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Creating a country for refugees may be a wild idea but solutions must be found for the desperate.
The world has a migrant and refugee crisis and there is no solution. The European Union, Greece and Italy in particular, is grappling with thousands of desperate arrivals on its shores from Africa and the Middle East.
As always happens when there is no solution, the blame game is quick to be played. Europe, it is argued, is the author of many of the crises that migrants are fleeing from, a case in point being the Nato bombing of Libya and the country’s descent into chaos. African countries stand accused of mismanaging their resources and allowing ethnic wars to drive millions out of their homes to seek refuge in distant lands.
Whatever the cause, tens of hundreds of lives continue to be lost in the unforgiving Mediterranean Sea. Migrants will continue to head out into the big blue in the hope of reaching the promised land. The possibility of drowning is not a deterrent. For many, the lives they are leaving mean certain death.
The allure of possibly crossing, of making it to London’s streets, that lawmakers there recently warned are not paved with gold, makes many take the risk. That strong warning from MPs will not stop migrants. They will keep coming. Stationing majestic ships on the sea will not stop the tide. They will come in droves. They will keep coming from Somalia, Sudan, Libya, Syria, Turkey and Eritrea and many other lands for as long as they are pushed.
Last week, a boat off the coast of Libya sent out distress signals. The rescue arrived too late. An estimated 200 people lost their lives. No one really knows the number. There is no record of those boarding the illegal boats that are sometimes just rafts. In April a boat, estimated to have had 800 migrants on board, went down. Only 28 survived the horror.
The International Organisation for Migration estimates that 2 000 have died at sea this year alone.
Migrants are also not deterred by the EU stopping its support for Operation Mare Nostrum, an Italian rescue programme that is credited with saving 100 000 lives last year. The EU argues that the rescue effort actually encouraged migrants to take a chance. That programme was stopped last October. Nothing will deter those in search of a better life.
The European plan to relocate 16 000 migrants over a two-year period is too little. So far this year alone, 124 000 migrants have arrived on Greece’s shores. Britain won’t participate and Hungary may roll out a 4m-high fence along its borders. The crisis is international, and it needs an international approach.
Last week, property mogul Jason Buzi suggested that land be found and a state be created for migrants. “Refugee Nation” he called it.
It is a bizarre-sounding idea – and not a new one – but in the face of few solutions, perhaps the time has come for Africa to debate this from an African perspective.
Those advocating for such a state suggest that land that is not in use be pooled together perhaps by nations in a region sharing a common border and that refugees be allowed to be a start-up state.
It’s an outrageous and complex business to think about starting a state from nothing. It also borders dangerously on treating refugees as the “other”. Separating them from “normal” others would perhaps make them objects of unending pity and perhaps even targets of extreme forms of “othering” such as violence.
The first prize in dealing with the flood of refugees would be ending the crisis refugees are emanating from. This is easier said than done because most of the states at war have degenerated into failed states where finding resolutions and roads to recovery will be protracted and painful, taking decades and, in some cases, may not be possible at all.
The most basic problem about a new refugee state is that refugees are not stateless people. They belong somewhere. They left their homes, their support structures, their land, and they therefore cannot be treated as “new citizens” of nowhere and be given a new national identity because they already have an identity. Placing refugees in a new state could in effect strip them of their citizenship unless a framework is put up to prevent that loss. But a nation-state needs citizens.
How would refugees be moved? Refugees have rights and freedom of choice, just as anyone else has, and they should not be forced to move.
It is hard to conceive how nationhood will be built in the new state. In spite of attempts to put refugees in single camps, problems of integration arise because cultures are as diverse as the north is from the south.
Africa is not a country; African refugees cannot be lumped easily into a new state. Already many a war on the continent can be understood to come down to ethnic tensions. The ability to create a state with so many ethnic differences united only by displacement will be an enormous challenge – but an opportunity, too, to show ethnic integration is possible, just as it happens already in many African countries.
Although refugees and migrants around the world have shown resilience and often a willingness to work for below the minimum wage, this is generally because they are there illegally and this status keeps them away from trade union activities. A new state can be an opportunity to give migrants a space where they are free from unfair labour practices and abuse.
However, this will mean the new nation state has to be supported financially. Without economic stability and a financial attraction, refugees will simply keep pouring into Europe. These are bigger issues for regional unions such as the African Union and the EU to explore.
But perhaps a refugee state offers displaced African peoples a chance to stay on the continent. Many Africans are deeply rooted in Africa, the land of their ancestors. Those who leave only do so because there is often no other choice.
Many who make it to Europe feel alienated there and would rather be in another African state – even one that is not so rich but offers the opportunity for reasonable economic activities and is a peaceful place where they can raise their children.
On last week’s migrant boat on the Mediterranean that killed more than 200 people, a man and his wife risked drowning their 19-month-old baby. All they wanted was a peaceful place in which to raise their daughter.
A new state also brings massive challenges of how to stay stable in the long run in terms of its own policies for continuing migration. No state has a totally open-door policy as a result of rising security concerns around terrorism. But it would be hypocritical for a refugee nation to shut out other refugees. A middle-of-the-road approach needs to be explored.
People under threat in death zones will continue to move in search of better livelihoods. The creation of a refugee state is a radical idea that raises many questions on the treatment of refugees. Other countries have employed a policy of integration, such as in South Africa where there are no refugee camps but rather refugees fend for themselves and integrate into society.
But it must be confronted that in some places the policy of integration has not always worked, as shown recently by xenophobic attacks in South Africa. Refugees the world over complain that one major challenge is they are always treated as the “other” not just by citizens but also by state institutions. The failure of integration is evident in Europe, with a sizeable number of countries openly refusing to accommodate more migrants.
Integration should be continued and encouraged where it has worked. But its failure cannot not be ignored.
It is the duty of civil society to begin a new radical debate and canvass governments and regional bodies about a sustainable plan that is done in a human rights framework.
The growing numbers of those seeking refuge in other nations dictates that debate has never been more urgent.
Teldah Mawarire is the Mail & Guardian’s Africa Editor