The Tragedy of Human Migration

The news of late has been dominated by the humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean as people in the millions are fleeing war-torn and poverty-stricken Syria, Eritrea, Somalia, and other countries in the Middle East and Africa. The West was appalled by the image of a dead toddler’s body washing up on the shores of Turkey. That child’s name was Aylan Kurdi. Image being Nilufer Demir, the person who took that photo? Imagine being Mehmet Ciplak, the Turkish police officer who carried Aylan’s body off the beach? Imagine being Abdullah, Aylan’s father, and now the only surviving member of his family (Aylan’s brother Galip and their mother Rehan also drowned during the Mediterranean crossing)?

This is the worst refugee crisis Europe has experienced since the end of the Second World War. Time Magazine has put together a series of photographs, and has articulated the details of the some 60 million people who were displaced during World War II. With the recent news that Germany has decided to begin closing its borders in the face of hundreds of thousands of refugees flooding into the country, particularly after it opened its doors to these same refugees not too long ago, speaks volumes of the weight Europe is facing, both logistical and ethical.

Mass migration of peoples is not a new phenomenon, although it has been initiated more often than not by war, slavery, famine, and poverty than for any other reason. Take the Rohingya from Myanmar fleeing to Bangladesh to escape religious persecution and slavery. Take the influx of Irish to the United States in the 19th century both before and after the Gorta Mor, the Great Famine of 1845-1852. Or the movement of Europeans to the Americas in the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries following the ‘discovery’ of a continent that could offer a better way of life. Or the transience throughout Europe and parts of the Middle East following the Black Plague in the 13th century. Or the migration of an ancient tribe called the Helvetians across what is now Switzerland that was so perfectly timed as to become a political weapon in the career of one of the most famous historical figures of the past two thousand years.

Beginning in approximately the second century BCE, the Helvetii began moving from what was considered by Tacitus to be their ancestral homeland between the Rhine, Main, and Hercynian forests in Germany south towards Switzerland. The group that settled on the Swiss plateau that Caesar came into contact with had been there for a few generations, although the migration was not ended. They had clashed with the Romans in the first century BCE as told in the infamous story of the Cimbri and the Teutones vanquished by Gaius Marius in 105.

In the early sixties BCE, Caesar was well on his way up the steps of the cursus honorum, having held positions as praetor, Pontifex Maximus, and having been hailed imperator as well as notoriously threatening the pirates who took him hostage with death once his ransom had been paid. He had recently been named propraetor of Hispania Ultior and, just to sweeten his situation all the more, he had recently negotiated an alliance with Marcus Licinius Crassus. Oh, and Marius was his uncle. What he needed now was a resounding military victory to cement his place in the Roman political elite.

Also in the early sixties BCE, the Helvetians were on the move again. From the Swiss plateau, or so Caesar tells us, the Helvetians planned a three-year move into Gaul, presumably to take over the whole country and rule as despots. Clearly, Caesar is indulging for political purposes. Because nothing remains of the Helvetians but their name, we will never know what they were trying to do, or even if they were trying to do anything. We can’t even be sure they were migrating. We have only Caesar’s dubious moral outrage to guide us.

The Roman army under Caesar clashed with the Helvetians in 58 BCE in several battles, until finally Caesar sent this report – Book 1, section 29 of his Bellum Gallicum – back to the Senate:

(1) In castris Helvetiorum tabulae repertae sunt litteris Graecis confectae et ad Caesarem relatae, quibus in tabulis nominatim ratio confecta erat, qui numerus domo exisset eorum, qui arma ferre possent, et item separatim pueri, senes mulieresque. (2) quarum omnium rerum summa erat capitum Helvetiorum milia ducenta sexaginta tria, Tulingorum milia xxxvi, Latobrigorum xiiii, Rauracorum xxiii, Boiorum xxxii; ex his, qui arma ferre possent, ad milia nonaginta duo. (3) summa omnium fuerunt ad milia trecenta sexaginta octo. eorum, qui domum redierunt,censu habito ut Caesar imperaverat, repertus est numerus milium centum et decem.

In short, he claims that the Romans faced down over a quarter million Helvetians and won, preserving the world from the marauders and keeping northern Italy safe for Rome. A quarter million people. Even if this number is exaggerated, what Caesar is describing is straightforward enough: genocide.

The politics of this current crisis are no less polarizing. People have condemned these refugees as migrants looking to steal jobs and suckle from the teat of the European welfare system. They seem unable to understand why someone claiming refugee status could have a mobile phone, despite the fact that these phones are a lifeline for most, even as they are ubiquitous in so-called first world countries. The xenophobia, bigotry, and racism fluttering through social media and op-eds is truly terrifying. In a powerful piece by Canadian author Russell Wangersky, he quotes Icelandic author Bryndis Bjorgvinsdottir saying that the refugees flooding into Europe right now are “people of whom we’ll never be able to say in the future: your life is worth less than my life”.

In that simple statement Bjorgvinsdottir via Wangersky is underlining the major issue facing the Western world: morality. What can we do? What should we do? Instead, the crisis is being subsumed under questions of what we can’t do and why we can’t do it. The nature of the beast threatening our peace of mind is one of our own making. This is a tragically typical issue of ‘us’ versus ‘them’. Our government can’t handle them. Our people can’t support them. Our country can’t manage them. Politics regularly stands in the way of humanitarian aid, and we would be naive to think that it’s only the politics of the refugee’s country of origin that’s to blame.

Two dead little boys are enough. Thousands have died fleeing Syria, the Middle East, and Africa. These are people trying to do one thing: live. By not acting, by letting these people die, the world retains the nationalistic tendencies that are growing increasingly backward and quaint. Is this really who we are? Have years of anxiety over economics and terrorism and disease really brought us to this point, where we see a picture of a dead child and we feel badly, and then we scroll through Twitter to escape it, knowing full well it’s never going to go away? This is the equivalent of a child slapping his or her hands over her ears and shouting “I’m not listening!”

I’m listening.