Saturday, May 16, 2015

When the World Cares Too Little about Its Man-made Humanitarian Crises

A series of quakes that jolted Nepal and caused massive damages across the country has led to widespread attention to the South Asian country in the recent months.  This is backed by rapidly spread of photographs from the quake zone, showing extensive destruction and difficulties in rebuilding.  Organizations, both official and private from across the world, have been quick to provide the necessary aid to the country.  The author, who has enjoyed his travels to Nepal not that long ago, doubtlessly have his own share of sympathies for tourism-dependent country.

However, while the world has been fixating on the indeed urgent requirements for helping the Nepalis get back on their feet, one issue not geographically too far away has very much been dormant on the detective radar of global media outlets for quite some time.  And finally, with a spat of recent governmental decisions and reporting regarding them has the issue reignited public attention and debate.  The issue here is that of Muslim Rohingya fleeing from Myanmar.  Interestingly enough, the author first came across this piece of (old) news while traveling across Bangladesh.

The local news in Bangladesh spoke of the Rohingya fleeing overland into Bangladeshi territories, and upon arrival, often decide to move onto third countries due to lack of local means for work and livelihood.  Together with their Bangladeshi brethren, they then become illegal economic migrants, getting on rickety boats to sail across the Bay of Bengal, first to Thailand, and then beyond to Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia.  Given the long journey and the cramped conditions of ill-maintained boats, the dangers associated with such ventures need no further elaboration.

The news are now exploding due to the Malaysian and Indonesian governments' decisions to not take up these migrants arriving by boat, leaving most to suffer and likely die on the treacherous waters of the Indian Ocean.  Slowly, media attention is renewing on the multifaceted nature of the issue, including that of Myanmar's historical refusal to recognize Rohingyas as citizens, the downtrodden conditions of Rohingya refugee camps in Thailand and Bangladesh, and now, potentially the double standards with which Indonesia and Malaysia practice their "Muslim solidarity."

The lack of sustained media interest in the "boat people" issue can be attributed to several factors.  First is that the issue is a fundamentally prolonged and not easily resolved one, affecting economies decades in and decades out to the point that people are already desensitized by them.  After all, the world constantly hear of African economic migrants to Europe, Indonesians heading off to Australia, and Cubans boating over to the US.  With few exceptions, they are poor, illegal, transported by boat, and exploited in the process.  Commonality makes the situation not newsworthy.

Second, as mentioned, this is not an easily resolved issue.  Compare the "boat people" case with that of the Nepal earthquake.  The earthquake is clear cut: the purpose is to help rebuild what is damaged by evil Mother Nature.  Framing a non-human actor for a crime that can easily be reversed by acts of international charity sounds too much like a heroic story with a happy ending for people to not get excited about.  And because everyone can partially participate in this story as active protagonists (i.e. by donating financial resources or physical labor for rebuilding), people care more.

On the contrary, for economic migrants, the source of the problem is often simply too complex and politically sensitive for the media to present in straightforward, layman terms.  The victims are clear, but the antagonists are not.  The criminals can be as low as the snake-heads who overcharge risk-taking hopefuls for dangerous journeys across the sea, but can be as high as the political elites of underdeveloped countries who monopolize economic resources as well as those with the power to mitigate the situation but do not choose to do so.

Especially this last point is just too uncomfortable for the common people in the First World reading about the topic.  Perhaps they themselves, by not caring enough about the "boat people" and not doing enough to get others around them to care, are accomplices in a crime leading to massive humanitarian disasters.  No one wants to be a villain, so when presented with a man-made crisis of the Rohingya scale, they have no choice but to either make excuses of their own ignorance, or worse, continue to intentionally remain ignorant.  It is that deliberate choice of not knowing that makes the plight of these victims of man-made disasters unknown to a wider world. 

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