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).

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)

Care about refugees? Listen to them. Syrians are primarily fleeing Assad!

First survey (of Syrian refugees in Germany) shows Syrians are fleeing from Assad, not Isis. Nearly all want to go home. Republished from the diary.thesyriacampaign.org

 

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Syrian refugees don’t want to stay in Europe. But unless politicians start listening to why they’re fleeing and what needs to happen for them to go home, many more will come.
 
 
Here are six key results from the first ever survey of Syrian refugees in Europe (full results below):
 
1. Most Syrians are fleeing from Assad, not Isis

Contrary to what you might read in the papers, it’s not the media-grabbing brutality of Isis that most people are fleeing from. It’s the much larger scale, state organised violence of the Assad regime that is driving most people from their homes.

70% are fleeing the violence of the Assad regime and its allies (32% Isis, 18% Free Syrian Army, 17% Al Nusra, 8% Kurdish forces).

2. Most fear arrest or kidnap by the Assad regime

All armed groups have been involved in detention and disappearances in Syria, but none to the extent of Bashar al-Assad’s government, as thousands of leaked images of torture in state prisons prove.

86% say kidnapping or arrest was a threat to their personal safety. 77% of them fear it from the Assad regime, 42% Isis, 18% Al Nusra, 13% Free Syrian Army and 8% Kurdish forces.

3. Nearly all Syrians want to go home

It might seem that the people struggling in boats across perilous waters or jumping over barbed wire fences really want to be in Europe. But they don’t. Syrians want to go home to the country they know and love. The problem is with the violence raging they can’t.

Only 8% said they’d want to stay in Europe indefinitely

4. Assad needs to go for Syrians to return home

While Russia and others are asking countries to unite with Assad to fight Isis, it’s important to note that the majority of Syrian refugees will not go back while he remains in power. Syria needs peace and an end to dictatorship.

52% said that Bashar al-Assad would need to leave power before they would return home

5. Stopping the barrel bombs would help more stay in Syria. Much more than increased aid
Stop the barrel bombs with a no-fly zone

The vast majority of refugees said they feared Assad’s barrel bombs – the improvised metal barrels packed with explosive and scrap metal that government helicopters drop from miles up in the sky onto civilian neighbourhoods.

These barrel bombs and other aerial attacks are the number one killer of civilians in Syria – the barrels alone have killed more than 2,000 children since the UN banned them in 2014. They routinely destroy hospitals, schools and homes. Syrians living under the barrel bombs find it difficult to forget the terror, even once they have fled to safety.

To stop the refugees pouring over Syria’s borders we have to stop the bombs. More aid isn’t the answer.

73% said barrel bombs were a threat to their personal safety. 58% said a no-fly zone would help more stay in Syria, only 24% said the same for increased aid.

6. The cause of today’s situation is Assad’s military response to peaceful demonstrations

So much has changed in the last four and a half years in Syria yet still an overwhelming majority of Syrian refugees hold Bashar al-Assad responsible for today’s events. According to most of those surveyed, Assad’s decision to use military force against peaceful protesters demanding freedom and dignity in 2011 is the cause of today’s violence.

79% said it was the Bashar al-Assad’s military response to the demonstrations that led most to the situation today.

What should Europe do?
To reduce the number of Syrian refugees to Europe and to help create the conditions for their return, European politicians should:

1. Enforce a stop to the bombs. There are various initiatives from no-fly zones, no-bombing zones and safe zones which while all different in their implementation, would prevent the biggest killer of civilians in Syria today: Bashar al-Assad’s aerial attacks and barrel bombs. Europe needs to get serious about stopping the bombs.

2. Push for a peaceful transition of power away from Assad. There is no military solution to the conflict and there is international agreement that a transition to a new government is the only way to end the violence. The longer that takes, the more people will be driven from their homes.

It goes without saying that Europe should open its borders to those fleeing war – that’s a human imperative.

European leaders need to realise that unless they do more to constrain the violence of the Assad regime and make more effort to stop the war, the waves of refugees will not stop. The UN has predicted another million will be displaced in Syria before Christmas, and that was before Russia joined in the fighting.

To solve the refugee crisis, we have to stop the Syria crisis.

 

This survey interviewed 889 Syrians living in Germany between 24 September 2015 and 2 October 2015 using a standardised questionnaire. Interviews were held in 12 centres housing arriving refugees, other refugee accommodation and refugee registration points in Berlin, Hanover, Bremen, Leipzig and Eisenhüttenstadt. Researchers from the Berlin Social Science Center were involved in the conception, implementation and evaluation of the survey. Full results are available here.

Letter from a Syrian refugee – Stop Assad’s bombs and “I would be the first to go home”

The Assad regime is still in power, killing seven times more civilians than Isis. World leaders have to act to stop the bombs from the sky. We can survive sniper fire, chemicals but the barrel bombs are unbearable. A no-fly zone or creation of safe zones would save lives instantly. And I would be the first person on the way home.

– Abo Adnan, Syrian refugee in a German refugee camp

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Dear Friends,

I’m writing this to you from a refugee camp in Germany. All the Syrians here are so grateful for the welcome people have given us but we want to live in Syria, not Germany.

I was 22 when the fighting started in 2011. I was living in a neighbourhood called Ghouta, a short drive from Damascus. A year after the uprising the regime of Bashar al-Assad placed Ghouta under siege – this means nothing comes in or out – no food, no medicine, nothing. A year after that the regime attacked us with chemical weapons and more than a thousand were gassed to death. For years they have also dropped barrel bombs and missiles on us from regime aircraft. Normally we got struck eight times a day. How could we continue to survive that hell on earth?

I had to cross twenty checkpoints on fake documents to make it out of Syria. Each time your heart stops as you know that there is a chance you will be arrested and taken away. I made it out and survived a death boat. I have survived so many ways a human being can be killed.

At home I was a medical student. We had so many attacks I assisted more surgeries than most surgeons do by the time they retire. My dream is to only have to perform ‘normal surgeries’, what I trained for, not picking shrapnel from bombs out of children’s limbs.

We cannot go back while the war continues which is why we are asking for you to do everything you can to stop the war. All your governments agree there needs to be a political transition in Syria but no amount of words have made it happen. The Assad regime is still in power, killing seven times more civilians than Isis.

World leaders have to act to stop the bombs from the sky. We can survive sniper fire, chemicals but the barrel bombs are unbearable. A no-fly zone or creation of safe zones would save lives instantly. And I would be the first person on the way home.

Right now everybody in Europe is talking about us refugees. But not many are listening to us. Please sign this petition to Europe’s leaders asking them to do more to stop the bombs and help us return home:

https://act.thesyriacampaign.org/sign/we-want-to-go-home

Thank you,

Abo Adnan

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.

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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:

A case for an amnesty for asylum seekers in Australia

…in addition to the cost of keeping 2,500 people in detention, and in addition to the cost of ensuring the other 27,000 don’t abscond, why not advocate something that makes much more sense than wanting nicer, more efficient, ways of keeping people out? Why not allow them the opportunity to contribute to the community and society without the restrictions of the bridging visas by letting them in?

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images refugee
The bloke in the red shirt might be your next dentist…

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Amnesties occur when a government grants a pardon to a group of individuals. It can apply to prisoners, or people in other forms of detention. Or even people not in prison or detention. An amnesty for asylum seekers would be a pathway to permanent residence. 

Australia’s experience of amnesties in the immigration field date back to Australia Day (26 January) 1976 when Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser granted amnesty to illegal immigrants. At that time, this meant individuals who had entered Australia lawfully but overstayed their visas. The period in which applications could be made for amnesty expired on 30 April that year. It was an offer too good to refuse.

The Coalition government realized that these ‘illegals’ were in the country anyway. They were part of Australian society, despite their official status, and working or bludging, or having fun, playing music, fishing, reading, chatting with neighbours, going to the pub, etc, like the rest of us. And, again like the rest of us, they had a future here.   Fraser’s standing in immigration history is being rewritten and mythologized by all-too-eager academics who seem to have put aside any semblance of critical approach.

Fraser was responsible for formalising the distinction between genuine and non-genuine refugees through the establishment of the Determination of Refugee Status Committee in 1978; a decision that laid the basis for all the subsequent problems arising from exclusion.  

When it came to the ‘Australia Day’ amnesty of 1976, Fraser gave with one hand while taking with the other. He also funded a special unit to hunt them down. A cost-benefit analysis may have found that the benefits outweighed the costs in letting them stay. Not that that is the only – or main – point. But what is important to note is that the amnesty did not alter the basic policy: over-stayers after 30 April 1976 were in big trouble if caught.  

Australia’s next experience of amnesty occurred during the Hawke years when, in 1989, Prime Minister Bob Hawke announced that the thousands of Chinese students studying in Australia would be permitted to remain here until 31 July 1990 on a temporary basis. This was later extended to June 1994 and then, as was the intention all along, 42,000 were allowed to apply for permanent residence.  Again, it was an offer too good to refuse. Who in their right mind, after the Tiananmen massacre, would want to return to live under a social-fascist regime compared to life in bourgeois-democratic Australia?  

The situation today: about 30,000 in limbo and detention  

Currently, in Australia, living as part of our community and society but separated from it by various restrictions imposed by a ‘bridging visa’ system, there are more than 27,000 people, mostly asylum seekers waiting to have their cases determined. Most have been waiting  for a long time.   There are also 2,500 in detention centres.

It’s always helpful to look on the bright side in any bad situation. There are about ten thousand fewer in detention today than there were under Gillard’s Labor government. When it comes to detention of asylum seekers, Labor holds the record. (Lest we forget).  

It is curious, to me, that pro-refugee groups tend to advocate the more rapid processing of these asylum seekers’ claims, as though it is fair enough to identify those who are not genuine refugees, rather than questioning the system itself. Sadly, this is the main paradigm in public discourse. Nearly everyone, the Greens included, think it’s fair enough to keep out asylum seekers who are not genuine refugees. So, a family might sell everything in, say, Iran, risk their lives by escaping, lose nearly everything to unscrupulous people-smugglers (note: these guys are not to be romanticized) and then having made it across the dangerous, often deadly, waters, under the old ‘Fraser system’ they could be be rejected because they are found to be ‘economic’ refugees not the ‘political’ type.   Needless to say, within this paradigm, they have to leave the country, which they will not do voluntarily. They therefore (the dominant thinking goes) need to be detained in some way, lest they abscond into the community. The Greens want this process to be accomplished quickly, more efficiently and ‘nicely’; Labor and the Coalition are rather less polite about it, though at each election since 1996, Shadow Ministers for Immigration have promised to ‘speed up’ the determination process.  

Those who were denied permanent residency because they were found to be economic refugees made the journey in order to have a better life – and, after such a journey you can be sure that means they will want to improve things generally. My parents paid ten pound each to get here in 1954, and were allowed in. Their motivation was a better life for themselves but mostly for my future. Both my parents made special contributions to their community (in Brunswick, Melbourne) and in other ways. Had they not been ‘authorised’ migrants but rather ‘economic refugees’, and allowed in, their contributions would have not been diminished in any way.

There are financial and human costs involved in maintaining these 30,000 people in their current state. Most of the costs are borne by government – you and me.   We are denying each of them the opportunity to be productive and useful members of society, as a result of restrictions placed on them through the bridging visas. As I say to my wife: That asylum seeker lighting a fire and jumping up and down on top of the detention centre’s roof may be our next dentist!   So, in addition to the cost of keeping 2,500 people in detention, and in addition to the cost of ensuring the other 27,000 don’t abscond, why not advocate something that makes much more sense than wanting nicer, more efficient, ways of keeping people out? Why not allow them the opportunity to contribute to the community and society without the restrictions of the bridging visas by letting them in?  

In other words: let’s call for an amnesty for them all.  

Given the current parliamentary political situation in Australia, the demand could reap some benefits. After all, isn’t the ALP keen to recapture votes it has lost to the Greens on this issue? Aren’t the Greens out to convince us that they represent a humanitarian alternative on the refugee issue? Wouldn’t Labor and the Greens have the numbers in this fine humanitarian and entirely practicable act?   And 30,000 is not a big number. For heaven’s sake, 30,000 is about a third of the net loss Australia experienced through permanent departures last year. And last year we took in 200,000 newcomers.

Above all, from the viewpoint of the prevailing consensus, the actual refugee policy would not have to change. Much as I think it should, and must – and will (one day). An amnesty can be granted as an act of compassion, without any need to change current refugee policy.  

‘Christian compassion’ for Australia Day next year.  

Let’s call it… er… well… “Christian compassion”. Yes, Christian compassion for ‘Australia Day’ 2016. Marking the 40th anniversary of the first amnesty granted by a Coalition government in Australia.  

Tony: ya there?  

Bill?  

Richard?  

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