Tag Archives: U.S.A.

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.

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.

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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