by Harry Throssell

Sorry that we breathe in your air
That we walk on your ground
That we stand in your view

- recited by refugee children, London

The stark reality of global uprootedness is that it originates in the economic inequality that creates the horrific starvation, sickness and violence from which people escape if they can, driven by the need to survive physically and remain human. It follows that if this desperation is to diminish, economies with the most resources need to make greater efforts to minimise the rich-poor gap to enable vulnerable members of the global village to thrive with dignity at home.

The rich world, including Australia, diverts attention from this reality by focusing on more superficial symptoms. People smugglers are rightly condemned for ruthlessly exploiting those forced to leave home, but they don't cause the problem, they cash in on it, not uncommon in the business world. Some migrants even owe successful lives to paying the travel expenses. Increasingly harsh border controls - which incidentally help make people-smuggling more profitable - and severe detention conditions imply the issue is about defending against criminal invaders, when it's actually about people in desperate need pleading for help.

Another diversion is the conceptual separation of 'real' refugees from the uncounted millions referred to, often disparagingly, as 'economic migrants', with the implication they are somehow cheating, don't have serious needs, when in fact their lives also often hang by a thread if they survive at all. This is not to underestimate the very real horrors of torture and other dangers from violent persecution some face in their own countries, from which they undoubtedly need protection, and which they sometimes face again when forced to return. On examination, what becomes clear is all uprooted people - whether labelled refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced persons [IDPs] or undocumented migrants - are ultimately victims of poverty. Susan George made the point that people are so desperate to move from unliveable conditions they 'don't much care how they manage it', some claiming asylum when they are in fact 'economic refugees'. This indicates need, not wickedness.

The globe has ample resources to feed its total population but dominant individuals, companies, and governments - some in poor countries - prosper at others' expense by commandeering hugely unfair slices. That's the root cause of uprootedness, or refugeeism. Wealthy countries complain about migration pressures, but the truth is four fifths of uprooted people first go to other poor countries. Paradoxically, wealthy countries with ageing populations are beginning to see they need immigrants from poor countries if their economies are to continue to prosper.

The original people smugglers were Mexican 'coyotes' contracting to take 'illegal aliens' across the 3000 km border from Mexico into USA. Given the secret nature of the exercise total numbers aren't clear but in 1998, for instance, while more than one million were caught at the border, an estimated two million crossed successfully. Not all are Mexicans, 60 nationalities having been counted. Some 2000 'aliens' have died since 1995 in spite of humanitarian groups supplying water and survival kits in the Arizona desert. Until 1965, half the unauthorised migrants to USA were from Europe, but now most are from low-income countries. Half the two million current Mexican agricultural workers in USA are illegal, attracted by US wages ten times the Mexican rate. The North American Free Trade Agreement entitles companies in Mexico, USA and Canada to trade without tariffs, but does not allow workers to cross the same borders for employment. Recently the number attempting to cross into USA has decreased, mainly due to better economic opportunities in Mexico. The irony is border crossers know if they take enough water and evade guards and vigilantes they will be welcomed in the American work force.

The Mexico-USA border traffic is replicated around the globe, many successfully crossing borders, while others meet tragic ends, like the hundreds a year who drown in the Mediterranean trying to reach Spain, Italy, Greece. GIRT BY SEA
In Australia we gain a distorted view of global refugeeism, first because we are girt by sea so it's relatively easy to keep tabs on numbers and origins of new arrivals, and second because Oceania (mainly Australia and New Zealand) deals with a very small proportion of 'persons of concern who fall under the mandate of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees' [UNHCR], only 0.4 per cent in 2001 / 2002.

Of the 20 million people currently under UNHCR's wing, 12 million are official refugees, one million are asylum seekers hoping to be deemed refugees, and five million are IDPs who remain within national borders. Others are repatriated, resettled or otherwise have humanitarian needs.

Importantly, the UNHCR acknowledges there are probably a further 20 million IDPs outside their ambit, while Helen Hughes gives a total IDP figure of 35 million. These figures exclude undocumented migrants slipping secretly across borders avoiding officials, therefore going uncounted. In 2000 Justin Healey suggested there were 30 million, Amnesty International states one person in every 115 on earth has been forced into flight, that is 52 million, the International Labor Organisation reports '100 million migrant workers and their families living outside their countries', Michael Toole wrote 'in 2000, an estimated 150 million people were living outside the country of their birth; of these, only about 10 per cent were refugees'. If the current UNHCR figure of 12 million refugees is 10 per cent of all uprooted people, we arrive at a total of 120 million. George quoted the UN Environment Programme's fear that in the new millennium there could be a billion 'environmental refugees'. An estimated 80 per cent of uprooted people are women and children, including two million children a year from developing countries sold into sex slavery in wealthy countries.

It is the large number of 'economic migrants' who alarm politicians and provoke hostility among those who feel livelihoods threatened by new arrivals. They are also at the greatest risk of continuing exploitation.

The rise in official refugee numbers over the past 30 years coincides with the increase in global economic inequality, and this is without including unauthorised migrants. The number of those in the care of the UNHCR was a steady three million into the early 1970s then increased nine-fold from about 1973 to 28 million in 1995, far outstripping the twofold rise in world population.

Also in 1973, oil-producing countries sharply raised the price of oil forcing many other price hikes, with a devastating effect on already-poor countries. To make matters worse, interest rates on national debts owed by poor countries to western banks and governments were massively increased, so repayments skyrocketed at a time when prices for their primary products were low.

World Bank [WB] figures show global income inequality has increased more since 1970 than at any period since the 19th century. A recent United Nations [UN] inquiry found 'extreme poverty in the Least Developed Countries [LDCs] has doubled over the past 30 years...[I]n the African LDCs...the share of the population living on less than one dollar a day rose from 56 per cent in the second half of the 1970s to 65 per cent in the second half of the 1990s'.

Life expectancy in much of sub-Saharan Africa [sSA], after improving, has diminished again, mainly as a result of AIDS, notoriously prevalent in poor communities. The world's richest one per cent has increased its share of income due to low development in poor countries (in spite of considerable natural wealth) and economic expansion in industrial countries.

The ten principal source countries of refugees and asylum seekers in 2000 were Palestine Territories, Afghanistan, Sudan, Iraq, Burundi, Angola, Sierra Leone, Burma, Somalia and DR Congo. The average income per head of all but one of these countries is US$755 or less per year, compared with US$25,000 in rich countries. A Gross Domestic Product [GDP] figure is not available for Palestine but 65 per cent are below the poverty line, unemployment is at 70 per cent, and one child in seven is acutely malnourished.

Countries with the most IDPs - Palestine, DR Congo, Afghanistan, Colombia, Sudan, Indonesia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Chechnya, Sierra Leone - have similar very high measures of poverty. Ten of the above 15 countries are designated by the UN as Least Developed Countries (that is, the poorest).

Note that refugees, asylum seekers and IDPs are not those referred to by politicians as 'economic migrants', although they could hardly be worse off materially. Ominously the LDC Report adds 'On the base of present trends [there will be] at the very minimum a 113 million increase in the extremely impoverished population by 2015' .

George wrote 'The flight from poverty [creates] a tide so full and inexorable as to appear unstoppable...rural-to-urban migration appears as a prelude to the longer and more perilous journey they will eventually undertake Northwards [to richer countries]...Millions faced with dehumanising poverty, shooting wars, or ecological collapse find all their previous means of livelihood vanishing. What options do they have - besides death - but to move?'

By definition refugees are those escaping from persecution, a feature of violent conflict. In the past half century most wars have been within national boundaries, more than 90 per cent of victims have been civilians (rising from 10 per cent in the first world war and 50 per cent in the second), and these wars have overwhelmingly taken place in poor countries. Many are former colonies, leaving them with weak administrative structures, meagre investment in education, and little continuing control of their own economic resources, exacerbated by restructuring of production capabilities imposed by international organisations in return for loans.

The UN Children Report comments: 'In Africa alone, over 30 wars have sullied that continent since 1970 [causing] more than 8 million people to become refugees, returnees or displaced persons...The fact is that poverty, protracted instability, greed, and a vacuum of leadership set the stage of many of these wars and the malnutrition, maternal and child deaths, illiteracy and discrimination they spawn.

'It is no accident that more than half of the world's poorest countries are embroiled in ongoing or incipient crises...stirred up by the insatiable hunger of outside parties for land, and the natural bounty of gems, oil and, in Asia, opium. In Angola, Congo, Sierra Leone and Sudan, the landscape is thick with competing oil prospectors, gold and diamond miners and private security firms. The arms trade has flourished'. In desperately poor Sudan in 1997, a UN team found landmines from nine countries. USA exports 45 per cent of the world's arms, followed by Russia, France and UK.

In Children and War Susan Thompson reports there are '33 areas around the world where children are currently involved in combat...over the past decade...20 million children [have been] displaced by conflict situations'.

Countries where violent confrontation has taken place in this decade include the Palestine Territories, Afghanistan, Somalia, Nigeria, Burma, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Sudan, DR Congo, Burundi, Tajikistan, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Algeria, Ivory Coast, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Haiti, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Angola. All exhibit extreme poverty and high numbers of uprooted people. As Mohandas Gandhi said, "Poverty is the worst form of violence".

Serious civil unrest can be predicted by social factors, according to physiologist Jared Diamond: '[Of] eight variables that people have been able to identify with risk of civil war...in the last 30 years...[t]he strongest predictor is infant and child mortality'. In the countries producing the most refugees the number of infants dying before the age of 12 months ranged from 30 to 180 for every 1000 live births, compared with an average of six in high income countries.

Canadian economist Michel Chossudovsky examined Rwanda's notorious Hutu / Tutsi massacres of 1994 which killed half a million people. These were said to be historically inevitable but 'what the international media failed to mention was the civil war was preceded by the flare-up of a deep-seated economic crisis' due to the collapse of the international coffee market and imposition of sweeping reforms by the WB and IMF [International Monetary Fund]. Political pressures from Washington on behalf of the large US coffee traders caused coffee prices to plunge, and in Rwands the drop in prices 'wreaked havoc'. Resultant extreme poverty added to tensions left over from the German/Belgian colonial era, when the minority Tutsis were given privileges, like collection of taxes and administration of justice, over the larger number of Hutus. The economic slump led to huge increases in unemployment, child malnutrition, and malaria, school fees were imposed which many couldn't pay, and funds were diverted to military hardware, accessed by the large number of unemployed people drafted into the civilian militia who were responsible for the massacres. Chossudovsky concluded 'the austerity measures combined with the impact of IMF-sponsored devaluation contributed to impoverishing the Rwandan people at a time of acute political and social crisis...[creating] a situation of generalised famine and social despair. To lay the blame solely on deep-seated tribal hatred...distorts an exceedingly complex process of economic, social and political disintegration affecting an entire nation'.

As the WB noted, 'the devastation [of violence] falls disproportionately on the world's poor people'.

Jose leaves Haiti, gets to USA and obtains a job picking fruit for farmer Hank. His wage is lower than the legal rate but it's higher than Jose received in Haiti. He can survive and also send money back to his family. Hank is pleased because the work is done at low cost and he knows Jose won't complain about conditions for fear of being dobbed in to the police and deported. The US economy gains because output is achieved at low cost, and the Haitian economy benefits from Jose's remittances to his family.

Jose's wife Maria and their children follow him to USA. She gets a job as a domestic, the kids eat well, their health improves, and they go to school. The family's work adds to the US economy, but no longer to the Haitian economy.

Like most migrants, Jose and Maria are young adults, in reasonable health, and have some education. The poorest of the poor, with no funds to pay for travel and bribes, in poor health, unable to read or write, stay home. Jose and Maria would prefer to remain close to their extended families, but migrate to survive poverty and the AIDS / tuberculosis epidemics. The crucial dilemma is that Haiti, to overcome poverty, needs people like Jose and Maria to remain at home and build a stronger society. Without them, the country will deteriorate further and more will decide to emigrate.

Greg Palast argued immigrants should be seen 'as a gift, not a scourge [because] immigration is simply good business'. He quotes the Cato Institute thinktank: 'It's a form of reverse foreign aid. We [USA] give less than $20 billion in direct aid to third world nations and we get back $30 billion in capital assets...by "assets" he means workers raised, fed and educated by poorer countries, then shipped to the US'. US economists find UK Prime Minister Tony Blair's fixation on 'bogus' asylum seekers 'just wacky. Instead of asking newcomers for a commitment to building Britain, they are asked solely whether they are running for their lives'. Palast described Mino, who first attempted to gain entry to USA from Guatemala 11 years before, paying a smuggler to cross the Mexican border stuffed in a sealed truck with a hundred other men. He survived but was arrested, jailed, and sent home. So he acquired a false visa and an air ticket, entered America successfully, immediately obtained work washing dishes - and now owns a landscaping business, drives a pickup truck, and plans to finish an accountancy degree. A regional planner, asked about the role of illegal workers, replied "There wouldn't be a [US] economy without the illegals".

In wealthy countries birth rates have been falling and people living longer, creating societies top-heavy with older, non-working people and with comparatively fewer young people to support their needs. One solution, wrote Jonathan Steele, 'is to take more immigrants...The biggest sources of potential immigration are Africa and Asia, where populations have been increasing'.

With a growing world population, increasing economic inequality, and the flight of the poor from the deprived to the rich world (eventually, anyway), it is not only dangerously blind for wealthy countries to create fortresses to preserve their wealth and keep out the needy, it is also hypocritical when the same countries also preach the benefits of globalisation and ‘free trade’. Fortress countries are attempting to preserve the privileges of elites, which deprived people will not tolerate for ever, and which have caused revolutions over the centuries. We cannot have it both ways - we cannot complain about refugees knocking on our door for assistance when we help cause their desperation. The focus of human endeavour needs to change from profiting from others to ensuring they have decent lives.

A complete programme for the total eradication of world poverty and refugeeism is somewhat beyond the scope of this essay, but just to make a couple of points. George argued there are two rational ways to deal with the problems of immigration. 'The first is to promote the well-being of those who have already settled in their new country', which is not only considerate but also a way of sharing wealth, both materially and in useful experience. 'The second’, wrote George, ‘is to make it less necessary for...the vital elements of a population to migrate'. That is, helping potential uprooted people achieve what they most want - to stay, comfortably, peacefully, at home – by helping them develop sustainable lives, or at least not getting in their way.

The rich world should make sure it is not unfairly exploiting the resources of poor economies, either directly - for example by the notorious sweatshops in which hours are long, pay very low and conditions poor - or through international organisations, and see how it can cooperate to promote development. Ultimately it comes to sharing Planet Earth's material gifts while ensuring people have as much control as possible over their own lives. For everyone on Earth to have Australia’s living standards would require the production capacity of five planets, or 12 to match America’s. As we only have one, the other option is for us in the rich world to reduce our average consumption. A lower average does not necessitate change for those on middle or lower incomes if those in the highest brackets, living in unnecessary luxury costing multi-millions of dollars a year, make some 'sacrifices'. So individual countries need to address national economic inequality as part of global change.

Economic globalisation is not achieving this. Nobel Economics Prizewinner Joseph Stiglitz, formerly of the World Bank, writes 'Globalisation today is not working for many of the world's poor. It is not working for much of the environment. It is not working for the stability of the global economy'. The economies of poor countries are controlled in numerous ways by the WB, IMF and the World Trade Organisation [WTO], all dominated by Western powers. They have 'set the rules of the game', said Stiglitz. 'They have done so in ways that, all too often, have served the interest of the more advanced industrialised countries - and particular interests within those countries - rather than those of the developing world. In other words, they have had a new form of colonialism imposed on them. Poor countries should have more say on the use of global resources and particularly on how they manage their own economies'. Washington's Center for Economic and Policy Research [CEPR] concluded 'There is no region of the world that the WB or IMF can point to as having succeeded through adopting policies that they promote...[T]he destruction of industries and the dislocation of people, the harsh "austerity" medicine often demanded by these institutions and by international financial markets become a burden to society without any clear countervailing benefit...In the Asian financial crisis, IMF policies...threw tens of millions of people into poverty'.

Another major step is relieving poor countries of the national debts they owe to rich countries not in need of the money. George argued 'so long as the debt crisis and economic stagnation persist, governments of sending countries are unlikely to put up any barriers to migration and will encourage their citizens to stay put once they go to Europe, for the simple reason that they bring in money’. The CEPR argued the IMF and WB 'could play a much more constructive role by helping to cancel the crushing, unpayable debt of the poorer countries and allowing each nation to choose its own path to economic growth and development'. Stiglitz writes ‘Without the forgiveness of debt, many of the developing countries simply cannot grow. Huge proportions of their current exports go to repaying loans to the developed countries…in some countries a quarter to a half of all exports’. Not that loans are without moral complications. Stiglitz: ‘When the IMF and WB lent money to DR Congo’s [then Zaire’s] notorious ruler Mobutu, they knew (or should have known) that most of the money would not go to help that country’s poor people, but rather would be used to enrich Mobutu. It was money paid to ensure that this corrupt leader would keep his country aligned with the West’. The Jubilee [debt relief] movement was successful in getting much larger commitments to debt forgiveness, but debt relief needs to go further. ‘As it stands now, the agreements touch only the poorest of the countries [but others need] to be brought in under the umbrella’, Stiglitz comments.

While some debts have been cancelled, this is often only on certain conditions, with the result some countries, like Ethiopia, which has carefully followed a repayment schedule, will be in hock for many years to come, and is currently facing further drought.

There have been recent suggestions grants should replace loans. Which sounds good, but of the 23 industrial countries which in 1969 promised to donate 0.7 per cent of their GDP to foreign aid, only five countries have done so, not including USA, UK, or Australia. If they all kept this promise a great amount of finance would become available to the countries from which people are uprooted. Grants, without conditions, avoid some measure of colonialist control, but still maintain dependency. The WB encourages rich countries to help the poorest by opening their markets to developing countries' exports, and by abandoning their billion-dollars-a-day agricultural subsidies, and other trade barriers, which limit market opportunities for the very goods poor people produce most competitively. Aid, while vital in the crises of mass starvation and epidemics of infectious diseases, may be less important in the long run than trade.

Another way much-needed funds could be transferred to poor countries without external control is through the widely-supported Tobin Tax. The proposal is to impose a levy of 0.25 per cent or less on all cross-border currency transactions on stock exchanges, which would yield $100 - $300 billion a year to go into a trust fund to finance priority projects on global warming, disease, poverty.

Perhaps, above all, people in both poor and rich countries should have more real say in how their lives are organised.

....................................................... Sources
Sorry poem quoted by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, No room at the inn, New Internationalist, October 2002
Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and The Last Man, Hamish Hamilton 1992
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Harry Throssell,
Brisbane, Australia, 21 November 2002.
[email protected]
The author is a former social worker, university lecturer, and newspaper journalist. The Levellers Essays on social justice issues, directed to the general public rather than specialist groups, are freely available for copying, distribution or publication, and are collected on website www.geocities.com/youngmick/levellers/ If you wish future essays to be sent direct, please send an address. ends .