I woke up this morning, at 0630 mind you, to the radio news of BBC World Service which included a short item about Amnesty International warning of a “humanitarian crisis” in Greece because of the situation of the refugees there.
“Not again,” I thought, wondering in the back of my mind who decides what is newsworthy about a situation which is anything but new. Yet the point I wish to make today is neither about Greece, nor about refugees. It is a more general point about the terms “humanitarian crisis” and “humanitarian emergency”. After reading this article, you will probably notice that you stumble across these terms every day. This week it is Greece, Syria and Mali. Next week it will be somewhere else.
NGOs and the media love the term “humanitarian crisis”. I hate it. These diametrically opposed reactions are based on the same cause: it is vagueness par excellence and doesn’t explain anything. NGOs love the term because it sounds fancy, dramatic and urgent. It helps them to collect donations.Experience has shown that far more donations flow if people believe a “crisis” was unavoidable, caused by nature (or by a god, for those who believe in it). Man-made complex crises don’t attract as many donations as a flood. The media love the term because most of them are too lazy or incompetent to dig deeper.
“Humanitarian crisis” sounds like something that just happened. On Wednesday everything had been hunky-dory, and then on Thursday morning suddenly the crisis struck. Out of the blue. Like a thunderstorm on an otherwise beautiful summer evening.
But that’s not the the truth in most cases. The world is a far more complex place. Humanitarian crises have causes, many of them man-made. To ignore this complexity belittles reality and displays a lack of genuine interest in solving or at least mitigating a crisis.
Let’s stay with today’s example. The refugees were not suddenly dumped in Greece overnight. They have been coming there for years and for several reasons. Greece is the closest EU member state to the land way from Asia and Africa. It is the logical first EU country to enter for refugees from Syria, Ira and other countries in Africa and Asia who wander through Turkey. In Syria the government massacres the population and nobody from outside of Syria is willing to stop it. Iranians are fleeing the dismal human rights situation in Iran. Refugees don’t want to stay in Turkey because of the way they are treated there. Their treatment in Greece is not better. In fact, there are regular and open displays of xenophobia and racism in Greece, often resulting in anti-immigrant violence. But due to the Dublin II agreement, Greece has to keep the refugees even though these would much rather continue their journey to Austria, Germany or Sweden. The situation is not helped at all by the dire economic and financial situation in Greece. And so on, and so on. Granted, the full press release by Amnesty International mentioned many of these points, but putting all of these under the headline “looming humanitarian crisis” ensured that the news just picked up these three catchphrases.
The real situation is rather complex, isn’t it? You can see why no newsreader will venture into these depths. Half of the audience would be asleep before the end of the second sentence. Most NGOs don’t have that interest either. Who would donate money for a crisis that has at least 10 underlying causes and seems beyond solution?
Both humanitarian NGOs and media outlets seem to have agreed to stay as far away from politics as possible. It’s like the simplified version of news for children. I am too old for this dumbing down. I am too curious and investigative to be satisfied with a buzzword like “humanitarian crisis”. Let’s call mistreatment of refugees what it is. Let’s call racism what it is. Let’s call an uneven distribution of refugees within the EU by its name. Let’s call a genocide, mass murder and mass rape what they are. And let us say who is responsible.
Rony Brauman of Médecins sans Frontières wrote that he feared that both humanitarians and the media would choose to describe even the Holocaust as a “humanitarian crisis” if it were to take place today. I am afraid many would indeed, for fear of using words like genocide and mass murder and for fear of having to attribute responsibility, let alone suggesting a way to stop the killing.
Loved this post!
Moreso here in the States, “humanitarian crisis” has been vastly overused. Every prolonged revolution during the Arab Spring has been a “humanitarian crisis”. Really? Super Storm “Sandy” is a “humanitarian crisis”? Why not just a “natural disaster”? (My opinion? Any US politician is scared to DEATH to call anything a “natural disaster” after Bush’s experience with Hurricane Katrina.)
Oh, and we have a major winter storm front coming through. The Weather Channel has decided to name it “to bring more public attention to the threat”. 16 states of the lower 48 have already gone under some form of storm alert. We need “more attention”? Whatsa matter, your TV don’t get the friggin’ Weather Channel? (They’ve decided to call the storm “Draco”. A snow/ice/cold weather storm named Draco. Unless you’re into D&D and like “frost dragons”, this is proof there are smart asses at the Weather Channel!)
Draco was a guy in an old James Bond film: http://www.jamesbondwiki.com/page/Marc+Ange+Draco
Draco – wasn’t he the guy in Moonraker? Ooo – wait – he was the baddy in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”! One of the, if not THE, most under-rated Bond movies. Liked George Lazenby, loved Dianna Rigg!
(And now I’m realising you put that link in for ME to look at. Um … sorry? ;) )
I don’t think anyone would want to discuss the underlying parameters for who gets attention and money. There are the thresholds of death counts and photo availability, economic interests, and a matter of which chic path the political oxen are staggering about on, to find whose stage and bull fight, ‘dog and pony show,’ a matter of who is more weighty worthy in words of sweet self-congratulatory sorrow and in caring good intentions that await a plan, a pen, a sword, awaiting the Emperor’s clothes with gore and story.
Very interesting perspective, Andreas. I have to admit, I’d never examined the term “humanitarian crises” before. As you wrote, I’m sure now I’ll find myself stumbling upon its use daily. I’ll approach it with a more critical eye after reading this…
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