The politics of displacement

Last week, on World Refugee Day, the Guardian printed the names of 34,361 migrants who have died since the early 1990s, while trying to enter Europe. The Dutch nonprofit that compiled the list emphasized its incompleteness – the true number is likely to be much higher. Four out of five deaths were due to drowning; 600 were the result of violence, 400 were suicides. Five hundred others died while they were being housed in European detention facilities during the asylum process.

These depressing numbers barely convey the scale of human displacement in our time. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates the global number of refugees – people who flee their homes due to  “a well-founded fear of persecution because of his/her race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion”– at 51 million, if asylum seekers, internally displaced people and refugees are included in the total.

No statistic can convey the complexity of the political pressures that cause, and are caused by, such levels of displacement, and only rarely does media coverage accurately portray the lives of these people. Less than one in three, for instance, lives in a camp; most inhabit cramped living quarters in cities and villages scattered around the globe. Forty-six percent are children whose interrupted educations have to be resumed with the added pressures of helping their families to assimilate to a new culture.

With hindsight it seems inevitable that the Trump administration would stumble into this issue with heartless ineptitude. First by criminalizing anyone who crosses the US border without a visa; then by claiming it was unable to stop family separations; then, by bowing to outraged public opinion and claiming, falsely, to have fixed the problem. In addition to a long history of xenophobic remarks, Trump’s attitude to the question of migration may be gauged from his remarks to the Japanese prime minister at the recent G7 conference. According to the Wall Street Journal, when the topic of migration came up at the meeting, Trump said: “Shinzo, you don’t have this problem, but I can send you 25 million Mexicans and you’ll be out of office very soon.”

Typically, Trump’s grasp of the issue is at odds with the facts – the US is actually undergoing a net emigration of Mexicans – but what really matters is the plausibility of Trump’s assertions. He has mastered the art of post-factual politics, and his willingness to overstate the number of migrants, by several degrees of magnitude remains key to his enduring appeal among the Republican base. Striking evidence of this recently emerged from an Inforum poll which showed that 47 percent of GOP voters believe that Trump won the popular vote in the 2016 election. More than half would also accept a postponement of the next election if they were told it would prevent voter fraud.

Condemnation of Trump has become almost irrelevant. What matters now, is who controls Congress. And yet, despite Trump’s nearly perfect record of misgovernance, Democrats have failed to make a coherent case against him. In part this is because they were complicit, during the Obama years in allowing US Immigration and Customs Enforcement to become a law unto itself, but also because the party is increasingly wary of gambling on the progressive radicals in its midst, lest they fail to carry the day in the mid-term elections and increase the likelihood of a Trump victory in 2020.

Although it has little to do with him, America’s resurgent economy has given Trump’s talk about a return to “greatness” a lustre it does not merit. This, in turn, has made other self-promoting assertions – about withdrawing from the Paris climate deal and Iran nuclear agreement, dispensing with regulations, meeting with North Korea, and risking a multi-front trade war – a prima facie plausibility. Unfortunately, that may be all that is needed to ensure two more years of the chaotic status quo.

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