Category Archives: Policy

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.

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

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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Filed under Afghans, Austria, Europe, Greece, Human rights, Policy

The ‘Intentions’ Fallacy

I promised myself that being snowed in this weekend, and starting a new class on refugees and forced migration, I would make a point to jump start this blog again.  Especially now, because the last two years have seen a nearly 20% increase in refugees,  the dramatic influx of Syrians and Afghans to Europe, and a backlash against refugees and refugee humanitarian policy.  There’s no shortage of things to write about – I could write a new entry with every tragedy in the Mediterranean – but for personal reasons I haven’t been able to.  Well, New Year and new outrages, so let’s begin.

Being American, I first want to start with Gov. Nikki Haley’s response to President Obama’s State of the Union address, which repeats and amplifies the same mistaken views about who refugees are and how they differ from other immigrants.  Once again, the double-speak of those opposed to refugees gets the policy issues completely backwards.  She says,

“No one who is willing to work hard, abide by our laws, and love our traditions should ever feel unwelcome in this country.

“At the same time, that does not mean we just flat out open our borders. We can’t do that. We cannot continue to allow immigrants to come here illegally. And in this age of terrorism, we must not let in refugees whose intentions cannot be determined.

“We must fix our broken immigration system. That means stopping illegal immigration. And it means welcoming properly vetted legal immigrants, regardless of their race or religion. Just like we have for centuries.

“I have no doubt that if we act with proper focus, we can protect our borders, our sovereignty and our citizens, all while remaining true to America’s noblest legacies.”

What is mistaken here is that it is precisely refugee admissions who are, of all immigrants, the ones whose intentions are the most easily determined.  In the case of Syrians, they are trying to get away from the same persecutors that the U.S. is fighting on the battlefield.  By definition, refugees’ intentions are to escape from persecution and find freedom and asylum, and while no system of interrogation and investigation is airtight, we have a better sense of why refugees would come to this country than anyone else would.  Ironically, it’s the “properly vetted legal immigrants” whose intentions are less certain, because they can be coming for work, to make money, to join families, any number of reasons.  As anyone who has worked in refugee resettlement knows, though, refugees are more vetted than any other population.  And since they are more likely to have risked their lives to get to a new country, coming as a refugee is the least efficient way of trying to infiltrate a country.  That’s just logic.

The other irony in her speech is that, if anything, “America’s noblest legacy” is its welcoming of refugees from persecution, originally religious, but expanding to other categories.  No country on Earth has resettled more refugees, and no country has naturalized more (meaning, given them full citizenship).  While a few other countries accept more on a per capita basis, sometimes, in absolute numbers no country has taken in more than the U.S.  Would we rather think of ourselves as a country that welcomes and absorbs those fleeing for their lives and seeking freedom, or a country that is interested in those who want to come and get rich?

So her binary opposition – and I can’t even say the Republicans’, because as we know at the same time the Republicans had a Spanish-language response delivered by a Cuban-American congressman that was more pro-immigrant – between refugees as shadowy arrivals whose intentions are unclear vs. well-vetted immigrants who are ready to, presumably, jump in and start earning money, gets it all wrong when it comes to how stringent the vetting process is.  (Not to mention anyone who arrives without papers or overstays the visa, since that makes them, in her eyes, automatically suspect.)  That’s not an ideological interpretation, it’s a factual statement of how the visa admissions process works.  Refugees are entitled to more protection, not more suspicion, but to get that protection, they already face more scrutiny.  And that also slows down the process for those fleeing for their lives.

I’ll stop there for now, and return later to talk about the Obama Administration and the latest wave of refugees from Central America.  But before that I have to address the latest openly anti-refugee law from Denmark.

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Filed under Afghans, Policy, Syrians, U.S.