A New York Times review of a book describing what may be the world’s largest refugee camp, near Kenya’s border with Somalia, notes that 60 million people have been displaced throughout the world as a result of conflict and other mass misfortunes.

We can paraphrase Stalin: one person forced from home to a condition of poverty and wandering is a tragedy. Sixty million of them is a statistic.

Other headlines are about a million refugees moving from the Middle East to Europe in 2015, another million projected for 2016, with European governments dithering under the pressure of numbers and highly publicized instances of violence. They are pondering humane acceptance, closing borders, increasing the severity of screening, and funneling  the flood to some other country.  

The city-sized refugee camp in Kenya is a sad story of international politics. The UN budget for supplying the refugees dropped, and when the more prominent case of Syria took the world’s attention, the budget for Somalia’s refugees dropped further. Then the camp became even more miserable and unsafe.

The better off have longed walled themselves off from others who threaten them. The Chinese wall is a prime tourist landmark in the country that has become the world’s richest in the absolute size of its economy. Israel has one barrier along its border with Egypt in order to keep out African refugees walking across the Sinai, and two others to ward off violent incursions from Gaza and the West Bank. The wall between Jews and Palestinians on the West Bank twists and turns, and doubles back on itself in an effort to protect Israel and Jewish settlements beyond the line that other countries recognize as Israel’s border. This barrier is not complete, with some sections delayed by court cases about its route, and other sections put off on account of budget constraints, and assessments that further building is not vital.

People create walls not only against foreigners, but against citizen neighbors viewed as dangerous or undesirable. 

Some well to do Latin Americans live behind high walls with broken glass spread across the top, an armed guard at the gate, and shanties leaning against the outside of the wall, using it as part of their own flimsy shelter.

The U.S. has “gated communities,” guards in the entrances of upscale apartment buildings, and private schools meant to assure one’s offspring a better chance than available to the less fortunate majority in public schools.

Virtually all developed countries are bothered, to greater or lesser degree, with the prospect of mass migration. Many of them need more workers to do the things that locals choose to avoid, or where low birth rates have produced a shortage of citizens. Welfare provisions, even if far from providing a comfortable life, provide enough to keep many citizens away from work that is dirty, dangerous, or simply unpleasant. Immigration restrictions or aspirations to expel illegals appear on the political agendas of virtually all well-to-do countries.

Some advocate, and others expect a world war against radical Islam, which is seen as a prominent source of displacement and migration. However, walls are cheaper, with effects more predictable than a major war. Moreover, it’s unclear who is the enemy when all have allies among Muslim countries that are fighting one another, financing or otherwise aiding different sides in a confusing morass of bloodshed that provokes those who can to leave for better places.

While there have been dramatic attacks by Islamic radicals with tens of casualties in European and American locales, the far greater bloodshed comes from Muslims fighting one another.

The migrants keep coming, politicians keep talking about keeping the mass of refugees out of their country, and create refugee camps in old industrial zones or other down-market locales. Australia puts its unwanted refugees on a distant island, with payment made to the nominal sovereign.

An Italian Jewish woman, who is a novelist and professor, takes on Pope Francis and his comments about the wretched of the world that does not, in her view, show enough concern for terror. She contrasts charismatic Muslim extremists and followers who aspire to impose their culture on host societies, with the history of Jewish migrants who aspired only to develop their own potential .

The Jewish flood that moved westward from the 1880’s onward was hardly smaller in relative terms than what is now coming out of Syria and Africa. Employers welcomed the Jews’ cheap labor, but the better neighborhoods and schools excluded or limited those who acquired the resources to move upward. The Jews had their gangsters, pimps, whores, violent enforcers and petty criminals, especially in their first generations of poverty and limited education, but they did not plot attacks with aspirations to remake any western society.

Beginning with Jeremiah and Babylon, and on to the rabbis who wrote during the Roman era, the theme of Jewish leaders has been to comply with the laws of the ruling power.

The classic Talmudic expression, in Aramaic. The law of the kingdom is your law.

Jews’ world population may never have reached 20 million, while the Muslims currently have a billion. There are prominent elements that promote aggressive Islamic expansion, with many of the moderates dithering as to how, if at all, to oppose others in their tent.

The Jews’ horror of the Holocaust is somewhere in the shadows that affect the options for dealing with migrating Muslims.

It isn’t pleasant having to decide between norms of humanity and security. There is not a clear picture in the fluid discussions about policy in numerous countries, and the decisions applied to individuals.

The easiest and wisest course for an old man is to avoid predictions, and appreciate retirement on the better side of the barricades.

Comments welcome. Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus), Department of Political Science, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, irashark@gmail.com.


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