Category Archives: Militarism

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.

Fantasyland

Europe is now bordering on the delusional.  Unable or unwilling to cope with the recent refugee influx, or to acknowledge the right of people to seek asylum from persecution, or the root causes of the wars driving people into Europe, various European governments have simply decided that wishing people away is the most viable solution to the problem.  If we can just prevent people from coming or staying here, the thinking goes, there won’t be a refugee crisis anymore.  Poof!  Who the hell cares what the consequences are?  Poof!

As if that weren’t bad enough though, this wishful thinking is backed up by the power and military force of the state, so that forced deportations and bulldozing of people’s homes becomes the only option to carry out these fantasies.

The latest news, as reported by The Guardian, is that the Prefect of Calais has ordered some one thousand refugees, mostly from Syria and Iraq, living in “The Jungle” trying to get to the UK, to vanish, or voluntarily be moved into heated shipping containers where they can sleep.  Their sector of the Jungle will be bulldozed on Tuesday.  This represents about one-quarter of the residents of The Jungle, which reportedly has grown into its own town, complete with restaurants, shops, and mosques.  But, you know, the Prefect, Fabienne Buccio, said, it gives Calais a bad image.  So she follows the enlightened path of the Greek government, which bulldozed a similar camp in Patras in 2008.  But – surprise – refugees don’t disappear.  Eight humanitarian aid agencies, as well as prominent signatories of a letter to David Cameron, oppose this forced relocation.

Perhaps it is ironic that the Prefect’s own grandfather was a refugee to France fleeing Fascism in Italy before the Second World War.  But he was white and Western European, which makes all the difference.  She claims Jane Austen and Colette as her favorite writers, but maybe she should have spent a little more time reading Victor Hugo or Émile Zola, I wonder.

So exactly where these thousand or so refugees, nearly 300 of whom are unaccompanied children, are going to go is still unsolved.  Shipping containers?  More crowded conditions elsewhere in The Jungle?  Britain?  Jails?  Or hit the road again?  Not our problem!  Just make them go away and our problem will be solved.

Meanwhile, on the border between Central and Eastern Europe, another example of delusional wish-fulfillment politics is unfolding.  The government of Austria, which actually had been one of the better countries in terms of welcoming refugees, and rarely deporting Afghan refugees for example, has now set a limit on asylum applications for next year, after 90,000 applications last year.  The limit on the number of people who can apply this year is about half that, and as for the rest, well, they can just disappear.  The Austrian government has told the Macedonian government – which, last time I checked has no border with Austria – to “completely stop” the flow of refugees crossing from Greece into Macedonia.  Just stop them, Macedonia!  Stop them!

And so, where are they going to go again?  Oh right, now that NATO is involved, there aren’t going to be refugees coming into Europe anymore, they’ll be blocked between Turkey and Greece.  Uh-huh.  Or maybe they won’t come at all!

Obviously, in all seriousness, these governments can’t possibly be as naive as they are coming across.  They have access to many more researchers of migration than a lonely little voice like me, but all of them are going to agree that stopping the flow of the mass migration of humans is an impossible task.  It’s never been done in human history, and example after example historically shows that you can dam up flows, and you can make migration more dangerous and lethal – which they’ve already done – but people are always going to find a way to get through.  And all this is aside from the underlying moral (and in this case legal) question that you can’t in good conscience deny people the right to flee from war and persecution, especially when you’ve, at a minimum, specifically signed and enacted laws that commit governments to providing humanitarian protection. Not to mention how unconscionable it is to block the escape of civilians, when your countries are participating in those wars, if not initiating them or even – the great unspoken – fueling and profiting from them by providing arms either directly or through private enterprise.

Too bad those refugees are just so damn inconvenient.  As I’ve said before and will say again, let’s never forget that immigrants of any kind, settled and integrated, end up being a net economic gain for their adopted countries.

But the dangerous logic that has become dominant is that if we can just stop refugee flows, we don’t have a refugee problem. That assumes on some level this is voluntary, a result of a choice. But this is pure fantasy.  If they won’t stop coming, they can be legislated away, stored in shipping containers, deported, fenced out, turned back at sea – then they will just stop coming.  The problem is that, even if that were morally justifiable, there’s no evidence it has ever happened that way.  It’s time for solutions that are based in reality, morally responsive, and actually forward-thinking in coming up with ideas that will benefit refugees as well as the residents, new and old, of their new communities and neighborhoods.

And of course the other part of the fantasy is that Europe is going to be a place of peace and prosperity for refugees, where they can finally put the traumas of the past safely behind them.

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Filed under Austria, Europe, France, Militarism, Squatter communities, Syrians

The Aegean: Military Responses Cannot Solve Humanitarian Crises

There are some times in refugee policy and crises when the world’s nations reveal their true colors.  The problem is it’s happening with such frequency these days it’s hard to keep up.  Granted, I wrote about Denmark two weeks ago and should have followed up with a post about Sweden’s new policies in the interim, but haven’t had the time.  But when it comes to hypocrisy, Greece and Turkey abhor a vacuum., and now both are taking steps to make the humanitarian refugee crisis in the eastern Aegean go from bad to worse.

According to yesterday’s New York Times, that celebrated humanitarian organization, NATO, is now getting involved to patrol for refugees fleeing to Europe via Turkey, or as the Times headline puts it, to “deter human trafficking.”  First of all, before we even get to the moral arguments, just on the facts this is all wrong.  What is happening in the Aegean is not “human trafficking”; by definition, “trafficking” is the coerced movement of people by smugglers for the purpose of labor or other exploitation.  While “smuggling” refers to all movement of people by agents across borders without proper documents or inspection, “trafficking” specifically means there is an element of coercion, and usually exploitation involved.  (And in fact, traffickers can also sometimes move people across borders legally, because people can enter a country with a work visa only to find out that the job they were promised bears no resemblance to the job in which they (usually she) find themselves caught – sex work, domestic work, indentured servitude, farm labor.)  That is not what is going on between Turkey and Greece.  The vast majority of migrants passing from Turkey to Greece are from Syria and Afghanistan and are fleeing war, and while there are also political refugees and economic migrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and other countries, the numbers of people being involuntarily or coercively “trafficked” is quite small.  Calling it “trafficking” wrongly categorizes the migration as labor exploitation when in fact, as we well know, in most cases it’s about escape from war and persecution.

So just on its face, this is not a mission that calls for a police or military solution.  That said, the mission as described is going to have three objectives.  One is to interdict the refugees at sea.  What will be done with them is as yet unspecified, but since they will not yet set foot on European soil, it’s unlikely NATO will kindly usher them to land where they acquire the legal rights they are seeking. They will probably be the big losers in this, and will, in order to avoid capture by NATO, engage in riskier crossings and maneuvers.  More refugees are going to die in the process of the crossing.

Second, the mission is to break up the smugglers’ networks and to put them out of business.  But then what?  The fantasy depiction of the situation that the major governments would have us believe is that the smugglers are taking advantage of the refugees – and they are, but only because other, legal options are simply not available.  If you are stuck in a refugee camp in Turkey, or in Jordan, Lebanon, still inside Syria, or in Iran or Pakistan in the case of Afghans, it’s not like there’s a place you can fill out an application to get to Europe.  If you need to flee, your choice is a refugee camp – for five or ten years or even longer – or trying to get somewhere better so you and your children can have a future.  Even if you have relatives already in Europe, countries are now lengthening family reunion times, even though that is directly contravened under the Geneva Convention.  Refugees turn to smugglers not because they are coerced, but because smugglers are their last, and sometimes only, resort.  Arrest them and put them out of business, and then what?  People who are desperate to survive are going to find a way, a way that will likely be even more dangerous.  NATO nations’ belief that putting smugglers out of business is going to solve the problem is fatuous.  Smugglers will become more devious, more dangerous and violent (this is what has happened in Mexico), more expensive, and the routes will become riskier and more roundabout.

This new policy then is another example of disingenuousness on the part of the major world powers, who identify the smugglers and their networks as the main problem, preying on refugees.  And to be sure, there is nothing lower than someone who knowingly makes and sells defective life-jackets to refugees or who sexually abuses migrants.  But more important is to focus on the fact that the smugglers don’t create the refugee “problem”; smugglers exist and profit because there are no legal alternatives in response to at least two of the greatest human catastrophes of the past 75 years.  That’s what no world leader (outside of the U.N., like Antonio Guterres) is going to admit: the problem is there are millions of displaced civilians trying to survive, either in their own country (Syria, where they are subject to hunger as well as bombardment and possible persecution), or in neighboring countries (Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, where they may live in camps but will likely face a decade or more of enforced poverty and a precarious and unproductive future).  The only “legal” channel for moving to a country where they can integrate and be economically productive is resettlement, which typically takes at least five years, and even then for a tiny percentage of refugees at most.  (Last year only 100,000 were resettled out of a worldwide population of over 18 million recognized refugees.)  Smuggling is the symptom, because there are no realistic or safe alternatives within the legal system.  Arresting a few smugglers, even a few hundred, is not going to mend the wars in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, nor is it going to address the real issue which is providing not only safe but decent places for people to settle and get on with their lives or to return to their postwar homes.  These fictions – that the smugglers are the problem, and that, as the mayor of  Lesbos told France24 in an interview, the need is to get Turkey to stop “sending” refugees to Greece – are convenient for finger-pointing purposes but are small diversions from the central problem.  Our political leaders know this.  Millions of people have been displaced by fighting and there are no practical avenues to help them survive in dignified and safe living conditions where they can continue their productive lives in careers or as parents, or where they can provide sufficient nutrition or education for their children.

Third, then, if you read the Times article  further, is that the ultimate objective is to disrupt the flow of refugees to Europe, which is what this is really about.  Europe, which is only receiving about 15% of the refugees (85% of whom remain in the Middle East), wants to protect their wealth and their illusion of homogeneity, in short, their privilege as European nation-states, even colonizing ones.  The big fear is that the refugees dislodged by civil war and European and American invasion (even the centrist Thomas L. Friedman as much as admits this, but more on him later), are going to bring the problems they face back to Europe, on a grand scale.  Keep the refugees out and it’s not really your problem, even if you then magnanimously donate funds to their humanitarian relief in tent cities and camps.  It’s really just an act of glorified xenophobia, with the phony and transparent veneer of claiming it’s about protecting refugees from dangerous and unscrupulous traffickers and smugglers.

To paraphrase Archbishop Oscar Romero, it is as if our neighbors’ house is on fire and instead of rescuing people, we are effectively slamming the door, by sending in NATO to make it more difficult for people to escape by dismantling illegally-built fire escapes because they are not up to code.

A more appropriate and effective – even cost-effective – and dare I say humanitarian response would be to give the same funding to the U.N., UNICEF, or even NGO’s to set up refugee welcome centers where basic food, clothing, services and registration can be provided on the Greek islands, where rescue patrols can go out to sea and help refugees (many of whom are children) make the crossing safely, and then help them get on their way, even consulting with those refugees who don’t have family in Europe and encouraging them to go to countries with fewer refugees and more vacant housing and job opportunities.  That would be a response Europe could be proud of one day.  Right now, if you follow the news or any number of video reports on YouTube coming out of Lesbos, Kos, and elsewhere, there are still no decent registration centers or housing options for refugees, even after the ordeal they have gone through (escaping from our mutual enemies, I might add).  Refugees have to wait weeks, without housing, food, or clothing, just to get registered by the Greek authorities, while a massive response from an international humanitarian team could make things move much more smoothly, quickly, and with less disruption for the locals.  And after all that, they then have to go from Athens to points north and west, usually on foot, seeking safety in whatever country will accept them.  We could do this if we had the will.

It’s important to point out here yet again that this is cost-effective in the long run, because the faster that refugees are integrated into their new countries and get back to work, the quicker they will be paying taxes back into the economy, creating businesses and jobs, and contributing economically into the system (and even providing humanitarian relief for their relatives back home).  I may have cited this before, but the evidence is already showing that refugees in Europe, even in this crisis, are already a net gain to the economy by the European Commission’s own estimates.

It is deeply disappointing (though perhaps not surprising) that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as knowledgeable as she is and thus ought to no better, even in last night’s debate showed her support for NATO’s actions to break up the smugglers’ networks and stop the flow of refugees into Europe, as if the flow into Europe is a worse problem than the displacement of millions of refugees or the unsustainability of life in the refugee camps in the first place.  Then she repeats the known, and dangerous, misconception that the refugee “crisis” is an economic drain on Europe, even though she would have access to all the sociological data that show that in the long run, and with proper investments, refugees like all immigrants grow the economy.  (It’s also self-defeating, because if she then turns around and wants to accept more refugees for resettlement in the U.S., as she claims, she then has to argue against her own economic argument spewed back by opposing governors, when in fact the economic data, especially in the U.S., would support greater resettlement numbers.  She’d be better off embracing the economic data from the beginning and adopting the platform that refugees are a net gain, and not only economically but also in the ingenuity and experience they bring to their new country.)

In sum, if this really were about humanitarian protection, then NATO and a military response would be the wrong way to go.  No, this is really about national security and about appeasing nationalist, xenophobic parties, about keeping the people out of Europe they don’t want.  Otherwise, they have to explain why a military response, whether by NATO or Frontex, is preferred over a humanitarian one and why they need to make the process more dangerous as a deterrent.

Finally, a special word on Thomas L. Friedman, who makes the claim in the same article that Germany, one of the largest and wealthiest nations in Europe, cannot handle an influx of refugees.  He writes, “it was also reckless of [Angela Merkel] to think that so many immigrants, primarily Muslims, could be properly absorbed so quickly into society in Germany — a country that took two decades and billions of dollars to absorb East Germans.”  The scale is so disproportionate here that any comparison with East Germany is absurd.  In 1990, the year of German reunification, the West German population was about 63 million and the East German was about 16 million – meaning in the new, united Germany, one in five citizens had been an East German.  Currently, the German population is over 83 million and the number of new refugees to be absorbed is one million.  So even if that number were to double, we’d be talking about a ratio of one in forty, or maybe as low as one in eighty, needing to be integrated.  One in five — of course that could take two decades.  But the current “crisis” is nothing of that scale, not to mention the fact that many of these refugees are already well-educated and ready for the labor force, even as they learn German.

But we keep the misconceptions flowing in order to shirk our humanitarian responsibilities, and resort to trumped-up military responses to justify our unwillingness to share the world’s resources or embrace the common humanity we will need in order to survive.

 

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Filed under Afghans, Europe, Greece, Militarism, Syrians