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Pure Onsense

The Great Reshuffling

Scott Zuke

(8/2014) Since October more than 57,000 kids, referred to as Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC), have been apprehended illegally crossing the southern border into the United States. Estimates for the year project a massive influx of UAC—an increase of more than 800% from two years ago. The issue has stirred up an ugly political fight in Washington and renewed an already prickly debate over illegal immigration nationally as well as locally.

The UAC originate primarily from Central America, namely El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, and say they are trying to escape poverty and violence, and to reunite with other family members already in the United States. The New York Times reports that, since January, more than 2,200 of these children have been sent to live with sponsors in Maryland.

Many Americans have responded as people around the world always have to sudden, unregulated influxes in migration: "Not in my backyard." Among their complaints are practical concerns about straining limited resources (jobs, infrastructure, public services, etc.), fears of cultural integration changing local identity, as well less tangible things, like erosion of the Rule of Law or even the creeping loss of national sovereignty.

As big a domestic policy issue as illegal immigration may be for the United States, one has to admit that we have the space, the resources, and the institutional capacity to manage the problem while better solutions are sought. The same cannot be said everywhere. Which brings me to the Middle East.

Three years ago we witnessed the spectacle of the "Arab Spring" uprisings as youth took to the streets and toppled dictators. What is happening in the region now may be a far more impactful social, political, and economic upheaval of the old order, but unlike the mass protests of 2011, this event is not TV-friendly. It might be called the "Great Reshuffling."

From Libya to Pakistan, much of the Middle East today is experiencing some manner of refugee crisis. Syria is ground zero, with more than 9 million civilians forced from their homes, about a third of whom have fled to neighboring countries. In Lebanon, the refugee population is on its way to representing a full third of the people in the country. The third largest "city" in Jordan now is a refugee camp. Boats full of refugees have ended up in Egypt, North Africa, and even in Europe.

The United Nations recently reported that humanity is having its largest refugee crisis since the end of World War II, with over 50 million people displaced. That figure was from before the ISIS offensive into Iraq that sent hundreds of thousands more into flight. It was from before Pakistan’s military began a sweep of Taliban tribal areas that sent thousands of civilians fleeing into Afghanistan—yes, Afghanistan—for safety.

Militia violence in the failed state of Libya not only led the United States to evacuate its embassy, but has also been literally driving people into the sea. This year the Italian navy has rescued more than 70,000 migrants from vessels prone to capsizing—more than 500 have died.

Part of the reason so many are risking the voyage is that Egypt has worked to discourage any further crossings of its border by refusing assistance and blocking resettlement efforts. A frequent crossroads for displaced persons on the move, Egypt has been fortifying its borders against refugees from Sudan and, more recently, turning away Palestinians attempting to flee the violence in Gaza.

The difficult part of reporting the plight of 50 million displaced people is that the number is simply too large to comprehend. Figures are good for tracking trends, but may not be the best way to make the average person care about what those data points represent.

Try this, though, as you settle into bed in Emmitsburg, Thurmont, or wherever you are tonight: imagine what sounds would wake you up in the night, what historic and frightening events would have to transpire in the cities and spread unstoppably out into the countryside, what breakdown of security and basic services would have to occur that would force you to persuade your family to quickly pack up and leave without anywhere to go. For us it’s the subject of an unpleasant dream that we would try to shake off by returning to our daily routine. At one time this scenario seemed just as remote to today’s refugees—at least those not born and raised in the camps.

What is the point of raising awareness of refugee crises, though, when there’s really so little any of us can do to solve the problem? Perhaps it is worthwhile if only to facilitate some empathy for the victims of these conflicts. Consider the current flare-up between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is unique as being the only international conflict that doesn’t need an awareness campaign; most people are already too emotionally invested to carry on a polite conversation about it. Sympathies are sharply polarized, while empathy is too often lacking, and that has a real effect on how one understands each side’s actions.

Israelis and Palestinians both feel like refugees within their own borders—geographically constrained, surrounded by unfriendly neighbors, never allowed to feel comfortable or at home. The situation is compounded in Gaza by humanitarian suffering and a blockade of their borders (it is a region roughly twice the size of D.C., with triple the population, and no easy way to get supplies in or people out). Driven to desperation, they have turned to Hamas, a terrorist organization, as their last hope of improving their condition. The Israeli people are scared too, and decades of violence and endless rocket barages have left their nerves frayed. They rally behind the strong leader who can deliver security quickly, relentlessly, just as Americans did when terrorism came to their shores.

In the end, empathy is not the solution to problems here, much less in the Middle East. But in the space of time between the onset of a problem and the adoption of a pragmatic policy response, it could have an important impact on how we respond when someone shows up seeking refuge in our backyard.

Read other article by Scott Zuke