Tag Archives: asylum

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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The New Europe: Expulsion, Eradication, and Blockade – 1

The U.N. lists three “durable solutions” for refugees and refugee crises: repatriation, integration, and resettlement.  The first hope, always, is that conditions in the country of origin will improve and people can voluntarily repatriate to their countries and return to their homes and lives after the end of conflict or periods of repression.  A second option is integration: that the refugees can be accommodated in the new country to which they are fleeing, maybe among people from their own ethnic group, but in any case in such a way that they can integrate into their new countries and become economically and socially productive.  The third is resettlement: when refugees, usually in camps but also in urban environments, having exhausted all hopes of returning to their homes or of staying in their countries of first refuge, are accepted by third countries, usually affluent ones (and, in fact, in over two-thirds of cases, the United States) and are brought to that new country and settled there.

Other than Sweden, Norway, and Finland, European countries have always accepted disproportionately fewer refugees for resettlement than the U.S., Canada, and Australia.  Eastern European countries hardly ever accept any.  Even Germany, which has gained publicity in the last year for being open to asylum-seekers, has never pulled its fair share.  But European governments are now struggling with the million-plus refugee influx in the past year, on top of fifteen years of Afghan, Iraqi, and Kurdish refugees already there.  Rather than the durable solutions of repatriation, integration, and resettlement, in the border zones governments and police are adopting a strategy of exclusion, expulsion, and eradication.  This is not to say that the European countries don’t grant asylum and residence to some, especially Scandinavia, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Italy in a way, and France.  But hand-in-hand with this protection, when people have access to courts, are growing attempts to keep people from entering in the first place (despite the Geneva Convention which expressly allows this).  This has quickly become a humanitarian disaster and, here and there, the situation is reaching a boiling point.

Aside from the humanitarian considerations, the ethical problem for the European countries is that they can’t enforce their policies without violating international law, lying, deluding themselves and others, or, as I have written before, attempting military and violent solutions.

I’ve been meaning for a month to write about Sweden and Finland, historically two of the best countries for refugees, but which announced in late January that they had already decided in advance they would be rejecting half to two-thirds of asylum claims this year.  Sweden has promised to deport 60,000-80,000 of the 160,000 asylum applicants who entered last year, while Finland chimed in they would be sending back two-thirds of of their refugee claimants.  Given that over 80% of refugees entering through Greece come from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq, and that three of the top four countries of people entering Italy are Eritrea, Somalia, and Sudan, it strains credibility that half or two-thirds of asylum applicants will not have valid claims. (In fact, the UNHCR reported that in 2015, 84% of migrants crossing the Mediterranean were from the top ten refugee producing countries.)

Oh, but Sweden actually admits this.  In fact, the interior ministry spokesman, quoted in  The Guardian, tipped their hand concerning what this is really about.  After saying invalid claims would be rejected, he added, “You can seek asylum in Europe but there are a lot of safe countries where you won’t be troubled by war and persecution, so you don’t necessarily have to end up in Sweden.”  This is an admission that there will be people feeling persecution and war who will be turned down. So this is really a question of using refugees as pawns to force other European counties to take their fair share. But are the rejected claimants going to be deported to these other “safe countries” in Europe, or just sent back to Turkey, Jordan, Afghanistan or Syria – only to risk their lives a second time and try to go through the process all over again?  Naturally if people are fleeing for their lives, this is something they have to do.

As I wrote last week, Austria got Macedonia to declare that Afghans are economic migrants, not refugees, and thus close the border to them.  This dangerous fiction is spreading.  The Greek deputy national security minister, Dimitris Vitsas, from the left-wing Syriza party, was quoted in an Austrian newspaper as having said on Greek TV that “if we consider Afghans as migrants,” then most of the people coming through Greece are economic migrants, not refugees.  And in a devastating legal decision the other day, a British appeals court ruled in favor of the Conservative government and reinstated deportations to Afghanistan, over the objections of the Afghan government but also, as reported in The Independent, despite the fact that last year showed the highest rate of civilian casualties, the Taliban control much of the country, and ISIS is becoming more active. (Equally disappointing are the reader comments which cheer on the increase in deportations – and which are actually skeptical they will take place.  I recognize that reader comments are disproportionately populated by xenophobes, but still, the willful lack of understanding of the situation in Afghanistan, the lack of respect for international law, the distrust of the government to actually enforce deportations, as well as the simple lack of humanitarianism, is disturbing and finds root in growing anti-immigrant and nationalist politics.)

Meanwhile, there is a crisis at the border between Greece and Macedonia near the Greek town of Idomeni, where there has now sprung up an impromptu refugee camp with between 11,000 and 14,000 people who have accumulated there since Macedonia imposed the new ruling.  Doctors Without Borders is there as is the International Committee of the Red Cross/Red Crescent, reporting on the lack of heat, decent plumbing, mud, illness and parasites among children, who make up around 40% of the camp.  (They are doing a great job documenting the current situation on Twitter, using #Idomeni.)  And if that weren’t stringent enough, today’s new rule – according to a tweet from a UNHCR spokesman – is that refugees who have spent over 30 days in Greece or Turkey will no longer be eligible to cross the border and pass into the rest of Europe.

So part of the new European strategy for dealing with refugees is exclusion and expulsion, both of which depend on rationalization by simply declaring arbitrarily (and not always in a court of law) that the situation causing people to flee Afghanistan is primarily economic and not related to politics or war.  Time does not permit me tonight to cover the other two aspects of this topic that are part of this entry, including the demolition of part of The Jungle in Calais, to which I will return next time.

*   *   *

However, I will close with this image, posted on Facebook by an Afghan friend in Greece, a response to closed borders and to governments that are no longer responsive to human suffering.  I don’t know the source, and a Google search turned up no sources. (If it’s copyrighted let me know and I’ll take it down.)

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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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