A humanitarian crisis

This column will take a break from the national preoccupation with internecine politics to focus on the humanitarian crisis of refugees confronting Europe. Driven from the brutality of war from their homes in Syria and Iraq, these refugees numbering in the hundreds of thousands are streaming into Europe by sea and by land.

It started with perilous sea crossings into Italy by Africans to escape from grinding poverty and the atrocities of Boko Haram marauders. In Nigeria, where the government is helpless, 200 young girls of school age were kidnapped from villages, raped and then sold in the slave market by Boko Haram. It’s hard to believe but slave markets still exist in some parts of Africa where women are sold like cattle.

In the Middle East, Sunnis and Shiites are fleeing from the extremist Islamist State militants who have captured a wide swath of Syria and Iraq where they imposed their radical interpretation of Islam. The refugees brave barbed wires and border guards to make it into Eastern European countries like Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary. There is no assurance of safety even if they make it across the border. Seventy people being smuggled inside a delivery truck died from lack of air en route to Germany. The truck, abandoned by human traffickers, was found on the highway near the Austrian-German border.

In Hungary, refugees are camped at Budapest’s main train station of Keleti where thousands desperately try to board trains for Germany but are not allowed to leave without visas by Hungarian authorities. The refugees who already bought tickets are protesting why Hungary won’t board them even after Germany announced it was willing to take in 800,000 asylum seekers. Austria, another EU country, is an alternate destination. Vienna is only two hours and 50 minutes by train from Budapest.

Hungary, which has very strict immigration laws, found itself swamped with refugees who slipped in from neighboring Serbia and Macedonia. The conservative Fidesz  government of Viktor Orban is wary that taking in immigrants would destabilize and dilute Hungary’s fragile population of 10 million and its already strained social services. Not even during the Balkan Wars of the 90s have Hungarians seen the sight of so many migrants in the capital of Budapest.

As a former Philippine ambassador to Hungary, I can tell you Hungarians are very concerned over the influx of migrants  who threaten their way of life. Majority of Hungarians are Catholics and a testament to this faith are the many magnificent cathedrals in Budapest like St. Stephens and St Matthias. Hungarians have seen how the religious divide in Bosnia-Herzogovina, Macedonia, Kosovo and Croatia resulted in the Balkan War of ethnic cleansing started by Serbia. Another concern is that the Hungarian language Magyar, which only Hungarians know how to speak, will be subjected to a Babel of other voices like Arabic and Swahili. This is something Hungarians would find hard to accept.

There is a sense of hopelessness among the refugees and recrimination the United Nations is not doing enough to address the humanitarian crisis spawned by ISIS. The US is hitting at the extremist group with air strikes and drones but has not put boots on the ground. US allies in the region like Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states don’t seem to be pulling enough weight in doing their part.. Turkey, a frontline state, is fighting ISIS along its border with Iraq. But as a whole, there is no concerted action by the UN to organize a coalition force to fight ISIS on the ground. 

ISIS is able to sustain its combat capability because of revenues extracted from the oil fields it has seized in Iraq. It has taken over one third of this country. The oil is sold cheap in the black market which partly explains why crude oil prices have been tumbling.

Presidential candidate Donald Trump who’s leading the polls in the Republican Party preference may have simplified the solution to stopping ISIS. Invade Iraq again and take back the oil fields from ISIS, he said in his campaign sorties. Some may think Trump a buffoon but what he says has found traction with many conservative Americans who felt Barack Obama may have pulled out US troops too soon and left a power vacuum in Iraq for ISIS to exploit.

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