The current refugee crisis has many times been framed as the “worst humanitarian crisis since WWII”. It seems this framing functions to counteract numbness in the West, much like the viral sharing of that gut-wrenching photograph of Aylan, the three-year-old boy taken from this world by what looks like an unfeeling, indiscriminate Mediterranean Sea.
That numbness is due, at least in part, to our incapacity or our unwillingness to name the true cause of a crisis that has produced more than 4 million refugees, out of 19 million globally, who are fleeing from Honduras to Nigeria to Libya, from Afghanistan to Myanmar. As European nations patrol their borders fiercely, the “worst since WWII” framing does not help us.
By treating events as separate and relative, we implicitly downplay the connections between them, and this obscures their nature. The eurocentric framing hides the fact that the current crisis is an extension of ongoing imperialism, a war on brown children that is centuries old, led to WWI and II, and is ongoing. When we do not name this problem, we cannot work to end it, and in that context our mass consumption of images like that of Aylan becomes predatory and voyeuristic.
We’ve seen a stream of images of this kind in all of our lifetimes. I remember television pictures of the Rwandan genocide in which one million Tutsi died—it was 1994, and I was ten. I did the forty-hour famine resolutely each year, raising a good few hundred dollars a fast; I did not know then that the suffering was not sporadic, that Rwanda’s Hutu and Tutsi populations were pitted against each other in a divide-and-rule strategy adopted by Belgian colonisers. I of course could not foresee the U.S., who appeared to my young eyes to be delivering us the nightly news in sympathetic disbelief, giving Rwanda over $1 billion in military aid from 2000.
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These crises were, however, too numerous, long-lasting and disturbingly similar not to prompt me to question the faith I had in the world of responsible, European adults who took care of emergencies.
It was 1884 when Belgium seized Rwanda—along with Burundi, and Congo, where slave labour in ivory, rubber, gold and diamonds has claimed five million lives. It was the year of the Berlin Conference at which European nations divided Africa among themselves. The Italians took Libya, Eritrea and Somalia; the French an East-West slice of Africa including Algeria. Britain got the lion’s share, a corridor from Egypt to South Africa. The Dutch East India Company had already taken control of South Africa in 1652 and lost it to Britain in 1795, one hundred years before the Boer Wars.
WWI (which, of course, created the preconditions for WWII) was a war between these competing, imperial powers. During it, Britain and France sliced up the Middle East between themselves too, through the Sykes-Picot agreement. Indeed, in a 2014 speech, Isis caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi stated that the Isis “advance will not stop until we hit the last nail in the coffin of the Sykes-Picot conspiracy”.
Since the world wars, of course, Russia and the U.S. have fought an arms race in the Middle East. In Syria, Russia has supported the state; the U.S., and increasingly regional Islamist groups, the rebels. Isis, now rampant in Libya, Iraq and Syria, was begat by Al Qaeda, raised with U.S. support. This year our Prime Minister sent troops to Iraq in what we are supposed to believe is his moral crusade to support the U.S. to stop them.
The mandate given New Zealand in WWI was over Samoa—and we greeted Samoa in 1918 with an influenza epidemic that wiped out 22% of its population. New Zealand’s own population of Māori had halved through the late 1800s, through lack of healthcare and Land Wars. The 1863 Waikato invasion saw an army of between 14,000 and 18,000 sent out against about 4,000 Māori defenders; the settler administration cut off Tūhoe from their fertile plains and seafood sources. Te Papa currently attributes their resistance to WWI conscription to “pacifist beliefs”.
Still now, one in five Māori and Pasifika children live in poverty here. Last year we saw the televised pictures of two-year-old Emma Lita Bourne, after her life was lost to pneumonia from a cold, damp state house; lost to the same war that took Aylan.
I am not a historian. But I have grown up with images like Aylan’s, and I see that the West is not alleviating but is incriminated in the brutality and neglect of so many children of colour. The greatest humanitarian crisis we face now is not a singular, freak event (in Europe) to be compared in scale with another singular, freak event (in Europe). The systemic poverty, violence and environmental crises we face today are still occurring within the same context of white imperialism as the world wars, arms race, colonialism and the slave trade.
Images of this ongoing crisis, in art history and media, are far too plentiful already.
I want that we would, collectively, not just watch but name the centuries-old war that every day claims children like Aylan and Emma, so that we can work to make it end.
Renée Gerlich is a writer based in Wellington. She is currently working on a documentary about work undertaken by the old Arts and Crafts Branch within our first Labour government’s Education Department.