So, About All Those Refugees Everywhere…

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Will 2017 be any better for the world’s refugees and migrants? Despite some encouraging signs, the overall tepid international response to their plight doesn’t bode well for them. (Photo Credit: Reuters/Marina Militare)

2016 was largely seen as a shitty year. I alluded to as much in my own end-of-the-year recap, telling 2016 to kindly go f**k itself. Of course, with so many people claiming 2016 to be a patently awful 366 days, it led critics to wonder whether or not it truly was the nadir of human civilization. Lorraine Ali, writing for the Los Angeles Times, mused about what has led folks to proclaim 2016 the worst on record. Certainly, the presidential election and all the rancor building up to it (and now spilling over), as well as all the celebrity deaths that seemed to affect so many observers, were strong influences. Concerning those lost in 2016, Alan Rickman, David Bowie, Gene Wilder, Muhammad Ali, and Prince are but a few of the names on the list—and the likes of Carrie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds and George Michael joined them in just the last week of the year. Ultimately, though, Ali closes her commentary by aiming to put things in historical perspective:

We’ve had better years, to be sure. But humanity has survived the Crusades, the Black Death, the Civil War, the Great Depression, world war. It survived 2016, just as it survived the last.

Was it the worst year ever? No, but it was bad enough.

In other words, President Donald Trump is pretty terrible, but not bubonic plague terrible. Fair enough, Ms. Ali. Fair enough. If this historical perspective doesn’t grab you, though, maybe a more expansive worldview is more your speed. To be fair, Lorraine Ali does consider troubling events beyond unfortunate domestic political outcomes and fallen entertainers, although mainly as an aside. Nonetheless, it is here where we pivot to the heart of this post. Ali writes in her opinion piece:

There were those whose names we didn’t know, but they left a lasting impression as footage from the Syrian war and the immigrant crisis made headlines and news cycles. Children pulled lifeless from bombed-out buildings in Aleppo or washed up on the shores of whatever safe haven their families were seeking.

To mourn their deaths is to embrace the humanity we ought to be preserving rather than ripping down. Their passing was a brutal reminder that empathy should not be another causality of 2016. No wonder we wanted to hold on to whatever glimmers of hope we could find.

Humanity. Empathy. Hope. For immigrants and Syrians, no less. It all sounds wonderful. But, um, and don’t take this the wrong way—these do not sound like prevailing sentiments of a sizable cross-section of the U.S. population right now. Nor do they seem like hallmarks of a growing segment of the international community. In Italy, Paolo Gentiloni, who became Prime Minister in December after serving in the role of Minister of Foreign Affairs for two-plus years, indicated intentions to move forward with the first major policy shift of his tenure: enacting a “zero tolerance” policy for illegal migration into the country, which is likely to result in more precise attempts to identify economic migrants who do not have a legitimate claim to asylum within Italy and subsequent mass deportations to deal with these types. Reportedly, prior to deportation, the undocumented migrants will be held in detention centers, more of which are being opened pursuant to this policy shift. This expansion of detention centers, in particular, is a notable shift from the stance of Gentiloni’s predecessor Matteo Renzi, who opposed such facilities in the hopes that undocumented migrants could successfully be integrated within Italy.

There are any number of directions in which we can go with this news. Certainly, the “let’s build a wall” crowd supporting Donald Trump throughout the 2016 election campaign season is probably cheering on Paolo Gentiloni’s new path forward for Italy with vicarious zeal, seeing strong parallels between Italy’s situation and that of the United States, and not-so-secretly wishing authorities here would enact something similar. Realistically, Italy has a more legitimate claim to a need for border security. According to statistics from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Italy surpassed Greece as the site for the highest number of arrivals by sea for migrants and refugees among European Union states, seeing more than 180,000 reach its shores in 2016 alone. That’s a lot of humanity to accommodate—no matter how big the place of arrival.

Additionally, while Germany especially is coming to grips with a terror attack within its bounds, that of an assault at a Christmas market in Berlin by a man driving a tractor-trailer which left 12 dead and 48 injured, Italy can count one of its native-born among the casualties in the person of Fabrizia Di Lorenzo, a 31-year-old ex-pat with multiple Master’s degrees and a love for her adopted home. One person living outside the country’s borders, and yet undoubtedly Italians everywhere, not to mention those non-Italians with even a shred of empathy, feel sadness at the revelation of her passing. As do the relatives and compatriots of the Czech, German, Israeli, Polish and Ukrainian nationals also lost to the senseless violence of the massacre in Berlin.

In effecting a policy of this nature and of its potential scope, Italy naturally makes a theoretical distinction between those who legally seek asylum within the country and those who migrate there to seek a more advantageous situation. Accordingly, we should also be explicit and precise in how we delineate two classes of people who would cross into Italy to seek refuge. On the one hand, we have refugees, defined by the UNHCR thusly:

A refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Most likely, they cannot return home or are afraid to do so. War and ethnic, tribal and religious violence are leading causes of refugees fleeing their countries.

Those who have fled their homes in Syria, for example, would well qualify, especially in light of the travesties experienced in eastern Aleppo as Syrian government forces regained control of most of the city. There are definite exigent circumstances at work here and in similar cases of war, genocidal violence, and other life-or-death situations. Migrants, on the other hand, are individuals who relocate to improve their situation and that of their family. The critical distinction, therefore, and one that carries over to applicable international law, is the idea migrants choose to move to secure a more advantageous position for themselves, whereas refugees are forced to move or else risk persecution, bodily harm, or even death, and because of this, effectively have choice taken away from them.

Of course, this does not imply that so-called “economic migrants” are leaving a life of luxury behind them, nor are they re-locating to an area and status denoted by wealth and privilege. Just because someone doesn’t witness civilians getting shot in the streets doesn’t mean his or her life isn’t hard, or that or he or she doesn’t have aspirations of a better life. Still, with hundreds of thousands of people potentially showing up at a country’s man-made borders or natural geographic dividers, it would stand to reason that a line would have to be drawn somewhere. Moreover, with many of these migrants posing as asylum-seekers and gumming up the works of the immigration and vetting process, it is that much slower and more laborious for would-be refugees in direst need. And this does not even begin to consider those individuals who would play the part of the refugee only to infiltrate a nation and move to harm the citizens already residing there as an agent of ISIS or a similar-minded group—however remote the possibility.

So, is Italy’s intended policy shift a much-needed method of bolstering order and security within the nation, or an unnecessarily draconian and logistically unfeasible turn of domestic policy? Well, not merely to defer to the will of the individual so as to avoid taking a definitive stance, but I think the merits of either argument are in the eyes of the beholder. That is, if you’re a proud nationalist who doesn’t feel a strong need for growing multiculturalism or generally feels as if his or her country is on the downslide, you might be enthusiastic to Paolo Gentiloni’s new direction for Italy. However, if you yourself immigrated to the country you’re in or even got to where you are as a refugee/asylum-seeker, you might be more sympathetic to the plight of those risking life and limb to secure access to a destination country, regardless of their legal status. Outside of, say, ramming a truck into a crowd of unsuspecting Christmas shoppers, there does not seem to be any wrong way of how to think and feel in our personal lives about the refugee and migration crisis. At the very least, unless you turn a blind eye, ear or other sense organ to this worsening problem, you stand to have some sort of unconscious reaction to the events that unfold daily in Europe and in the surrounding areas.

Ay, though, there’s the rub. How easy it is to turn a blind eye to the suffering that persists in war-torn parts of the globe, the strife that manifests so strongly in regions such as Africa and the Middle East, as well as in parts of Asia and eastern Europe. The Simpsons has had so many great individual moments in its 20+ years on television, but one which comes to mind relevant to the above pursuits is when Homer and Marge are sitting in the kitchen reading the newspaper, and the cover story concerns refugees fleeing from an oppressive situation. Marge, the consummate worrier, sighs and says to Homer, “Sheesh. Look at these refugees.” Homer, ever the warm-blooded working-class American male indifferent to their plight or, quite frankly, the plight of anyone beyond his immediate person, however, angrily asks rhetorically, “How about a smile?” Marge, taken aback, insists, “They’ve undergone terrible hardships.” To which Homer scoffs, “Well, moping won’t make it better.”

And that’s the unfortunate paradox of the refugee/migrant epidemic, if you will. These displaced peoples possess some of the most genuine need of anyone on Earth, and therefore, should inspire compassion and pity. However, many well-meaning Americans, relatively well-off, see the enormity of the issue, and judge any contribution they may make as inconsequential. Or they simple lose sight of the problems faced by asylum-seekers worldwide with their own situations to manage. Bills need to get paid. The kids need to get fed. We all need to get throughout the day without killing ourselves or strangling one of our co-workers. There’s only so much time in the day, and when the drudgery of our waking life is behind us, how many of us are willing to confront a topic that is, well, so depressing?

Well, a lot of us aren’t. It’s as with those commercials for the ASCPA or the Humane Society which aired so frequently during the holidays, featuring funereally slow versions of your favorite Christmas tunes and shots of the saddest puppies and kittens shivering in the cold you have ever witnessed. You can’t turn away. You want to reach into the television, unlock to the door to the cage, put your arms around that helpless animal, and bring it right into your living room. And then? The commercial ends. Back to Breaking Bad, or whatever show is playing in a marathon. There’s not enough room in your mind for both thoughts of helpless canines and Walter White building a meth-cooking empire in New Mexico, and unfortunately, one of them has to go. Often, it tends to be the former.

So, what’s the point? Economic refugees and migrants are essentially just a bunch of cats and dogs without a home? No, not exactly, although refugees in particular, like the aforementioned freezing animals of the commercials, are deserving of compassion in their own right. As easy as it is for you and I to turn away from the morning paper with its troublesome headlines, or the nightly news replete with images of the struggles faced by asylum-seekers worldwide, it’s surprisingly straightforward for the target countries of these various peoples who have strayed from home to turn them away or pass them off on a neighboring country. Italy, by planning mass deportations, would have its newfound migrants and refugees become someone else’s problem. Other European nations have taken similar stances toward surging numbers of asylum-seekers, keeping them at bay with physical barriers or otherwise inviting criticism from international human rights watchdogs who have decried both the negation of appeals from these would-be refugees, as well as the all-too-common deplorable conditions at camps designed to hold their numbers.

Even Germany, which has chastised other EU nations for their handling of refugees in the past, is suffering from a bit of an identity crisis, torn between the kind of more permissive policy Angela Merkel and her Christian Democrat supporters have by and large embraced heretofore, and a hard cap embraced by opposing forces in the rival Christian Social Union, itself facing pressure from growing numbers among the nation’s far-right, with the intensity of this internal conflict magnified by present concerns with the nation’s security and terrorist threats after the Berlin attack. In consideration of this, Merkel and her allies have in the past few days floated the notion of a more flexible limit to impose upon acceptance of refugees, as somewhat of a compromise between competing interests in Germany. One would hope this policy shift, should it come to pass, would fare better as a compromise than, say, David Cameron’s concession to the UK Independence Party while still serving as British Prime Minister, which, if you’ll recall, led to a referendum vote on whether or not to leave the EU and a subsequently poor decision by a slender but sufficient majority of UK voters to do just that. Either way, though, that the measure is even being considered is reflective of the larger attitude toward refugees in Europe and elsewhere on Planet Earth, one which appears to be increasingly geared toward isolating them from the rest of the international community. Whether we speak of Germany or Greece or the United States of America, no country is free from ideological differences which put the most vulnerable groups among us in the middle of any discord.

A December 2016 feature by Anealla Safdar and Patrick Strickland for Al Jazeera English proclaimed 2016 as the year the world stopped caring about refugees. A bold statement, but perhaps not wholly undeserved either. The expansive report considers the viewpoints of representatives from a number of interested parties, including experts who work with refugees, representatives from human rights organizations, those concerned with the safe passage of asylum-seekers across waterways and other borders, and even the refugees themselves. And overall, the outlook for 2017 is not all that rosy given what these sources encountered in 2016. From the refugees’ perspective, the general attitude they perceived was one of ambivalence to their situation—countries and their leaders made an outward show of the humanitarian response for which they were apparently responsible, but still essentially wanted the recipients to stay out and/or go back home, even though the literal definition of them being refugees stems from them fleeing destruction and violence. Per Preethi Nallu, editor of Refugees Deeply, an online publication devoted to news about the refugee crisis and the complex issues facing migration, fortifying barriers and militarizing migration hot spots is no long-term solution when smuggling networks would seek to circumvent these controls, further endangering vulnerable peoples.

The hits just keep on coming after that. MSF Sea, Doctors Without Borders’ Mediterranean wing, bluntly assesses 2016 as the year politics and ego won over moral and legal responsibilities to protect migrants and refugees. Bill Frelick, director of Human Rights Watch’s Refugee Rights program, criticizes the types of deals made by the EU and specifically Pakistan to throw Afghani refugees back into the throngs of the displaced, the latter of which went largely unnoticed by the global media in spite of some 400,000 refugees and 250,000 undocumented migrants being ejected from the country. Alarmphone, an activist network and resource for refugees facing distress at sea, highlighted the danger facing those who cross waterways in makeshift craft seeking asylum while affirming their commitment to an inclusive environment for refugees independent of national borders. Milena Zajovic, spokesperson for Are You Syrious?, an informational resource for refugees, expresses her disappointment from those Balkan nations who have undergone the same sorts of violence and situations which have led to refugeeism in the past, only to turn around and refuse refugees in the present. Ramy Abdu, chairman of Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor, points to the ongoing but often overlooked, at least in the context of refugeeism, plight of Palestinians, and highlights the depth of the gulf between a growing consciousness of the refugee crisis for some and a knee-jerk tendency to blame refugees for terroristic violence. Simon Cox, a migration lawyer, like Abdu, sees room for optimism in the determination of refugees and solidarity from non-refugees who defend and support them, but underscores this with a call for serious discussion about issues such as corruption within the foremost origin countries among officials, the revolving door of refugees who are sent to their homeland only to return to where they initially sought asylum, and the tendency of wealthy nations to demand that poorer countries accommodate refugees—all the while obstructing refugees and refusing to accommodate them just the same.

As Safdar and Strickland depict the worldwide refugee situation, then, in terms of 2016 being the “worst year ever,” as far as the sheer numbers of those drowned in the Mediterranean are concerned, this claim is accurate, with more than 5,000 losing their lives to failed crossing attempts. More broadly speaking, though, the response of prominent nations—including that of the United States, which elected a candidate in Donald Trump who has espoused an unkind attitude toward immigrants and refugees—has been characterized by a focus on vague notions of border and economic security at the expense of empathy. Italy, despite its unique challenges owing to its geographic location, seems to be exhibiting signs of the same, if Paolo Gentiloni’s new decree is any indication, and Germany runs the risk of following suit.

So, how do we, as ordinary people, help prevent 2017 from being an even worse than worst year ever for the disenfranchised asylum-seekers of the world? Though national governments and international coalitions should yet be entreated to do their part to care for refugees, as usual, waiting on them to act in substantive, meaningful ways alone seems to be hoping for too much. Awareness and visibility of the refugee/migrant crisis is part of the solution, as is material support for refugees and the organizations that support and defend them. Though I’m sure you’ve seen the advertisements for AT&T featuring Lily, the cute and bubbly sales associate, you may not know the actress who plays her, the Uzbek-born Milana Vayntrub, and her family fled persecution themselves in the Soviet Union before coming to the United States. Not until seeing the waves of refugees and migrants trying to make their way to relative safety in Greece, though, did the extent of the crisis begin to make an impression on her. Her subsequent creation, alongside entrepreneur Eron Zehavi, of Can’t Do Nothing, a charitable organization designed to help everyday individuals assist and make a positive impact on refugees worldwide, is just one of the avenues to facilitate social media outreach, volunteering and donations to benefit those affected by the global refugee crisis.

In talking of those affected by the global refugee crisis, of course, I speak of those directly and personally impacted by the conditions which inform it. But we are all affected by this crisis, as well as the factors which mediate it—climate change, conflict, economic deprivation, statelessness—whether we realize it or choose to ignore it. The question is: which camp are you in?

For more information on Can’t Do Nothing, please visit cantdonothing.org.

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