Tag Archives: Australia

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.

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.

75,000 and counting

Let me begin with some good news.  The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) reports  that the 75,000th Bhutanese refugee has left Nepal’s refugee camps for resettlement in a new country.  About 120,000 ethnic Nepalis were stripped of their citizenship and forced out of the country around 1990 and have been living in U.N. refugee camps in eastern Nepal ever since. That was about one-seventh of the population of Bhutan, the land that promotes the “gross national happiness” index, being expelled because of their religious, linguistic, and ethnic background.  Beginning in 2007, eight countries have accepted the resettled refugees, led by the United States (which has taken in over 63,000), Canada (over 5,000), Australia (over 3,800), along with Denmark, New Zealand, Norway, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom.  I’ve had the privilege of visiting two of the camps, in 2010, thanks to friends in this country I met online while they were still living in the camps.  Now they live in Chicago, Baltimore, San Antonio, and Manchester, N.H.  The two camps I visited, Sanischare and Beldangi, are the only two remaining now of the original seven.DSCF0444c
I am still in touch with some of the good people I met there, whether they are in Baltimore, Scranton, or Tasmania. The most impressive thing about the camps was the availability of education, up to 10th grade or beyond, for the generation of refugee children who grew up there, resulting in nearly 100% literacy for people under the age of 24. The first few arrivals in this country will soon be getting their American citizenship, after having been stateless, or without nationality, for over twenty years.

The U.N. estimates there are still some 60,000 Bhutanese refugees remaining in Nepal, of whom another 15,000 or so will be resettled by the end of 2013.

At the same time, the very countries that have been generous in resettlement of the refugees have, detain, and deport thousands of asylum-seekers and refugees who arrive on their shores, desperate for safety, from such war-torn countries as Afghanistan, Somalia, and Iraq. They make the barriers greater to those who try to find safety – as guaranteed under international law – and spend millions of dollars and euros on enforcement and ways to keep legitimate refugees out and send others, including children, back to danger. I’ll be writing more about this in the future.

Meanwhile, when we are generous, we are capable of great things. Welcome friends.

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