Archive for May, 2015


Shifting currents, tides of humanity

It has come to this. An article in the Globe & Mail details how a number of Indonesian fishing boats answered a distress call north of the Strait of Malacca. Arriving at the scene in the middle of the night, they found several hundred people bobbing and thrashing — and dozens going under by the minute — in the open sea, their abandoned cargo hulk having sunk due to damage caused by some of these same starving people fighting over the barest remnants of their food supplies.

The fishermen pulled survivors aboard, fed and clothed them, and brought them ashore at their own village at the north end of Sumatra. Whereupon these fishermen were bullied by police, it being the policy of the world’s most populous Muslim nation to allow this current tide of Muslim refugees to starve and drown at sea. Okay, Indonesia is latterly softening that stand, having apparently realized that much of the world is dismayed by its policies. One hopes that Thailand and Malaysia, the other refuseniks, and Burma, a source of the refugees, also come around. But this boatload was one of a great many, all bringing the same ethnic groups from the same few places southwards to nowhere — refused entry by several countries, then abandoned by their crews and adrift and starving.

Vietnamese boat people. Wikipedia.I find certain ongoing calamities absorbing because of what they say about the present and future of humanity. The drought in California — North America’s main source of food — is one. The NYT recently noted that North Americans outside of California consume hundreds of gallons of California water each week, in the form of fruits and vegetables (taking into account the water needed to grow that produce). This story asks us: where are we going? How will we get there?

The ocean-borne refugee crisis asks much the same questions. Europe struggles to find an accommodation as tides of Africans, Syrians, Somalis, what-have-you, perish at sea or are rescued by an overtaxed Italian coast guard, to be deposited in overcrowded Italian or Maltese refugee camps, or released into crowded European countries with sputtering economies. These refugees and economic migrants are people from other continents and very non-European cultures, albeit we all had some hand in destroying Iraq and Syria (especially Mssrs. Bush and Cheney). Much of the tension is this: the more these boatloads are rescued and towed to Europe’s outer shores, the more boatloads will sail forth. The European Union appears to want to arrive at some form of tough tough-love — intercept the boats near their points of origin off Libya or Tunis, perhaps; sort the true refugees from the economic migrants; and repatriate the migrants.

This newer crisis in the Andaman Sea seems even harder to fathom in its entirety. From my bemused vantage point, Burma, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia are all Southeast Asian nations. Further, Indonesia and Malaysia are Muslim nations. I’ve traveled through each of these countries, and Bangladesh, too, albeit 30-odd years ago. Back then, Sumatra was a relatively lightly populated island, with a huge land mass, which the densely populated Javanese were effectively colonizing. Lebensraum. But today, in a nation of some 250-million, could a few thousand refugees be really that onerous? Could they not be given temporary visas pending a longer-term solution — with the men from Bangladesh, who really do appear to be economic migrants, shipped back in fairly short order? Okay, these solutions rarely prove to be ‘temporary’. But must they die at sea instead?

Ecuadorian refugees near Guatemala. Wikipedia.And here’s where these two huge calamitous stories, each with global and future implications, start to dovetail. Bangladesh is a horrendously overpopulated and bitterly impoverished country. It’s also, for the most part, a massive delta — myriad fingerlings of the Ganges filigree through its tidal silt into the Bay of Bengal. Rising oceans, as a result of melting polar icecaps, are beginning to inundate this country’s farmlands. So those starving Bangladeshi men drowning in the Andaman Sea/Malacca Strait would seem to be a harbinger. And indeed, the other half of that regionally despised human cargo were Muslim families from the northwest coast of Burma. The Burmese insist this Rohingya minority have migrated from Bangladesh over the course of recent generations. And for that reason, apparently, they are persecuted by Burma’s government and Buddhist majority. Or, for that reason plus the usual ethnic hatred that arises between ethnically disparate peoples living cheek by jowl, in this case a seeming tectonic friction point where SE Asia meets Indian subcontinent. So Indonesia confronts essentially Europe’s conundrum: the tide of Bangladeshis would be massive.

The implicated Southeast Asian countries have been meeting lately to try to negotiate some compromises, panaceas or possible solutions to their regional crisis. Australia’s approach has been to divert all Aussie-bound migrants and refugees to the tropical hell of Papua New Guinea, whom it is paying to receive them. (Theh ya go, mate, yer on dry land. Nah bugger off.) Living in Edmonton this past year, I’m startled by the size of the Somali community. With their almost coal-black skin, they’re a hyper-visible minority in the great white north, and I’m told their integration is rocky and their young men often join gangs. And yet they’re a drop in the global bucket.

Decades ago, Paul Simon sang of “the boy in the bubble” as a kind of miracle-trope for our age of wonders. But the people in the boat are hardly miraculous. They’re a wonder, alright — and an inescapable and international calamity entirely of our own making. People crowd into these floating coffins out of desperation, be it economic or political (the two are often inextricable).

SE Asia faced a similar crises with the Vietnamese boat people of the late 1970s and ’80s, refusing to take more of them except temporarily and pending resettlement elsewhere. Eventually the U.S. accepted many of them — a minuscule reckoning for having propped up a despotic regime and having bombed the country to smithereens. So did Canada and many other Western countries. But when the cause of a massive refugee crisis is as diffuse as global warming or global arms sales, who will take responsibility?

In the recent film All Is Lost, Robert Redford’s yachtsman character is undone by a floating cargo container that has toppled off some container ship; its corner pierces his hull. The container itself spills tens of thousands of cheap sneakers across the Indian Ocean, as Redford’s character tries in vain to get the attention of impassive passing container ships too behemothic to detect his sinking life-raft. Such resonant metaphors.

We overpopulate the Earth. We destabilize it through armed interventions and arms sales. And we pollute the Earth. The cruel concatenations of these misdeeds now include the southern Mediterranean and the Andaman Sea. As the Middle East implodes, Africa scorches, and Bangladesh is inundated by tides, how to turn the human tides?