Category Archives: Human rights

Doing a Better Job

This is an expanded version of a letter to the editor I sent to The New York Times back in July which they didn’t print, so it’s fair game for a blog post. It has to do with a linguistic turn of events which we in the Global North – that is, countries with net inflows of immigrants – have come to think of as normative. That has to do with the value judgment implicit in the notion of what constitutes a “better” job of immigration enforcement, indeed, and by extension, in the question of provision of human services to immigrants, and especially to refugees. Under international law, as I have pointed out in this blog in the past, refugees are a special class of immigrants, and they are not to be penalized by national laws for exercising their human right to seek asylum in other countries, even if that means crossing borders without inspection or even valid documents. The logic behind this, as developed in the first Geneva Convention on Refugees, is that in a chaotic situation of war and violence, or the sudden threat of death or persecution from the state, it’s not just to expect people to have the time to obtain legal passports from their own governments (which may be unwilling to let them leave), exit visas from those countries that require them of their nationals, or entry visas from other governments (who may want to restrict entry for a variety of reasons).

But what has happened in the misnamed “European refugee crisis” of 2014-to-now (misnamed both because the refugees are not Europeans, and because Europe is only seeing 15% of the refugees from Syria, while the vast majority of Syrians and Afghans are still in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iran, and Pakistan), is that enforcement, not protection, has become the standard by which governments measure success – and the press, who come from the same countries and the same class bias with fears of having to share their resources, have followed suit.

Here’s what I wrote to the Times:

In their article, “Austria’s Far Right Presents the E.U. With a New Test at the Polls” (July 1), Alison Smale and James Kanter observe thatCentral and Eastern European nations are demanding that the European Union do a better job of dealing with migration.” This is actually not the case. Under international law, namely the Geneva Convention and Protocol, “a better job” would be upholding the right of refugees to make claims of asylum in signatory countries. A more accurate statement would have been, “Central and Eastern European nations are demanding that the European Union do a better job of flouting the rule of law.”  The United Nations as well as every major human rights NGO have been quite clear that the EU, and particularly Central and Eastern European countries, have been illegally preventing migrants from exercising their legal rights, as well as providing the kind of humanitarian protection afforded to refugees throughout the world. What your reporters are calling “a better job” is actually code for greater enforcement and curtailment of migrants’ rights, which is what the governments of Austria, Hungary, Poland, Macedonia, and others are advocating. “A better job” would also require greater humanitarian conditions all along their route, as well as greater legal representation for asylum-seekers in Greece and other frontline EU states so that bona fide refugees can be recognized as quickly as possible. The EU, but even more, those very Central and Eastern European nations themselves, have been the ones responsible for not doing a better job according to the laws and treaties they themselves pledged to uphold when it pertained to European refugees. It would be great for New York Times reporters to actually report on the context of existing international law, rather than accept as “better” the flagrant violations of law these governments espouse.

Since I wrote that, I’ve become more aware of the rhetoric of complicity. A more egregious example comes from Greece, especially in light of the recent confirmation that the Greek Coast Guard has fired on refugee boats coming from Turkey. The German government was reported to have complained that Greece needs to do a better job of enforcement, in order to stem the flow of refugees eventually ending up in Greece. (Setting aside the gauntlet that refugees already have to run just trying to get from Greece through the former Yugoslavian countries and/or Hungary, and Austria, each of which have choked off border crossings or tried to influence other countries further down the chain to do the same.)

But what is so easy to overlook, given the clarity of international law and its proscriptions against blocking refugees from exercising their rights, is that what Germany is asking Greece to do is to violate international law more thoroughly and effectively. Germany is not saying “you need to provide a greater level of humanitarian service,” but instead is saying, “you need to violate established international law against innocent civilians more effectively so we won’t have to recognize (or subsidize) their rights when they get here.” In the most simple terms, “doing a better job” now means, in this upside-down world (to use Eduardo Galeano’s phrase) committing greater and more effective state-sponsored illegal activity.

That is to say, this is completely contrary not only to humanitarian standards of justice and ethical behavior, but to law that has been affirmed and recognized by every European country for the past sixty years. I cannot recall a time when the press and popular discourse accepted and encouraged the idea that government should do a better job at committing illegal activities.

In the U.S., the explicitness of this position has reached absurd levels under the proposals of candidate Trump, acknowledging that he is not just talking about refugees. Still, his idea that the U.S. needs to “create a deportation force” ignores the existence of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which was created under the Homeland Security Act as a separate entity from the former Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), which was divided into three agencies in 2003. I’m still waiting to hear anyone from the press pointing this out to him and asking him what about “the deportation force” we already have. (This has even been echoed by Governor Christie of New Jersey who certainly knows better given his known awareness of the increase in immigration detainees in county jails in New Jersey.) Trump’s claims that we need to deport people who are in the U.S. illegally, especially criminals, overlooks the fact that this has already been going on for years, and even at an accelerated rate under President Obama, under whom deportations have increased 25% over the George W. Bush administration. Trump of course cannot admit that, from his perspective, the Obama Administration has been “doing a better job” at what he wants than the Bush Administration.

The idea that any deportation can be done “humanely” is absurd on its face as well. Since by definition deportation is the forced removal of someone from a country, that has to be done against the wishes of the defendant, as well as, in most cases, that person’s family. It usually involves at the very least a court order, police (or ICE) capture or arrest, physical removal to a jail or detention center, and putting someone on a plane (which, actually, several German pilots have been refusing to honor). It also has to involve in the U.S. “due process of law” under the 14th Amendment, though only 37% of those coming before immigration judges have benefit of counsel (to which they are entitled, but not guaranteed, under the law – a subtle distinction most Americans are unaware of), and far fewer among those already detained and facing deportation. I am not arguing here that all deportation is wrong – that’s a separate discussion – only that the idea of more deportations is only “better” depending on where you stand, and that the question of “humaneness” in deportation (which also usually involves splitting families or forcing them in the name of staying unified to leave the country of whom some are legal nationals) is a nonsensical argument in a world in which bona fide refugees are denied due process and legal counsel, held in jails and detention centers (including mothers and their infant children), housed in concentration camps, shot at, and prevented from exercising their human right to seek asylum.

The “better job” we need to do is the very antithesis of what the governments of the world – whether persecutors or would-be protectors – are trying to do. It is up to an independent press to point that out, especially those whose beat it is to cover law and human rights, rather than adopt the value-drenched rhetoric of the wealthiest and most privileged nations who show their willingness to enforce walls rather than, ironically, their own laws, treaties, and constitutions. It’s the press that needs to do a better job, not accepting governmental self-interest, while governments need to do a better job of protecting the most vulnerable as they are instructed to do under the United Nations and the Conventions on the protection of refugees.

Two very interesting endnotes to this.  First, the Australian government has just announced it is closing the refugee detention center on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea.  Meanwhile, the Italian Coast Guard has just been involved in rescuing some 6,500 migrants crossing the Mediterranean. Following through on these promises of hope is essential.

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Filed under Greece, Human rights, international law, Militarism, Policy, Syrians, Turkey, U.S.

A Place in the World

Their number is now 65.3 million, according to the UNHCR report released on Monday. That’s a 10% increase in one year, and the highest number ever recorded. Every minute, 24 people are displaced around the world. More than half are children. They include refugees, asylum-seekers awaiting decisions, and people displaced within their own countries. Half of the world’s refugees come from Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia, although as I have noted before, according to the EU which is doing everything it can to keep refugees out, Afghans can now only be considered economic migrants, purely for reasons of expediency. The U.N. says something quite different (as does every NGO). In the world population, 1 in 113 people is currently displaced. Among people displaced within their own borders, even though 6.6 million of them are from Syria, that country only comes in second place, behind Colombia which still has an astonishing 6.9 million internally displaced. Despite what one might think listening to the world news, only 14% are in wealthy countries, with 86% in low- and moderate-income countries. Lebanon has the highest refugee percentage of the population: nearly 1 in 5, while Turkey has the largest absolute number with 2.5 million, followed by Pakistan at 1.6 million, Lebanon at 1.1 million, then Iran at nearly a million. A footnote in the U.N. report tells us this does not even include 1.5 to 2 million undocumented Afghans in Iran, and another million in Pakistan. (That means the 65.3 million figure is undercounts Afghans by 2.5-3 million that the U.N. knows of.) In fact, there are more refugees in Pakistan or Iran than in all of Europe. Germany does not even crack the top ten, though Germany did receive around 442,000 asylum applications in 2015 alone.

And none of these numbers, by the way, include climate migrants. Not yet, anyway.

Just over one million arrived in Europe by sea, while 3,771 people are known to have drowned in the attempt in 2015.

And in other news, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) has stopped accepting donations from European governments to protest their hypocritical actions. Also the EU-Turkey deal is already showing signs of collapse, given that a Greek court ruled Turkey is not a safe third country, not all asylum applicants in Greece are getting representation – but more on this in a later post.

The more I read about the worldwide refugee crisis, and especially its impact on Europe, the more certain I become that while the circumstances that force people to flee make a safe life impossible for them in their homelands, the response about how to handle their arrival is a matter of moral choices. We know these are choices that can in many cases be reversed, that accommodations can be made, and that the peoples of the world could band together to solve these problems, if only the will and the generosity were there. How do I know this? Because history has shown us that even at times of far worse crises – namely the Second World War – people did what they could especially when there was no risk to their own safety and security. Iran and Syria, for example, welcomed Polish and other European refugees at that time, and the Western European countries, when they wanted to, welcomed Hungarian an other Eastern European refugees during the Cold War. There were some 60 million displaced people after the Second World War. And similarly, despite great numbers, and poverty, the Greeks welcomed a million ethnic Greek refugees back from Turkey after 1922 and the Treaty of Lausanne, when it was a far significantly higher percentage of the population. Greece’s population was 5.5 million at the time (it is just under 11 million now) and they experienced a net gain of nearly 700,000 in eight years (many ethnic Turks left at the same time). This was a 12% increase in the population. But they made the choice that it was ok, because of the ethnic, linguistic, and religious ties with the refugees.

The equivalent today would be an increase of 1.3 million refugees – which is closer to the number in all of Europe, not just in Greece. So these protestations today that Europe can’t handle this influx have no basis in truth, if history is any guide – and Europe is a lot wealthier and more adaptable than Greece was in the 1920s. And look again at those hosting numbers coming out of Lebanon, Iran, and Pakistan that I cited in the opening paragraph. But sixty years ago, almost all the refugees mentioned above were white, Europeans. We must not overlook the fact that the original Geneva Convention on refugees, in 1951, only pertained to European refugees even though it was a globally ratified U.N. document. Refugees from other parts of the world weren’t even included until 1967.

I have just learned that in Lebanon – where there really is a crisis (around one million Syrians, and that’s not counting the Palestinians who are already there), and nearly one in five people is a refugee, the response has been very different. With public and private funding from Europe, there are now increasing numbers of “double-shift” schools, so that refugee children can be educated along with citizen Lebanese, according to this article by former British PM Gordon Brown. Not only that, but Syrian refugee teachers can be employed to teach in the classrooms. Whose choice this is – whether it was the Lebanese government, the U.N., or the E.U. – can be analyzed later, but what this shows is that with determination, the problem of dehumanization can be addressed even in countries that are not wealthy. And it’s not that radical an idea, if even a moderate Labour politician like Mr. Brown can get behind it with such enthusiasm. (It was Brown whose biggest campaign gaffe, ironically, was referring to a constituent, when he thought his mic was off, as “a bigoted woman” because she had confronted him about her fears of increasing Eastern European immigration to England.)

Which raises the question: if this can be done in Lebanon (and with Jordan and, the article suggests, Turkey to follow), why is it such a hardship to do the same in Germany or the Netherlands or Norway? Not that they are not educating children, but they are dealing with significantly smaller numbers distributed among a much larger population and geographic area, and far more economic resources to work with. Granted, part of the appeal for Europe in such a local education program is that is makes it less likely for people to travel to Europe, which for many Europeans is their primary objective. Then again, if refugees can live a safe and decent life in a neighboring country, where they don’t have to learn a new language and way of life, and don’t have to risk their lives or lose everything they have in a perilous journey, no one can have any objection as long as they are not being warehoused and the local population isn’t being impoverished by the situation (a problem that has been solved elsewhere when the will of the international community was there). Obviously the chief goal is to prevent the kinds of crises that produce refugees and to reach peace settlements so people can return home – peacemaking is something that several commentators have pointed out governments show little interest in these days – but short of that, if local humane spaces can exist for people to flee to, where they not only are safe but won’t be living in stagnation as their lives waste away, then they shouldn’t have to flee so far to survive. Even if you are safe, but you can’t provide for your family and young people can’t get an education – for themselves but also to benefit the rebuilding of their country – you can’t blame anyone for trying to do what they must to find the opportunities they need. With no opportunity to transcend the confines of a refugee camp, it becomes a prison.

For the host countries, if anything, the problem is one of culture and psychology: the tendency of many people towards xenophobia – and some towards outright racism – coupled with real (but in this case irrational and often unwarranted) fears of economic loss. That and, as I have written previously the lack of will on the part of Europe’s leaders to educate their people about the undeniable long-term economic benefits of migration and to set a tone that recognizes that even supposedly monocultural states are and have historically been filed with diverse ethnic populations: Roma, Jews, Basques, Celtic minorities, Muslims, Kurds, while states like Switzerland and Belgium have never claimed to be monocultural. But leaders and parties that have done a poor job of promoting and defending what we in the U.S. call “cultural diversity” (flawed as it may be) start from a position of weakness when their nationalistic political opponents do all they can to whip up fear, anxiety, and the easy defaults of distrust, suspicion, and hatred. At the same time, contributing to a culture of fear and reinforcing often false stereotypes is an easy path to power as well.

Some of the latest thinking challenges whether the idea of the camp is the most desirable option. People such as David Miliband, President of the International Rescue Committee, have suggested that a better alternative is to provide adequate living for refugees within a larger urban area, by providing housing, basic needs, and opportunities for work and education. Why keep people encamped if their needs (and more) can be met in a free urban existence? Of course, that does beg the question of how to also address the needs of the locals in the new country, especially if they are poor, including, for example, how to make enough housing available so that refugees don’t end up displacing locals who can’t afford housing. If people already have fears about competition for jobs, which research shows is short-term and limited to certain social classes, anyone who has been living in a tight or gentrifying real estate market is going to know that a large influx of new tenants is going to put pressure on the market (especially if landlords know that rents are being subsidized by the U.N. and NGOs). This new model that breaks down the walls of the refugee camp concept needs a lot of further research but the burden on the local population has to be taken into account, because the place of first refuge is usually not in a wealthy country – in fact, it is usually in a country where residents are already living precarious lives.

Which brings us to a study in contrasts. In May, the Kenyan government has, just like that, very publicly declared they will be closing down their refugee camps in November. Some 600,000 people in Dadaab and Kakuma camps stand to be displaced, the majority from Somalia (and by the way, less than 1% of the world population of refugees and displaced persons). While this appeared at first to be some kind of brinkmanship to force the international community to provide more support for the costs associated with having a population of the size of, roughly, the U.S. city of Baltimore, the official claim is that it’s a response to the security threat posed by the al-Shabab Islamist guerrillas. When the U.N. countered that that will actually further destabilize the security situation by trying to force the people back to Somalia, the Kenyan government has argued it will force the nations of the world to act more rapidly to stabilize Somalia after all these years of civil war. Aside from the fact that, taken on their face, these are two diametrically opposed predicted outcomes, the main questions in practical terms are: 1) How are they going to move 600,000 people who don’t want to be moved? and 2) Where are they going to go – to live and to work? These are not just able-bodied young adults who can move into fully furnished homes with all the means to support themselves. They are older people and many, many children, who have been living in camps for twenty years or more in some cases. It is not as if there are whole empty blocks in Mogadishu that are waiting for the arrival of a healthy and hale population that is returning from vacation. So how this can be “stabilizing” in any social sense – even if it led to a solution of the political conflict – ignores the reality of sheltering and feeding a massive, and displaced, population. There are also unacknowledged ways that Kenya actually benefits, according to this interesting analysis.

Not that this is any worse or impractical than when France decided it was ok to burn down part of “The Jungle,” the squatter community outside of Calais where refugees wait to find a way to get to England. People who have no safe place to go aren’t staying in refugee camps or squatter communities to be thorns in the side of their host countries. They really don’t have alternatives. Now, I have not been to Calais yet myself, so I am only writing about it based on what I have read and some extraordinary photos from a colleague who was just there (whom I will keep nameless for now out of respect for her privacy). What was most striking to defenders of The Jungle was that the residents, no matter how transient and short-term, had established small shops, restaurants, and other businesses. This is common to refugee camps and squatter settlements, more than you might think. I even saw a computer repair shop among the little vegetable stands in a refugee camp in Bangladesh. But why it should be such a threat that it needs to be destroyed or eradicated is, again, a moral choice, not a practical necessity. After all, there has always been development, and if the will is there, local government or national governments (and even NGOs and the UN) could provide the resources to help turn a dirty plot of land with poor drainage and unsafe health conditions (something I have also witnessed in a squatter camp in Greece in 2008) into a makeshift community. Plywood, latrines, solar cookers, electricity, bedding, medical clinics – these are not extraordinary challenges. After all, the major nations have shown repeatedly this can be done in a matter of weeks for invading and occupying armies. So why not for refugees whom we recognize meet the international legal criteria for protection?

At the same time, over fifty thousand refugees remain stranded in Greece, unable to move on because other countries such as Macedonia have closed their borders. Local Greeks have been helping out, not only as volunteers (especially on the island of Lesbos) but also in paid positions, since there can be jobs in humanitarian work. Locals can be hired to do the kind of work necessary in refugee protection and humanitarian relief. Again, there is the money – maybe not in Greece, but from Western Europe, especially if it’s in their interest to keep refugees in Greece – to pay for decent living conditions, especially if they want to keep people in Greece. There is always the pernicious argument to work against, that showing any kindness to refugees (in the form of decent housing, jobs that pay, good living conditions) becomes an incentive for others to come. Aside from the fact that this does not recognize the central fact that refugees don’t have a choice, it also shows up the larger issue of vast economic inequality and the unwillingness to contribute to decent and safe living conditions for people in their countries of origin. That’s a choice of a different kind, but a choice that the wealthy nations make that has human consequences abroad and at home, wherever that may be.

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Filed under Afghans, Europe, Greece, Human rights, Squatter communities, Syrians, Turkey

Little and Enormous Choices

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?

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Filed under Australia, Children, Europe, Human rights, Syrians, Turkey, U.S.

Chaos in Chios, and other places

The downward spiral of implementation of the EU-Turkey refugee accord has already begun, as expected, and it’s only been, what, a little more than a week since it went into effect.  Already flimsy lies are being deployed to prop up the illusion that this is not only legal, but fair.  But the news is getting out, and as more neutral and international organizations are reporting, the failure of the EU to support Greece (or the refugees, of course) with what they need is resulting in violence, misery, and frustration.

Here’s what we already know in the first ten days.  First, what we knew before, which was the great doublespeak declaring Afghan refugees to be economic migrants with at most a declaration by the European powers, none of whose leaders would ever feel safe living in Kabul.  We also know that the promised staff to provide basic needs in Greece as well as adjudication of asylum cases has not arrived in time.  Nearly three hundred Greeks are in place, but of 800 internationals expected to be brought in to help, only 60 have arrived as of March 31st. (Hard to know what the problem is with their travel to Greece, while meanwhile hundreds of refugees daily are risking their lives to arrive in Greece.) There are badly overcrowded detention centers holding 4,000 refugees on the islands of Lesbos, Chios, and Samos (the last of which I visited in 2007), and in the past couple of days there have been violent outbursts in Chios, Samos, and also the port of Piraeus just outside of Athens, where there are almost 6,000 refugees camped out. The Chios uprising began in the detention center and culminated with the mass escape of detainees streaming out of the center. The New York Times also reports that Doctors Without Borders, the International Rescue Committee, and the U.N. High Commission on Refugees have stopped working in detention centers to protest the new agreement.

Some 52,000 refugees are stranded throughout Greece trying to cross borders into the Balkans en route to Western Europe, which is what all this is really about: keeping refugees and immigrants out of a Europe that has always been uncomfortable with perceived outsiders.

We also know that deportations back to Turkey will begin on April 4th, and the Greek parliament, which has a nominally left-wing, pro-refugee government (or so they claimed), voted to allow these deportations to commence.  Of course the Greek government is somewhat over a barrel, because there is always the implicit threat that if they don’t follow the agreement, the wealthier European governments could also see to it that this would jeopardize their bailout and other needed support.

But worse, Amnesty International has just released a report stating that thousands of Syrian refugees in Turkey have been forced back into Syria. Another report this week, from the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights charges that Turkish border police have been shooting Syrian refugees as they cross the border, with 16 deaths documented so far.

Finally, on the Turkish side, the Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, repeated the claim that humanitarians shouldn’t worry because those being returned will be replaced one-for-one with other bona fide Syrian refugees already in Turkey (with preference for some reason given to those who haven’t tried to cross the border on their own already – a refugee version of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, one could say). But this is less than a half-truth, because he omits the fact that there’s a 72,000 person cap on this transfer, so if more than that number of refugees are sent back to Turkey, they won’t be replaced.

Ironically, the President of Turkey Tayyip Erdogan has warned about the rise of Islamophobia in the U.S., when in fact his support of the EU-Turkey deal stokes European Islamophobic fears of fake asylum claims, higher crime, terrorism, and Islamicization of European law and culture, even as the deal will purportedly make it easier for Turks to get visas to Europe.  (We’ll see about that.)

As if it weren’t apparent when signed, this agreement is revealing itself to be not only unworkable, which is bad enough, but based on illegality and lies: illegal mass deportations from Europe to Turkey, illegal deportations from Turkey to Syria, mass denials of legitimate refugee claims without due process, overcrowded detention centers, arbitrary caps on refugee admissibility, lack of adequate legal or humanitarian staffing, violence against refugees, and coercion against sovereign states to force them to change their laws to provide less human rights protection (in itself a stunning reversal of hundreds of years of moving towards greater human rights for all).  This is a policy that was imposed by European leaders unwilling to provide sensible solutions and infrastructure in a time of world crisis, with no input from refugees themselves, and minimal input from international humanitarian organizations, violating international  covenants and laws that, unfortunately, have never had enforcement mechanisms.

It is probably premature to say we are at the beginning of a legal free fall, but the longer the world takes to find a way to put the legal brakes on these abuses, the greater the human catastrophe and the greater the risk of dismantling international standards of refugee protection everywhere.

And deportations begin tomorrow…

 

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Filed under Afghans, Europe, Greece, Human rights, Policy, Syrians, Turkey

The New Europe: Expulsion, Eradication, and Blockade – 2

It’s been a bad week, in a historic kind of way. The greatest refugee crisis since World War II, and Europe decides to scuttle the very agreements designed precisely to protect people in the event of… another refugee crisis like World War II: the 1951 and 1967 Refugee Convention and Protocol.  The cynical EU-Turkey agreement on refugees is the culmination of Europe’s retreat from its own promise of human rights.  As Amnesty International termed it, it was ” a dark day for humanity.”  Human Rights Watch’s own European media director summed it up sarcastically in a tweet, “EU leaders agree to try to abuse human rights more systematically by bribing a rights-abusing neighbour.”

The final EU-Turkey refugee agreement mandates that refugees – those that manage to land in Greece – will receive asylum hearings on the Greek islands, that Syrians and Iraqis in general will be considered refugees and allowed to enter Europe, maybe, but Afghans have been declared economic migrants, those who don’t pass will be returned to Turkey, and (this part is as yet unclear) failed asylum-seekers around Europe will be deported back to Turkey, and for each one deported back, one Syrian refugee in Turkey will be resettled in Europe, up to a ceiling of 72,000 people. All of this is somewhat confusing even to educated observers, since the deal changed in the last days to allow some asylum hearings on the Greek islands rather than in Turkey.  For refugees operating on limited information, it’s very unclear: Can you still go from Turkey to Greece by boat?  Will you be sent back or intercepted by the Turkish Coast Guard before you get there?  Some of the problems are more obvious than others.  For example, given that there are 2.7 million Syrian refugees in Turkey now, the 72,000 resettled (about 3-4 times the number of refugees annually resettled in Europe as it is now, by the way) are going to be a drop in the bucket. (Even assuming a zero population growth, and no new refugees, at that rate it will take 19 years to resettle even half.)  Other known problems are that Turkey is not a safe country and deports people back to Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan in violation of international law, and the Turkish Coast Guard have been filmed dangerously interfering with refugee boats in the Aegean – so we know that innocent people are going to die. (More people are going to try to enter through the Libya-Italy route, which is also far more perilous, or possibly the Black Sea route in Bulgaria.)  Then there’s this fiction of convenience that Afghanistan is now safe, which alone will doom thousands of refugees to forced deportation.

The asylum courts don’t yet exist on the islands, makeshift detention camps are being set up by Greece while volunteers and NGOs are being expelled, nor is there the legal infrastructure in place so that refugees get due process and the ability to present evidence (supposedly Great Britain has offered to help, but since they are now deporting Afghans, we know the Cameron administration’s goal is to send back as many people as possible). Greece had the lowest asylum acceptance rate in Europe during the height of the Afghan refugee influx (ca. 2002-2012), and lawyers’ caseloads were inhuman.  In 2009 there were some 45,000 open asylum cases and 9 lawyers assigned to represent all these claimants. Nor is there adequate housing in Greece.  UNHCR maps posted yesterday show there are some 47,000 known refugees in Greek encampments, and maximum capacity of 34,000.  And, also as I have written before, several European countries have said they are going to deny valid asylum claims because they are imposing a cap on refugee admissions and they want to encourage other European countries to take in their fair share.

The irony that underlies all this is that the European countries wrote the very laws and covenants that created refugee protection as we know it in the first place, after the worst refugee and displacement crisis of the modern era.  The first Convention relating to the Status of Refugees was written after the Second World War, largely by European countries and other early members of the United Nations, for the purpose of protecting European refugees displaced during the war. It is really important to remember the scale of the problem at that time: before and during the War there were some 60 million refugees in Europe, and one million of those – roughly the same number as there are refugees in Europe today – still unsettled as of 1951 when the Convention was written.  The population of Europe was approximately 4/7 of what it is now, meaning the impact of a million people was far greater then.  And, even more, the economy and infrastructure were just recovering from seven years of war, so even the settled population was not as prosperous as today.  Significantly the first refugee Convention only pertained to European refugees.  Protection was not expanded worldwide until the 1967 Protocol.  So in typical fashion, even from the beginning the European governments were looking out only for Europeans, although they always claimed to universalize the notion of human rights.

After two World Wars, Europeans were familiar with refugees from their own continent and had inscribed humanitarian and legal protection into international law so that refugees would be protected in future conflicts. I don’t know if it was actually a lack of foresight – that one day there might be another refugee crisis in Europe that would actually be severe – but one can hope that the sentiment, the aspiration to become our higher selves, was at one time genuine. For some people, even today, no doubt it is. But it does seem kind of pointless that the protections were put in place for the next crisis, but when that crisis finally came, Europe’s current cadre of mediocre bureaucratic leaders would conveniently forget, ignore, and even violate laws that for many people had represented the pinnacle of human rights protection after hundreds of years.

There are other ironies.  For one, you would think that governments, who swear to uphold the law, would hold to their legal agreement even when local people on the ground were not so welcoming. In fact the opposite has taken place. We often (not always) see local people on the ground, even in countries struggling economically like Greece and Italy, doing extraordinary things to help refugees even as their own governments display varying shades of indifference and repression. By all reports, and my own limited experiences on the islands of Kos and Samos, there have been people all over the Greek islands rescuing refugees at sea, providing food and water and other humanitarian assistance at great personal expense.  Conversely, when local people deny help or even hinder refugees, then governments are called to respect and enforce their own laws, providing if not protection then at the very least due process in the legal system.  Even international human rights organizations, and to its credit, the U.N. High Commission on Refugees, have been providing support to refugees even when governments not only fail to live up to their legal and moral obligations but actively obstruct and deny them.  I’m no international lawyer, but what good are laws that are only enforced when the government feels like it or, more accurately in this case, that can be abandoned when they are inconvenient?  They are international laws, after all, not international suggestions.

You wouldn’t know it from the bellyaching on the part of European leaders, especially those who espouse free market and other right-wing economic policies.  Poland’s Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, and Luxembourg’s Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, have both spoken as if this is the only alternative open to a Europe that is under tremendous economic and social strain from the refugee influx.  In fact, the Prime Minister of the Netherlands, Mark Rutte, used exactly those words, saying “There is no alternative” to the agreement.  And – clearly demonstrating that he knows nothing about how and why human migration actually occurs – he added, “We expect that that would stop the crossings within three, four weeks.”  Again, that’s a choice between paying for the infrastructure that enables integration or, the more expensive option, paying for militarization and the infrastructure of enforcement. Yet another inexperienced and mediocre leader, 29-year-old Austrian Minister for Foreign Affairs and Integration Sebastian Kurz, member of a minority right-wing party within the ruling coalition, said Austria now wants to close the sea route to migrants going from Greece to Italy. I guess after getting Macedonia to close its border with Greece, which is nowhere near Austria, landlocked Austria now thinks of itself as a naval power that can block shipping routes in the Mediterranean, or that is has the right to close off sea traffic that has nothing to do with its own national interests.  Global citizens indeed.

From a global perspective, the vast majority of refugees end up staying in poorer countries adjacent to those they are fleeing from.  This fact alone perpetuates economic inequality. Not only is Europe far wealthier than Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon – which together house 85% of the Syrian refugees (in fact Lebanon alone holds more Syrian refugees than all of Europe) – and Iran and Pakistan which hold over two million Afghans, but these supposedly educated leaders ignore the fact (under right-wing, nationalist pressure from within) that migrants add to the local economy, even with the temporary increase in social service spending.  And they also – especially the Eastern Europeans – have incredibly short memories about the numbers of their own citizens who left as economic migrants (or political refugees) and came to America and other countries when they could not sustain themselves economically.  Typical European hypocrisy: refugees and migrants are only worthy of assistance when they are European (unless they are Albanian, Muslim, Roma, or some other despised minority).

So as a starting point for rebuttal, here’s what international law says about the protection of refugees.  It’s not a hidden document, just not one that is well-known or often read outside of legal and humanitarian circles:

Article 31 – Refugees unlawfully in the country of refuge

1. The Contracting States shall not impose penalties, on account of their illegal entry or presence, on refugees who, coming directly from a territory where their life or freedom was threatened in the sense of article 1, enter or are present in their territory without authorization, provided they present themselves without delay to the authorities and show good cause for their illegal entry or presence.

2. The Contracting States shall not apply to the movements of such refugees restrictions other than those which are necessary and such restrictions shall only be applied until their status in the country is regularized or they obtain admission into another country. The Contracting States shall allow such refugees a reasonable period and all the necessary facilities to obtain admission into another country.

Article 32 – Expulsion

1. The Contracting States shall not expel a refugee lawfully in their territory save on grounds of national security or public order.

2. The expulsion of such a refugee shall be only in pursuance of a decision reached in accordance with due process of law. Except where compelling reasons of national security otherwise require, the refugee shall be allowed to submit evidence to clear himself, and to appeal to and be represented for the purpose before competent authority or a person or persons specially designated by the competent authority.

3. The Contracting States shall allow such a refugee a reasonable period within which to seek legal admission into another country. The Contracting States reserve the right to apply during that period such internal measures as they may deem necessary.

Article 33 – Prohibition of expulsion or return (“refoulement”)

1. No Contracting State shall expel or return (“refouler”) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.

And one more article which I will refer back to later, in my next post:

Article 21 – Housing

As regards housing, the Contracting States, in so far as the matter is regulated by laws or regulations or is subject to the control of public authorities, shall accord to refugees lawfully staying in their territory treatment as favourable as possible and, in any event, not less favourable than that accorded to aliens generally in the same circumstances.

There are additional social and legal provisions in the Convention and Protocol but for simplicity’s sake here, let’s just refer to these – this alone will be sufficient to demonstrate that international law is being violated at almost every stop and border crossing along the way.

When the agreement was signed, Tusk tweeted – twice! – that the new agreement is fully compliant with international law.  Maybe he thinks that by asserting it, that makes it so.  (I tweeted back he should read Articles 31-33 again.) These U.N. articles are pretty clear that refugees who arrive and present themselves to the authorities should be free from penalty, allowed to pursue their cases in court, and if they need to should be allowed to make arrangements to move on to another country.  And people are not to be rounded up, nor deported en masse to countries where their lives are in danger, like Syria and Afghanistan, or even to countries like Turkey that cannot guarantee their protection from deportation.  (For a fuller and more detailed analysis by real law professors, see this excellent blog by Steve Peers, or this guest post by Thomas Spijkerboer.)

And, of course, there are alternatives, if Europe was serious about living up to its moral, legal, and humanitarian obligations.  The Council of Europe’s own human rights commissioner, the American-born Latvian Nils Muiznieks, writing in The New York Times, and British writer Charlotte McDonald-Gibson, publishing in Time.com, have both provided excellent alternative scenarios that guarantee the rights of refugees and provide humanitarian relief to those fleeing the world’s most savage conflicts.  Major human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders (MSF), and Oxfam, continue to develop and promote alternatives and ways to take action.  Even the ordinarily cautious U.N. High Commission for Refugees, which has no enforcement authority and which is circumscribed by its dependence on its (funding) member states, has been outspoken that this deal does not have the interests of the refugees themselves at heart – and that really is the top priority, is it not?

This agreement must be denounced because of its abdication of legal, moral, and human responsibility.  But worse, its justification must also be denounced for what it is based on.  It is built on a framework of untruths – that, among other things, this agreement is compliant with international law; Afghanistan is safe; refugees have alternative and safe places to stay outside of Europe; legal due process can and will be established for all claimants; Europe has no alternatives because of its own economic situation; there is adequate and safe housing for refugees; the military and police can provide adequate social services for refugees; smuggling rings can be shut down and when they are refugees will not look for other routes or means of entry; Turkey is both safe and adequately prepared to house, feed, and educate millions of refugees for the foreseeable future; and – we must say it – that none of these decisions are based in the least on bias, prejudice, or racism against non-Europeans.  It would be too facile or speculative to say which of these are deliberate lies, which are delusions, which are ignorance of law, current events, or human behavior, which are bigotry, which are public relations spin, especially because all those who signed off on these agreements were motivated by their own reasons.

The reality of the wars in the Middle East and Africa, the tremendous toll – both personal and economic – on civilians, and the length of the time frame that this is going to be an ongoing crisis must be acknowledged.  We may not like what we find, but only then will we be able to live up to the promise of international law, human rights, empathy for others, and the search for peace that we all claim we would like to see in our lifetimes.

 

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Macedonia’s Illegal Fictions

Just as I expected a few days ago, the government of Macedonia has caved in to Austria’s demands and closed their Greek border to Afghan refugees. In order to do this, they declared that Afghans are “economic migrants” and not refugees, thus unable to apply for asylum.  Now Afghans will effectively be trapped in Greece, or have to find another border to cross – perhaps Bulgaria, Albania, or the old route, getting themselves smuggled under trucks on ferries going to Italy.  Apparently this policy, if you can call it that, went into effect at the border but none of the Afghans knew, so they traveled all the way to the Greek-Macedonian border only to find it not letting any Afghans across.

All this, of course, is less than 25 years since refugees from the former Yugoslavia fanned out across Europe.  I guess they think some wars are wars, when it happens to them, while other wars are just economic disturbances.

A legal fiction, for those who don’t know the term, is something that is considered to be legally true, or that can be deemed true under some legal system, even if not actually, demonstrably, or empirically true.  So for example there’s the legal fiction that the main building on Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty and their visitors are legally in New York, even though all one needs to do is look on the map to see they are, actually, clearly well within New Jersey territorial waters.

So in order to skirt international law, the Macedonian government has just created its own legal fiction, by making its own legal determination, not only absent evidence but ignoring the evidence on the ground, that all Afghans coming to Europe are coming for economic reasons and that the country is a perfectly safe place to live with no persecution on religious, political, or ethnic grounds. In fact, a Macedonian minister interviewed on the BBC said that refugees “fleeing conflict” were being permitted to move on, so it’s not even that they claim all Afghans don’t face persecution, but they are pretending there is no armed conflict in Afghanistan. As the BBC pointed out, 90% of those arriving in Greece come from three countries with active armed conflict: Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

Now, to be fair, various European countries have been deporting asylum-seekers back to Afghanistan for years, especially the U.K., but also Sweden, Norway, Belgium, and others, with the claim that Afghanistan is now safe for them.  And Greece has sent Afghans back to Turkey and from there they have gone back to Afghanistan, under the same way of thinking.  They claim that in these specific cases, the migrants have not established they have a “well-founded fear” of persecution, the legal standard.  And also, to be fair, not all Afghans are fleeing individual persecution, but a combination of violence, conflict, the danger of ethnic and insurgent violence, and an infrastructure and economy that are struggling to rebuild after 35 years of invasion and war, going back to the Soviets. Then again, hundreds of thousands of Cambodian refugees were resettled worldwide back in the 1980s after the Khmer Rouge were driven from power and there was no danger of continued genocide.  So the precedent is there, and the Afghanistan conflict remains much hotter now than Cambodia was then, and there is both Taliban and ISIS activity ongoing.

But the arbitrariness of Macedonia’s declaration, which comes both at the behest of another country, Austria, and which effectively dams up tens of thousands of migrants in Greece, is both a humanitarian and a policy disaster.  Having no legal authority to block refugees under international law, they just create what I am calling an “illegal fiction” and simply declare that Afghans are economic migrants not refugees, as if they know or are even qualified to judge.

One has to wonder where the policy logic is in any of this.  Greece is arguably the least well-equipped developed European country to handle tens of thousands of Afghan migrants over a longterm period, in addition to the hundreds of thousands of Syrians, Iraqis and others arriving at this time.  There is high unemployment and the government can barely afford services to their own people who are still living under austerity plans they rejected, leaders of the anti-immigrant, neo-Nazi party are on trial for coordinated violence while other members still sit in Parliament, and there is neither the space, the money, nor the political will to construct and staff massive concentration camps on the islands or the mainland, even if that were an option anyone could get behind.  The only possible logic can be that this is supposed to be some kind of deterrent that is going to keep refugees from entering Central and Western Europe.  To be more speculative and diabolical, this could also be another way of destabilizing, and hence bringing down, the ruling Greek leftist government (which has also been slow to respond to refugee needs in general).  This is not such a farfetched idea because Greece is being excluded from Austrian-led meetings of ten Eastern/Balkan/Central European countries to develop an immigration policy. There must be some reason why the country receiving the biggest frontline refugee influx would be excluded from policy talks.  And to be even more cynical, the desperate conditions in Greece will only cause more refugees to turn to crime to survive, which will further contribute to negative views people hold about them and about immigrants to Europe in general (as if they already didn’t espouse anti-immigrant sentiment), a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts which will also predictably play further into nativist hands.

In other words, instead of trying to find a response that is moral, humanitarian, and legal as well as practical, this creates a fiction that is convenient for Western European governments and their xenophobic backers, with little or no thought to the outcomes of the ensuing chaos or misery.

More broadly, we are living at a time, perhaps, and not just in Europe, where even democratically elected governments and competing political parties simply make things up when the evidence doesn’t suit their agendas.  Historically, we are used to that from dictatorships and some royalty as well, but I can’t think of a time  at least in the last 40 years, when so many parties and so many governments simply ignored empirical reality when it suited them.  (OK, maybe during justifications for colonial regimes.)  But democracies are supposed to stand for something more transparent; as they say publicly, the best defense against a bad idea is a better argument, especially one that is based on empirical reality rather than one based solely on wishful thinking.

It’s not just a question of a “fact-checking” the way we sometimes see after debates and interviews in the U.S, usually over three or four small points, because that’s all there is time for on the broadcast.  But rather it’s become a matter of bending reality to suit one’s political ambitions.  We have seen this in war reporting, for example, since at least as far back as Vietnam.  So if it’s too inconvenient, costly, or time-consuming to guarantee people can exercise their human rights and their right to speak the truth about what they went through, and if big brother countries like Austria are providing incentives for you to follow their directives, then just change the status of refugees to migrants and you don’t have to worry about any of their rights at all.

Which is to say, if you can’t round them up at sea, or block them between Turkey and Greece with the help of NATO, or you can’t make them just disappear, you do the next best thing and just declare unilaterally: You’re not refugees, you’re economic migrants. Never mind that the government of Macedonia doesn’t have the standing (or the knowledge) to make decisions like this that supersede the United Nations High Commission for Refugees or the Geneva Convenion on Refugees, or even EU regulations on asylum.  This simple declaration forces the refugees to lose a whole bunch of rights and protections that they had been afforded in the first place under international law.

What’s the most efficient way to circumvent international human rights and make it look legal?  This is.  When the truth doesn’t suit your needs, make it up.

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An Open Letter to the Danish Social Democrats

The Honorable Mette Frederiksen

Leader of the Social Democrats

Folketing

Copenhagen

I am writing to record my protest of the new bill passed by the Danish Folketing which permits the seizure of refugees’ remaining assets, while also lengthening the wait period for family reunifications to three years. I am writing to you because, while I wouldn’t expect a more enlightened attitude from the racist, nativist parties in your political spectrum, I am deeply disappointed in the capitulation of the so-called “opposition,” Social Democrats, to the growing wave of hate that is spreading across Europe in response to this humanitarian crisis. Given Denmark’s enlightened history, the role of folk schools in empowering democracy among rural populations (a topic about which I have published a book chapter), and your party’s role in the establishment of one of the world’s most progressive social welfare states, this is a deep betrayal of your party’s stated values.

The bill as I understand it allows the Danish government to seize all but 10,000 Danish Kroner and some items of sentimental value from asylum-seekers and refugees, in order to pay for their care. It is as if you willfully fail to consider that refugees, especially from Syria, but also from Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries, have already lost the bulk of their personal assets, including often their homes and all the money they were forced to pay to smugglers because no legal alternatives for escape exist. They have also lost family members, their land, their friends, their neighborhoods, their careers, their schools, their futures – all of these things that have more than just cash value. They have been traumatized, and they need money for treatment. And in many cases, their families whom they have left behind also need funds to survive, so whether you like it or not, refugees have to work to send cash back to their families; they have no choice.

As we know, those who have no viable alternatives for escape must turn to smugglers to get themselves out of the danger zone, and beyond the danger and precariousness of squalid and overcrowded refugee camps. The smugglers, ever opportunistic, take as much money from the refugees as they can. What you have done with this bill, which in itself may well be a violation of international law under the Geneva Convention and Protocol on refugees, is to legalize extortion on behalf of the Danish Government that is no better than what the smugglers do. What you are effectively telling refugees is – like the smugglers – if you want to come here, you’ve got to be prepared to pay the price, and it doesn’t matter if you’ve already lost almost everything. The Danish Government now claims to need this blood money in order to keep providing human services. I would be ashamed to support any political party that espouses such a ghoulish platform.

From both a mental health standpoint as well as a strictly economic one, the faster unification with a refugee’s family provides mental stability and in fact makes it easier for one or more family members to enter the workforce and begin the road toward self-sufficiency and away from dependence on state support. This is what we have seen time and again in the U.S., because we know that economic integration is the quickest route to independence and, eventually, social integration as well. Worse, by taking away their laptops and mobile phones, you make it more difficult for them to even communicate with their families and achieve any kind of mental and emotional solace by being able to talk with their loved ones, people often still very much in danger and now even less able to join them.

Your bill may be a cynical attempt to discourage refugees from coming to your country when other European countries admittedly are not picking up their share. This of course is one of the great shortcomings of the European Union, that wealthy countries are not willing to share resources even with their poorer European neighbors. But rather than taking on this problem in the spirit of cooperation and humanitarianism, your approach strips refugees of their dignity, further stigmatizes refugees and actually discourages social integration – thus making it more difficult even for those whom you accept. Your policies promote racism among the young, push refugees deeper into poverty, and, in response, indirectly seed religious sectarianism down the road. Unfortunately, your party is complicit in these policies that will tear at the fabric of Danish (and European) society for decades to come, while at the same time making life gratuitously more difficult for those who have already suffered too much.

When a so-called left-leaning political party sanctions bills that are racist and that promote hate at their core, it makes it more socially acceptable for a broader segment of the population to adopt racist attitudes and violent behaviors against those who appear different from them. It teaches an undeniably wrong message to students that erodes the essential human ideal of co-existence. This won’t help you win elections – oh, maybe it will in the short term – but it is a form of selling your soul that will turn the whole country sharply to the right (and will continue the dismantling of your beloved social welfare state). People will be less likely to support you because in fact you show that you stand for nothing, you’ve merely become a self-protective machine that exists to get itself elected. This race to the bottom, to be the country that punishes refugees the most, in turn undermines international law and recognized covenants like the Geneva Conventions that represented the culmination of centuries of enlightenment. In fact, this abandonment of the law brings us ever closer to savagery. Are you proud of that legacy? Is it worth a few thousand kroner to you? How do you feel about the fact that you have been condemned by every international human rights organization, and the U.N., for joining hands and forces with racists? I would be embarrassed at this point to be associated with such an immoral position.

I cannot fail to mention that every economic study of new immigrants and refugees shows that, beyond the hysteria, they are a net gain to national economies. So you can’t even justify your actions on economic grounds. This is purely political cynicism and an attack on humanitarianism.

I fully support the artist Ai Weiwei’s decision to pull his exhibition from Denmark in protest of your inhuman policies. I wish more people shared his principles. Although I am not so important as he, I too intend to boycott any travel to Denmark and will recommend that the academic organizations to which I belong avoid Denmark in our selection of meeting sites. It’s a beautiful country with a rich culture that I was privileged to visit once, but I have no desire to add my spending money to your blood money.

Years ago, when I learned of the Mohammed cartoon incident, I told people to be careful in seeing this as a matter of principle, defending the freedom of the press, when I suspected instead it was intended as an anti-immigrant provocation, an opening salvo in telling immigrants and refugees they were no longer welcome in your pure country. It turns out my suspicion was vindicated. Your people were not interested in freedom of the press and of religion, you just wanted to rid yourself of those different from yourselves, and now you have adopted more desperate measures, even if you had to violate international law to do so.

I hope you can still look deep into your souls and adopt a vision for the future that is more hopeful and that strives to bring humanity together in peace and understanding.

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Australia: “Check the Facts”

The Government of Australia has a new campaign designed to use propaganda to discourage refugees from seeking safe haven in Australia.  The campaign, even more than most propaganda, is the exact opposite of the truth.  “The rules have changed.  Check the facts,” says the campaign, supposedly referring to facts about how difficult it now is to obtain asylum in Australia.  But here are the real facts:

FACT: Australia has a binding legal obligation under international law to accept bona fide refugees.

FACT: All people have a right to apply for asylum, to have due legal process to have their cases decided, and the manner of their arrival cannot be held against them.  (See the Geneva Conventions and Protocol)

FACT: Australia is violating international law, human rights, and agreements they have signed by having their navy intercept and turn around refugee ships at sea.

Irony of ironies, the ad campaign says that human smugglers are lying to the refugees, but it’s the Australian government that is, in fact, lying not only to the refugees but to the world.

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Refugee rights are the canary in the human rights coalmine

I just realized I neglected this blog throughout all of 2013.  What better way to start up again than commenting on this scathing article, “The End of Human Rights” by Stephen Hopgood in The Washington Post.  He argues that the idea of a worldwide, secular human rights regime, that he says began in the 19th century, is now on the decline, as more and more of the world turns to religious conservatism and policies in world powers such as China and Russia put pragmatism and control over secular ideals of civil and political rights.  As disturbing as his thesis is, I think he is basically right.  Europeans were at the heart of what they tried to establish as a worldwide movement for civil and political rights, growing out of the European Holocaust and in response to – which Hopgood doesn’t mention – the strength of the Soviet and Chinese blocs.  The wars of liberation in the colonized countries were also significant, though they were rebellions against the European powers who were denying human rights in places like British India, Dutch Indonesia, and English, French, Belgian, and Portuguese Africa, to name a few. And as a result, in fact, refugee protections under African treaties are greater than in the rest of the world, at least under law.

So on the one hand, there were these regimes, some with the help of intergovernmental agencies like the U.N., some through the work of non-governmental organizations like Human Rights Watch (which started as Helsinki Watch, aimed at pointing out human rights abuses in the Soviet bloc) and Amnesty International, promoting civil and political human rights.  On the other hand, the great and waning European colonial powers and the Americans were actively committing human rights violations on a grand scale in places like South Africa, Rhodesia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Latin America.  And, the question of economic, social, and cultural human rights – the other half of the full human rights spectrum – which was never emphasized in the capitalist West – was skirted as Western European countries, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, and to a much lesser extent the United States, were able to establish the safety net of the welfare state.

Several things happened historically in ways that are more complex than Hopgood is able to outline in just this article. I’m looking forward to reading his book.  First of all, the rise of deregulated and liberalized capitalism rammed through in legislation by Reagan and Thatcher in the early 1980s undermined the notion of economic and social rights in the Western countries.  That domino effect, which we never discuss as such, put a greater strain on the ability of governments to provide for their poorest and most vulnerable.  In a word, economic redistribution moved from the poor to the wealthy at unprecedented levels and the gap between rich and poor is wider now than at any time in world history.  So forget economic and social rights, governments could now say (with voter approval), we can’t afford them, we can’t afford to redistribute riches back down to the poor.  The wealthiest figured out how to write tax laws so that they could consolidate their wealth, and leave the greatest tax burdens on the so-called “middle class,” which then saw itself as having the fiscal responsibility to bail out the poor (which came to include a lot of immigrants and people who no longer looked like Europeans).  So immigrant economic and social rights were the first to go out the window, and that started happening in the secular Western countries like the U.S. and Australia in the mid-1990s.  Both countries decided they could no longer afford the demands of the Geneva Conventions to provide asylum for all the world’s refugees, and that the Conventions required only legalistic protection and not sustenance, so refugees could be held offshore in refugee camps indefinitely as long as their “civil” rights were protected and they weren’t being sent back to persecution under grounds that have been historically narrow – expanding in a few areas (such as gender and sexual orientation based claims), but declining in others (such as ethnicity and political opinion in countries in the midst of widespread violence such as Afghanistan and Colombia). Now thirty years after Reagan we are seeing an emboldened right-wing launching attacks on voting rights in the U.S., actively and explicitly seeking to disenfranchise certain members of our society. Movements like this are bankrolled by the very rich, who are getting their legislators to rewrite campaign and voting laws, and to change the nomination process for judgeships, thus tainting a supposedly disinterested judiciary.

In other words there is a link between human rights and the economic status of civilians, particularly voters. This is not the same as saying human rights can exist only when we can afford them. I am saying there is a connection between perceptions of scarcity and the protection of human rights. The discourse of rights essentially exists to protect those vulnerable in some way. The very rich don’t need to worry about this. The very poor and marginalized do, but they can’t afford on their own to make structural changes, though they have people power behind them. The Civil Rights movement in the U.S. – one of the most significant movements for human rights in the West – was based on this idea. But structurally, at the policy level, it is up to the people somewhere in the middle – those whose basic needs are met and have professional choices about how to spend their leisure time and earn their living – who have the time and resources to work systemically towards institutionalizing rights. When they themselves are scraping by economically, they are more likely to abandon their ideals for the sake of pragmatic decisions, and rather than turn against the invisible rich with whom they have more cultural commonality than the very poor, they retrench and close the gates to the fortress.

Hopgood is also right at shining the light on the role of organized religions in restricting rights, not only by being “moralistic” according to their narrow interpretations of theocratic law, but by demonizing others. But he doesn’t fully exploit the irony (although some would say it is not irony, but in fact why religious hierarchies were established in the first place) that we are sold the idea that religion is about morality, when in fact in most cases major religions in their most orthodox pronunciations espouse a morality that is in direct conflict with the civil, political, cultural, and social rights of all but the most privileged or the most compliant – especially of non-believers and others, but even among their own.

The secular West’s role is hardly pure.  We (if I can put myself in that category) are always the first to point fingers at genocide, but seldom use those fingers to pull back the curtain and see the actors behind the scenes whose actions have contributed to the build-up.  One of the other things Hopgood doesn’t distinguish in the article – maybe he does in his book – is that there was space in the secular West, since no country is monolithic, for some people and forces to be responsible for human rights abuses while others work earnestly for the promotion of human rights.  The roles were easily conflated by governments that wanted to use accusations of human rights abuses as a political tool, but in fact here are huge differences between, say, a George W. Bush and Noam Chomsky, though both are equally products of the U.S. or between a Quisling and a Nansen.  In other words there as an official discourse of human rights emanating from the statements and incremental actions of diplomats (even though as Hopgood points out, even the U.S. didn’t sign several of the most significant international covenants), another discourse of human rights at the level of NGOs, who, being privately funded cannot offend their donors, and still yet another level on the ground. What governments pronounce, and what they actually practice, is of course inconsistent, and it is in the area of refugee policy we see arguably the greatest hypocrisy of all. This discussion of rights can also become co-opted when an independent academic figure, like Samantha Power, is first brought into the military-state-official academic power fold and then ends up as a government representative at the U.N., forced by professional protocol to subsume her own personal morality to the demands of the State. This is very troubling.

What has also happened though is that the ability to participate in discussions of diplomacy and law-making has become, in a more economically stratified society, more the purview of the privileged, those least likely to have to demand their rights. This leads to an apparent paradox: those with the task of defending worldwide human rights and the political access to do so are the least likely to need to defend their own rights. (Artists, intellectuals, sexual minorities, and women of privilege in certain countries may be the exceptions.) The task of repression begins by cutting their resources, and this is exactly what has happened.

In this situation, universities as sites of learning, investigation, and youth have a special role to play.  It is no accident – this may seem like I digress for personal reasons – that university funding would be cut under the likes of Reagan and Thatcher (and most recently North Carolina governor Pat McCrory), while multinational corporations buy up the international property rights to the food and energy supply. The ideal becomes a corporatized university of the early 21st century whose role becomes preparing young people for the workforce, rather than allowing or encouraging the free investigation and expression – and of course questioning – of ideas.  Illich was right in more prophetic, longterm ways than he could imagine about how we are all “schooled.”

I can’t help seeing this through a personal lens.  It’s facile to trivialize humanities targets, but what about the relationship of the humanities to policy? There are relatively few university positions in subjects like human rights and migration (refugee studies has one multidisciplinary university program in the entire United States, with precisely one faculty member), so that researchers with direct, empirical experience in subjects like human right like myself end up sitting on the sidelines, teaching as underpaid adjuncts without access to research, travel, communication, and other academic privileges (such as, say, young audiences, as well).  This is no accident – a whole class of human rights academics is being sidelined by the lack of university opportunities, and it is the next generation that is deprived of education in this important tradition. There, too, Hopgood’s thesis may prove even more correct.

A serious omission – as there often are in liberal democratic critiques like this – is his failure to discuss South America, which over the past twenty years has been emerging from U.S.-backed dictatorships and has elected progressive, secular governments that have challenged in many ways the dominance of the Global North. While the rights of indigenous people especially, and the poor as well to a lesser extent, have not been respected, that is one part of the world where the expression of human rights is actually on the increase, not on the decline. Torture, extrajudicial killings, prisoners of conscience, forced exiles are all way down, and truth and reconciliation commissions are making progress. But of course recognizing that would mean taking seriously the existence of left-leaning popularly elected governments, and acknowledging the role of the U.S. in undermining human rights in Latin America on a grand scale while it was promoting human rights during the Cold War. Recognizing the legitimate energy of human rights advances in South America, though not without flaws, is something that makes the wealthy Euro-American capitalist powers uncomfortable to say the least. South America is conspicuously absent from his discussion. There too, though, internal and external migration due to poverty and economic displacement remains a huge challenge for all of us.

Finally, the implicit question is what we do about it. If we leave it to politicians and the ruling classes, not to mention the religious leaders – with possible glimmers of hope from the Dalai Lama and Pope Francis notwithstanding – Hopgood’s predictions may well come to pass. Ultimately, as Frederick Douglass would have commented, it is up to the people to demand – no, protect – their own human rights. It’s not that human rights concerns in the West have been pushed off the table (and sometimes, as in the case of refugee rights, criminally neglected in countries like Greece and Australia), it’s that there’s been a disconnect between the actions of governments and the role of the people in asserting their human rights. The conversation needs to be about the role of States, as he suggests, but it also needs to include questioning nationalism and religious chauvinism disguised as orthodoxy, and it needs to include the question of people power and whether in precarious economic times people turn their backs on their neighbors or defend the rights of one another from assault. It can go either way.

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