Archive | June, 2016

Coming to Terms with Refugee Policy

9 Jun

The world is in the midst of the largest refugee crisis since WWII, but instead of dealing with it properly, rich Western countries are doing shit like this: “…the EU is planning to provide training, equipment, and detention camps to the government of Sudan, which is led by a wanted war criminal, so that they can prevent human beings from crossing the border out of Sudan in the direction of Europe.”

But it’s not just Sudan. The US, Canada, and the EU are increasingly warming to proposals that involve paying off developing countries to “host” refugees in a bid to prevent them reaching their shores. Kenya, for example, has taken note of this trend and threatened to close Dabaab refugee camp, the world’s largest, unless Western donors cough up some more funding. While it’s true Western countries have failed to adequately fund the maintenance of the camp, Kenya is no innocent victim. It has cited Dabaab as a safe haven for al-Shabaab in order to justify closing the camp, despite lacking any evidence to support this assertion. Much of the extra funding will be pilfered by Kenyan politicians (many of whom aren’t exactly angels) and the security forces, who, wouldn’t you know it, are working with al-Shabaab to smuggle charcoal.

As one can see in the Kenya example, this stance on refugees has the unwelcome distinction of being both evil and stupid. By this I mean that not only are attempts to keep refugees out morally (and legally) unjustifiable, but they are counterproductive in terms of achieving other long-term foreign and domestic policy goals. To be more specific, here’s why attempts to keep refugees out by paying off poorer countries to host them are evil and stupid.

Those fleeing war are forced to stay in inadequate camps rather than being integrated into societies, which is their legal right. The suffering this causes for refugees is hard to understate.
– Tiny, poor countries like Lebanon end up hosting huge numbers of refugees in proportion to their population, putting a huge strain on physical space and natural resources.
– Paying off governments like Sudan’s to repress refugees will almost certainly also result in violence against citizens of those countries. Not only do donated funds and weapons give these governments the ability to further violently suppress internal problems and challenges, but their repressive actions gain credibility with donor nations.

– Paying off governments like Kenya and Sudan further entrenches corruption and rewards predatory governments. In the long-term, this is likely to produce various forms of political violence, prompting costly Western diplomatic or military interventions.
– Building the metaphorical wall higher will make those that can get around it even more powerful. Human smuggling will become more lucrative as smugglers are able to demand more money to get refugees past the barriers set up to prevent them reaching the West. Beyond thwarting efforts to end human trafficking, much of this money will flow to rebel groups, some of which will seek to launch attacks against Western countries.
– Turning away refugees is great propaganda for jihadists and other anti-Western militant groups. These groups can present themselves as defenders of persecuted groups who are under attack by a violent and heartless West.
– Finally, it’s the economy stupid. As birthrates in Western countries decline, younger workers are needed to support social safety nets that are increasingly caring for elderly citizens. Refugees can be these workers, and despite conservative rhetoric about how they suck up government benefits, taking into account their potential for economy productivity negates the economic losses (it should also be noted that the number of refugees that would be admitted per citizen to Western countries would be nowhere close to Lebanon’s rate).

Refugee policy is, as many people who know me are aware, a very personal issue for me. My grandparents were refugees, Jews born in Germany who were forced to flee the Nazis for England. My grandmother’s family managed to avoid the worst of it by leaving in 1936, while my grandfather spent a few months in Buchenwald concentration camp before a fake visa (in other words, he was undocumented) convinced guards to release him. The rest of his family didn’t survive. For me, what’s most depressing is that the debates today (whether refugees are a Trojan Horse for ISIS, whether refugees want to sponge off government benefits without working, etc.) are not new. In Germany, Jews were assumed to be Bolshevik agents, while the English government thought Jewish refugees might be German spies. Consequently, my grandmother’s family had to turn in their radios, due to fears they might be communicating with the enemy.

Knowing what we know about the history of the Holocaust makes these suspicious seem ridiculous, but I fear too many are incapable of seeing how history will also harshly judge mistrust of refugees today, whether they are fleeing gang violence in El Salvador or Russian warplanes in Aleppo. And therefore it is the lack of change that I am most afraid of. To be an activist, advocate, or even a socially-conscious social scientist requires believing that positive change is possible, but when that hope seems remote, it throws any affiliation with those three identities into doubt. And despite the rise of “human rights” rhetoric in the last twenty years, the concurrent emergence of the national security state and far-right popular politics may mean stances toward refugees are even worse than they were 80 years ago.

In Al Qaeda and What It Means to Be Modern, John Gray writes, “Western societies are governed by the belief that modernity is a single condition, everywhere the same and always benign. As societies become more modern, so they become more alike. At the same time they become better. Being modern means realizing our values – the values of the Enlightenment, as we like to think of them.” Excluding those fleeing war from integration in Western society belies this vision, highlighting the vast contradiction in Enlightenment values. On one side is human rights and the social contract, which together seek to limit and order state violence. On the other is nationalism, in all its ugly manifestations, that clearly delineates who is us and who is them, and justifies the exclusion, exploitation, or eradication of others in the name of progress. Everything from refugees to foreign wars to neoliberalism make it hard for me to understand the belief in the primacy of modern Western thought and society (how to separate out the emancipatory from the oppressive?), because those maladies are as much a part of Enlightenment intellectual heritage as our greatest achievements. Turning away refugees makes it hard to be proud of our society, and hard to find hope.