On why the Olympic Refugee Team needs to inspire real action
I will confess, at the outset, that I haven’t particularly been following the Olympics. I’m a man whose primary form of exercise consists of walking between my car and the next Indian buffet. I’ve never bought into state-sanctioned celebrations, and swooning over folk who are accomplished at running and jumping is a bit rich for my blood.
The whole thing elicits a fairly resounding ‘meh’ from me.
Readers of a similar disposition will understand just how galling it is, in consequence, to find that the morning news has been brutally cut in favour of wall-to-wall Olympic coverage. Since last week, I’ve spent my mornings rolling my eyes, and harrumphing to my wife about how the real news has been replaced by bloody pole vaulting.
Two Olympic stories, however caught my cynic’s eye.
The first was the presence of the Refugee Olympic Team, composed of displaced athletes, competing under the Olympic flag. This one put a smile on my world-weary face. In a year where there hasn’t been a huge amount of good news, this was a rare glimmer of positivity.
The other was David Katoatau, the Kiribati weightlifter, who danced after competing in his category drew attention to the fact that his nation is in the process of disappearing beneath rising sea levels.
“More broadly, the displaced people of the world who can’t carry their sovereignty with them – the Syrians, Libyans, Iraqis, Eritreans, Afghans and Somalis – still need somewhere safe to stay.”
Now, I’m mad for geography. Particularly the geography of obscure countries. And I realised quickly that I knew sweet FA about Kiribati. Google is, as ever, your friend. Unless you believe in fair corporate taxation, anyway.
Formerly ‘The Gilbert Islands’, the Republic of Kiribati is a low lying chain of atolls home to 100,000 souls. And in the not too distant future, it’s going to be uninhabitable.
There’s some debate on the timeframe within which Kiribati will be swallowed wholesale by the Pacific. The threat is real enough, however, that Kiribati’s government has already started making arrangements for the population to relocate to Australia and New Zealand, as well as buying 5,000 acres of Fiji with the specific intention of settling a portion of the population there.
Kiribati is not the only country facing this kind of dilemma. Other Pacific and Indian Ocean nations, frequently based on low lying islands, will be swallowed as sea levels rise. It’s a horrifying prospect.
“If there’s any lesson to be learnt from Brexit, it’s that the people shat upon by any system are as likely to blame foreigners as they are their own incompetent elites.”
In Kiribati we have a nation – a people – who will, in fairly short order, be rendered homeless. Will they be forced into exile to exist as minorities in the lands of others, held together by powerful collective memories of a lost homeland? Will they be like the nomadic tribes of the Dark Ages, vanishing into larger populations – who now thinks of the Gepids or Cumans? Will they be able to persuade a future Fijian government to give up some sovereignty over those 5,000 acres, allowing ‘The Republic of Kiribati’ to continue, sovereign or devolved? Will the Fijians resident in and around those 5,000 acres be happy for the Kiribatian people to relocate there?
While there are precedents in our murky past (see above), the idea of a sovereign nation ceasing to exist as a physical entity is fascinating and horrifying at the same time. There have been plenty of border changes across the world over the course of the 20th century, and plenty of displacement, but it’s been a long time since a people has had to move wholesale – presumably taking their institutions with them. The only (clumsy) parallel I can think of in a modern international context is the Knights of St John, kicked out of Malta by Napoleon but still accorded ‘observer’ status by the UN. But that’s a religious order – it isn’t an actual nation.
If there’s any lesson to be learnt from Brexit, it’s that the people shat upon by any system are as likely to blame foreigners as they are their own incompetent elites. Nations can absorb a certain number of incomers, and Scotland has traditionally been lucky in this regard. But the scale of global displacement is such that we’re talking about 65 million people. People who, not unreasonably, maybe don’t want to throw off their own customs to join host societies which, by turns, tolerate or resent them.
“Would it really be an affront to Great Power Pride to part with a wee spit of that land to give the people of Kiribati a viable territory to call their own?”
The people of Kiribati will, at some point in the 21st century, find themselves joining these unhappy statistics. If they cannot carry their sovereignty with them, future Kiribatian athletes may find themselves competing under the Refugee Olympic Team flag.
The nations of the first world really could make a difference here. How many islands, atolls, and barely inhabited archipelagos do Britain, France and the USA still administer as leftovers of empire? Would it really be an affront to Great Power Pride to part with a wee spit of that land to give the people of Kiribati a viable territory to call their own? Surely the international community could club together a few quid to make it possible?
More broadly, the displaced people of the world who can’t carry their sovereignty with them – the Syrians, Libyans, Iraqis, Eritreans, Afghans and Somalis – still need somewhere safe to stay. There’s a crying need for territories – anywhere – which welcome the proverbial tired, hungry masses without condition. The migrant societies of the New World have long since closed their doors, and the old, established nations of Europe cannot absorb newcomers on a scale sufficient to be of practical assistance. Allowing the burden to fall disproportionately on other developing nations is clearly unfair and unsustainable.
“Formerly ‘The Gilbert Islands’, the Republic of Kiribati is a low lying chain of atolls home to 100,000 souls. And in the not too distant future, it’s going to be uninhabitable.”
The international community has to get creative in addressing the problem. This is precisely the sort of thing the United Nations exists to deal with, and it’s about time it stepped up to the plate. Designated UN safe zones, adequately funded by the international community, where refugees can pursue their livelihoods in security would be a good start.
This wouldn’t be a new idea – Hong Kong and Singapore were established as migrant cities, as was New York in an earlier age. All that’s needed is the will, and the money, to make it happen.
I congratulate David Katoatau on his gold, and wish the good people of Kiribati the very best in their search for a new home. I also hope also that the international community, as a collective, takes inspiration from the presence of the Refugee Olympic Team – united under an international aegis and able to play a full part in the games.
The sun’s coming up, and I’ve rambled quite enough. I’m off to see if I can catch some actual news that isn’t about the damned Olympics.