White Man’s Burden

Recently, Australia attempted to have refugees resettled in Cambodia instead of within its own borders.  Millions of dollars later (presumably paid into the hands of deserving officials) a grand total of four refugees have arrived.

Australia’s ongoing attempts to turn its illegal immigration/refugee problem into a broader, regional issue have attracted howls of fury from human rights activists.  Australians should not abrogate their responsibilities.  Their neighbors, it would seem, bear no such responsibilities.  East Asian countries are perfectly happy for all the asylum seekers to end up in Australia and join its underclass instead of theirs.

Why shouldn’t Cambodia take on some of the refugees?  Because they’re too poor, of course.  What about Indonesia, where the asylum seekers stay on route?  Too poor, and they are already dealing with millions of internal refugees.  This makes it sound like they’ve generously taken on the care of vast crowds of desperate people when in reality most have escaped problems of the government’s own creation, or which the government has failed in its duty to solve.  And what exactly is the Indonesian government doing to help them now?  Hmm.

kuala lumpur

Kuala Lumpur: Refugees not welcome. Go to racist white countries instead.

Malaysia?  Ah, now we’re on to a middle-income country.  They can surely take on a few refugees from distant lands.  The Afghans and Iraqis would be more at home in a Muslim-majority country anyway.  Wouldn’t they?  No, they’d much rather live among the wealthier infidels to the south.

For the record, these are the countries that willingly take on large numbers of refugees: the United States, Canada, the countries of Western Europe, Australia and New Zealand.

These are the countries that do not: all the rest.  Sure, human rights activists will argue that a few of the countries in this large group host more refugees than anyone else.  Such countries include Turkey and Kenya.  However, these are immigrants who have simply surged across borders in a chaotic tide.  Again, good on these poor countries for not killing the refugees, which is apparently what they are being lauded for, but they do not voluntarily take on refugees through the UNHCR program.

I’m looking at the ‘do take’ countries, trying to find something that they have in common.  Ummm . . . they are rich?  Nope, Japan, South Korea, Israel and the UAE aren’t on the list.  (Edit: Korea takes a tiny number).    Ahhh . . . they are stable, safe countries?  The Chinese Communist Party would claim the country under its benevolent domination is both of those things but they aren’t resettling huge crowds of foreigners.  If the Syrians started pouring into China they’d be lucky to escape with their organs intact.


Beijing: needs more diversity.

So what is it that those countries have in common?  Oh, I know.  It’s because they are simply better than other countries, more moral and advanced.  Or at least, they think they are.  This is the modern White Man’s Burden.

The original Burden was to bring Christianity and civilization to the barbarous peoples of the world.  Today, it is a more harmless but similarly racist view that only white people (and the minorities within their societies) are capable of solving the world’s problems.  We can’t expect the same of Cambodia because it is poor.  We can’t expect the same of Japan because it . . . here, human rights activists try to find a way of saying that the Japanese are too racist without actually saying it.  Malaysia is too . . . well, they’re not even white.  Why would they try to solve the world’s problems?  As colored people, they are the ones needing rescuing, not the other way around.

Hiding their racism, proponent of the White Man’s Burden will claim that actually, white people are the underlying cause of all these problems in the first place.  Let us count the ways.

Tribal conflict and poverty in Africa: Colonialism artificially created tribes in an effort to divide and conquer.  The legacy of slavery also pitted African against African.  Decolonization led to artificial, arbitrary national borders (should the retreating European powers instead have instated a system of ethnic nationalism?).  The newly independent states were, because of the colonial era, resource economies with railroads that led straight to the sea for export to the old Center.  There were few internal roads or railways to facilitate inter-African trade and fifty years of independence is not nearly enough time to have built them.

Trouble in the Middle East: those Colonial borders again.  Apparently Iraq should have been split into its Shiite and Sunni regions right from the start, although such religious nationalism is only good for colored people, not for the more modern West.  Except Israel.  Apart from the dodgy borders, there was oil imperialism and Neo-Con trigger happiness preventing a modern Arab culture from flowering in the bountiful desert.


Riyadh: Muslim refugees not welcome.

And what about those countries that are not so troubled that they produce refugees, but are not so economically or culturally developed that they may resettle them?  Well, they’re poor because of colonialism and Cold War conflict.  If they are no longer poor?  They are still culturally backwards because of colonialism.  And if they weren’t colonies . . . well, maybe they picked up white, racist attitudes or something.  Western media, cultural imperialism and all that.

Plenty of the excuses above are legitimate.  But all of them?  In a rapidly rebalancing world, this version of the White Man’s Burden is looking less and less plausible.  China is the world’s second largest economy.  Singapore and Saudi Arabia are very wealthy.  Many poor countries, formerly troubled by war or held back by Communism, are growing rapidly.  Cambodia and Vietnam, whose primary export was once refugees, are now booming.  In twenty years the whole economic balance of the world will have tilted significantly East.

Many refugees are poorly educated due to the kinds of countries they come from.  It is difficult for them to arrive in a developed, post-industrial country and economically assimilate.  In other words, goat-herding and typewriter maintenance skills are not in high demand in Denmark.  Such people might find it much easier to adapt to a less developed country, like Cambodia, where there are plenty of factory jobs with rapidly increasing wages.  They might also feel more comfortable in a family-focused, traditional host culture more similar to their own.

In putting on the mantle of the White Man’s Burden, Westerners essentially say to the rest of the world: “You are not good enough to care for refugees.  Nor, for that matter, do you have the intelligence nor agency to bear any responsibility for any of your own problems.  It all came from us, and can only fixed by us.”  A less racist message would be, “Oi, Cambodia!  Pull your socks up and start pulling your weight.”  But of course if you said that, you’d be denounced.


Read next: Denunciation

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