Salman Rushdie: We must look at the root causes of the refugee crisis

The World

Salman Rushdie described his new novel, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, as a “portrait of a world gone wrong,” where the “old rules don’t work anymore.” That description could also aptly apply to the refugee crisis currently unfolding in the Middle East — a topic the novelist addressed during an interview in which he implored people to look at the root causes of the crisis, and questioned why some Arab states aren’t doing more to help Syrian refugees.

“We see it as a flood of people heading in our direction, and I think what we don’t pay attention to is why they are doing it. Really, nobody wants to be a refugee. They’re always driven to do it,” he said.

For Rushdie, the underlying cause isn’t a collection of individual issues, like the spread of ISIS or the failures of governments in Libya, Afghanistan or Eritrea, but is instead a systematic breakdown of states across the Middle East and Africa.

“You have nonfunctioning states reduced to warring gangs, all of which are extraordinarily brutal. And ordinary human beings [are] caught in the crossfire, and that’s why they are running,” he says.

Rushdie supports the Obama administration’s recent decision to increase the number or refugees the US will receive each year to 100,000 by 2017, up from the current limit of 70,000. However, be believes the Gulf States, which haven't accepted refugees from the current crises, should do more. And he thinks the UN should pressure them to change their policy.

“I think everybody has a responsibility, it’s a human being responsibility. I do worry and feel annoyed that the states closest to the refugees culturally, the ones where Arabic is spoken and where people are Muslim, and where it would be easiest to fit in — those are the states that are doing nothing,” he said. “Saudi Arabia: zero. The Gulf States: zero. It seems to me that there was a real failure there. ... I mean the General Assembly is meeting now. It would be quite reasonable for the United Nations to put pressure on those states which share a language and culture along with the refugees to do a lot more in the way of receiving them.”

Ultimately, he thinks that the current discussion about refugees focuses too much on their immediate plight and not enough on solving the issues that caused them to flee in the first place, like the civil war in Syria or the despotic regime in Eritrea. Refugees, he suggests, are caught between brutal forces at home, and “unscrupulous individuals offering to transport them in vessels that are clearly unseaworthy and unfit for transportation.”

"These are people at the mercy of a lot of things,” he added. "A lot of cynical people and a lot of brutal people.”