Refugees are surging into Europe. More have come since the beginning of this year than in all of 2014. Scenes of their plight are as relentless as they are poignant. This is Europe’s new crisis.
Immigration has also become a hot political issue in the United States, where an estimated 11 million people live without legal status. As the presidential campaign heats up, candidates win votes by promising to deport as many as possible, and then seal the border to keep them out. This same impulse has led to the rise of anti-immigrant parties in European countries. On both sides of the Atlantic, passionate debate over immigration is shaking politics and society.
Refugees flee to escape poverty and violence — but why are their countries so poor and violent? Many have been victimized by foreign interventions that grotesquely deformed their history. Now the former subjects are pushing into the lands of their former masters. It is the ultimate payback for colonialism.
Most refugees now on the move are traversing one of three routes: Africa to Europe, Middle East to Europe, or Central America to the United States. Many aim for the country with which they feel cultural affinity. France, for example, is the preferred destination for Moroccans, Tunisians, Algerians, and people from Niger, Gabon, Senegal, Mali, and the Ivory Coast. Some native-born French lament the scale of their immigration, or the social problems it may have caused. They should blame their great-grandparents.
Britain has done a better job than France of assimilating people from former colonies. Nonetheless, frightening radicalism has emerged from parts of its Pakistani community. Pakistanis came to Britain because Britain held their land as a colony for generations. Their contribution to British society has been exceptional, but not many Pakistanis, good or bad, would have ended up in London if Britain had not conquered their homeland.
Refugees from the Middle East are even more tragic examples of how human beings are made to pay for the recklessness of shortsighted politicians. Many come from Syria, where a ghastly war fueled by outsiders has taken 250,000 lives and made one-quarter of the population homeless. The second-largest group is from Iraq, which the United States threw into chaos with its 2003 invasion. The third group fleeing along this route is from Afghanistan, which like Iraq was torn apart after an American invasion. If the United States had not crashed into those countries and helped destroy their societies, thousands might now be safely at home who are driven instead to risk their lives on the unarmed road of flight.
Geography keeps most Syrian, Iraqi, and Afghan refugees far from the United States, but it exposes us to southern neighbors. Today the illegal immigrants most urgently drawn to our country are from three Central American countries that have descended into horrific violence. All collapsed into cycles of terror after US interventions.
Guatemala was a democracy for ten years until the CIA staged a coup there in 1954, and afterward Washington backed repressive regimes that ruled through political and criminal murder. In El Salvador, civil war during the 1980s, fueled in part by the United States, led to social chaos that ultimately brought the most pernicious aspects of Los Angeles gang culture to a weak and unprepared country. The same happened in Honduras, which was placid before the US intervention of the 1980s but now has the world’s highest homicide rate. The history of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras is defined by repeated US intervention; all three countries have fallen into the abyss of instability, and thousands of their citizens are now fleeing toward the United States. These facts are not unrelated.
Big powers may be tempted to believe that because of their strength, they can dominate and exploit faraway lands without consequence. In fact, the bill ultimately comes due. Today’s refugee crises are delayed reactions to yesterday’s interventions.
Stephen Kinzer is a visiting fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. Follow him on Twitter @stephenkinzer.