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Obsessing over Europe’s refugee crisis while ignoring Africa’s is white privilege at work


Migrants and refugees with survival blankets on board the Topaz Responder, a rescue ship run by the Malta-based foundation Migrant Offshore Aid Station, during its arrival at Brindisi, Italy, with 347 migrants and refugees from Central Africa and Syria on Oct. 27 following a rescue operation at sea. (Andreas Solaro/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

Mehdi Hasan is the host of “UpFront” on Al Jazeera English and the former political director of the Huffington Post UK. This piece is adapted from a recent Reality Check segment of his Al Jazeera English weekly show.

Have you not heard? Europe is in the throes of a refugee crisis. Hosting asylum-seekers from Syria is a “historic test of Europe,” says Germany’s Angela Merkel.  “The most responsibility [for refugees] is and will continue to be placed on Europe,” adds European Council President Donald Tusk.

For President Obama, “uncontrolled migration into Europe” is a “major national security issue” for the United States. Even the Dalai Lama agrees that there are “too many” refugees inside the European Union.

Really? “Too many”? “Historic”? Consider these facts: More than 65 million people were forced from their homes by conflict or persecution in 2015, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), including 21.3 million people classified as refugees living outside the borders of their own countries.

Admittedly, a record 1.3 million refugees sought asylum within the European Union last year, with thousands more applying for asylum every month. Yet what of Sub-Saharan Africa, home to 4.4 million refugees and a whopping 19.5 million “people of concern” to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees?

We don’t often hear about these particular refugees or asylum-seekers, do we? They are, to borrow a term from British historian Mark Curtis, “unpeople,” the poor, nonwhite residents of the developing world who tend to be ignored by the Western media.

Where is the rolling coverage of Kenya’s Dadaab camp, for example? Dadaab is the largest refugee camp in the world, but in a move that could displace as many as 300,000 people, Kenyan authorities are in the process of closing it down. It puts the recent British media frenzy over the so-called “Jungle” camp in Calais, France, with its 10,000 migrants, into some perspective, doesn’t it?

The inconvenient truth is that while the U.K. Parliament votes to deny entry to 3,000 displaced children from Syria and the Hungarian prime minister vows to build a new and “more massive” border fence to keep out asylum-seekers, refugees in Africa are fleeing from one war-torn region to the next. From South Sudan to Darfur. Yes, to Darfur. From the Democratic Republic of Congo to the Central African Republic, and from DRC back to CAR. From Nigeria to Chad.

“The reality is that the great majority of African refugee movements happen within Africa,” observed Makhtar Diop, the World Bank’s vice president for Africa and a former Senegalese finance minister, in June. “The world,” he added, “has a lot to learn from Africa.”

How so? Compare and contrast Uganda and Denmark. The latter’s GDP per capita is about 77 times larger than the former’s. Yet in January, the enlightened Danes passed a law allowing the authorities to seize the jewelry of refugees, supposedly in order to cover the costs of hosting them.

Uganda’s 2006 Refugee Act, however, allows refugees in that country to work, travel and even start their own businesses. Is it any wonder that the law is, as a World Bank article put it, “considered one of the most progressive and generous in the world”?

Much has been made of Germany’s “open door” policy toward Syrian refugees, with more than a million migrants and refugees arriving in the country across the course of 2015. These newcomers, however, have struggled to find work given what an investigation by Der Spiegel called “the jumble of individual [immigration] laws and ordinances . . . completely impenetrable for foreigners” and the “17 different types of ‘residency permission,’ ‘residency permit’ and ‘tolerance’ for refugees and migrants.”

Tanzania, on the other hand — with little fanfare in the West and with a GDP per capita nearly 48 times smaller than Germany’s — began the process of granting citizenship to 200,000 refugees from Burundi back in 2014, marking, in the words of the UNHCR, “the largest group in UNHCR’s history to which naturalisation has been offered.”

Yet Europe’s refugee crisis continues to suck up all the oxygen of global publicity. The UNHCR fundraises for a whole host of “special situations” involving refugees. As of the end of October, the “Central African Republic situation” was 17 percent funded; the “Somalia situation” 21 percent funded and the “South Sudan situation” 25 percent funded. The “crisis in Europe,” however? Fifty-six percent funded.

The double standard is as brazen as it is shameful. Remember: The European Union accounts for 17 percent of global GDP; Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for a little more than 3 percent.

Nevertheless, European leaders continue to ratchet up their rhetoric on refugees. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, for instance, has claimed that the European Union is in “very grave danger” and could “die” if “Europe is not capable of protecting its own borders.” The European Union, agrees Swedish prime minister Stefan Lofven, is “at risk” from asylum-seeker. Dutch Prime minister Mark Rutte has said Europe  could go the way of the Roman Empire.

This is not just navel-gazing hyperbole but white privilege, plain and simple. How else to describe a collective tendency to obsess over a refugee crisis in (rich, white) Europe, rather than in (poor, black) Africa? In what warped world are thousands of penniless and homeless refugees considered to constitute a crisis only when they wash up on the shores of western Europe?

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