The sheer scale of the migrant/refugee problem unfolding in Europe is mind-boggling. I deliberately used migrant/refugee. The BBC feels obliged to explain why it is using migrant as a term I quote:
A note on terminology: The BBC uses the term migrant to refer to all people on the move who have yet to complete the legal process of claiming asylum. This group includes people fleeing war-torn countries such as Syria, who are likely to be granted refugee status, as well as people who are seeking jobs and better lives, who governments are likely to rule are economic migrants.Meantime, Al Jazeera has decided to stop using the term migrant and instead use refugee: Why Al Jazeera will not say Mediterranean 'migrants'. To quote: "The word migrant has become a largely inaccurate umbrella term for this complex story."
Here in Australia, Prime Minister Abbott has been quite wrong-footed. Instead of recognising the complexity of the European problem, his instinctive reaction was to restate the stop the boats mantra. This time, his own side has broken away. Again I quote:
It was Craig Laundy, one of Abbott's own MPs, who articulated the public response to those harrowing images of a dead toddler washed up on a Turkish beach in a single phrase: "Can we please do more?"
Laundy's emphatic view is that the Australian response should extend above and beyond the existing refugee intake. It is shared by many others in the Coalition, including New South Wales Premier Mike Baird.
More importantly, it resonates with the broader community reaction to the largest forced movement of people since World War II.Mr Abbott is moving, being dragged, I guess, but he was too locked in to his domestic rhetoric to be able to respond in a compassionate way. Even now, he is emphasizing that an extra refugee intake must fit within existing quotas.We control our own borders, he says.This resonates with some, but is increasingly being seen as a limited blinkered response.
The human tragedy unfolding in Europe, Africa and the Middle East is significant. However, to my mind the bigger tragedy lies in the progressive erosion of trust in existing institutions. In the Middle East, there are increasing responses on social media pointing, rightly, to the failure of Gulf States in particular to do anything to assist the refugee crisis. In Europe, national and EU institutions have been placed under great strain, accentuating already existing divisions within and between countries. In Australia, there has been a progressive diminution of trust in the national government.
I am not being a bleeding heart liberal when I say this, although my own views are reasonably clear. One can ignore the constant social media stream from those opposed to the Government's position on refugees, terrorism, citizenship and the borders, although it does have an erosive effect. Of more importance are the increasing doubts and concerns held by those who are traditional Liberal Party supporters. I cannot give you hard evidence here, I am basing my view just on those I talk too.
Things tend to balance over time. As an optimist, I feel that the EU institutions will, finally, emerge stronger, while the current position of the Australian Government will come to be seen as an unfortunate aberration. For the moment, however, the loss of trust is quite palpable.
I think that one of the lessons to be drawn from the current turmoil is the limits of power.As a traditional liberal, it is a tad humiliating too conclude that the world would be a better place if Colonel Gaddalfi or Saddam Hussein had remained in power, if the Arab Spring had not occurred, if the Ukrainians had been more subtle in managing Russia. The West's reliance on air power as a weapon of choice has severe limitations. You can destroy, but you can't build.
In the end, the West is not prepared to put boots on the ground. It would be easier if the West did not suffer from an imperial angst dating back to the break-up of colonialism. Then the gun boats could go in, withdrawing if the calculus of power dictated otherwise. Now we have to just oh-so polite. We talk the talk, but can no longer walk the walk.
I am not arguing for ground troop military intervention in Syria. I am saying that we need a realistic assessment on the limits of power. Australia should not commit war planes within Syria because there is no military gain that I can see. Better to spend the money on dealing with the collateral damage from decisions already taken.