ABOUT once every generation, some photographer will capture an image that instantly defines what the world really is. Earlier this week, the image was that of a small boy—his name, we are told was Aylan, and he was just three years old—drowned, and washed up on a Turkish beach like so much flotsam.
Aylan, his parents, and his four-year-old brother were just four of the millions of people uprooted from their homes by war throughout the Middle East and North Africa and sent on a desperate journey to find the only thing they’ve really got left, the uncertain hope of finding refuge somewhere in Europe. For many of them, probably more of them than anyone cares to admit or even realizes, that hope is utterly, tragically vain.
It obviously was for little Aylan. His mother and big brother didn’t make it, either, killed along with about 10 other people whose faces we will never see and whose names we will never know when the tiny boat with which they were trying to reach the Greek islands capsized off the Turkish coast.
The exodus has been called the biggest movement of displaced people since World War II; it has also been compared to that lesser known but perhaps proportionally even greater calamity, the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). Those kinds of comparisons are invidious, however, because they suggest the world has been here before, and should know what to expect and how to react to it. That is obviously not the case; the governments of Europe are clearly at a loss for ideas about how to manage the crisis, which, to add insult to injury, is affecting the poorest nations of Europe the most.
And the news cycle being what it is, searing images like the lifeless body of little Aylan tend to deflect our attention from the fact that the great displacement of humanity is happening almost everywhere. Earlier this summer, a long-overdue crackdown by Thai authorities – brought about, naturally, by a series of fatal tragedies, because governments generally do not act on growing crises until they become catastrophic – exposed, but did not actually stop, the enormous refugee migration in Southeast Asia. The refugee crisis in the central Mediterranean fueled mainly by the ongoing civil war in Libya is just the figurative drop in the bucket compared to the displacement of people in East and Central Africa. An increasingly violent conflict in Afghanistan and the northern areas of Pakistan – again – is driving another refugee crisis in that region.
In Latin America, stupid political disputes between Haiti and the Dominican Republic and between Colombia and Venezuela have caused smaller crises, which have not attracted much attention elsewhere, but to the people affected are certainly no less frightening or disruptive. In China, there are indications that increasing official animosity toward ethnic and religious minorities, in particular the Muslim Uighurs of the far-western Xinjiang region is creating another crisis. Even here in the Philippines, worries are growing that simmering tensions in Mindanao will boil over and uproot tens of thousands of people no matter what the results of current legislative deliberations over the future of the Bangsamoro eventually are.
And this year, for the first time in human history, we are seeing signs of the inevitable climate-caused displacements science has been warning us about for years. Back in late July, a man from the Pacific island nation of Kiribati became the first person in the world to lay claim to being a climate refugee when he appealed to an Australian court for asylum.
He was denied by the judge, who pointed out that his government is not persecuting him or ignoring the problem (Kiribati, which will be under water in a few years due to rising sea levels, has purchased land in Fiji to grow food, and is seriously pursuing plans to relocate its entire population), but pointed out that even though this one man’s case wasn’t very convincing, it was a harbinger of things to come.
Just this week, the visit of US President Obama to Alaska gave us some sense of the enormous price tag of climate-related displacement; a US government assessment revealed that at least 31 villages along Alaska’s west coast are in imminent danger of being washed into the sea, and that relocating their populations – tiny populations of a few dozen or a few hundred people each – would cost up to $180 million per village.
And therein lies the reality of the global refugee crisis that should terrify all of us: Not only is it a humanitarian disaster of astonishing proportions, it is the beginning of an economic disaster we can scarcely comprehend. Entire regions of the world are being laid waste, and the still-productive parts of the planet are being put under enormous pressure; conservative estimates of the cost of the refugee crisis to Germany alone this year range from $9 billion to $15 billion, and every single one of those forecasts is offered with the caveat that the figures are almost certainly far too low.
This is what we have done to ourselves as a species. By ignoring human development, by accommodating hateful ideologies of every sort, by focusing on the outcomes of production rather than its means, we have created a calamity that makes Malthus look like an optimist. And it’s going to cost us, every one of us. How much we can only begin to even guess.