As I walked along Market Street in San Francisco, past payday loan storefronts and pawnshops and “We Buy Gold” signs, the Dickensian stench of poverty rising from the sidewalk, unkempt people with paper cups and cardboard signs dared me to make eye contact. Whatever sympathy I might have had for one person down on his luck turned quickly to irritation at the legion of mendicants, their ranks swollen by addicts, drunks and scam artists, making me run an urban gauntlet of guilt. We like the objects of our generosity to be grateful, passive and scarce.
But that isn’t how they come these days in a world of massive displacement, where we read daily of thousands of desperate people washing up on a resort beach in Malaysia; of trying to cross the Mediterranean from North Africa crammed onto rickety boats in a diaspora in which more 2,000 people drown every year; of swimming across the Rio Grande at night and then driven across America by “coyotes” in what has become a multi-billion-dollar business dominated by organized crime. For them, our southern border is just one more obstacle to survival.
The United Nations Refugee Agency estimates that the number of displaced people worldwide now exceeds 50 million, a misery index that will overwhelm both national borders and traditional notions of charity. There are many reasons this is so, but the driving factor is war: “Peace is today dangerously in deficit. Humanitarians can help as a palliative, but political solutions are vitally needed.”