John Gittings

The New March
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Are we ready at last to tackle the refugee crisis?


Desperate people advancing into Europe, described by politicians as constituting an “immigration problem”—even  as a “swarm” -- yet regarded by many others as a reproach to our humanity and as an indictment of Western policies.  Somehow this scenario, now being acted out in Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Italy, Hungary…   rings a bell.  It was twenty-five years ago in 1990, the year when the cold war was crumbling and climate change became recognised by the UN as the new threat, that the BBC produced a notable feature film called The March.  At the time said to be the most ambitious production for TV ever made by the BBC, and directed by David Wheatley, it was shown in 20 countries and had a huge impact. 

A charismatic leader in Sudan, Issa Al-Mahdi, leads his impoverished people out of their refugee camp to march across northern Africa to the Straits of Gibraltar, where they plan to cross into Europe. His message is “We are poor because you are rich”, and he invites the affluent West to “watch us die”. At first ignored, and almost destroyed by a band of armed marauders in the desert, the marchers are saved by Libya which provides them with food and allows them to transit through Algeria into Morocco. They then cross to Spain in a fleet of ramshackle boats, and are met on the shore by armed soldiers. A seriously conflicted European Commissioner for humanitarian aid (Juliet Stevenson) watches from the sidelines, and tells Al-Mahdi that “We are just not ready for you yet”.

1990 was the year of change and of new hopes and fears. The decade ahead was called the Decade of Decision when the post-cold war world would – or should -- come to grips at last with a raft of problems from the Middle East and nuclear proliferation to global warming and North-South inequality. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change produced its first report, in which it warned that global temperatures (and global sea levels) would rise at a rate greater than in the last 10,000 years  unless action were taken swiftly. There was also much talk of the “peace dividend” which could provide the funds with which to tackle all these problems.

Where are we now, a quarter of a century later when Europe is facing in reality, not on the TV screen, a new “march” of desperate people?  Yes, the UN Millennium Goals to reduce poverty and improve health and education have been partially met but the benefits are spread very unevenly.  Though the phrase “North v South” is less used, there is still a widely perceived divide. The world as a whole has got richer, but as the Millennium Declaration put it, the benefits of globalisation “are very unevenly shared, while its costs are unevenly distributed”.

Into this already unequal equation has been thrown over the past decade an explosive source of further suffering and destabilisation – not one but several Western interventions/invasions. Let us by all means take a balanced view:  even without Western invasion, the dictatorial regimes of the Middle East including Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the Assad dynasty’s Syria, and Gaddafi’s Libya, --  regimes which the West sometimes opposed  and at other supported -- could not last for ever. Counter-factual history is a speculative business but we may safely assume that the dissolution of these regimes, whenever it came, was bound to be painful and their trajectory uncertain.

Yet what was going to be a difficult period of transition has been made exponentially worse by occurring in a region already so seriously destabilised by an illegal war (the phrase is that of UN Secretary General Kofi Annan) in Iraq, and covert  regime change (going well beyond the action authorised by the Security Council) in Libya. We should also note that many of the current refugees are fleeing from Afghanistan, where misguided policies of intervention (of course starting with the former Soviet Union) have over more than three decades done so much to nourish Islamist extremism.

So the new march is driven by more complex forces than those presciently envisaged by the BBC a quarter of a century ago. The question though remains the same: Are we ready for them yet?

Published in the Oxford CND Newsletter, Sept-Oct. 2015