The U.S. and Canada Should Open Their Borders to Syrian Refugees

bridges-not-walls

Many thanks to Joel Newman and Open Borders: the Case for permission to run this piece.

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I had hoped that the Syrian civil war would produce, against the odds, a democracy which protected the diverse ethnic groups who live in the country. Either non-jihadist democratic Syrian rebels would prevail and be charitable towards those who have supported the Assad government, or an agreement between the rebels and the Syrian regime would transition the country toward democracy.

None of this has materialized, Syria is devastated, and with the oppressive Assad regime firmly in control of the western portions of the country, political progress appears impossible.

According to David Lesch, writing in The New York Times, most Syrians now live in extreme poverty, the unemployment rate is over 50%, half of Syrian children are not enrolled in school, typhoid, tuberculosis, and other diseases are endemic, hundreds of thousands are dead, and millions are injured. Different forces, including the Islamic State, control different parts of the country, and fighting likely will continue between these groups. Hundreds of billions of dollars would be needed to rebuild the country, and Mr. Lesch believes that other countries will not step up to provide reconstruction money.

Not surprisingly, almost five million Syrians have fled their country, not including millions of others who have been displaced within Syria. Almost a million have migrated to Europe. About 18,000 Syrians have been resettled in the U.S., and about 40,000 Syrians have gone to Canada. Most of the refugees are stranded in Turkey (about 2.5 million), Lebanon (about 1 million), and Jordan (about a half million), with limited opportunities to resettle elsewhere.

It is past time for the U.S. and Canada to allow the millions of Syrian refugees living in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan to immigrate to their countries. In addition to the fundamental moral reasons that oblige countries to open their borders to almost all immigrants, there are several compelling reasons why there should be swift acceptance of these refugees.

First, while multiple nations and groups have been involved in the Syrian war, the U.S. bears some responsibility for the catastrophe. Since the U.S. has the world’s mightiest military, it always has the option to intervene and have an impact on a conflict. In Syria, the U.S. intervened by providing some support to rebels fighting the Assad regime, but the intervention never was forceful enough to quickly resolve the conflict.

According to Philip Gordon, who worked on Middle Eastern affairs at the U.S. National Security Council from 2013 to 2015, the U.S. has only prolonged the Syrian war: “… our policy was to support the opposition to the point that it was strong enough to lead the regime and its backers to come to the table and negotiate away the regime. And that was an unrealistic objective…I think it is fair to say that we ended up doing enough to perpetuate a conflict, but not enough to bring it to a resolution.”

The U.S. could have disabled the regime’s air force, as Senator McCain has recently advocated, especially before the Russian military became directly involved in the conflict. That might have saved the lives of many civilians targeted by Syrian aircraft and perhaps led to a settlement between the rebels and the government. (I recognize that direct military action doesn’t always lead to positive outcomes, considering the results in Iraq and Libya.)

In addition, other actions short of direct attacks on the Syrian military could have been undertaken to protect civilians, as Nicholas Kristof has noted. These include creating safe zones in Syria protected by the U.S. military and destroying military runways so Syrian warplanes couldn’t be employed. Accepting Syrian refugees would be some compensation for the U.S. failure in Syria to resolve the conflict and protect civilians.

Second, Syrians in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan are struggling. (Some refugees are also struggling in Greece.) Many children are not able to go to school, it is difficult for adults to get work, and the refugees are becoming impoverished. Some Mercy Corps teams “have seen families living in rooms with no heat or running water, in abandoned chicken coops and in storage sheds.” The desperation of the refugees is reflected in the attempt by many of them to reach Europe by making risky sea crossings, during which some have perished.

The host countries are apparently unwilling and/or unable to incorporate the newcomers into their societies. According to Mercy Corps, in Jordan and Lebanon, “weak infrastructure and limited resources are nearing a breaking point under the strain.”

As to Turkey, one observer stated: “It remains unclear how the embattled country – which is also dealing with declining GDP, multiple attacks, and a war against Kurdish fighters in the southeast – will be able to accommodate nearly three million refugees, the vast majority of whom are young adults and children seeking jobs and education.” The U.S. and Canada, with wealthier economies, more political stability, and a tradition of incorporating immigrants, would provide a better refuge for the Syrians than the Middle Eastern countries.

Third, the rapid migration of Syrian refugees to Canada and the U.S. could diminish the threat of terrorism. It is risky to continue the Obama policy of allowing very few Syrian refugees to enter or maintain the Trump policy, which indefinitely bars Syrian refugees from the country. The longer Syrian refugees are stuck in their host Middle Eastern countries, the greater the risk that they will become radicalized.

According to a Brookings Institution article, “the risk of radicalization is especially heightened where IDPs and refugees find themselves in protracted situations: marginalized, disenfranchised, and excluded. Finding solutions for displaced populations should be an urgent priority for humanitarian reasons but also as a security issue.” (See also here. )

While ideally the Obama administration’s thorough vetting of refugees for admission into the U.S. would continue, its sluggish nature makes it imprudent to maintain. A faster screening process must be implemented in order to bring the refugees into economically advanced, mostly tolerant North America, where they could thrive and become more immune to radicalization.

In addition to rescuing the refugees from potentially radicalizing conditions in the Middle East, there is another mechanism by which admitting them might prevent terrorism. In a previous post, I suggested how open borders could help protect receiving countries from terrorism, including by freeing up resources for screening immigrants for terrorist threats, by improving government relations with Muslim immigrant communities which could assist with stopping terrorism, and by providing more Muslim immigrants who could join Western intelligence agencies. Similarly, admitting Syrian refugees from the Middle East could generate goodwill among the American and Canadian Muslim communities, perhaps resulting in an increase in the number of Muslims willing to assist in preventing terrorism.

Evidence of this may be found in the German government’s recent admittance of over a million immigrants, many of whom are Syrian refugees. This may have earned Germany more support from its Muslim community in efforts to prevent terrorism, according to Robert Verkaik, writing on CNN‘s website. He notes that
“In October last year, two Syrians managed to capture a terror suspect in Leipzig who was planning a bomb attack on German airports… And in November last year, a German Muslim man who had returned from fighting ISIS in Syria provided information to German security services that led to the arrest of a major extremist cell. These examples show that the German security services, in common with agencies across Europe, critically rely on intelligence passed on by members of its Muslim communities”.

He also seems to suggest that a Muslim informant warned the security services about the suspect before the attack on the Berlin Christmas market last year.
Many people are concerned that Syrian refugees could commit acts of terrorism in the U.S. However, they should consider that about half of the refugees are children, who “don’t fit the typical profile for terrorists.” And, as noted elsewhere, most Muslims are peaceful. (Some Syrian refugees are not even Muslim.) Furthermore, Alex Nowrasteh of the Cato Institute has determined, based on historical data, the statistical chance of being killed by a foreigner committing a terrorist act in the U.S.: 1 in 3.6 million per year. For the risk of being killed by such an act by a refugee, the risk is 1 in 3.64 billion per year. If the 9/11 attacks are excluded, “21 foreign-born terrorists succeeded in murdering 41 people from 1975 through 2015.” Nowrasteh’s conclusion is that “foreign-born terrorism on U.S. soil is a low-probability event.” Its risks are minuscule when compared to other causes of death.

It is also notable that, as co-blogger Hansjörg points out, the German experience with the recent influx of Muslim refugees belies the predictions by restrictionists that their admittance would result in lots of terrorist acts there. Hansjörg notes that the number of lethal Islamist terrorist attacks in Germany (ever) is in the low single digits. There is minimal risk involved for Canada and the U.S. to accept millions of Syrian refugees, even without consideration for the aforementioned ways their admittance could actually help prevent terrorism.

Furthermore, it might be better for the Syrian refugees to go to North America than to some European countries. Many argue that the U.S. does a better job than European countries at integrating immigrants. One writer notes that “the conditions of Muslims in some European countries can create fertile breeding grounds for extremism, whereas societies with more-integrated Muslim populations like the United States are less susceptible.” (See also here, here, and here.) David Frum, writing in The Atlantic, states: “Europe is coping poorly with its large population of alienated, under-employed, and in some cases radicalized Muslim immigrants and their children. It seems then the zenith of recklessness to make that population larger still.”

Another writer even suggests that radical Muslims in Europe will infect Syrian refugees with their ideology, although he proposes vigorous integration efforts rather than exclusion from Europe.
At the same time, some are sanguine about European integration of its Muslim residents. Shada Islam of Friends of Europe asserts: “Make no mistake; while extremists of all ilk may decry multi-cultural Europe, the process of adaptation, accommodation, integration, of Europe and Islam is already well underway… Europe’s once solely security-focused approach to dealing with Muslims has been replaced with a more balanced view that includes an integration agenda and migrant outreach programmes.”

Similarly, co-blogger Hansjörg, who lives in Germany, states that “on the whole, my personal impression is that integration works quite well also in Europe. There is a tendency, especially in the US (but also in Europe from those who are critical), to present this as a story of severe problems, divides that cannot be bridged, etc. I don’t think that is true (not to say there are not some problems).”
Finally, admitting millions of Syrian refugees into the U.S. and Canada may not be very disruptive in other respects.

A study for the Centre for European Economic Research on the recent migrant influx into Germany has found that there are “no signs of quick and clear deleterious effects in Germany post ‘migrant crisis’ involving, as the authors conclude, ‘more than a million’ migrants entering Germany in 2014-15 on native employment, crime, or anti-immigrant politics specifically linked to the presence of migrants on the county level.” In the U.S. it is notable that “eleven percent of Syrian immigrants to the U.S. own businesses, according to a new report from the Fiscal Policy Institute and the Center for American Progress. That compares to four percent of immigrants overall and three percent of people born in the United States.” According to one Syrian immigrant, self reliance is emphasized in Syrian culture, a trait that is compatible with American culture. Moreover, a research director at the Fiscal Policy Institute states that Syrian immigrants in the U.S. have generally been successful and could help the refugees adapt to life here.
The economic impact on the U.S. actually could be positive.

People throughout the U.S. welcome refugees because they know from experience the beneficial effect that refugees have on communities, according to David Miliband, president of the International Rescue Committee. He writes that “to take one example, over the course of a decade, refugees created at least 38 new businesses in the Cleveland area alone. In turn, these businesses created an additional 175 jobs, and in 2012 provided a $12 million stimulus to the local economy.” In Rutland, Vermont, the mayor has advocated resettling refugees from Syria and Iraq in his city to help address a declining and aging city population. Population loss there could lead employers like General Electric to leave the city. (A 2013 post looks at efforts by various American cities to attract immigrants in order to help their economies.)

In summary, allowing millions of Syrian refugees to enter the U.S. and Canada not only would be morally warranted, it could minimize the risk of future terrorism, relieve the suffering of many, and enrich both countries. Unfortunately, the Trump administration is moving in the opposite direction, with Trump ordering an indefinite stop to the entry of Syrian refugees into the U.S. The longer he blocks their entry, the greater the perils for both the refugees and the West.

(Joel Newman has a bachelor’s degree in history from Pomona College and works as a teacher in Beaverton, Oregon, USA).

Opposing Brexit: the demarcation that matters

“In making these arguments we redraw the borders, from political demarcations of territory, to political demarcations between those who benefit from capitalism and have an interest in it being maintained, and the vast majority of us who do not”

– Chris Gilligan, Open Letter on Spiked‘s ‘Leave the EU’ campaign, March 2016.

 

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The following ‘open letter’, which Spiked declined to publish, is republished with permission of Marxist-Humanist Initiative. I’m not all that interested in the question of whether Spiked should or should not publish the letter – Spiked campaigns for Brexit – but I like the points made by the writer, Chris Gilligan, in disagreement with Spiked.

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Popular sovereignty requires vigorous debate – Chris Gilligan
I wrote this open letter as a contribution to the vigorous debate that Brendan O’Neill and Spiked claim that they want to promote. I think that O’Neill’s refusal to publish the open letter suggests that Spiked’s commitment to free speech and rigorous debate is bigger on rhetoric than it is on substance. Read O’Neill’s editorial, then read my criticism (below) and decide for yourself.

Open Letter on Spiked‘s ‘Leave the EU’ campaign

by Chris Gilligan

Dear Spiked,
I see that you are campaigning for the United Kingdom (UK) to leave the European Union (EU). According to an editorial by Brendan O’Neill Spiked are urging a Brexit on the grounds, (‘which trumps all of those reasons to stay, and trumps them hard’), that the EU thwarts ‘popular sovereignty, the crucial right of a people to consent to the political system they are governed by’. O’Neill tells us that we should vote to leave if we ‘think people should determine their political destinies’, if we ‘are optimistic about the future’, if we ‘prefer the adventure of uncertainty over the dull predictability of expert-delivered diktats’, and if we ‘prefer politics to be lively and unpredictable rather than paper-pushing and aloof’. All of this sounds great. But, and this is a BIG but, how is a vote to leave going to achieve any of these things? The reality is that a Brexit is not going to reinvigorate democracy in the UK.

The EU referendum has not come about because of any popular agitation. There is no popular demand for a Brexit, and no popular desire to remain in the EU. The EU referendum has come about because of machinations within the Conservative Party, fuelled in part by the rise of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). This elite concern regarding the EU is not because of the anti-democratic nature of the EU or its disdain of ordinary people, the political elite in the UK (from all the main parties) share this disdain and have for years been busying themselves with eroding democracy in the UK. The EU is not the problem, it is symptomatic of a deeper problem, which O’Neill acknowledges when he says that ‘The EU both expresses and expands the 21st-century crisis of democracy’. Taking sides in the referendum implies that the EU is the problem, rather than a symptom.

If we take the example of migration, arguably the one issue on which there has been some popular engagement with the referendum debate, we can see that the UK has done much more than the EU to stifle debate on this issue. Spiked Deputy Editor, Tom Slater, partially acknowledges this when he says that ‘immigration policy is the sharpest expression of the anti-democratic sentiment of European elites. This is particularly keen in the UK, where New Labour’s relaxing of the borders in the 2000s reflected not only an open contempt for popular sovereignty, but a barely veiled disgust for the blob-like demos itself’. The UK, not the EU, has been at the forefront of an anti-democratic approach to immigration. The New Labour government did display open contempt for popular sovereignty. Blair, Mandelson and the other career politicians of New Labour consolidated the anti-democratic internal operation of the Labour Party and treated the electorate as passive fodder who only needed to be mobilised at election time. They continued the trajectory, begun under Margaret Thatcher, of moving ever increasing areas of public life outside of the realm of public accountability.

Slater is too one-sided when he says that New Labour relaxed the borders in the 2000s. What they did was relax immigration controls for specific kinds of immigration, principally labour migration, while they toughened them for asylum-seekers and others who were deemed ‘illegal’ or unproductive. They introduced immigration controls that operate on the basis of encouraging those who would bring an immediate monetary benefit to the UK and deterring those who were deemed to be a potential burden to the public purse. New Labour initiated the policy of ‘managed migration’, (which continued under the Con-Dem coalition and now under the current Conservative government), in an attempt to treat immigration in a technocratic manner. It was designed to depoliticise the issue of immigration, not to make it into a political issue. The Conservatives have continued this ‘managed migration’ approach, but argue that in the context of austerity the UK does not have the capacity to absorb as many labour migrants as previously.

Slater is correct when he says that ‘if we want to open the borders, we need to win the argument first’. Where, however, is the radical, progressive argument in favour of open borders? Slater doesn’t provide us with an argument. During the ‘migrant crisis’ of 2015 and 2016 members of the public signed online petitions, sent money,visited the camps in Calais, joined protests, and even offered shelter in their own homes. These are actions that involve more than simply putting an X on a ballot paper. What has Spiked had to say about these examples of popular sovereignty in action? They have been disparaged as exercises ‘in charity and public empathy, rather than a political issue about freedom of movement and human autonomy’. Protestors have been told that if they ‘want to help refugees’ they should ‘stop sobbing’. These arguments from Spiked read like barely veiled disgust for the demos, not like arguments for open borders.

Spiked is for open borders, but …. As Brendan O’Neill put it in September 2015: ‘spiked is about as open borders as you can get. But in Europe right now, there is a bigger problem than border control, and that is the cynical weakening of national borders, and of the popular sovereignty within those national borders’. This is an evasion of the difficult arguments. It is easier to rail against the bureaucrats in Brussels than make the case for open borders. It is easier to be cynical about the limitations of popular expressions of human empathy, than to engage with this empathy to make the case for a human-centred world. Spiked never engages with the difficult arguments on migration. What do we say to people who feel the harsh grind of austerity measures when they say that we can’t take in refugees because there is not enough to go around? We need to challenge this culture of limits, not by arguing for capitalist growth, but by pointing out that it is not immigrants who are responsible for austerity. We need to challenge the idea that there is not enough to go around and instead ask why the vast wealth that capitalism generates does not trickle down to the vast majority of society? In making these arguments we redraw the borders, from political demarcations of territory, to political demarcations between those who benefit from capitalism and have an interest in it being maintained, and the vast majority of us who do not.

Instead of recommending a vote to leave, it would be better to focus on the substantive issue and use the opportunity to argue for open borders, regardless of whether we are in or out of the EU. A more radical and progressive approach to the referendum would be to engage with the desire of the mass of people for a better world and repose the issue. Calling for the UK to ‘Leave’ only lends legitimacy to the elites’ pretence that the EU is the substantive issue.

Opening the borders – is it really unpopular?

The notion of opening borders is no longer a fringe idea of those on the Marxist Left and classical liberal Right. It has been implemented by Europe’s power-house and, to her great credit, Germany’s Chancellor Merkel is standing by her policy. And recent state elections and opinion polls show that the German people are not repudiating her. 

open borders x

 

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The Christian Democrat Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, opened Germany’s borders to more than a million asylum seekers, mostly those fleeing the barrel bombs of the fascist regime in Syria.

The recent elections in three German states resulted in a new right-wing party, the AfD (Alternative fur Deutschland) which opposes the ‘open borders’ policy, receiving 25% of the vote in one electorate, 15% and 12% in the other two.

Googling ‘Merkel’ and ‘elections’, the headlines overwhelmingly suggest this is a defeat for Merkel’s open borders policy: a “disaster” for her. She has been “punished” by the voters for her open borders’ stance. So say the media headlines.

Yet further examination of the actual results in the three electorates – Saxony-Anhalt, Rhineland-Palatinate and Baden-Wuerttenberg – indicate that the results are a defeat for those who claimed the new party represents the silent majority.

In the elections, opponents of Merkel’s policy had their chance to test public opinion. And the result shows that they are marginal, averaging less than 15% of the vote.

It is true that the Christian Democrats, Merkel’s party, were defeated in Baden-Wuerttenberg. But they lost to the Green Party, which supported Merkel’s policy. Yes, they lost in Rhineland-Palatinate to the Social Democrats but the Christian Democrat candidate, Julia Klockner, stood as an opponent of her party leader’s open borders stance. The Social Democrat candidate was more favourably disposed to it.

In Saxony-Anhalt, the AfD did well with a quarter of the vote, but Merkel’s party came first with only a minor reduction in the Christian Democrat vote.

Moreover, opinion polls find that Merkel’s popularity hovers around the 50% mark. Currently, her approval rating is 54%.

A poll of voters about refugee policy in the three electorates found that Merkel’s approval rating is 58% in Rhineland-Palatinate, 54% in Baden-Wuerttenberg and 43% in Sachsen-Anhalt.

So, here we have a Chancellor who has shown that borders can be opened and, despite the inevitable chaos, the masses do not run from that Chancellor and her policy in anger and fear. Only a minority does that.

What Merkel has done is to change the paradigm of the debate over immigration and borders. Not just in Germany but everywhere.

The notion of opening borders is no longer a fringe idea of those on the Marxist Left and classical liberal Right. It has been implemented by Europe’s power-house and, to her great credit, Chancellor Merkel is standing by her policy. And the German people are not repudiating her.

She understands that ‘they’ are ‘us’ and ‘we’ are ‘they’, and that sharing the chaos does not preclude supporting measures to tackle the problem at its main source: the Assad regime.

She recently said that a million people is not many when you consider that Europe’s population is 500 million. The pity is that other governments are closing their borders rather than sharing the chaos caused by barrel bombs in a not-too-distant land.

Don’t let them into our country! (via Pussy Riot)

I am a facebook friend of Pussy Riot. They rock. In every way. What enormous courage to stand up to an ultra-rightwing thug like Putin. Anyway, someone wrote a piece on their facebook page about ‘open borders’. I liked the rhythm and have broken it down, restructured the text, to see if it works as a form of poetry. I reckon it does. The words and message are passionate and no-nonsense. And on the rigth side of history. That’s Pussy Riot!

****

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“Don’t let them into our country!”

Why is it YOURS, though?
Some office handed you a piece of paper,
so you believe,
all innocently,
that it’s yours?
By birthright,
or bloodright, maybe?
Blood and soil?
Are you serious?
Isn’t it terrifying trying to justify yourself that way?

“Lucky me, too bad for you,”
you tell the Syrian girl
who crossed
five
national
borders
to end up in your country.

“Ha! You’re such a loser,
and I’m fucking awesome!”

That Syrian girl
crawled up
and over
a barbed-wire fence
on the Hungarian border.
She fell and broke her arm.
She got up,
but the Hungarian cops
grabbed her.
They sent her to court,
and under a new law
passed by Putin’s little buddy
Orban,
she could get up to three years in jail
for crossing the border.

“Tough luck,
but I’ve got blood and soil,”
you tell her.

Should people have the right
to choose where they’re going to live?
Some office tells you,
“Look at all those illegals swarming in!”
But can a person ever actually be
illegal?

(translated by Shelley Fairweather-Vega)

Junk the international refugee system, and open the borders (reblogged from Open Borders: the Case)

Nothing about the modern refugee system makes sense. The way I see it, we have two choices. Either we can accept that, as much as we wish otherwise, we are little better than the governments of World War II who chose to let people fleeing violence die and suffer, in the name of “national defence” and “sovereign borders”. Or we can accept that every human being has the right to pursue a better life, as long as they are willing to pay the price to get there — the price of their ticket, and the price of lodging.

****

Refugee and asylum are hot topics these days, with conflict across the world and criminal violence often forcing people to set off for distant lands in search of a better life. It seems to me that most people arguing this issue operate under two misapprehensions regarding how refugee law works:

  1. They believe that refugees don’t have very particular or special rights to migrate under the law — refugees crossing a border without submitting to inspection is unlawful, and countries don’t have special obligations to accept refugees who set foot on their territory.
  2. They believe that international and domestic law adequately protects the rights of refugees, and that most of the problems to do with refugee and asylum-seeker rights originate from governments failing to adhere to their legal obligations, rather than any fundamental failing of refugee law.

Remarkably, I’ve encountered people who hold both views. Usually adherents of #1 are people who don’t know much about refugee law, and/or anti-immigration restrictionists, while adherents of #2 are generally mainstream left liberals. But there are certainly some people who appear to hold both sets of beliefs (possibly because they completely misunderstand both how refugee law works and the actual situation refugees face).

It’s actually pretty easy to debunk belief #1 — international law, and the domestic law of most developed countries (the US included) gives anyone fleeing persecution or torture the right to seek and obtain asylum outside their home country, becoming a refugee. You need to do nothing special to enter another country. If you have a legitimate refugee claim, crossing the border without initially obtaining any papers or passing any government inspection is completely legal. (If you think this doesn’t make sense, then consider that it wouldn’t make sense to prevent people from fleeing the Holocaust because their papers at the time weren’t in order.)

After you’ve left your home country and entered the country you’d like to seek asylum in, you must begin the formal process of obtaining refugee status — i.e., you have to start filling out forms and making your case for asylum. In most cases, this means a judge or other government official has to formally rule that you are a legitimate refugee. If they do, then you’re typically scot free and become a legal immigrant under the country’s immigration laws. If the judge rules you’re not a legitimate refugee — maybe the violence you fled wasn’t the right kind of violence — then you’ll be sent home.

Sometimes, you might not want to resettle permanently in the country you initially flee to. In some cases, governments, charities, and/or international bodies will help you migrate elsewhere under a formal refugee resettlement programme. This is usually centrally managed or planned by some large government or intergovernment bureaucracy.

Most countries are reluctant to help refugees resettle; the United Kingdom for example has said it will only resettle 500 refugees from Syria — a country beset by a civil war which has displaced millions of innocents. (“Displaced” of course is an euphemism for “forced millions to leave their home under the threat of murder, rape, or torture”.) As a result, the queues for resettlement are long and few refugees have any serious prospect for being resettled elsewhere — which is why most Syrian refugees are trapped in Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon.

What I’ve just described is not fanciful or imagined — it’s the international refugee system as codified in international law and the domestic law of many countries. The “illegals” who show up in your waters on rickety boats or cross the desert straddling your border are, in many cases, people with legitimate asylum claims — which makes what they’re doing completely legal. They are no more wrong than a Jew fleeing the Holocaust would have been in trying to get to your country.

Now, it seems funky that I think the belief #2 I described is wrong. This system of refugee management has its flaws like any human creation, but it certainly sounds like it would, if implemented properly and in good faith, enable refugees to migrate away from persecution and violence. The line it draws between refugees and those seeking to migrate for other reasons is perhaps arbitrary, but not unreasonable on the face of it — if we had to pick and choose only one type of migrant for some reason, most of us would probably agree we ought to welcome the person fleeing murder.

But in the real world, it turns out that figuring out which side of this arbitrary line one is on can be difficult. It’s actually unclear, for example, whether child migrants to the US fleeing gang violence in El Salvador (“fleeing gang violence” here being an euphemism for “running away from people who’ve threatened to rape and then kill them”) actually legally qualify for refugee status. Even if they don’t, they arguably qualify for other protective status of some kind offered by US immigration law, but this is hardly a well-settled legal issue.

Some refugee advocates think the US government should offer special parole to these Latin American migrants, since they don’t fit any typical legal category of refugee. Others, like the UN and even the president of Honduras, argue that although they might not meet the technical definition of refugee, these people certainly fit the spirit and intention of refugee law, and should be classified as such.

Putting aside the thorny issue of child asylum-seekers for the moment, let’s reflect on the ludicrousness of the fact that most countries will not permit anyone claiming refugee status to actually legally travel there. If you enter irregularly, you can fully assert your legal right to stay — but it is illegal for you to travel in order to assert this legal right of asylum!

Say you want to fly from Guatemala to the US, or from Syria to the US, you need a visa. If you can’t prove you have the legal right to travel to the US, no airline or shipping company will issue you a ticket. Since almost all refugees can’t prove they have this right — thanks to the legal system requiring you to be present on the country’s territory to assert your asylum claim — almost all refugees and asylum-seekers are compelled to enter via irregular means, and seek out the aid of smugglers.

The refugees or migrants undertaking an arduous and dangerous journey from Somalia to Italy or Guatemala to the US do so not because they are criminals who have to resort to illegal means by virtue of their own evil — they do so because there is no legal way for them to travel to the US. Some refugees and asylum-seekers resort to other types of crime to travel in search of safety — I have heard stories of Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka flying to Western countries by faking fraudulent tourist or immigrant visas in their passports. After boarding their flight using this false documentation, they destroy the fraudulent documents, and claim asylum upon landing. This sort of fraud or human smuggling is just the perfectly-foreseeable and indefensible outcome of a legal system which criminalises the ordinary travel of people who already have the legal right to migrate.

Worse still, any good faith implementation of this legal system still must grapple with the problem of differentiating legitimate refugees from mere “economic migrants” or people seeking to reunite with family. Since international refugee law is silent about the rights of non-refugee migrants, even countries following this legal system in good faith feel free to persecute economic migrants. So if, say, the US government takes measures to deter Latin Americans from coming, this will inevitably discourage not just economic migrants. This will also discourage those who already have the legal right to migrate from exercising those legal rights accorded to them under US and international law. And there’s nothing wrong with this under refugee law, because state violence and coercion of economic migrants is perfectly fine.

To put the implications here in more concrete terms, ostensibly civilised developed countries really do try hard to intercept migrants — almost indiscriminately — before they reach their soil. If you can keep a potential asylum-seeker from touching land, then you can prevent them from ever asserting an asylum claim in the first place — even if they would be completely entitled to do so under your country’s laws. The international refugee system creates a perverse incentive to try very hard to keep refugees from coming, by offering this as a legal channel to stop them. And while states can certainly go overboard in taking harsh measures here, virtually all of them can find some ostensibly good-faith justification for doing so. After all, they aren’t intercepting these migrants for the sake of punishing refugees — they just want to stop economic migration!

This is exactly why Australia tries very hard, for example, to intercept migrants before they reach its waters, and to “process” any asylum claims offshore in countries like Nauru. While what they are doing might run afoul of the spirit of the law, Australia claims to be abiding by the exact letter of international and domestic refugee law. Similarly, the coast guards of European states like Greece and Italy often work to intercept migrants’ boats before they enter their waters — and if these boats do enter their waters, it is not unheard of for the coast guard to actually tow them back out. Such tows or “pushbacks” are actually illegal under refugee law, but there is nothing to prevent the coast guard from doing this, and there’s a very strong incentive to keep these people from touching land and asserting any claims of asylum.

Finally, the international refugee system in at least one important respect appears to be a figleaf for rich countries to disguise how they foist the responsibility for dealing with refugees onto poorer countries. Consider the present Syrian refugee crisis: millions of Syrians have been forced to flee their homes. Many of them live in camps in Syria. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, more have fled to Turkey, Lebanon, or Jordan, and become refugees there.

Under refugee law, these people are now trapped in the country they’ve initially claimed asylum in. The governments of Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan aren’t trying to gas them to death like Bashar Assad is, nor are they trying to oppress them in the way the Islamic State is presently doing in parts of Iraq and Syria. So these people have no legal way to leave the countries they initially flee to — and Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan just have to deal with these populations.

In theory, the UN and various governments would work together to help resettle these refugees elsewhere in the world, so they don’t just burden the countries immediately next to the calamity that caused them to flee. In practice, rich countries like the UK agree to take a couple hundred refugees and call it a day.

People claim that taking refugees would overwhelm their countries. People from the West and other richer countries (like my own, Malaysia) can give all sorts of great excuses for why they cannot take in more than a few hundred refugees. But Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon had no choice but to take in hundreds of thousands of refugees — this was and is their obligation under international law. Short of the conflict ending, there is no way for these migrants to leave. If a refugee living in Jordan or Turkey tries to migrate elsewhere, they can be legally rejected and treated as a mere “illegal” — they’re just “economic migrants”, not real “refugees”, since the governments of Jordan and Turkey don’t actually try to kill these people.

I won’t argue that these countries are perfect, or that they’ve been perfectly able to cope with these inflows, but it’s plain as day that these refugee flows have not caused a humanitarian disaster to befall the nationals of these countries. I don’t see masses of Turks, Jordanians, or Lebanese starving or going without shelter because of resources diverted to caring for Syrian refugees. If these poor and relatively small countries can cope with hundreds of thousands of refugees, it is frankly absurd that far richer and larger countries like Australia, Canada, the US, or the UK — or even Malaysia — can only cope with taking in a few hundred. Yet this absurdity is exactly what the international refugee system would recommend.

The international refugee system was meant to protect the rights of refugees to seek refuge from violence. Yet the outcome has been something quite plainly different. People seeking asylum from countries like Syria or Afghanistan who are caught by Australia and “processed” offshore live in detention camps where the conditions are so terrible that they often wish they’d never come — which is likely the desired effect from the Australian government’s point of view. Children fleeing threats of rape or murder from places like Honduras are now at risk of being deported back to face their assailants, simply because they might not technically be refugees. Governments pursue harsh measures to deter channels for migration, in the name of “legitimately” excluding economic migrants, even if these harsh measures force legitimate refugees to undertake arduous and dangerous journeys which leave them at the mercy of illicit smugglers and violent criminals.

Now, of course, you could argue that it’s only “fair” to take some measures to deter economic migration, even if harming a few refugees is the resulting collateral damage. Refugee advocate Sonia Nazario vehemently demands the deportation of economic migrants. The operative assumption seems to be that these migrants aren’t fleeing “real” danger or suffering.

I’ll let journalist Stephan Faris field this one, from his book Homelands: The Case for Open Immigration:

Life expectancy in [Nigeria] is 52 years, the 17th lowest in the world, compared with 79 years in the United States and 83 years in Italy. Out of every eight children born in the country, one dies before his or her fifth birthday. Only three out of every five adults are able to read and write. The chance a woman will die as a result of childbirth is better than 1 in 30.

If those numbers were a result of government persecution—if a state were intentionally targeting a specific ethnic group, cutting thirty years off the lives of its members, depriving 40 percent of them of an education, and poisoning and killing one child in eight and one mother in thirty—there would be little question that those who managed to escape were deserving of safety and protection.

And yet, if a Nigerian requests asylum in Europe or the United States, he or she faces an uphill battle. For the vast majority of Nigeria’s young and able, the legal routes of travel to safety and a better life, to places where women can give birth without worrying about dying or losing a child, have been securely barred.

The modern refugee system at its heart is incapable of assisting many fleeing truly horrific danger and suffering.

If a murderous dictator wants to murder your child, and you’re willing to pay thousands of dollars to smugglers who specialise in human trafficking via life-threatening desert or sea routes so your child can make it to Western soil, you might be able to make a claim of asylum and save his or her life.

But if your child dies from diarrhea because his parents were forced to live in a country with terrible health infrastructure and a poor medical system, then that’s totally fair. Any attempt you might have made to bring him to a country where doctors actually know how to treat diarrhea would have been mere “economic migration” — an unlawful act!

Development economist Lant Pritchett captures the absurdity well in his book Let Their People Come:

Amartya Sen has popularized the notion of “missing women” in Asia due to differential death rates and (increasingly) sex-selective abortion. Because the child mortality rate in India is about 100 per 1,000 while it is 8 per 1,000 in the United States, this implies that 92 per 1,000 more Indian children than U.S. children die before age five. This means there are 2.2 million missing Indian children each year. However, while the “missing women” is a standard refrain, I have never heard the term “missing Indians” to describe the results of the child mortality differentials between the rich world and India.

Almost as a perfect reductio ad absurdum, Nicolas Kristof in the New York Times has compared the low mortality rates in the United States to the even lower mortality rates in Singapore to discuss the issue of less than 20,000 missing Americans — with no mention of the issue that is smaller by orders of magnitude than the missing people in any poor country.

Nothing about the modern refugee system makes sense. The way I see it, we have two choices. Either we can accept that, as much as we wish otherwise, we are little better than the governments of World War II who chose to let people fleeing violence die and suffer, in the name of “national defence” and “sovereign borders”. Or we can accept that every human being has the right to pursue a better life, as long as they are willing to pay the price to get there — the price of their ticket, and the price of lodging.

Trying to arbitrarily redefine migration as a privilege accessible only to “legitimate” refugees is no way to protect human rights. Drawing this arbitrary line is merely an excuse for tolerating government oppression of innocent migrants, even the actual refugees among them. If we really care about human rights and the rights of refugees, then we ought to just junk the international refugee system — and open the borders.

Related reading

You might be interested in all our blog posts tagged refugees.

Here are a few posts in particular that might interest you:

“No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark” A poem by a refugee (via Radio Free Syria)

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“HOME”
(by Warsan Shire)

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well
your neighbours running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats
the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory
is holding a gun bigger than his body
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.
no one leaves home unless home chases you
fire under feet
hot blood in your belly
it’s not something you ever thought of doing
until the blade burnt threats into
your neck
and even then you carried the anthem under
your breath
only tearing up your passport in an airport toilets
sobbing as each mouthful of paper
made it clear that you wouldn’t be going back.
you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
under trains
beneath carriages
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey.
no one crawls under fences
no one wants to be beaten
pitied
no one chooses refugee camps
or strip searches where your
body is left aching
or prison,
because prison is safer
than a city of fire
and one prison guard
in the night
is better than a truckload
of men who look like your father
no one could take it
no one could stomach it
no one skin would be tough enough
the
go home blacks
refugees
dirty immigrants
asylum seekers
sucking our country dry
niggers with their hands out
they smell strange
savage
messed up their country and now they want
to mess ours up
how do the words
the dirty looks
roll off your backs
maybe because the blow is softer
than a limb torn off
or the words are more tender
than fourteen men between
your legs
or the insults are easier
to swallow
than rubble
than bone
than your child body
in pieces.
i want to go home,
but home is the mouth of a shark
home is the barrel of the gun
and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore
unless home told you
to quicken your legs
leave your clothes behind
crawl through the desert
wade through the oceans
drown
save
be hunger
beg
forget pride
your survival is more important
no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
saying-
leave,
run away from me now
i dont know what i’ve become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here.
by Somali poet Warsan Shire

Source: Radio Free Syria

Let them in!

“What we have here is not a serious debate about border controls or free movement, but rather a clash between those who want to demonise migrants and those who want to infantilise them”. (Reprinted with permission from Spiked )

 

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Following a week in which an eye-watering 1,000 migrants are thought to have perished in the Mediterranean, European officials and observers are frantically asking ‘What can be done?’, as if it’s a difficult question. But it isn’t. If you want to stop these terrible deaths at sea, there’s a simple solution: liberalise Europe’s approach to immigration; be as open as possible to the arrival of these budding workers and aspiring citizens from Africa and the Middle East. That is what can be done, and must be done.

Following the drowning of 400 migrants last week after their boat from Libya capsized, and the deaths of 700 more at the weekend, even politicians and commentators who normally turn a blind eye to this mayhem in the Mediterranean have had to address it. But their explanations for the drownings, and their solutions for preventing future deaths, leave much to be desired. Some pin the blame on what British PM David Cameron called the ‘appalling human traffickers’, those chancers who charge migrants a fortune for the trek and boat-trip to Europe. More liberal-leaning observers claim it was Europe’s cutting-back on rescue missions in the Med which contributed to the recent heightened death toll. ‘Stop the traffickers!’, says Cameron; ‘Restart the rescue!’, say people who are critical of Cameron. Both ignore the underlying problem, the thing that empowers the traffickers in the first place and which makes rescue missions necessary: Europe’s erection of a foreigner-deflecting forcefield around its shores. Unable, or unwilling, to criticise Fortress Europe, the political class instead obsesses over its symptoms.

Over the past two decades, thousands of non-European migrants have died as a consequence of Fortress Europe, of the EU’s seafaring policing of all immigration from Africa and Asia. Between 1993 and the end of 2012, there were 17,306 deaths of non-European migrants either during their journey to Europe or while in jail after they arrived. Some froze to death while stowed away in planes; others fell from the bottom of high-speed trains they were clinging to; many drowned off the coast of Italy. This grim death toll has risen enormously since 2012: hundreds more have drowned, most notably on boats from Libya, that place Cameron and Co said they had liberated and prevented from becoming a ‘failed pariah state festering on Europe’s southern border’. In truth, Cameron’s war turned Libya into a deeply divided post-state, in which an incredible third of the population have fled, mainly to Tunisia. Those who try to flee to Europe — into the arms of their supposed liberators — risk death or arrest.

This week, European officials will meet to discuss the migrant crisis, and, if Cameron’s comments are anything to go by, their focus will be on increasing rescue missions while clamping down on ‘the terrible people-traffickers’ who are apparently ‘at the heart of this problem’. This is perverse. The traffickers who, for a hefty price, give migrants a risky passage to Europe are only parasitical on the true heart of the problem, which is the closure of Europe to most non-European migrants. As an Italian commentator said following the deaths of more than 200 people off the coast of Italy in October 2013: ‘What brings thousands of people to trust criminals, pay them 10 times more than they would pay for a comfortable seat on a ferry or airplane, and risk their lives? The overarching answer, in its brutal obviousness, is that they may not legally get on those planes and ferries.’

On the other side of the political spectrum, among left-leaning observers and NGOs like Save the Children, it’s argued that it was the winding-down of sea-rescue missions that made the Mediterranean so dangerous. At the end of last year, the EU-backed, Italian-run rescue mission known as Mare Nostrum was scaled back and replaced by Triton, a smaller border patrol directly overseen by the EU, and apparently this is the problem: #RestartTheRescue goes the hashtag.

But this also makes no sense. Hundreds were drowning in the Med even when these so-called rescue missions were up and running. ‘So called’ because in fact many of the rescue missions now so nostalgically recalled by liberal observers were in fact border-policing operations. Alongside Italian navy forces, Frontex, the vast organisation that oversees EU member states’ collective efforts to police Europe’s external borders, carried out ‘rescue missions’ that were in fact policing in disguise, designed to be a deterrent to those aspiring to come to Europe. As a collection ofpro-immigration NGOs complained in 2008, ‘much of the rescue work by Frontex is in fact incidental to [its] deterrence campaign’, a deterrence campaign that was ‘so broad [and] so undiscriminating’ that often Frontex simply forced migrant boats back to their country of departure. These rescue missions were less about saving migrants than they were about saving Europe from migrants. Many boats got into trouble precisely while trying to avoid these ‘rescues’.

Yet now, liberal observers say #RestartTheRescues, or #DontLetThemDrown. That’s it? Don’t let them drown? Just as Cameron’s focus on wicked people-smugglers detracts attention from why migrants have to be smuggled — because they’re not allowed to enter Europe legally — so the other side’s call for better rescue services overlooks the bigger issue of why so many hundreds of people cram themselves on to unsafe boats to cross the Med. Both sides merely troubleshoot the consequences of a massive political problem they seem incapable of addressing: the existence of Fortress Europe.

What we have here is not a serious debate about border controls or free movement, but rather a clash between those who want to demonise migrants and those who want to infantilise them. On one side, right-leaning politicians, and a certain inflammatory newspaper columnist, depict either migrants or their facilitators as evil people. On the other side, NGOs and broadsheet observers treat them as victims, in need of rescue and some TLC from caring campaigners. Witness Save the Children’s obsessive focus on the children on these boats and the ‘emotional damage’ they may have suffered. This focus on the dependants gives the distinct impression that the migrants in general are a non-autonomous, helpless blob, and it allows Western liberals to imagine themselves in the role of saviour, rescuer of weak black people. As the photography expert Patricia Holland once said of the tendency of reporters in disaster zones to focus on children: ‘As the children in the image reveal their vulnerability, we long to protect them and provide for their needs.’ So it is in the discussion of the migrant crisis. If anything, liberals’ infantilisation of the migrants is worse than certain politicians’ demonisation of them, since the latter at least recognises that the migrants and their facilitators have some autonomy.

We shouldn’t demonise or infantilise these migrants. We should celebrate them for exercising their autonomy in very difficult circumstances and making a conscious decision to take a very risky journey to Europe. They want to come to this continent so badly that they’re willing to trek across deserts and sail across vast seas, and how do we repay their burning aspiration to join us? By criminalising them or patronising them, negating their desire for citizenship in a new world by treating them either as demons or infants, in need of punishment or parenting. That’s enough. We shouldn’t pity these migrants; we should admire them, for using guile, gumption and perseverance to come here. They’re precisely the kind of people sluggish Europe needs more of, an antidote to our students who can’t even clap without having a mental breakdown and our new generation who think that being told to ‘get on your bike’ to look for a job is tantamount to abuse. Let’s relax the borders and let them in to try their luck in our countries and see how they fare. If we do that, we’ll put the traffickers out of business, end the deaths in the Mediterranean, and, more importantly, do our part to enable the aspirations of human beings who have committed no crime other than wanting to realise their potential in our towns, our cities, alongside us.

Brendan O’Neill is the editor of spiked.