Our World’s Refugees

The greatest humanitarian crisis in history, is also the greatest crisis of our humanity. To learn more about our global refugee and migration crisis, we speak to Gulwali Passarlay (Afghan refugee, author & Co-Founder of My Bright Kite), Professor François Crépeau (Former United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants), Alexander Betts (Professor of Forced Migration and International Affairs, University of Oxford), Catherine Woollard (Secretary General, European Council on Refugees and Exiles, ECRE) and Professor George Rupp (Former President of the International Rescue Committee, IRC).

We live in the age of the refugee, the age of the exile.”
Ariel Dorfman

Gunther Beyer (1904-1983) was no stranger to the horrors of conflict.  He survived two world wars at great personal sacrifice, having to flee his home country fearing persecution from the Nazis.  It was perhaps this first-hand experience of war that led him to dedicate his life to refugees and migrants.  He is regarded as one of the godfathers of population studies.

The twentieth century has been called the century of the homeless man.” Wrote Beyer in 1981, “The number of persons permanently displaced for political reasons as a result of wars, treaties or sometimes obscure reason is startling.  Excluding the forced migrations of the Chinese in the 1930s, by 1939 approximately thirty million people were forced to leave their homes.  During World War II nearly forty million civilians were forced from one place to another, and since 1945 an additional 60 to 70 million people have become victims of forced migration.  More than one hundred million have been uprooted in the first eighty years of the twentieth century- millions permanently displaced as a result of revolutions, division of countries, annexations or boundary changes and other territorial arrangements.  The political refugee has become the symbol of worldwide political and social change.” (The Political Refugee: 35 Years Later, Gunther Beyer – The International Migration Review – Spring – Summer, 1981)

Even the very notion of ‘the refugee,’ is deeply contested in our time.   Professor Andrew Shacknove, who has spent his life studying refugee crises and human rights notes that, “A refugee, we might say, is a person fleeing life-threatening conditions.  In daily parlance and for journalist purposes this is roughly the meaning of refugeehood.  Predictably, in legal and political circles, among those officials who formulate refugee policies for states and international agencies, the meaning is considerably more circumscribed.  The predominant, generation-old conception advanced by international instruments, municipal statutes, and scholarly treatises identifies the refugee as in essence, a person who has crossed an international frontier because of a well-founded fear of persecution.  Given such a broad agreement, the conceptual problem would appear to be resolved.  But these appearances are deceptive.” (Ethics, Vol. 95, No. 2 Jan. 1985)

So here we are in 2018, where a population equivalent to the entire United Kingdom or Thailand has been forcibly displaced through human conflict; through the abstract notions of race, of sovereign boundary, of control and power.  These are people who face appalling abuses to their rights and their humanity on a daily basis; and who have become otherised in the view of politicians and populations.  They are not you, or I, they are another yet in reality, they are simply seeking safety- and the opportunity to build a life for themselves and their families, the same wish we would have for ourselves at any moment in time.

In these exclusive interviews, we speak to Gulwali Passarlay (Afghan refugee, author & Co-Founder of My Bright Kite), Professor François Crépeau (Former United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants), Alexander Betts (Professor of Forced Migration and International Affairs, University of Oxford), Catherine Woollard (Secretary General, European Council on Refugees and Exiles, ECRE) and Professor George Rupp (Former President of the International Rescue Committee, IRC).


View Interviewee Biographies

Gulwali Passarlay is an Afghan political refugee currently residing in the UK. He left Afghanistan in 2006 and has been campaigning and advocating for refugee awareness and empowerment ever since.

Esteemed author of “The Lightless Sky: A Twelve-Year-Old Refugee’s Harrowing Escape from Afghanistan and His Extraordinary Journey Across Half The World” Gulwali has appeared on mainstream TV channels, radio and in printed media across the globe.

Having attended and contributed to over 180 events, Gulwali is a sought after keynote speaker who has garnered many accolades throughout his time in the UK.

François Crépeau is Full Professor and holds the Hans and Tamar Oppenheimer Chair in Public International Law, at the Faculty of Law of McGill University. He was the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants from 2011 to 2017. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. In August 2015, he became Director of McGill’s Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism for a three-year mandate. He was  appointed to Belgium’s International Francqui Professor Chair in Social Sciences for 2017-2018 .

The focus of his current research includes migration control mechanisms, the rights of foreigners, the interface between security and migration, and the interface between the Rule of Law and globalization.

He has given many conferences, published numerous articles, and written or directed five books: Les migrations internationales contemporaines – Une dynamique complexe au cœur de la globalisation (2009), Penser l’international, Perspectives et contributions des sciences sociales (2007), Forced Migration and Global Processes – A View from Forced Migration Studies (2006), Mondialisation des échanges et fonctions de l’État (1997) and Droit d’asile: De l’hospitalité aux contrôles migratoires (1995).

He heads the “Mondialisation et droit international” collection at Éditions Bruylant-Larcier (Brussels) and is a member of several editorial committees: International Journal of Refugee LawJournal of Refugee StudiesRefugee Law Reader, Refuge, Droits Fondamentaux.

From 2001 to 2008, he was a professor at the Université de Montréal, holder of the Canada Research Chair in International Migration Law, and founding scientific director of the Centre d’études et de recherches internationales de l’Université de Montréal (CÉRIUM). From 1990 to 2001, he was a professor at the Université du Québec à Montréal.

He has been guest professor at the following institutions : Université catholique de Louvain (2010-2015); Institut international des droits de l’homme (Strasbourg) (2001, 2002, 2007, 2008) ; Graduate Institute for International Studies (IUHEI-Genève, 2007), Institut des hautes études internationales, Université de Paris II (2002), Université d’Auvergne-Clermont 1 (1997). He was a Fellow 2008-2011 of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation.

Until 2011, he also sat on the Quebec Law Society’s Committee on Human Rights and Committee on Citizenship and Immigration, was the “Justice, police and Security” domain coordinator for the Quebec Metropolis Center and was a member of the Canadian Commission for UNESCO. He served as vice-president of the Canadian Human Rights Foundation (now Equitas) (1992-2004) and director of the Revue québécoise de droit international (1996-2004). He participated in observer missions in the occupied Palestinian territories (2002) and in El Salvador (1991). He was also a fellow of the Institute for Research in Public Policies (IRPP). The Barreau du Québec awarded him the Advocatus Emeritus distinction in 2014.

Alexander Betts is Leopold Muller Professor of Forced Migration and International Affairs and a Fellow of Green-Templeton College at the University of Oxford, where he was previously the Hedley Bull Research Fellow in International Relations. He received his MPhil (in Development Studies, with Distinction) and DPhil (in International Relations) from the University of Oxford.

His research focuses on the international politics of asylum, migration and humanitarianism with a geographical focus on Sub-Saharan Africa. He is author or editor of numerous books, including Protection by Persuasion: International Cooperation in the Refugee Regime (Cornell University Press, 2009), Refugees in International Relations (with Gil Loescher, Oxford University Press, 2010), Global Migration Governance (Oxford University Press, 2011), UNHCR: The Politics and Practice of Refugee Protection (with Gil Loescher and James Milner, Routledge 2012), Survival Migration: Failed Governance and the Crisis of Displacement (Cornell University Press, 2013), Implementation and World Politics: How International Norms Change Practice (with Phil Orchard, Oxford University Press, 2014), Refugee Economies: Forced Displacement and Development (with Louise Bloom, Josiah Kaplan, and Naohiko Omata, Oxford University Press, 2016), Mobilising the Diaspora: How Refugees Challenge Authoritarianism (with Will Jones, Cambridge University Press, 2016), and Refuge: Transforming a Broken Refugee System (with Paul Collier, Penguin Allen Lane, 2017).

Alex is author of over 50 articles, book chapters and working papers and his work has appeared in a range of peer reviewed journals including Global GovernancePerspectives on PoliticsJournal of Refugee StudiesInternational Journal of Refugee Law, and Refugee Survey Quarterly.

He has worked for UNHCR and as a consultant to the Council of Europe, UNDP, UNICEF, IOM, and the Commonwealth Secretariat, and his work has been funded by, amongst others, the MacArthur Foundation, the Leverhulme Trust, and the Economic and Social Research Council. He has also served on the Executive Committee of the International Association for the Study of Forced Migration (IASFM) and has held teaching and research positions at Universite Libre de Bruxelles, the University of Texas at Austin, and Stanford University.

Catherine Woollard is the current Secretary General for ECRE, the European Council for Refugees and Exiles, a pan-European alliance of 96 NGOs protecting and advancing the rights of refugees, asylum seekers and displaced persons. Previously she served as the Director of the Brussels Office of Independent Diplomat, and from 2008 to 2014 she was the Executive Director of the European Peacebuilding Liaison Office (EPLO) – a Brussels-based network of not-for-profit organisations working on conflict prevention and peacebuilding. She also held the positions of Director of Policy, Communications and Comparative Learning at Conciliation Resources, Senior Programme Coordinator (South East Europe/CIS/Turkey) at Transparency International and Europe/Central Asia Programme Coordinator at Minority Rights Group International. Woollard has additionally worked as a consultant advising governments on anti-corruption and governance reform, as a lecturer in political science, teaching and researching on the EU and international politics, and for the UK civil service.

George Rupp is a distinguished visiting scholar at Columbia’s Institute for Religion, Culture, and Public Affairs and an adjunct professor of religion, public health, and international affairs.

Dr. Rupp served as President of the International Rescue Committee from 2002 to 2013.  As the IRC’s Chief Executive Officer, Dr. Rupp led a staff of more than 12,000 colleagues and oversaw the agency’s relief and development operations in over 40 countries and its refugee resettlement and assistance programs in 22 cities in the United States.  During his tenure, the budget of the IRC tripled (to over $450 million).  The IRC also closed out a $60 million capital campaign at $110 million.  Along with the growth of programs in service delivery, advocacy efforts were increased in Washington and New York and also in London, Brussels, Geneva, Nairobi, and Bangkok.

Before joining the IRC, Dr. Rupp served as president of Columbia University. During his nine-year tenure, he focused on enhancing undergraduate education, on strengthening campus ties to surrounding communities and New York City as a whole, and on increasing the university’s international orientation.  Earlier, Dr. Rupp served as president of Rice University and before that was the John Lord O’Brian Professor of Divinity and dean of the Harvard Divinity School.

Educated in Europe and Asia as well as the United States, he is the author of numerous articles and five books, including Globalization Challenged:  Commitment, Conflict, and Community (2006).


Q: What is life currently like in Afghanistan?

[Gulwali Passarlay]: War is part of life unfortunately; they were attack in Kunduz just recently by the Afghan Security Forces which the government said were targeting Taliban fighters and over 40 people were killed in what was supposed to be a religious ceremony. The government says, “well, these were Taliban fighters…” but however, the local says they were just people undertaking a religious ceremony for students graduation from Islamic studies.

Innocent people are dying and nobody is taking responsibility because nobody knows or understands exactly who was there, or who was killed.  In the last 3 months, we’ve had over 700 innocent people killed across Afghanistan, and half of this is in Kabul alone. Also in the last 17 years of western involvement in Afghanistan, there has been over 100,000 civilian death according to the UN.

The security situation is worsening, and sometimes people in the west forget that Afghanistan is a warzone.  The European Union and UK Government regardless of this fact are still deporting people back to Afghanistan; just think about that, if you visit the FCO website it tells you it’s not safe to travel there, yet people like me are being sent back there.

We should be showing sympathy and compassion towards those impacted by conflict; but for some reason, whilst citizens of some countries- Palestine or Syria, are seen as refugees, Afghans are not; even though they used to be the largest refugee population in the world and largest asylum seekers in Europe, until the Syrian civil war sadly. However, Afghans are still the second largest refugee population in the world, there is a need for solidarity with Afghans and Afghanistan.

Q:  What made you flee?

[Gulwali Passarlay]: I remember going with my Mum and siblings to hide in bunkers from bombs when I was a child; Afghanistan had become a warzone and of course we had the Taliban.  When the regime changed, people in the West said, ‘oh, the Taliban are bad…’ yes, they are bad, bad they managed to bring some security, justice and peace – even though they did so with an iron stick.  Since the US invaded, with the support of countries like the UK, alongside 50 nations, I’ve seen nothing but war, destruction and killing.

Everyone in Afghanistan has lost someone to war and conflict, and that’s precisely what made my family feared and we had flee.  Sometimes people in the west have an assumption, particularly politicians, that people have a choice… by sending us back to Turkey, Libya, it’s going to stop people coming to Europe.  And that’s just wrong.  If I had a choice I would have stayed.  And I still, I mean I love the UK, it’s my second home.  It’s given me so many opportunities and so much chance in life.  But if I want to be anywhere, I want to be in Afghanistan.  I want to live with my family and my loved ones.  And that’s what I want people to realise.

Q:  What was life like when you fled?

[Gulwali Passarlay]: I was 12 years old, and wasn’t necessarily involved in the decision-making process.  I was making decisions for the family about so many things, but this? It was out of my hands; I had no idea where I was going, how long it would take me to get there…. The decision was taken by my family, particularly my grandma, to send me to Europe.  I didn’t want to go, I wanted to be with my family, to support them no matter what the consequences were- but the decision was made, it wasn’t safe for me and my brother to be there anymore.

We went to Pakistan for a few weeks, but then we were handed over to the smugglers and agents and the journey began; I had no idea it would take me 12 months, that I would cross 11,000 miles and 10 countries.

Q:  How hard was that journey, and what were the key challenges you faced along the way?

[Gulwali Passarlay]: That journey was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, I cannot imagine anything harder.

The journey began in Afghanistan.  Me and my brother were supposed to be going together, and my Mum told us to stay together, and not to let go- but the smugglers separated us.  I was hoping to see him again at the next destination, but we arrived in Iran, and he wasn’t there.

I met other refugees and migrants from Afghanistan, and built friendships and a bond with them- I was very young and needed the companionship and help.

The journey continued for many months across Iran, and then Turkey – walking through the night to get through borders, with my life at the mercy of those smugglers and agents (some of whom were nice people, but the majority of whom were just making money because they saw us as a commodity).

I spent time in places like chicken coups, unfit for humans, our lives were hell.  We became dehumanized into a commodity, and were often sold between agents and smugglers.  It was an incredibly sophisticated structure with a top agent in Kabul as a CEO, with country and regional representatives, guides, facilitators, drivers, agents and so-on.  It worked exceptionally well, I was going between cities and someone was there waiting, who would recognize me and the group and take us forward from there.  We were putting our lives in the hands of strangers, and just trusting it would work out. I was imprisoned in practically every country we went through, forget being treated as a child, I wasn’t even treated as a human being.

I then went to Bulgaria, where I had to jump off a moving train and was arrested, imprisoned and deported back into the cold and snow to Turkey. A few months was arrested again and imprisoned with criminals, drug dealers and murderers for two weeks; my crime? Seeking safety, protection and human dignity.

I then was deported to Iran and then onto towards the Afghan border, I managed to run away from the Iranian bus prison bus and the journey began again…..

I was one of the lucky ones, in the last 2 years we’ve had over 10,000 refugees dying in the Mediterranean.  That’s not just a number, those are human beings like you and me – with hopes, ambitions, dreams and loves.  They left their families, everything they knew and hoped to be welcomed humanely and with dignity, but their lives did not end like that.

We all remember the photo of Alan Kurdi, dead on the beach, but that happens every day, every week- children die with nothing to save them.  The UK have significantly reduced rescues arguing that it encourages people to travel; but that’s not the reality.

Imagine. We made it to Greece, we survived a 50 hour boat journey in a boat designed for 20/30 people but with over 120 on board- and ended up in legal limbo.  Where we were told to leave within a month or face deportations, but then told us we will be in prison for 3 month, nothing made sense. However, we were taking to a refugee camp after 15 days in Athens prison. Greece simply does not have the finance or social structures to deal with refugees and migrants; thankfully, I got out of it – and fled to Italy on top of a lorry engine, and eventually to the UK (where I heard my brother was).

I spent a terrible month in Calais, in a camp– it was miserable, cold and humiliating.

It was a hellish journey that made me realise the inhumanity that people are capable of, and how life changes when you just need to survive.  That journey made me grow up fast, and was the hardest thing I’ve ever done physically, mentally and emotionally.

Q: Is migration part of our humanity?

[François Crépeau]: We are a migrating animal species. We have migrated for the past 300,000 years and, if we take into account our predecessors, probably several million years.

We are a migratory species, we move, and we do so because of political stress, economic stress, resource stress and social stress. Mobility is one of our coping mechanisms, an adaptation strategy that is part of our DNA. This fundamental character of our species is not going to change simply because we have adopted this theory of territorial sovereignty with borders for the 500 years.

Demographers tell us that at any given point, 3% of the human population is on the move: it seems to be a constant of civilisation. We have to also understand that migration is as complex as life itself. The reasons to migrate vary from one individual to the next. Migration stories are individual trajectories in the social space. We cannot generalise and say ‘migrants are like this…’, any more than we can say ‘women are like that…’ or ‘Jews are like this…’ We have learned that we cannot generalise because of people’s ethnicity, religion or sexuality. We have yet to learn this for migrants as well. Every migrant story is different, as every human being’s story is different.

Q:  What is the scale of our global migration and refugee movement?

[Prof Alex Betts]: Today, we have around 260 million international migrants in the world, up from about 70 million in 1970. Interestingly, the proportion of the world’s total population that is migrating has been relatively constant, at around 3% of the world’s population since the 1970s.  So, the proportion of the world’s population migrating has not changed dramatically.  What has been increasing though, is the number of people displaced by conflict or persecution.  We have around 60 million people displaced around the world today, more than at any time since World War 2, and more than 22 million of these people are refugees who have fled across a border.

If we look at the ‘European Refugee Crisis’ of 2015/16, the overwhelming majority of people arrived from countries that were suffering conflict, or which were very fragile states and society; Syria being at the top of the list, followed by Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, South Sudan, Libya and even countries like Nigeria.  These are people who — in the main — were fleeing very desperate circumstances.

The difficulty is that the legal definition of a refugee (created in the aftermath of World War 2) was a person fleeing persecution; this was an era in which most people were fleeing from East to West during the early Cold War; they were individuals being targeted by the state.

Today, though, the primary reason for people fleeing is that they have come from fragile states, some of which are in conflict and have wars.  Others are just chronically weak states that can’t provide for the basic needs of their people; societies like Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. This is where you get into the grey area of people fleeing for reasons of survival but without necessarily fitting neatly into the legal definition of a refugee.

[Catherine Woollard]: From 2014-2015, we saw a quadrupling of the number of people arriving into Europe, with around 1 million people arriving in 2015.  That provoked an extraordinary political crisis in Europe even though those numbers were very manageable for the continent.  Only 17% of those forcibly displaced are in Europe, and that includes Turkey; which is the world’s largest refugee hosting country.  30% of those forcibly displaced are in Africa; and we see major refugee hosting countries like Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia- places far poorer than the European continent.

We’ve seen is a disproportionate focus on Europe and a reaction that doesn’t really represent the real situation of displacement.

[Prof George Rupp]: There are over 65 million uprooted people in the world today. Around two-thirds of them are internally displaced, which means that they are still within their own countries of origin.  Some 20 million have crossed international borders and therefore are technically, in UN terminology, refugees.  But all of them have experienced similar problems, have been uprooted from their homes, and are having to figure out how to support themselves and their families and find security. [Vikas: but is it fair for us to call this a refugee ‘problem?’] ] I think it’s perfectly fine to call it a problem.  It is a problem.  It is also a movement, but not one that is altogether voluntary.  The scale in statistical terms is there are over 65 million uprooted people in the world today.

Q:  What is the implication of nations shutting the doors to refugees?

[Prof George Rupp]: The United States as an example has until the current year, and for some years before that, admitted around 100,000 refugees per year.  These individuals have to go through extremely arduous vetting and selection before admission, but even when authorizing 100,000 refugees the United States has admitted only one person out of every 600 uprooted people in the world; the Trump Administration is cutting that in half, which means that we are now going to be admitting only one of every 1,200 people.  Even though we’re aware of the acuteness of the crisis, we’re cutting back in a way that seems utterly irresponsible.

Pulling up the welcome mat sends a very negative signal about how our world should support refugees. Radicals in a country like Syria are in any case unlikely to flee to the United States or Western Europe, but even if the rhetoric does not deter radicals, it is not helping in terms of the standing of the United States in those countries or in the rest of the world.

Since World War 2, the UN High Commission for Refugees has taken responsibility on behalf of developed countries to work on initially settling and vetting refugees, and working with the relevant resettlement agencies such as The IRC.  Governments have, in this sense, subcontracted the initial vetting of refugees to the UN and, while it has advantages, resettlement efforts have a shortage of resources, and countries have a ready excuse for not doing more.  An exception in recent years has been Angela Merkel who- very uncharacteristically- said that Germany would take many more refugees from conflicts, or asylum seekers, for resettlement into Germany; and they’ve put a lot of resources behind that. But that’s an exception, and not the rule.

Q: Why is our world doing so badly for its refugees, and what can we do?

[Prof Alex Betts]: The challenge should be manageable. Only around 0.3% of the world’s population are refugees, and the overwhelming majority, 85%, are in middle income countries.  They’re not coming to Europe or going to North America.  They are in some of the poorest societies in the world.  60% of the world’s refugees are hosted by just 10 countries, and they’re all in what we call the developing world.

We are struggling because we’re providing inadequate support to those low and middle-income countries that host the most refugees.  We’re continuing with a model of indefinite humanitarian assistance in camps where refugees are sometimes stuck for 5, 10, 15 even 20 years – when, in fact, we should be empowering those people to contribute to the societies they are a part of.

In Europe and North America, the rich world, our political leadership isn’t adequately explaining to the electorate the distinction between refugees and economic migrants, or why we need to protect and support vulnerable population.  The rise of populist nationalism has meant that all migrants, including refugees, have been scapegoated as a cause of the structural economic problems that many marginalized people experience in their daily lives.

There needs to be a paradigm shift in how we think about refugees. Rather than seeing them primarily as a humanitarian issue, we need to consider their plight as a development issue.  We cannot look at refugees just as passive, vulnerable, victims. Instead, acknowledge their skills, talents and aspirations. There’s no inevitability that refugees have to be seen as a burden — they can be seen as a benefit, contributing to their communities.

The shift I want to see is that we empower refugees through jobs and education, that we ensure that the 10 countries hosting 60% of the world’s refugees are given incentives to allow refugees the right to work in the formal economy with the right investment in employment creation.  As soon as we start seeing refugees as contributors in those countries that neighbor conflict and crisis, we can start to look at developing a sustainable refugee policy.

Q:  What are the obligations of countries towards refugees?

[Catherine Woollard]: The Refugee Convention of 1951 and its 1967 protocol state the obligations on asylum, and protection of people who have fled due to persecution.

Within Europe, obligations are codified in European asylum law – the Common European Asylum System –  which sets the standards that member states (and associated non-member states) must adhere to in terms of standards of reception, what people are entitled to and what happens when they arrive, the right to make asylum claims and so on.  It also includes the right to a fair asylum procedure. There are also rights to family reunion.

Q:  How has populism played a role in the debate around refugees?

[Prof George Rupp]: Populism has caused otherization of refugees in culture, and it is certainly the case that refugees and displaced people almost always are different from those in the places they land; and so the issue is not to try to soften or eliminate the differences between the people who are refugees, and those in the places where they are seeking refuge, but rather to insist that it’s a part of our human responsibility to welcome people even when they are different.

The United States has long played a leadership role globally since Word War 2 by recognizing its capacity to incorporate people from very different backgrounds; that means populism has to be inclusive.  With the exception of native Americans, everyone in the United States was resettled here, or came here as a new immigrant. But the sad fact is that we’ve forgotten that migration is in our DNA, and we’ve moved away from inclusion.

Q:  What is the impact of the otherisation of refugees?

[Catherine Woollard]: The dehumanization of refugees is often intentional. People like  Viktor Orbán, who has just been re-elected in Hungary as Prime Minister clearly knows what they’re doing, and exploit the fear of the other- converting a party from the mainstream centre-right to extreme viewpoints against a tiny amount of the population.

But we also have many other political leaders who should know better, but due to a lack of reflection and their own unconscious bias buy-in to and use the language and arguments of the extremists.  For example, they adopt military terminology for people on the move; threats, invasions, influxes and talk of the need to reinforce borders and protect ourselves.  We also see the water terminology that talks about flows and movements in a similar light.

You also see that NGOs who are trying to be sympathetic, inadvertently dehumanise people by presenting them only as victims.

The way refugees are perceived is exacerbated by the lack of refugees in these mechanisms.  At ECRE we now try to include refugees across every aspect of our work from staffing to our board to events, media etc.

The dehumanisation of refugees and the use of myths helps populists to justify their actions to the wider population, it’s extremely dangerous

Q:  How are the rights of refugees being subverted?

[Catherine Woollard]: In Europe, there has been an attempt to defer responsibility and transfer obligations to other regions.  The epitome of this is the EU-Turkey deal on refugees.  Syrians arriving in Greece were no longer allowed to lodge asylum claims and instead were to be returned to Turkey which was (in our opinion) wrongly viewed as a safe country.  We are seeing an attempt to reform the common European asylum system and across the board apply a principle such that people would automatically be prevented from making an asylum claim and sent to a supposedly safe third country (such as Turkey).  In our view, these proposals are unethical, illegal and impractical.  Why should other countries accept responsibility for protection when Europe (the richest continent in the world) abdicates its responsibilities.

We are living through a political crisis on refugee and migration issues.  This is not the fault of refugees themselves, but the fault of our political leaders and their panicked reactions.

Contrary to populist views, the majority of people come to Europe because they’re pushed out of other regions because of situations there, not because they’re attracted by what Europe has to offer; unfortunately, the populist discourse about “pull factors” holds a lot of power over policy makers – and so the rights people have are reduced, such as their freedom of movement and right to work and assistance being curtailed.

Rights are also violated in much more sinister ways such as trafficking and exploitation of people such as by militias in Libya, or forced-labour, slavery and abuse; as well as non-state actors, we now know that states themselves may be implicated in some of this.

Q:  How does diplomacy play a role in the role in our global refugee crisis?

[Prof George Rupp]: All countries need to recognize that populism of all forms overstates the homogeneity of nations.  The nations from which we are seeing migration already have substantial diversity; and we have to recognize that we can have nations that that include diversity.

Syria is an interesting example; the International Rescue Committee has been involved in-country since 2006.  In 2008, I took a high-level delegation who saw first-hand that refugees coming from Iraq to Syria were not being kept in camps, but were integrated into communities.   We had many important meetings, but the key was our meeting with President Bashar Al-Assad. He was extremely gracious, listened carefully and was clear that he was committed for the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Education and the Red Crescent Society to support the work IRC and others were doing.

Four years later, we got word that we (IRC) were about to  be kicked-out of Syria. So I spoke to the Syrian Ambassador to the United States who confirmed the rumours were accurate. Sudanese intelligence services had accused the IRC of being responsible for the indictment of their President by the International Criminal Court and warned Syria that we could do the same to him.  The Syrian Ambassador to the United States told me this was going to be debated and settled by the President himself.  Sure enough, a few weeks later we were told to leave, which perhaps was a blessing in disguise, as when war broke out, we were then able to move back into country to provide support without being seen as aligned to government.

Damascus was a country where we visited Christian Churches and a Jewish Synagogue, which were continuing to practice their traditions.  It was not completely peaceful, but there was a general acceptance of other communities.  We then saw the consequences of what happens when one group tries to assert itself over all others and now we have 22 million uptooted people in Syria, over half of whom are internally displaced, and millions more who have crossed-borders.

Embracing pluralism is critical to maintaining peace.

Q: How do our migration policies relate to mass movement of people?

[François Crépeau]: We have many collective movements of people in our world. The outpouring of Rwandese into the Congo in 1994 was due to fear of genocide, but even then we know that individual choices were made – some people left, some stayed, perhaps to look after an elderly parent. Every individual who migrates makes moral and individual choices, like any human being does on a regular basis.

Migration policies that deal with the collective and not the individual will fall short in any number of cases. A migration policy that says that all people who are irregularly in a country should be deported cannot take into account individual cases. This is why we have so many cases of unimplemented expulsion orders. The execution rate of expulsion orders in most countries in the Global North is at most 25-30%. Some will return on their own, most will stay as a survival strategy.

We have created policies that are applied uniformly across groups of people, even though their individual situations and stories are different.

Q: What is the role of borders in our world

[François Crépeau]: We must remember that migration is a normal human behaviour and in fact, settlement is the anomaly in our world. If you take any family over two or three generations, it’s likely there has been a migration story. Very few people live in the city of birth of their four grandparents. A majority of people move during their lifetime. We have mobility across countries (especially large countries like Russia, Canada or the US), across borders on short distances (from Belgium to France for example), or across continents (from Afghanistan to Canada).

The idea that you can stop people at borders is actually very new, it goes back to the second half of the 19th century, when Napoleon III and Bismark invented identity papers and travel documents. They did so because the industrial revolution created an unattached urban proletariat drawn to socialism and anarchism, and leaders therefore wanted to identify who was coming and going, and who was spreading ideas. The concept of systematically identifying people at borders is barely 150 years old, and this has never really prevented people from crossing into another country. All borders are porous, and democratic borders are even more porous than other borders. When you hear a migration minister say, “I’m going to close this border once and for all…”, you must know it’s not true. Borders like the Berlin Wall and the North Korea Border are tighter, but they were symbolic. If you wanted to escape Eastern Europe during the communist era, there was always a way if you had the money. Even in war, people cross borders.

Q: Why do people migrate?

[François Crépeau]: Migration is the result of push and pull factors. We as a species always go from a place of trouble or lack of resources, to a place with less trouble and more resources. It is what we have always done, how we have prospered on this planet. We often talk about push factors such as violence and poverty, but the biggest reason for migration is jobs.

People think about migration for work as being from the ‘poor South’ to the ‘rich North’, but we all migrate, we travel, and we do so not because of poverty, deprivation or violence. We all migrate. We talk about migrants as if migration from the North  does not exist, and that’s only true because, in the North, migrants do not like to be called “migrants”: they prefer to be called expats, students or retirees.

We talk often about push factors, but the major pull factor, jobs, is rarely talk about. People move to where they can establish themselves, create economic and social conditions conducive to having a family, and creating a future for one’s children. This is what we all want.

Q:  How do displaced people choose where to go?

[Prof Alex Betts]: Displaced populations don’t have an unlimited choice about where they go.  They’re constrained by the political and border policies of receiving countries.  If you think about what the refugee regime looks like from the perspective of a refugee, it effectively ends up giving people three choices.

Imagine you’re a Syrian family, fleeing conflict.  The first choice is to go to a refugee camp in a neighbouring country where you may get your immediate basic needs met, but there’s little option to work (so less than 10% choose this).  The second option is to flee to a city where refugees often end-up, giving up formal assistance and without any formal right to work; so often they end up exploited or in urban destitution.  The third option is to embark on very dangerous journeys, often with smugglers.

These choices of encampment, urban destitution and dangerous journeys are almost impossible options, and refugees should have more choices available to them.

If we look at those who are able to embark on these dangerous journeys and take huge risks, they are generally those with the means to pay smugglers. The Syrian population arriving in Europe in 2015 was disproportionately male, aged 18-30 and better educated.  They were the ones who had the means to get out of the region, but that didn’t mean they were any less refugees; they were still fleeing conflict, it’s just they were the minority who had the possibility to leave the region and make it to Europe.

Q: What is the relationship of migration to labour markets?

[François Crépeau]: There are of course those migrants who are high or middle skilled who come with documents, visas and permits, but you also have the unskilled labour which exists around the world. The underground labour markets exist to meet unrecognised labour needs, and much of this is the result of globalisation.

After the oil shocks of the 1970s, we saw that the production of many goods became delocalised to the South to take advantage of low labour costs. We delocalized to China, and now China is delocalising to Laos and Cambodia. But there are many parts of the economy that cannot be delocalised: agriculture, construction, care, hospitality, fisheries and extraction. You cannot delocalise provenance: an Italian tomato is an Italian tomato. If you want to make your tomatoes in Algeria, they will not be Italian tomatoes. For these sectors, to benefit from lower labour costs, we have delocalised the labour conditions from the South. We have let entire sectors of the economy become underground labour markets, where people are paid a pittance and kept in abominable conditions. And we do very little about it. We’re talking here about millions of people in the Global North and tens of millions around the world.

We also have a precarious global market of temporary migrant workers who have papers, who have travel documents and identity documents, but who are hired by one employer and work under very precarious and challenging conditions. Let me give you the kind of story that traps millions of people. You may be a maid from Nepal who is employed by a family in Qatar; under the kafala system. You will be employed by one employer and that employment meets the conditions of your work and residence permits. But should you lose your job, you would also lose your work and residence permits and be sent home packing. In order to move abroad, you may have taken a loan, sold land or incurred a debt: you absolutely need to repay the debt and send money back to your family. Your working conditions are precarious and the employer knows this. Many will abuse the power they hold over your life, you may be subject to extremely bad labour and living conditions.

Q: Why do migrants have so few rights in our world?

[François Crépeau]: The battles fought for human rights by minority groups have been waged through political struggle and legal mechanisms. The political struggles of industrial workers, women, aboriginals, detainees, gays and lesbians, persons with disabilities, all these have been fought on the basis of equal citizenship. They fought to get the right to vote, and then they entered politics in order to punish and reward politicians. In electoral democracies, it is electoral incentives that change the world. If you want politicians to change their discourse, policies, practices and even jokes, you need to make your views felt through the ballot. You need to make politicians realize that there will be 3, 4, 5, 10 or 20% of the vote that will change if they do not toe the line.

This route is not available to migrants, by definition. Even though they work, pay taxes and contribute to society, migrants remain unrepresented. They are politically non-existent. Their rights can be trampled without anyone in power batting an eye.

Here lies the structural limitation of electoral democracy: if you’re not represented, your rights  do not count and, as a result, you  do not have the power to make politicians listen. Politicians take advantage of this in a populist way and go after migrants as scapegoats, attributing everything wrong in our society to them. That’s what led to Brexit, that’s what gave us Donald Trump… The best we can hope for is that the non-populist or more moral politicians will remain silent and not sing from the same page. Until now however, not one mainstream political party in the Global North is fighting for the rights of all migrants. Not one mainstream political party has a fully pro-diversity and pro-mobility discourse. Very few mainstream politicians come out to say that migration is great, that we need it and that diversity is the way of the future. Most cannot: they are in the business of winning elections and, at present, elections cannot be won with policies in favour of migrants.

It’s been 70-80 years since women won the right to vote, and we still need the #MeToo movement to show how unequal our world is for them. And this is after 80 years of feminist political struggle at the ballot box. Migrants haven’t even started down that road.

At one point, we shall have to consider that any legal resident – one who pays taxes, obeys the laws and contributes in so many ways – should have the right to vote, period. This is not for the foreseeable future.

We need the voice of migrants to come into the public debate. The only thing that worked for women was when they testified about their condition and their views, they showed us Men how good they were, what they could do, how they could participate equally in all aspects of life, and they did this by taking a stand, making their point and intervening in society. They wrestled power from the Male majority (not in numbers, but in power). This has been the story for the LGBTQ+ community, for indigenous peoples.

When groups stand up and say ‘we exist and these are our rights…’, things change and the majority of politicians will toe the line. Today, in the Global North, few will openly make sexist of homophobic comments.

It is for migrants today what it was for women 100 years ago, when committees of men were deciding what women should do. In those times, the reality of women in the minds of those men was based on complete fantasy, stereotype and myth. You combat stereotypes by actively participating in the public debate and presenting the complexity of your own lived experience. Until now, migrants have not been able to do that. The stereotypes linger that they could be terrorists, steal jobs, bring illnesses, produce insecurity, change our values and cause problems. Every single one of these stereotypes has been proven mostly wrong time and time again by social sciences, but our debate is not based on facts: it is based on stereotypes and fantasies held by a majority who does not know nor understand migration.

Q:  How can we improve the situation for our refugees?

[Gulwali Passarlay]: Helping refugees isn’t rocket science, you just need compassion in the political world.  You have 65 million refugees and displaced people in our world, roughly the same as the UK population.  What people need to understand is that the majority of these people are either in the same country, or near the region they left.  The majority of countries taking refugees are not in the western world, they are places like Jordan, Pakistan, Turkey and Kenya.  1 in 10 people at most from this group end up in Europe; but guess what, we only call it a crisis when it gets to Europe…. We only call it a crisis when trucks are delayed or holidays are delayed….

The global community has not taken its responsibilities towards refugees seriously; we’re not helping countries host refugees and provide education and healthcare.  Countries pledge to give money, and that money never materializes…

Citizens are, in general very compassionate.  I travel across Britain doing talks at schools, at universities.  People are very compassionate, people want to show solidarity.  To foster, to welcome strangers into their home.  It’s just the government who are lacking.  At the moment we have a hostile environment where everyone who comes to our country are seen like a suspect, as a liar, as a criminal.  With refugees, they are guilty until proven innocent.  It is not the other way around.  We’re not innocent until proven guilty.

The system is very dehumanising, it’s inhumane, it’s immoral, it treats you not as a human, it makes you feel subhuman.  We need to take our fair share, we’re not doing enough.  And the refugee crisis is not going to go away.  We ought to take responsibility, and I think it’s our moral duty.  It’s our legal obligation to do something about this crisis.

I would like to encourage people to read my book, ‘The Lightless Sky’ to understand the human story behind the statistics and number.

[François Crépeau]: Change will take time, may be the passing of at least a generation, but we must work with those who carry today the voice of migrants.

In recent times, film directors and novelists have been telling us about mobility and diversity. The whole stream of science fiction is about this. Star Trek is all about mobility and diversity, going where no man has gone before, encountering new species and understanding them. Novels like Brick Lane by Monica Ali, or, more recently, documentary films like Human Flows by Ai Wei Wei, show the way forward. Artists are much more forward-looking in the migration debate than politicians: they already sense and predict what the challenges of tomorrow are going to be, just like Guernica by Picasso forecasted WWII.

Lawyers, human rights institutions and churches have been working with migrants for decades and have pushed their voice into the courts, but very few migrants go to court, protest, contest or demonstrate in the streets. They fear being detected, detained and deported. Migrants have suffered too much to risk their whole migration project crumble by sticking their neck out. Their preferred strategy is to duck any blow that endangers the migration project and “move on” to another place or another job. Protesting, contesting, demonstrating means risking being detected as undocumented or a troublemaker, as well as taking time and energy out of the immediate goal of sending back money to the family or creating a future for oneself and one’s children.

Migrant workers with a precarious status are at the very bottom of the pit in terms of social capital: they have little social connections, they have no family network, they do not speak the language. They are in the same “ecological niche” as the industrial workers of the 19th century, the indentured labour of the colonial era, or slaves of former eras. Unions have often historically been hostile to migrants, seeing them as competition for their members. Some unions now understand that migrant labour is an untapped pool of future members, for example in the agricultural sector. But unions are facing a deregulated labour market and a de-unionising political atmosphere, where collective bargaining is seen as a swear word.

Q:  Which countries are doing well for their refugees?

[Prof Alex Betts]: Uganda hosts more refugees than any other African country, 1.4 million; more than were received by all 28 EU countries at the height of the so called ‘refugee crisis.’  Yet, Uganda allows refugees the right to work and gives them a significant level of freedom of movement.  The impact on host societies is extraordinary.

When you go to Kampala for example, 21% of refugees run a business that employs at least 1 other person, and of those — they’re employing 40% nationals of the host country.  Refugees, given the opportunities, are creating jobs for citizens.

Other societies have taken pioneering approaches to job creation for refugees.  Jordan for instance has embarked upon something called the Jordan compact with trade concessions from the European union, concessionary finance from the world bank, support from DfID in the UK, and it’s given refugees the chance to work in special economic zones alongside Jordanian nationals and since that approach began in 2016, over 70,000 Syrians have been given work permits and a number of businesses like Ikea, and Walmart, have invested in supply chain through those economic zones.

Of course, when we move to the rich world, yes of course countries like Canada have great examples.  They have a private sponsorship of resettlement scheme, so that members of communities can sponsor a refugee or a refugee family and support their travel to Canada and their social integration.  And that’s been very successful for Canada and it’s something that more countries should follow.

Refugees are a cross section of their societies and they have enormous contributions to make.  Those contributions are not just economic, they can also be political.  If we think about who refugees are, they are people who are often fleeing authoritarian regimes.  And if we as Western societies want to encourage political transition and democratization in any of those host countries whether it be Syria, or Rwanda or Zimbabwe, then the people who are fled are assets, they’re a resource for leveraging that change.

Q: Are you hopeful for the future for migrants?

[François Crépeau]: Today’s youth is more mobile and diverse than ever before. When I was young, having a black kid in my classroom in Montreal was quite extraordinary: the colour of their skin was their defining feature and the only thing people would notice about them. It was the same for people with red hair. Nowadays, my young kids, aged 9 and 10, will talk about a friend for months, without ever mentioning their skin colour. And that’s beautiful. Children are embracing the complexity of the person and not reducing them to their skin colour!

We will always have racist individuals, but today’s kids are much more used to being in multicultural and multi-ethnic classrooms, with people coming from different places. They often resent any racism towards their friends. This generation will be in power 30 years from now – and when they take charge, we might have quite different mobility and diversity policies.

Migrants themselves have stories to tell, be they expats who lived abroad many years and have thoughtfully reflected upon their experience, or migrants with precarious statuses who have suffered, were homesick or were exploited. All migrants carry stories that enter their family lore. Just like the stories of the Jews who escaped Nazi Germany are still carried by their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. These stories inspire the following generations and they enter the national grand narrative.

Inscribed right on the Statue of Liberty are the words: ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free’: The American grand narrative is the Golden Legend, which attracted so many migrants and refugees. Other countries have migration as part of their grand narrative. Some countries still resist the idea that they too have been shaped by migration.

In the 50s and 60s, people moved across borders very easily, but we do not remember that. When I was young, the only question of the border guard in the US was whether we were all Canadian. If we were all Canadian, he would wave us in and that was it. Millions of migrants, North Africans and Turks entered Europe in the 50s, 60s and 70s, without visas, or with easily obtainable visas. They took the ferry, nobody died in the Mediterranean, there was no smuggling. Migration and mobility were realities, they were not difficult. It is our generation that has imposed barriers that the previous generation did not.

There is this extraordinary story of this Indian man who married a Swedish tourist in India during the early 70s. She went back to Sweden because she ran out of money but said, ‘come as soon as you can…’, so he bought a bicycle, and cycled through Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey, Greece, Italy, Austria, Germany and Denmark. All the way to Sweden, 6000 km, crossing borders with a simple Indian passport, without visas. This was in 1975, not long ago.

States can regain control of mobility by offering legal pathways to allow people to come. Migrants do not choose to be undocumented: they fall into this condition for lack of other opportunities. Offering legal pathways – in the form of increased visa programs, or travel without visa options, or electronic travel authorisations – will reduce undocumented migration, and will still allow for the identification of the tiny minority of foreigners who need to be stopped. If I am not mistaken, the Afghani passport gives you the opportunity to enter 29 countries, while most Global North passports allow you to enter more than 150 countries, This is a mobility inequality issue that needs to be addressed in the coming decades. We should be able to move freely, as long as our identity is known, and we have the easily accessible documents, and we are not prevented from entering for an individually legitimate purpose. We should be able to get quickly the permits and documentation we need to work and participate in society. We should realise that most migrants who do not find work will go home. This idea that migrants who can’t find work will stay and scrounge is an utter fallacy, when they are authorised to move back and forth easily.

The smuggling market only exists because countries tried to stop people from coming and going as they or the labour markets need. There was no smuggling across the Mediterranean in the 50s and 60s, because states provided documents. And this mobility can be funded by migrants: if countries asked for a tax of EUR600 for visas – which is way below what any smuggler would ask for –, this income would pay for the administration of the program. Even poor migrants find the means to pay unethical recruiters and smugglers: they would gladly pay less for a government-provided visa.

We have to change our mindset concerning migration and stop seeing it as a problem, but rather see it as a fact and an opportunity, just as the passing of generations is a fact and an opportunity. It will probably take a generation to accomplish this change of mindset, because the migrants themselves do not currently have the political tools to influence migration policy or politics. But, despite the dominance of the current populist discourse, mobility and diversity are already central features of most contemporary urban societies. In time, I am quite confident that they will be recognised and celebrated as they should.

[Catherine Woollard]: Despite all the negativity, we have seen an extraordinary positive movement of people in all countries in Europe who are supportive of refugees, and immigration in the broader sense.  Surveys show that the public are generally not this hostile, opposing force and show a great deal of welcome and compassion to refugee populations.

Our fragmented political system means that smaller voting groups have more power because the main political blocks are weaker than before; that is not a reflection of people’s feelings in the main.

There is a lot we can do to include refugees in society; we must give them access to their rights, to employment, family reunion and education, for example.  Our societies are stronger because of diversity, even though we have political parties worshipping at the alter of homogeneity.

By offering help, supporting and simply treating people fairly, giving them access to the rights that they have under EU and International Law, we can support inclusion.

Q:  Do we need a world without borders?

[Prof Alex Betts]: Today, the rich privileged elite live in a world which is effectively borderless- yet, people from poorer societies have huge restrictions and boundaries on their travel.

Inequality is a defining characteristic of contemporary borders.  In an ideal world, we would allow all people to participate freely in global circulation — but politically, that’s not realistic or sustainable in today’s world.   The rise of populist nationalism has cause a reassertion of ‘sovereignty’ and borders, and we’ve seen a backlash against migrants and refugees.

A more realistic medium-term objective has to be to create a world of what I call ‘sustainable migration’, one in which we are able to support the rights of refugees, and people with human-rights based claims to move, and then ensure that migration is managed in a way that can benefit all, migrants themselves, receiving societies and sending societies.

The challenge of today and immediate future is not to create a borderless world.  It’s to create a world of sustainable migration which is more inclusive of those who currently risk being left behind, whether citizens, refugees, or migrants.

[Catherine Woollard]: We need to find a way to manage our borders in a way that respects human rights and allows those entitled to protection, to cross.  We are in a situation now where people’s rights under international law are sometimes not respected, so people who need protection cannot move- and this leads to huge amounts of suffering.

Europe is trying to export its migration panic and hence impose an unrealistic and damaging model of border control whereas borders (in reality) are far more fluid and permeable.  This anachronistic view of migration is having horrendous humanitarian consequences for the 66 million forcibly displaced people around the world and Europe’s move backwards towards treating the movement of people as a threat may have knock-on effects in other regions, and put people at further risk.

[Prof George Rupp]: A borderless world would be feasible only if we treated people as individuals who are respected by the whole human community. This notion of atomistic individuals who can each one relate to a universal human community is often expressed in various iterations of modern Western individualism. But the unbridled individualism now evident in much of the West and especially in the United States fails to recognize that communities are also indispensable, that we are all members of communities, and that the capacity to embrace differences can be cultivated within communities. This goal of inclusive communities is admittedly also idealistic, but it is a more achievable goal than a borderless world.

We need a richer culture that embraces the texture of human communities, and builds on it, rather than simply rejecting it.

———–

Human history is littered with evidence of our hypocrisy; we are one race, humanity- yet we continue to separate ourselves along arbitrary lines to find a reason to create us, and the other.

William A. P. Martin (1827-1916) described in 1885 how, “The Great Wall which forms the northern boundary of China proper tells of a conflict of races. Extending for fifteen hundred miles along the verge of the Mongolian plateau, it presents itself to the mind as a geographical feature boldly marked on the surface of the globe. Winding like a huge serpent over the crests of the mountains.  It divides two stages of civilization to-day, as it did two thousand years ago. On one side are vast plains unbroken by the plough, and occupied only by tribes of wandering nomads; on the other are fields and gardens, rich with the products of agricultural industry. Between the two, a state of perpetual hostility is inevitable, unless restrained by the power of some overshadowing government. This natural antagonism has never failed to show itself at every point of contact, the world over…” (The Northern Barbarians in Ancient China – W. A. P. Martin Source: Journal of the American Oriental Society, 1885)

The wall has become the physical manifestation of this animosity, and as Martin observes, “…no one who gives attention to such subjects can fail to be struck with a two-fold process that takes place in the life of all nations… The first is what we may call the stage of differentiation, through which they pass when, small and weak, they keep themselves isolated from their neighbours, and even their languages diverge in a short time to such a degree as to be mutually unintelligible. The second is the stage of assimilation, when, brought into the collisions of war or the intercourse of trade, each gives and receives impressions that make them approximate to a common type.

Our society may have progressed beyond agrarian nomads and fortified kingdoms, but the notions of us and them remain deeply embedded in our culture; manifesting never more clearly than our relationship with refugees and displaced people.

Invisible and hyper-visible, refugees are ignored and forgotten by those who are not refugees until they turn into a menace.” Writes Viet Thanh Nguyen, “..refugees, like all others, are unseen until they are seen everywhere, threatening to overwhelm our borders, invade our cultures, rape our women, threaten our children, destroy our economies. We who do the ignoring and forgetting oftentimes do not perceive it to be violence, because we do not know we do it. But sometimes we deliberately ignore and forget others. When we do, we are surely aware we are inflicting violence, whether that is on the schoolyard as children or at the level of the nation. When those others fight back by demanding to be seen and heard—as refugees sometimes do—they can appear to us like threatening ghosts whose fates we ourselves have caused and denied. No wonder we do not wish to see them.” (The Displaced, Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives, 2018)

Nguyen is no mere observer, He came to the United States as a refugee in 1975 (after the fall of Saigon) and was initially settled in Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania, one of four such camps for Vietnamese refugees. His lucid observation of the injustice facing refugees is clearly illustrated when he writes that, “When it comes to justice, it does not matter whether those in a host country think they have no obligation to refugees. Keeping people in a refugee camp is punishing people who have committed no crime except trying to save their own lives and the lives of their loved ones. The refugee camp belongs to the same inhuman family as the internment camp, the concentration camp, the death camp. The camp is the place where we keep those who we do not see as fully being human, and if we do not actively seek their death in most cases, we also often do not actively seek to restore many of them to the life that they had before, the life we have ourselves. We should remember that justice is not the same as law.”

The glue which holds most of our cultures together is their shared narrative; and to simplify, we often feel that those outside our story may threaten it.  Yet… we forget that we’re simply looking at one chapter of an epic, where our ancestors- tens of thousands of years ago- were forced to migrate from their homelands due to major climactic shifts- searching for food, shelter and safety.

The passage of time has extinguished this narrative, and culture has filled in the gaps with stories of battles for supremacy, land and wealth.  A falsehood that uses the blood of our wars to cover the reality, we are one beautiful, broken family.

Perhaps this will be the generation that realises that when we see barbarians at the gate we are, in fact, looking in a mirror.


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