by John Pringle

Dire words abound: “Global forced displacement hits record high”[1] and “We are currently witnessing the largest and most rapid escalation ever in the number of people being forced from their homes”.[2] The number of people in flight has grown steadily over the last four years to the point that there are more than 65 million people forcibly displaced from their homes, a level not seen since the Second World War.

Numbers say a lot, but they don’t tell us everything. They don’t tell us about traumatic journeys, about the anguish of taking impossible risks and navigating complex networks of saviors and swindlers.[3] They say nothing of the despair endured by the internally displaced whose needs get overlooked.[4]

As a teen, I was highly influenced by the writings of the moral philosopher Peter Singer. His book “Animal Liberation” was unlike anything I had read. [5] Singer validated my decision to adopt a vegetarian diet against much societal pressure. His writings also helped me to frame my understanding of the gross imbalances of wealth in the world and to view disparity as other than natural or inevitable.

Famously, Singer devised the thought experiment of a drowning child: [6]

On your way to work, you pass a small pond. … You are surprised to see a child splashing about in the pond. As you get closer, you see that it is a very young child, just a toddler, who is flailing about, unable to stay upright …. If you don’t wade in and pull him out, he seems likely to drown. Wading in is easy and safe, but you will ruin the new shoes you bought only a few days ago, and get your suit wet and muddy. What should you do?

Obviously a decent person would wade in and save the child. Singer uses the thought experiment of the drowning child to argue that those of us in affluent countries have an ethical duty to help distant strangers as we do to help those in close proximity: that distance (geographic or affective) does not justify deadly neglect. So then what of the estimated 5.9 million children who will die before reaching age five as a result of diseases that are readily and affordably prevented and treated?[7] Although Singer’s thought experiment is problematic and subject to critique,[8] it is influential and compelling.

Its parallel with the Global Migration Crisis is stark. Singer’s drowning child has drowned, is drowning.

 

Image generated by Robert Sharp using Waterlogue, after a photographs by Nilufer Demir.   http://www.robertsharp.co.uk/2015/09/05/photo-aylan-kurdi/photo-04-09-2015-22-46-39/

 

In April 2015, the humanitarian organization Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) took the unprecedented step of launching search, rescue and medical aid operations in the Mediterranean Sea. Its aid workers quickly discovered that more was required than pulling people from the water. An MSF nurse put it best, “Their bodies tell us about the horrible things they’ve been through.”[9]

As with so many crises of humanity, humanitarian and other civil society organizations are wading in where governments refuse to tread. The humanitarian response to the Global Migration Crisis is an act of defiance and solidarity. It involves care for victims of rape and psychosocial support for survivors of detention, torture, sexual exploitation and human trafficking. While these are noble efforts, they are increasingly thwarted by official indifference, obstruction, and outright belligerence on the part of governments and anti-immigration forces.

It seems we live in an age of moral austerity.

To make sense of moral austerity, it helps to look to the social, economic and political forces that shape the realm of the possible. The prevailing dominant ideology in our social and economic lives is neoliberalism.[10] The neoliberal paradigm situates us in an era of economic austerity in the wake of the global financial crisis (of its own making). Economic austerity requires moral austerity as our governments impose deep cuts that affect the most vulnerable members of our societies while channelling trillions of our public dollars to private banks and corporations.[11] The system of imposing regressive policies on the heels of destabilizing shocks is aptly described as disaster capitalism.[12] It is a neoliberal logic that sees first to the wants of banks and corporations. Corporate hegemony doesn’t demand our compassion as it does our life savings, and thankfully morality is not finite. So instead, let’s direct our compassion to Singer’s drowning child.

On the basis of Singer’s thought experiment, this is my simple argument for providing succor to the victims of the Global Migration Crisis, for rescuing people in immediate distress, for providing medical and psychosocial care, for opening up safe routes to sanctuary, for allowing people to cross borders with or without travel documents, and for resettling people who require it.[13]

To be clear, the solution to the Global Migration Crisis will be neither medical nor charitable. We must not disassociate the crisis from broader injustices that are forcing displacement, including war and political violence, the bombing of schools, hospitals and civilians with impunity, climate crisis and ecological collapse from ruthless resource extraction and agribusiness, and what political theorists call accumulation by dispossession.[14] We can expect to see more and more drowning children in an ever expanding pond. But by exercising our compassion, supporting humanitarian and other civil society organizations, and holding our governments accountable, there may be hope yet for Singer’s drowning child and for us.

John Pringle can be reached at johndpringle@gmail.com.

You can find an additional commentary at John’s Huffington Post page: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/the-worlds-your-detention-center-as-humanity-wrings_us_5919b5dee4b02d6199b2f168

_________________________

[1] http://www.unhcr.org/afr/news/latest/2016/6/5763b65a4/global-forced-displacement-hits-record-high.html Accessed 29 May 2017.

[2] http://newirin.irinnews.org/global-refugee-crisis/. Accessed 29 May 2017.

[3] Peter Tinti & Tuesday Reitano (2016). Migrant, Refugee, Smuggler, Savior. Hurst Publishers: London.

[4] http://www.internal-displacement.org/global-report/grid2017/. Accessed 29 May 2017.

[5] Peter Singer (1975). Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for Our Treatment of Animals. Random House: NY.

[6] Peter Singer (1972). Famine, Affluence and Morality. Philosophy and Public Affairs, 1(3): 229-243. See also:

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/11/books/chapters/chapter-life-you-could-save.html. Accessed 29 May 2017.

[7] UNICEF (2016). The State of the Word’s Children 2016: A fair chance for every child. United Nations Children’s Fund: https://www.unicef.org/publications/files/UNICEF_SOWC_2016.pdf. Accessed 31 May 2017.

[8] See for example: Scott Wiser (2011). Against shallow ponds: an argument against Singer’s approach to global poverty. Journal of Global Ethics, 7(1): http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17449626.2010.548819

[9] http://blogs.msf.org/en/staff/blogs/moving-stories/search-and-rescue-their-bodies-tell-us-about-the-horrible-things-theyve. Accessed 30 May 2017.

[10] David Harvey (2007). A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford University Press

[11] https://www.forbes.com/sites/mikecollins/2015/07/14/the-big-bank-bailout/#4b324d712d83. Accessed 31 May 2017.

[12] Naomi Klein (2007). The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Random House

[13] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/the-worlds-your-detention-center-as-humanity-wrings_us_5919b5dee4b02d6199b2f168. Accessed 31 May 2017.

[14] David Harvey (2004). The ‘new’ imperialism: accumulation by dispossession. Socialist Register 40: 63-87.

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