Global crisis we’re forgetting about: 71m displaced by war, unrest
The world faces a humanitarian crisis of historic proportions – and one that doesn’t involve the coronavirus. Over the last decade, global displacement of people from their homes due to war or political instability has grown from about 44 million to more than 71 million, which the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says far surpasses the estimated 60 million people displaced by World War II.
Much of that sudden growth is the result of the horrific Syrian civil war, which has sent 6.7 million people – roughly the population of Washington State – fleeing their homes, many of them squatting in the neighboring nations of Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. And that doesn’t include most of the 800,000 people who fled Idlib Province in recent months as Turkish and Syrian forces waged war in northern Syria.
But it is not just Syria. Millions of people have also fled violence and instability in northern and sub-Saharan Africa, including 2.3 million people uprooted in civil-war-torn South Sudan alone. Afghanistan, where the US has been mired in war for a generation, accounts for another 2.7 million displaced people.
Anti-Muslim policies in Buddhist-dominated Myanmar have uprooted more than one million Rohingya, mostly from Rakhine state, many of them now living in squalor in neighboring Bangladesh. Corruption, economic hardship (propelled in part by climate change) and deadly gang activity in Central America have sent hundreds of thousands of people fleeing. The economic meltdown and political crisis in Venezuela dating back to Hugo Chavez’s rise to power in 1999 has similarly pushed an estimated four million people out of the country.
Such massive displacements create not only humanitarian problems, but also political ones. The uprooting of people around the Mediterranean has put particular stress on Turkey, which hosts some 4.1 million refugees; Germany, with about one million refugees; and Italy and Greece, which serve as points of first arrival for most of the flow of humanity. Nationalism fanned in part by the refugee displacements has propelled far-right political movements in Hungary, Austria, Italy and elsewhere in Europe. US President Donald Trump tapped into fear of immigrants to win the presidency four years ago, and is banking on the issue to help his reelection bid in November.
So what’s the answer to this crisis, which has gone on for so long it has become accepted as part of the global backdrop? More countries accepting more refugees for permanent resettlement is necessary, including the US, where the Trump administration has essentially shut the door to most refugees. Robust funding of relief efforts is crucial, but difficult. The UN refugee office estimates it needs about $8.6 billion a year to address the crisis but receives only about half of that in donations, primarily from the US, the European Union and about a dozen individual countries and private and institutional donors.
But stabilizing at-risk countries and regions to keep people from fleeing in the first place is crucial. Bolder and stronger international leadership to mediate peace agreements in conflict areas would help. In Central America it has long been recognized that a more robust and inclusive economy, a clampdown on corruption, effective criminal-justice systems and responsive democratic institutions would go a long way toward alleviating many of the push factors.
But those problems and their solutions have been known for years, and despite sporadic efforts by the US and other regional governments, results have been mixed, according to a November report by the Congressional Research Service.
Unfortunately, these crises are only going to get worse, according to experts – driven by climate change that is making parts of the world too hot for human life, exacerbating droughts, changing where crops can be grown and intensifying floods and storms. The world has tried to craft plans to address global warming, including the 2015 Paris Agreement, but the best efforts have turned out to be woefully insufficient, a problem worsened by President Trump’s dangerous decision to withdraw the US, and his adoption of policies aimed at increasing the production and use of fossil fuels.
The refugee crisis is one we’re inflicting upon ourselves, with wars, destabilizing regional power politics, racism, religious intolerance and xenophobia, and our collective failure so far to marshal the necessary resources to save the global environment from the human activities that cause climate change. We have no one but ourselves to blame – and yet only we can solve the problems. We’d best get at it, and quickly, before the human condition worsens.
This is a Los Angeles Times editorial.
Don’t speak my language? We’re not the same
By Arathy Puthillam*
Most of us have faced some form of discrimination in our daily lives. One obvious example is racism. How we treat members of our own race and how we treat those of others is perhaps one of the most studied constructs in social psychology. But racism is not the only form of bias – ask someone who is an immigrant, or those who are homeless.
Most of the research on these phenomena come from the US and other predominantly Caucasian countries. This may be why racial biases are the most well understood. But is the way we treat someone of a different race similar to the way we treat those who are homeless? To truly understand how discrimination and intergroup relations work, we need to study it in different contexts.
Racism may not even be in the picture for many people across the globe. Take the example of India, a culture so diverse that group divisions occur in a multitude of ways – such as on the basis of language, religion, and caste, to name a few. Every state in India speaks a different language, and cultures and dialects differ even within miles of each other. People belong to many different religions, and even sub-groups within these religions. Even food choices and taboos drastically vary, sometimes even within the same towns. But race is a non-issue for the average Indian. Does this mean that discrimination also doesn’t exist in India?
To investigate the basis of group belonging and discrimination in India, we distributed an online survey, asking Indians a few questions about themselves and about the various groups they identified with, based on literature and popular discourse. Some such groups included education levels, religion, socioeconomic status, etc.
Then, we asked them questions about the degree to which they would identify with others in the same group and the extent to which they want to avoid associations with others not in the same group. For instance, one of the social groups can be formed based on religion. Participants were first asked which religion they identified with, if at all. Then, they were asked to rate the extent to which they would agree or disagree with a number of statements, such as most of my friends are of the same religion as me and I do not wish to associate with those who do not follow the same religion as me.
What we found was pretty surprising. People cared most about their linguistic identity. This meant that if I spoke English, I was most comfortable with others who also spoke English fluently. On the other hand, if you spoke, say, French, I might automatically consider you as “different.”
In more direct terms, Indians were likely to feel the most solidarity with those who spoke the same language as them, and tended to exclude people who did not. This was made more apparent when we looked at a previous survey from India where we found that nearly all couples in an exclusive, romantic relationship conversed in the same language, and this was an important factor in their relationship.
This means that as Indians, we define ourselves in terms of the language we are most comfortable with. In other words, “English-speaking” or “Hindi-speaking” is more of an identity for us than, say “vegetarian” or “non-vegetarian.” Why is this important? Try to define yourself in ten words. At least a couple of these words might be markers of your social identity. For example, we might introduce ourselves using words like “mother,” “Christian,” “liberal,” or “Indian.” Labels like these also help us communicate our roles in society to others.
Imagine the damage excluding and othering those who cannot communicate with us can do! We might do subtle things like befriending only those who speak in our own tongue, to then gossip in that language about others who are physically present, but don’t understand us. At a macro level, we may even behave in more ignominious manners, even if subconsciously, such as creating borders and policies around linguistic majorities.
Language is part of a rich social history in India. However, it is never taught in isolation, but in the context of culture. For example, most Indians study at least three to four languages at school, plus whatever additional language we may speak at home. How we were taught these languages perhaps shaped our relationships with them. For example, English was often taught in the context of Victorian novels and plays, and Hindi through ostensibly Indian protagonists and practices. Moreover, our various cultural experiences are also related to a shared language – only those who are reasonably fluent in a particular language can follow its music, literature, TV shows, and movies consistently.
This was a simple exercise that shed light on how different human experiences could be outside of the monolith of ‘weird psychology.’ American-centric scientific knowledge, thus, reduces much of the complexities of human nature, as is clear from this exercise. It is perhaps time to acknowledge this, and move the science along.
* Arathy Puthillam is a research
psychologist at Monk Prayogshala,
India. Her research focuses on social, moral, and political psychology. This article was first published in Psychology Today.
Behavioral scientists form new front in battle against coronavirus
As epidemiologists work round the clock to calculate the mortality rate of COVID-19, its ease of transmission and other vital statistics, a different group of experts are interrogating the role that human psychology could play in the unfolding pandemic.
The UK government’s new measures, its experts said, took into account these behavioral factors, such as the potential for “fatigue” – the idea that public adherence to quarantines might wane over time, the Guardian reported.
The implied logic was that asking less of the public this week could buy greater compliance down the line, when it is most crucial. Factors such as the potential for loneliness and stress in isolation were also considered.
Professor Susan Michie, director of the Centre for Behaviour Change at University College London and a member of the government’s advisory group, the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behavioural Science, said these assumptions are in part based on observations of human behavior during past pandemics.
The body of research included a rapid review published in the Lancet last month on the psychological impact of quarantine, which found that self-isolation can lead to post-traumatic stress, anxiety, depression and public anger.
Indefinite quarantines with no well-defined end point – such as those imposed in Wuhan – risk having the most negative side-effects, the paper suggested, recommending that quarantines be restricted to the shortest time period possible and that the public be given a clear rationale for such measures.
Other influential research includes a paper by the Economic and Social Research Institute in Dublin on how to harness behavioral science to fight the coronavirus. It found that extending isolation periods beyond initial suggestions risked demoralizing people and increasing noncompliance.
“Thus clarity and certainty about timelines are both important,” the paper concluded.
The term “fatigue” conjures up middle-class sacrifices, such as feeling cooped up at home and being unable to visit friends or shops. But for some there are harsher realities that make compliance with extensive social distancing measures – like those employed in Italy – more difficult. So providing community-level practical support, as well as getting people to buy into public health advice, is crucial.
“There are so many communities at the margins in terms of finance, who might not have enough food, whose homes are cold. I really haven’t heard enough detailed plans about that yet,” said Michie.
According to Michie, governments often use what is termed the COM-B model of behavior change, which states that in order to arrive at a particular, desired behavior, people need to have the requisite capability, opportunity and motivation (COM).
“Unless you can tick all three of those, the behavior is not going to happen,” she said.
The three essential ingredients can also be interlinked, she said. “People will accept losing things and making sacrifices if there’s equity. People need sick pay at a decent rate from day one, otherwise the inequalities could get greater and we want them to be reduced so people feel we’re all in this together.”
To gauge public opinion in the current pandemic, Michie said, the UK Department of Health had conducted weekly surveys looking at attitudes and awareness, with input from behavioral and psychological scientists. “That’s feeding into the government [decisions],” she said. “From the surveys, some people are worried, but some people are not that worried and are not changing their behavior. There’s a real mixture out there.”
Against a backdrop of public ambivalence, expecting people to recede into prolonged quarantines might prove ineffective. “The more concerned you are, the more likely you are to adhere to it,” Michie said. “If a big bunch of the population is not that concerned and you’re asking people to sacrifice quite a lot, it won’t be as effective if those two things are well-matched.”
The government may also be factoring in spontaneous changes in behavior, such as businesses allowing people to work from home, which have not required government intervention.
“We’re having change instigated at lots of different levels of society,” said Michie. “That’s great, because we’ll move as a whole. If you have a very top-down approach, you can build up resentment and lose people.”
Michie said that while she was aware of some psychological evidence that is likely to have informed government decisions, she, and others, would like greater transparency about the evidence base.
“It would be really helpful if they explained why we’re not going further down the road of cancelling big events and so on,” she said. “We do know that transparency is really important for trust. And trust is really important for adherence.”
Fox News, the American TV network, has been accused of downplaying the threat of the coronavirus while at the same time taking measures to protect its own staff, the Guardian reported.