Musings from Cassandra: Could the West Have Anticipated this Crisis?

Joseph Stalin is quoted as saying, “The death of one man is a tragedy; the death of millions is a statistic.”  Today he might say, “The death of one Iranian General sucks up the headlines, leaving millions to suffer the consequences in anonymity.”

Continuing aggressive tactics by Turkey, the rapidly deteriorating situation in Iran, Syria, and potentially Afghanistan, and endemic antipathy in Europe toward refugees, portend a deepening crisis about to explode on Europe’s doorstep. It’s one that most of the world chooses to ignore, but it shall not go away.

We seem ill-equipped to process so much suffering and death other than as a blur, yet in a single death we see the potential end of our own existence. Perhaps that explains why innocents fleeing a frightening world not of their making inevitably find themselves subconsciously dismissed from popular attention behind the collective label “refugees.”

Whatever the explanation, we’re on the verge of an escalating refugee crisis in the Eastern Mediterranean basin of the sort that’s fueled brash nationalism and brought down European governments.  Some consider it the severest challenge confronting the West, while for others it’s a political hot potato they dare not touch.  May God have mercy on our souls should COVID-19 or its like reach the camps.

I began thinking seriously about all of this when Greece became ground zero for the refugee crisis, because it’s where I live, have called home for thirty-five years, and utilize the fast-paced mystery thriller format to address cutting-edge political and societal issues confronting contemporary Greece.

About a decade ago I described Greece as “the European Union’s immigration filter trap.” In 2015, amid Greece’s financial crisis, that trap was overwhelmed. Within a matter of months, more that 600,000 refugees fleeing the terrors of their homelands (mainly Syria), flooded across treacherous seas from Turkey to the northeastern Aegean Greek island of Lesvos.

Six-hundred-thousand is seven times Lesvos’ population.  That’s the equivalent of more than 60 million people landing by boat in New York City or 28 million in Los Angeles. Another 400,000 refugees found their way into Greece along other routes, bringing the total number of refugees descending upon Greece in less than a year to one million, or nearly ten percent of Greece’s population, virtually all hoping to make it to northern Europe.

If ever a crisis called for a united EU response this was it.  Instead, the EU did little more than confirm Greece as its de facto primary refugee filter trap, holding pen, relocation center, hotspot, or whatever other euphemism one wishes to use for concentration camp.

When governments cannot get their acts together, profiteers take advantage. In this instance, refugee trafficking became a multi-billion-euro industry in Turkey. The smugglers, their sex- and labor-trafficking colleagues, ancillary businesses, and, of course, their protectors, all became very rich.

It struck me as sheer madness to blindly adhere to practices that engendered anger, resentment, and distrust across generations of souls soon to be part of Western society.  For no matter what Western governments might wish, refugees would continue coming, risking death if necessary, as long as they faced worse horrors in their homelands.

As an author writing on the edge of societal change, I knew this was a story I had to tell. But how?

My answer came when a photograph of a three-year-old child found drowned on an Aegean beach galvanized world attention and sent governments scurrying to act.

Stalin was right.

I had to put a human face to the moneymakers, traffickers, terrorized families, activists, islanders, politicians, press, and cops caught up in the refugee catastrophe that had become a tipping point for society.

In telling their stories, my characters hit upon a plan for addressing Lesvos’ crisis.  Use ferryboats outfitted with medical, social, and immigration services to process refugees picked up on shores now ruled by traffickers. Address their claims with dignity and respect, and deliver to welcome centers those granted entry for the next step in their journey.  For those denied entry, set them ashore in safe harbors outside the EU. All for a cost far less than the existing jumble of governmental policies and programs in shambles.

The idea appealed to some in government, but it never came to pass. I guess I shouldn’t be that disappointed, because the character advocating it in my book had his head chopped off.  I, on the other hand, got to see my book, An Aegean April, selected as one of the best books of 2018.

The continuing crisis gets little attention these days, but not much has changed other than the numbers and sophistication of its profiteers.  Turkey still uses the release of refugees as pawns in its disputes with Greece and the EU, and Lesvos’ notorious Moria Refugee Camp currently houses six times its capacity in what’s described as “the moral failure of Europe” by journalists, “hell” by its inhabitants, and a “battleground” by islanders desperate to see their island return to what it once was.

We’ll see if the West is ready for what’s coming in 2020.

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