 2,000 migrants have perished in similar circumstances this year. More than 350,000 have braved the journey across the Mediterranean to Europe in 2015, according to the International Organisation for Migration -- and they are still coming.
    What is heartening is the overdue outpouring of public concern triggered by Aylan's needless, shaming death. Perhaps volunteer food bank collectors in Hamburg, emergency convoy drivers in Belfast and local councillors in Normandy are ready to admit what their governments will not: that the West bears primary responsibility for this recurring tragedy -- and that, whatever the causes, common human decency demands Europe do all it can to halt it.

    Warlords and fanatics

    That a large proportion of the refugees comes from Afghanistan is no coincidence. Nearly 15 years after the events of 9/11 prompted the U.S.-led invasion, much of the country remains a fearful, dangerous place plagued by warlords and fanatics.
    Despite billions disbursed in western aid, the "new" Afghanistan has yet to materialize. Nato's departure last year did not mark the end of the war, just the beginning of the next phase. The government in Kabul is divided, incompetent and corrupt. If ordinary Afghans can get out, they will. In the silent referendum on the outcome of American nation-building, they are voting with their feet.
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    The picture in Iraq is even more alarming. The window on post-Saddam political reform, painfully opened by U.S. and British troops after 2003, was slammed shut by a sectarian-minded, Iranian-dominated Shia majority government in Baghdad. Make no mistake: inept
    Western politicians let this happen. Although a new, less divisive regime is now in power, the damage was done.
    A third or more of Iraq is now in the hands of the very worst kind of Islamist extremists and foreign jihadis who have wrenched control from the alienated and demoralized Sunni minority. The jihadis murder, torture and rape without conscience or constraint.
    Would you and your family stick around? Waiting for Washington or London to remedy the mess they made in Iraq is akin to bailing water on the Titanic with a sieve.
    And then there is Syria. Millions displaced, hundreds of thousands dead, the neighborhood destabilized, the war continuing with no end in sight. Is it fair to blame Barack Obama, David Cameron or Angela Merkel for President Bashar al-Assad's genocidal, Russian and Iranian-backed bid to cling to power?
    Not really.
    But they can all be faulted, along with Arab and Turkish leaders and cold-blooded Vladimir Putin, for doing so very little, in practical terms, to halt the slaughter either through military or diplomatic interventions.

    No-fly zones

    It is plain political cowardice to continue to deny Syrian civilians the protection of no-fly zones and internal safe havens, as afforded to the Iraqi Kurds and Shia in the 1990s.
    This could be done with minimal military risk. It could mitigate the awful toll exacted by Assad's chemical weapons and barrel bombs. It would fulfill, in part, the duty of the U.S. and EU countries to uphold the U.N.-mandated "responsibility to protect." And it might reduce or even reverse the flow of Syrian migrants heading for Greece.
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    Nor is it any use saying the Arab regimes of the Gulf, key actors in Syria's tragedy, should do more to help. Of course they should. But as so often when a humanitarian crisis blows up, they sit on their hands and their wallets. Just look at the unremitting suffering in Yemen and Somalia.
    The chaos in Libya following the West's 2011 intervention, U.S. acquiescence in Egypt's repressive, post-Arab Spring counter-revolution, and the generational injustice done to the Palestinians are all powerful factors in Europe's migrant crisis. So, too, are the historical machinations of colonialist Britain, France and Italy that so grotesquely distorted traditional culture and society from Sudan, Eritrea and Chad to Mali, Nigeria and Algeria.
    What now is the legacy of the colonial era? Rather than increasing investment, technology, training and education in those countries so their people do not need to seek a better life elsewhere -- their chief imperial inheritance is, too often, political, ethnic and religious schism, aid dependency, unfair trade rules, and climate change created by the polluting industries of the North.
    Rapid population growth in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa, resulting in large numbers of young people hitting working age at the same time, also means high unemployment and likely political turmoil.

    Recognizing responsibility

    Instead of building walls, shutting doors and arguing about numbers, European leaders -- encouraged by Washington -- must recognize their responsibilities, historical and current, moral and practical. At the weekend, Germany, its people and politicians, seemed to be leading the way, with Britain's Conservative government trailing reluctantly behind. But one country cannot do it all.
    Much more generous, collective EU refugee and asylum arrangements are required. Safe and legal immigration channels must be expanded, search and rescue must be improved, and a longer-term relocation scheme for sharing asylum-seekers across the 28 EU member states must be agreed.
    Europe is reaping a whirlwind of its own making. It needs to stand up, or risk being blown away.