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The Real Refugee Problem

Every once in a while a photograph of a migrant’s tragic death (usually that of a child) catches the public’s imagination.

The image of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, fleeing from the Syrian civil war, dead face down in the surf on a Turkish beach in 2015, triggered a wave of sympathy that ended with Germany opening its borders to 900,000 refugees that year – and Hungary building a border fence to keep them out.

Here we go again. A picture of 23-month-old Valeria Martinez, tucked into her father Oscar’s T-shirt, both dead face down on the banks of the Rio Grande, has unleashed a similar wave of sympathy in the United States, although it certainly hasn’t reached the White House. And once again most of the migrants are claiming to be refugees.

In fact, few of the migrants fit the legal definition of refugees in either case. The Arabs and Afghans trying to get into Europe had fled genuine wars, but they were already in Turkey, which is quite safe. They just wanted to move on to somewhere with better job opportunities and a higher standard of living. That’s understandable, but it doesn’t give you right of asylum as a refugee.

The same applies to the migrants crossing the Mediterranean from Africa to Europe, even though thousands of them are drowning in the attempt. They are fleeing poverty, or dictatorial regimes, or even climate change, but they are not fleeing war.

Neither do they have a “well-founded fear” of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. (My italics.) That is the language of the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees of 1951, so they don’t qualify as refugees. You may feel sorry for them, but there is no legal duty to let them in.

The Refugee Convention was incorporated into US law in the Refugee Act of 1980, so few of the people now seeking entry at the Mexican border qualify either. This matters, because while twenty years ago 98% of the people crossing the border were Mexican young men seeking work, more than half are now entire families from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras – and most of them claim to be refugees.

They are not, and that (not Donald Trump) is why US courts are rejecting at least three-quarters of the applications for refugee status. You may wish that the law took a more generous and humanitarian view, but it does not. And if you think things are bad now, they will be ten times worse in twenty years’ time.

Global heating is starting to bite. We’re still on the learner slopes, but the droughts and the floods, and the crop failures they cause, are multiplying, especially in the tropics and the sub-tropics where temperatures are already high.

In the worst-hit areas (which include the ‘northern triangle’ of Central America) family farms are failing, some people are going hungry, and the number of people on the move is starting to soar. This is precisely what unpublished, in-house government studies were predicting twenty years ago in countries like the United States and the United Kingdom. Now it’s here.

As the number of migrants goes up, the willingness of host populations to receive them will inevitably go down.

5% new population in a decade will feel disruptive to some people, especially if there are big cultural differences between the old population and the immigrants, but most people will accept and adapt to it. 10% in a decade is definitely pushing it, even though it’s only 1% a year. And 20% new population in a decade would generate a huge political backlash in almost any country on Earth.

That’s human nature. You may deplore it, but it’s not going to change. And behind uncomfortable considerations of what the politics will permit lies the even starker reality that they can’t all come. Twenty years from now there will be far more people who desperately want to move than the destination countries could possibly accommodate.

So the borders will start slamming shut in the countries, mostly in the temperate zone of the planet, where the climate is still tolerable and there is still enough food to eat. And don’t believe the myth that you cannot really shut a border.

You can do so quite easily if you are willing to kill the people who try to cross it illegally, and the governments of the destination countries will probably end up doing just that. Their military and their civil servants, if not their politicians, were already having grim internal debates about it fifteen years ago.

Sorry to spoil your day.
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To shorten to725 words, omit paragraph 12. (“5%…Earth”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

Not Just a Late Monsoon

The monsoon rains are finally arriving in central and northern India, but they are two weeks late. It started raining in Mumbai on Monday, and it should be raining in Delhi by Friday, but it will have come too late for many people, especially farmers. For some parts of the country, it has been 200 days without rain.

Late May and early June are always brutal in northern India, as the heat builds up and
the humidity rises. This year, with the monsoon so delayed, it has been particularly bad, with the temperature hitting 48°C in Delhi last week – the hottest June day on record – and 50°C in Rajasthan. And countrywide rainfall for this year is down 37%.

The heat and drought don’t just cause discomfort. After a few years of late or poor monsoons the level of the groundwater drops and wells run dry. This year hundreds, perhaps thousands of villages have been temporarily abandoned as the residents moved to towns where there was still water, and in the state of Maharashtra alone 6,000 tanker-trucks were delivering water to other hard-hit villages.

The Indian government has just created a new Ministry of Water Power to tackle water conservation and management (better late than never), but it can’t solve the problem. Food production is falling, people are dying, and unfortunately it’s only going to get worse.

It’s impossible to say how many people have died because of this year’s late monsoon, because India generally only counts people who make it to hospital before they die (and not always even then.) But the single state of Bihar reported 184 deaths by the middle of last week.

A more plausible measure of mortality comes from Europe, where they compare overall mortality in normal times with mortality during a heatwave, and (quite reasonably) assume that the difference is mostly due to the heat deaths. In the record 2003 heatwave in Europe, when temperatures were slightly lower that they have been in northern India this month, an estimated 35,000-70,000 people died.

So how many premature deaths from heat were there really in India this month? Probably tens of thousands. And how much food production will be lost this year? Again, you cannot calculate it directly, but I can give you an informed guess.

About a dozen years ago I was interviewing Dr Jyoti Parikh, the director of IRADe, a well-known think-tank in New Delhi. Out of the blue, she mentioned that her organisation had got the World Bank contract to forecast how much agricultural production India would lose when average global temperature reached +2°C above the pre-industrial average.

The contract was confidential at the time, but the World Bank’s chief economist had given these contracts to private think-tanks in every major country, probably on the assumption that official predictions were being kept secret in most countries so as not to frighten the children. Or should I say the citizens?

In the end, the predictions commissioned by the World Bank also remained unpublished. Indeed, they are secret even down to the present (because, after all, it is governments that pay for the World Bank.) But Dr Parikh told me the prediction for India. At +2°C, India would lose 25% of its food production. We are now at about +1.3° worldwide, so shall we say 10% of food production lost now in a bad year?

Weather does fluctuate from year to year, of course, but worldwide the last four years have been the four warmest since 1880, when global records become available. Since 2004, India has experienced 11 of its 15 warmest recorded years. The frequency and duration of heat waves in India has increased and is predicted to continue increasing. Global heating isn’t coming. It’s here.

It’s not just India, of course. The British Meteorological Office says there is a 10% chance that the average global temperature will exceed +1.5°C at least once in the next five years. (That’s the Paris climate change agreement’s ‘never-exceed’ target.) At the current rate of greenhouse gas emissions, it’s going to take a major miracle to avoid hitting +2°C within fifteen years.

At that level significant numbers of people will be dying of the heat every year, and much bigger numbers will be starving as food production fails, especially in the tropical and sub-tropical parts of the world. But don’t feel left out if you live in the more temperate parts of the planet.

The wildfires have already started again in Canada and California, with predictions that they may be even worse than last year. And Europe is getting ready for a heat wave, starting around Friday, that will bring temperatures above 40° to much of the continent. Nobody gets off free.
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To shorten to 675 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 11. (“The heat…villages”; and “Weather…here”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

Khashoggi: Worse Than a Crime

If Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), really did sent a hit team to Turkey to murder dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul ten days ago, what will happen next? Perhaps history can help us here.

A little over two centuries ago, in 1804, the armies of the French Revolution had won all the key battles and the wars seemed to be over. The rest of Europe had decided in 1801 that it would have to live with the French Revolution and made peace with Napoleon. Everything was going so well – and then he made a little mistake.

Many members of the French nobility had gone into exile and fought against the armies of the Revolution, and the Duke of Enghien was one of them. In 1804 he was living across the Rhine river on German territory.

Napoleon heard an (untrue) report that Enghien was part of a conspiracy to assassinate him, and sent a hit team – sorry, a cavalry squadron – across the Rhine to kidnap him. They brought him back to Paris, gave him a perfunctory military trial, and shot him. After that things did not go well for Napoleon.

The idea that Napoleon would violate foreign territory in peacetime in order to murder an opponent was so horrifying, so repellent that opinion turned against peace with France everywhere. As his own chief of police, Joseph Fouché, said, “It was worse than a crime. It was a blunder.”

By the end of the year every major power in Europe was back at war with Napoleon. After a decade of war he was defeated at Waterloo and sent into exile on St. Helena for the rest of his life. So is something like that going to happen to MbS too?

Nobody’s going to invade Saudi Arabia, of course. (Not even Iran, despite MbS’s paranoia on the subject.) But will they stop investing in the country, stop selling it weapons and buying its oil, maybe even slap trade embargoes on it.

Since it seems almost certain that Khashoggi was murdered by the Saudi government – Turkish government officials have even told journalists off the record that they have audio and partial video recordings of Khashoggi’s interrogation, torture and killing – all of Saudi Arabia’s ‘friends’ and trading partners have some choices to make.

Donald Trump immediately rose to the occasion, declaring that he would be “very upset and angry” if Saudi Arabia was responsible for Khashoggi’s murder, and that there would be “severe punishment” for the crime.

He even boasted that Saudi Arabia “would not last two weeks” without American military support. Presumably Trump was talking about the survival of the Saudi regime, not the country’s independence, but he was still wrong. He is as prone to overestimate his power as MbS himself.

The Saudis struck right back, saying that “The kingdom affirms its total rejection of any threats or attempts to undermine it whether through threats to impose economic sanctions or the use of political pressure. The kingdom also affirms that it will respond to any (punitive) action with a bigger one.”

But Trump was only bluffing. He really had no intention of cancelling the $110 billion of contracts that Saudi Arabia has signed to buy American-made weapons, because “we’d be punishing ourselves if we did that. If they don’t buy it from us, they’re going to buy it from Russia or… China.”

People have been turning a blind eye to the weekly hundreds of civilian deaths caused by Saudi bombing in Yemen for three years now. Why would they respond any differently to murder of one pesky Saudi journalist in Istanbul, even if he did write for the ‘Washington Post’?

The difference is that it’s intensely personal – this is an absolute monarch ordering the killing of a critic who annoyed him but posed no threat to his power – and it’s brazenly, breathtakingly arrogant. MbS really thinks he can do something like this and make everybody shut up about it.

He is probably right, so far as the craven, money-grubbing foreigners are concerned – like former British prime minister Tony Blair, who could barely even bring himself to say that Saudi Arabia should investigate and explain the issue, because “otherwise it runs completely contrary to the process of modernisation.”

But if the foreigners will not or cannot bring Mohammed bin Salman down, his own family (all seven thousand princes, or however many there are now) probably will. It is a family business, and his amateurish strategies, his impulsiveness and his regular resort to violence are ruining the firm’s already not very good name.

He rose rapidly out of the multitudinous ranks of anonymous princes through the favour of his failing father, King Salman, but he could fall as fast as he rose. Killing Khashoggi was definitely a blunder.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 14 and 15. (“The difference…modernisation”)

Two Performances

On Monday we were treated to two pieces of public performance art, one by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and the other by Mahmoud Abbas, the closest thing the Palestinians have to an agreed national leader (which is not very close). Both performances were beyond bizarre, and taken together they demonstrate how politicians whose lives are dominated by the Arab-Israeli dispute are ultimately reduced to self-caricature.

Abbas’s contribution was a rambling 90-minute speech to the Palestinian National Council, the (unelected) legislature of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. It’s the first full meeting of the Council in 22 years, and an attempt by Abbas to restore some measure of legitimacy to his own position as President of the Palestinian Authority.

Abbas has lacked all legitimacy since his last legal term as president expired nine years ago. He survives as the nominal leader because (a) it suits the Israeli government and (b) the Palestinians are so hopelessly divided that nobody bothers to challenge his claim to be the leader.

The ‘peace process’ has been dead for twenty years. President Trump is moving the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv up to Jerusalem despite anguished Palestinian protests. Hamas, the Islamist rival to Abbas’s Fatah movement, controls the Gaza Strip and almost half the Palestinian population in the occupied territories, and it doesn’t even deign to send delegates to Abbas’s meeting. So what was Abbas’s speech about? History.

Not even real history. Fantasy history, in which the Jews of Europe brought the Holocaust down upon themselves by choosing to fulfill a specific (and lucrative) ‘social function’. “The Jewish question that was widespread throughout Europe,” Abbas explained, “was not against their religion but against their social function which relates to usury and banking and such.”

Whatever Abbas may believe privately – and he may not believe much of anything after thirty years in the Hall of Mirrors that is Palestinian politics – he would once have known better than to say such vile nonsense in public. But all hope is gone, and there is nothing useful left to say, so he just dredges up the weary old Holocaust denial stuff he played with as a student and serves it raw to an equally despairing audience.

Binyamin Netanyahu, by contrast, is on the winning side, and his contribution on Monday was an up-market, updated version of his celebrated performance at the United Nations in 2012. That was when he showed the General Assembly a child-like drawing of a bomb (the kind 19th-century terrorists used to throw, with a fizzing fuse at the top) and warned the diplomats that Iran would have a nuclear weapon by 2013.

It didn’t, of course. Iran’s brief period of working on nuclear weapons, triggered by Pakistan’s six nuclear weapons tests of 1998, had already ended in 2003 according to the testimony of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and even Netanyahu’s own intelligence agencies agreed with that assessment.

In 2015 Tehran agreed to allow strict international inspections to guarantee that no work on nuclear weapons, even of the most preliminary sort, would be done for the next ten years. Netanyahu, who is paranoid on the subject, would have greatly preferred a ‘pre-emptive’ attack on Iran – and now he has an ally in Donald Trump, who also wants to kill the 2015 deal.

So Bibi did another show-and-tell performance on prime-time Israeli television, all in English and aimed at the global audience, in which he sorta kinda claimed that Iran was cheating on the agreement and still working on nuclear weapons. One of the visuals even said (in metre-high letters) “Iran lied”.

Netanyahu didn’t lie, of course; politicians seldom do. He just stood in front of aerial photos and images of documents and talked about recently acquired Iranian secret documents that showed the country had an active nuclear weapons programme. And it was all true – except that the Iranian programme in question was mostly closed down in 2003, and completely dead by 2009.

“There was nothing there,” said Alexandra Bell, senior policy director at the Centre for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. “There was nothing the International Atomic Energy Agency didn’t know, and all the theatrics and circa-2004 PowerPoint were a bit silly.” So why did Netanyahu do it?

Partly it was to provide something resembling a justification for his friend Trump’s forthcoming abandonment of the 2015 Iran deal. People who were not paying close attention might walk away from Netanyahu’s dog-and-pony show thinking he had proved that Iran was cheating on its commitments.

But mainly he did it because he lives in a political environment so polarised, so toxic, that people who are immersed in it gradually lose touch with reality. Even as Netanyahu carefully manipulated the facts in order to create a false impression, at another level he probably believed that he was expressing a deeper truth. He’s a winner, not a loser, but he is just as much trapped on the wheel as Abbas.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 8. (“Abbas…leader”; and “It didn’t…assessment”)