There are few countries in the world that can teach Pakistan anything about the difficulties of having refugees. To quote Reuters, “About 2.5 million Afghans live in Pakistan, home to the world’s second-largest refugee population,” and according to the 2018 Report of the UN High Commission for Refugees (a saintly organisation whose members don’t receive a fraction of the commendation they deserve), the country with the highest number is Turkey, with 2.9 million. They estimate that Pakistan has 1.4 million, but that is the number officially registered, and the other million or so have been more or less assimilated into society. Lebanon and Iran are next with about a million each.
In all these countries the refugees are treated decently. Their host nations would much prefer not to have them, of course, because they disrupt life and create all sorts of pressures that citizens would rather not have : but they are a fact of life and although Pakistan, for example, would dearly like to send all the Afghans back home, and is managing to get some to return, with the help of the UNHCR, the problems remain immense. So the refugees remain and are regarded as human beings — although there is much foreign criticism concerning Pakistan’s attitude and intentions.
The approach of some other countries towards refugees is decidedly less understanding, and the plight of those trying to get to Europe from North Africa was recently highlighted by the Italian government, which in mid-June refused to permit a shipload of desperate exiles to land in Italy. There were 629 displaced people on a ship called the Aquarius, and according to a journalist on board, the refugees — or migrants : call them what we might, they were hopeless, helpless human beings — included seven pregnant women, 11 young children and 123 unaccompanied minors aged between 13 and 17.
But there was no compassion from Italy, whose Home Minister, Matteo Salvini (a professional politician with no experience of real life), resolutely refused to give them any help and declared that “saving lives is a duty, turning Italy into a huge refugee camp is not.”
But Signor Salvini didn’t save any lives, and when the Spanish government (which has plenty of problems of its own) decided to accept the vessel and its destitute passengers he declared that this was a “victory” for Italy’s hardline policy.
In a way, although people like Salvini deserve to be put in a refugee camp and ordered to clean the lavatories, his country’s problems can be understood to some extent. As the BBC put it, “Many migrants don’t want to be in Italy at all. Their goal is the richer north of Europe but France and Austria have blocked their path by keeping their borders with Italy firmly shut.” So when pitiable, destitute people arrive in Italy, they can’t get out and the Italian people have to pay the price. Just as they do in Pakistan and many other countries that accept hundreds of thousands of refugees.
Italy does have migrant/refugee centres, but Salvini has said he wants to convert these into detention centres and enable funding for mass deportations. The UK’s Guardian newspaper noted that Italy’s regulations state that those deported by plane fly off “at an estimated cost of €3,000 (£2,600) per migrant. A recent study by L’Espresso [newspaper] found that Salvini’s plan to deport 500,000 migrants would cost roughly 1.5 billion Euros.” In other words, Salvini is a fool as well as being unfeeling, callous and merciless.
Which brings us to President Trump of the United States, whose treatment of illegal (or semi-legal or misjudged) refugees and would-be immigrants has been appalling.
One of the latest displays of repulsive callousness by the Trump Administration involves separation of children from their parents. A description of how this was effected on the border with Mexico, where there are so many refugees and migrants, was provided by a US Member of Congress, Representative Pramila Jayapal (herself of Indian origin) in a barely credible account of ice-hearted cruelty.
She recounted that in detention camps she met 174 women of whom 30-40 percent “came with children who had been forcibly taken away from them. None got a chance to say goodbye to their children — they were forcibly taken away. One said she was deceived, because they were in detention together. Then the Customs and Border Protection officials told her she was going out to get her photograph taken. When she came back, she was put in a different room, and she never got to see the child again. Some of them said they could hear their children screaming for them in the next room.”
Can you imagine what goes on in the mind of a person who could do this to a mother and her child? What sort of man or woman could remove a tiny child from a mother? It happened in Hitler’s concentration camps, of course, but many people thought we had moved on a bit since then. The Washington Post summed it up by saying that “It may be hard to believe that this is happening in the United States in 2018, that hundreds of children are being snatched from their parents, frequently under false pretences, often screaming . . . The parents often don’t know where their children are, or when they will see them again.”
The White House Chief of Staff, General John Kelly, was asked by the media on 11 May if he was in favour of the attorney general’s decision that in cases of illegally immigrating mothers with children then “We’re going to prosecute you, we’re going to send your kids to a juvenile shelter . . . The children will be taken care of — put into foster care or whatever. But the big point is they elected to come illegally into the United States.”
Certainly, many of the two million Afghan refugees in Pakistan are uncomfortable, and dread being sent home, but the world should bring its collective conscience to bear on the callous treatment of despairing people on the US border with Mexico.
By Brian Cloughley