I’m not a lawyer, but it seems to me that good, just laws, when they exist, are easy to follow, far easier than the convoluted moral gymnastics people have to go through who want to subvert or disobey them. This is at least true in immigration and refugee law, where actually there is a dearth of just and fair laws. Refugee protections – for those (un)fortunate enough to be included in the protected groups – are clear and unambiguous. I’m not saying the work needed to implement these laws is always easy or cheap – although the argument can be made that it’s cheaper than the infrastructure needed to violate them, which is what we’re seeing now. But the rules are clear and if the moral and political will is there to implement them, we know what needs to be done to save lives, provide food and medical care, shelter, even education.
We have to remember that when European governments say they can’t afford such a large refugee influx, that’s a moral and economic choice, not a reflection of any empirical reality. After all we know that some 85% of Syrian refugees are staying in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. In Lebanon, one out of four people is a refugee. And as Human Rights Watch has pointed out, Turkey has 3 million refugees among a population of 75 million, while the rest of Europe (which is far more affluent and developed in terms of infrastructure) is contending with just 1.3 million refugees out of a total population of 550 million. So if Europe “can’t afford” this, the logical follow-up question is how Jordan or Lebanon or even Turkey can.
People are going to migrate to where they feel safe, where their families are, where they can get to, and where they can build a future, which usually means someplace where there are economic prospects. We know this and can choose to be prepared, and in the case of refugees, we know that there is moral and legal imperative to do this. Or we can choose to ignore the law, and then have to come up with convoluted ways to ignore our responsibilities by not providing adequate shelter, clothing, medical care, legal assistance (which would actually help people become less dependent sooner) – all of which is happening in Greece at the moment. Of course, opening the illegally-closed Macedonian border would solve that problem, but the European leaders are choosing to take the route of not obeying the law, and so that block is causing a ripple effect of human suffering all the way down the line with no solution in sight because when you scramble to sneak around the law, it’s hard to come up with viable solutions for unworkable and illegal policies.
The Pope in his historic visit to Lesbos yesterday saw this with great clarity. His decision to visit, and even more, to bring 12 Syrian refugees back with him to the Vatican, is the height of simplicity and elegance (in the aesthetic sense of the term), the challenges of providing for refugees’ individual needs notwithstanding. You see people genuinely in need because of unprecedented crisis and you call on your human qualities to help them as best you can. It’s that much easier because you are operating within the law, not going against the grain.
With that in mind, it’s that much more mind-boggling to examine some of the convoluted moral logic that countries have resorted to in order to skirt the law, or simply to make it that much more difficult for refugees to exercise their human rights. I’m sure we could run an entire competition around the most outrageous mistreatment of refugees, but here are a couple of leading contenders.
Under Australia’s revived “Pacific Solution,” refugees and asylum-seekers are not allowed to enter Australia but are transferred to off-shore asylum processing centers and detention camps in Papua New Guinea and the world’s least-inhabited nation, Nauru, an island one-third the size of Manhattan about 2500 km from Australia. This week, a court fined an Iranian refugee on Nauru for a failed suicide attempt, when authorities wanted to move him and his daughter from one camp on the island to another. Prosecutors actually sought jail time as a deterrent. The logic of criminalizing suicide attempts has never made sense to me, given that this only makes would-be suicides even more miserable. But the idea of punishing a detained (illegally detained, I might add, since Australia is moving asylum-seekers to third countries over which they have no legal jurisdiction, only economic coercion) refugee from a widely recognized oppressive government seems to typify the kind of twisted logic we see all too often: Refugee flees oppressive regime, only to go to Australia which responds by sending said refugee to a concentration camp on remote islands in extremely poor nearby nations, where the impoverished local natives don’t want them anyway; then tries to kill himself, only to be rescued by the government and then additionally punished for this offense. Is this in any way productive or helpful towards finding a solution for this refugee and his daughter? It doesn’t represent any kind of justice, because it does nothing to advance the interest of the refugee himself or even move the case forward in any productive way. It is a reflection of how miserable the system is that, in a real life Catch-22, is so traumatic that it drives people to want to kill themselves rather than return to their homeland, and then punishes them for trying to escape their illegal detention by exercising their basic right over their own lives. Where is the harm in allowing this man to exercise his basic human right to ask for asylum? Ah, but if we do that, it might be an incentive for thousands of others to risk their lives at sea in the hopes of exercising their own human rights.
Then there is the example from the U.S. of whether children have the right of legal counsel in an asylum hearing. Many people don’t know, but in the U.S., while you have the right to legal counsel in immigration court, you don’t have the guarantee that at least nominally the government will provide someone as they do in criminal court. So just under two-thirds of those in immigration court are appearing there without any legal counsel whatsoever, which makes them eight times more likely to lose their case. And even where you would think that the claimants are in the most vulnerable state – which is to say, childhood – they are not only unlikely to find counsel, but they may even be told they don’t need it. Now it comes out that some immigration judges, including one who works for the Justice Department, have argued that 3- and 4-year-olds can be competent to represent themselves in immigration court. Again, the convoluted logic here is that rather than recognize the special needs and limitations of children (though the U.S. has yet to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child), it is in fact much more viable argument that children as young as pre-schoolers have the intellectual capacity to understand a legal proceeding. This even brings the age of competence to a lower point than courts have decided minors can be charged as adults for crimes like murder, because they don’t understand the consequences. Yet they can handle immigration law.
The overall point is, these are small choices with enormous social consequences. We can easily make the moral decision that all people, and especially children, have the right to legal counsel, just as we can choose that asylum-seekers don’t have to be detained, or detained in countries with no asylum protection or history of immigration courts. We can choose to let refugees live in dignified settings, with hygiene and nutrition and shelter from the cold and rain and mud. They are, in fact, the easier choices, because they require no elaborate framework of rationalization, no invocation of counterfactual logic or denial of not only empirical reality but common sense.
And of course all this is based on another simple choice, a decision humanity is going to have to get over: regarding refugees as burdens, not as people with potential to add to their new societies. The times in history when this has been acknowledged are very rare. Perhaps most notable and well-known was the admission – sometimes over internal opposition – of refugees from the Nazis and the displaced who survived them. I’ve been meaning to calculate the exact number of refugees to the U.S. that have gone on to win Nobel Prizes, but the number is staggering. When we invest in refugees, as with everyone, we acknowledge their potential to contribute to humanity, and indeed educating immigrants and putting them to work has been one of the great success stories of the U.S. in the 20th century. I was thinking about this while listening to this story on The Moth last week, a survivor’s moving story from the Second World War, with the coda that, with safety in the U.S. and the opportunity to pursue an education, he ended up not being a drain on society but a Nobel Prize-winning chemist and professor at Cornell University.
Not that every refugee child is going to win the Nobel Prize. But why not regard them as young people with real potential to add to their new countries in immeasurable ways? There are many ways to contribute and shape your new world in ways that benefit others. It makes far more sense for them to be resettled in affluent countries with well-developed educational resources than to keep the economic burden on poorer nations where they have even less hope of a comfortable and educated life.
Ironically, even a 4-yar-old child would know that poor people who have lost everything and are in danger have a better chance of survival and long-term prosperity in a country with more resources, less poverty, and less political violence. And we teach kids early on in school that it’s good to share. So why do we as adults have such a hard time putting that lesson into practice when it matters the most?