Europe’s refugee crisis and post-truth response

Fenced off, fenced in: Refugees in Greece, 2016. Photo: UN

Fenced off, fenced in: Refugees in Greece, 2016. Photo: UN

More than three decades have passed since being ‘economical with the truth’ regained currency. It was of course that notorious if riveting exchange between Robert Armstrong and Malcolm Turnbull during the 1986 Spycatcher trial that brought the phrase back into vogue after recurrences from biblical times.

Then ‘economical…’ was swept away by the more potent ‘post-truth’ era of the UK Brexit referendum and the US election that brought President Trump to power.

Amid numerous human tragedies, truth has been a curiously unmourned casualty. No wake, no requiem, no funeral pyre, just a quiet vanishing of an intangible something…truth.

This would be bad news on a monumental scale, as plainly it is, were it not for the fact that it is also a handy exit route for some in a generic Europe who may feel cornered by the avalanche that is the refugee crisis.

Various governments and organizations in Europe have squirmed to wriggle out of what we see as their ethical, legal or moral obligations but evidently they don’t.

Instead, governments have come up with disingenuous or downright dishonest or perverse reactions, from razorwire fencing of international frontiers to a denial or distortion of facts.

In each such reaction, pronouncements that run counter to EU treaties and rules have dominated the narrative. Welcome to our post-truth era.

To be sure, the refugee crisis in its current scale caught many unawares. Wars that spewed vast human cargoes on Europe’s shore, from Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Turkey, Yemen and farther beyond, swept away or left in ruin bureaucracies, procedures, structures and systems.

Most European governments would dispute this, insisting they keep close tabs on all irregular arrivals. But evidently they don’t and haven’t, or we wouldn’t still be waiting for someone to explain the disappearance of more than 10,000 refugee children who ventured out of the war zones, apparently unaccompanied, whether trafficked or forced to trail adults of tenuous bonds of geography, religion or state.

A January 2016 estimate that cited “at least 10,000” missing among the many unaccompanied minors is yet to be updated. It cannot verifiably be revised unless European governments reconcile themselves to fact-checking and shun fiery rhetoric demonizing faith or ethnicity that gets them off the hook.

Europol reckons the missing young may have been swallowed up in crime gangs, recruited as drug peddlers, sex objects or tools of darker pursuits. An egregious trafficking in transplant organs has been mentioned but never adequately confirmed.

The Europol website tally on the missing young hasn’t been updated for months. That figure then is a year-old estimate. No one knows how many more children, adults or the elderly are unaccounted for. Either the basic tools for data checking aren’t in place or the will to deploy such methods isn’t there.

Worse still, more ominously, data collecting doesn’t appear to be a practice of choice for governments facing global censure because of the obvious disincentives. If the numbers are seen to mount, that brings on new pressures on governments to do something about them.

The absent or lukewarm European responses to a single officially acknowledged fact, that 10,000 unaccompanied refugee children are missing, is a chilling reminder of what else is hidden in the miasma of obfuscation, silence or untruth.

The Brussels NGO Missing Children Europe says disappearances are usually underreported. It should know; it groups 30 NGOs from 26 European countries. Clearly due diligence in fact-collecting by governments in one of the most sophisticated set of nations on Earth has been scant.

What of the European nations that, in response to the refugee influx, erected razorwire fences, closed land or rail links? These include former Soviet bloc states that are frequently blackmarked by Amnesty and other human rights advocacy groups for oppressing their own citizens, in particular Roma minorities. EU made these states full or associate members regardless of those fundamental human rights violations over decades.

Can one seriously expect from these EU members reliable documentation on refugees they have received, turned away, interned or allowed to perish?

At the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva last year, this writer shared a stark assessment from an activist lawyer during long off-the-record conversations, paraphrased here:

The chaos surrounding the refugee numbers is a challenge and an opportunity for many European governments that operate under the radar. They have neither the noisy news media of western Europe in any accessible language, nor the need to change habits hardened over years behind the Iron Curtain. They can dish out facts, or no facts at all, as they want, and profit from both ignorance and knowledge! It’s a win-win and they know it.

This dearth of accurate data on the refugee crisis raises questions about the kind of information or rather the level of untruths on which actions, when they finally come, are based. The less refugee hardship is reported the easier it gets for governments that are expected to do something about the suffering. It doesn’t even have to get to the state where ‘fake news’ can be fact-checked and challenged.

As the European winter bites, the cold snap has a direct bearing on the fate of the countless—yes, countless—refugees trapped behind closed borders. How many refugees face the freeze, possibly death, cannot be known without a human effort on a continental scale.

Their controllers’ insistence on denying the refugees mobile phones or lesser means of outside contact ensures few can report on what’s afoot in regular camps or open areas exposed to the severity of the elements.

Nor is this onslaught on truth random or driven by necessity at the basic level of police or refugee handlers sensitive to criticism, or governments with an image problem.

What is there not to suggest it is rampant, calculating, calculated and pushing unwholesome agenda?

Natalie Nougayrède, currently of The Guardian and previously of Le Monde, called it “one of the collateral damages of post-truth politics.” Not only does the present gets distorted the past gets rewritten as well, she points out.

Hate-filled videos online, evidently part of a fight back to everything that seeks to shame Europe, depict fantasies of Europe ‘before’ and ‘after’ migration. “ ‘Before’ is depicted with orderly scenes of 1950s streets, shops and parks where an all-white population strolls or plays happily. ‘After’ is groups of dark-faced men attacking women, rioting against the police, shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’.”

That negativity reached its apex in Britain in June last year, when anti-EU campaigners employing a full armory of fake news, fictional data and Photoshopped imagery secured a vote that has plunged the country into an existential crisis without precedent.

Brexit’s triumph has sucked compassion and empathy out of the UK. On a wider plane, conservative or ultranationalist agenda threaten to produce similar results on the continent.

That juggernaut, as it trundles along in continental Europe, augurs ill for the many refugees who are balanced between life and frozen death.

How many are those ‘many’? These are refugees from war and political aftermath of conflict but who cares for them? At this writing, those tens of thousands of the faceless and nameless are flung across Europe, exposed to the twin perils of apathy and the ravages of winter. ©Sajid Rizvi.

Author: Editor

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