Exiles Electing the Suitcase over the Coffin Encounter Reluctant Hosts
The tumult that is rocking the political world is also creating fault lines in the terrain of refugee resettlement. Thousands of women and children fleeing horrific gang violence in Mexico and Central America have brought to light the risky conditions in those countries.
One of the most distressing incidents was the appearance of the lifeless body of three-year-old Syrian migrant, Aylan Kurdi, wearing a red t-shirt, discovered by a policeman on the beach in Turkey. The toddler (as well as his mother and sister) drowned after the boat in which his family sought to escape capsized en route to Greece.
The image of the solitary, listless corpse washed up on shore signified much about the global community’s response to the refugee crises. Representing the plight of roughly 50 percent of the Syrian populace that has fled that country’s armed conflict, Aylan’s family’s refugee application had been rejected in Canada, and they sought a path to safety from that brutal quagmire. Their flight terminated tragically, but could it have had another ending?
The waves of Central American and Syrian refugees followed on the heels of years of shipwrecks and mass drowning deaths of hundreds of African refugees at the hands of unscrupulous human traffickers. Meanwhile, the exodus of Jews fleeing an increasingly hostile Europe represents a growing intolerance and religious strife on the continent itself.
If it seems like it was an especially dangerous year for refugees, that’s because it was one of the worst years in recent history, according to Amnesty International. The human rights group’s most recent annual report confirms that more people are currently displaced (60 million) and seeking refuge worldwide than at any point since World War II.
What recourse is there for those who are fleeing repressive governments, failed states controlled by war lords and the strife of civil wars? The United Nations 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees, the 1984 Convention Against Torture and myriad other agreements that have been adopted and incorporated into the asylum and refugee law of various countries, comprise the main legal framework allowing displaced persons to ask for safe haven.
The Convention and Protocol, signed by over 140 countries, provide that a person who has a well-founded fear of persecution in his or her home country on the basis of the person’s political opinion, religion, ethnicity, social group or national origin must be given sanctuary and not be returned to his or her home country.
The response to this burgeoning asylum and refugee crisis is as varied as the character and nationality of the refugees asking for help. Germany, hungry for young, well-educated workers and anxious to set the bar for other European countries, was initially welcoming, accepting over a million refugees last year alone.
However, it soon became clear that Germany was the sole beacon in the night for asylum seekers, and had to backtrack amidst an influx of refugees and combustible domestic political backlash.
The U.S. offered to resettle a more modest number (10,000) of Syrian refugees, but was met with similar resistance: 26 state governments quickly opposed Syrian resettlement on security grounds—and equally quickly saw those objections slapped down as discriminatory, by at least one district court judge, who found that the state of Indiana’s justifications did not pass either the strict scrutiny or rational basis tests. Canada has sought to increase its refugee and immigration quotas by 20,000 or so.
Meanwhile, financially bankrupt Greece has demonstrated its well-deserved reputation for hospitality by providing a soft landing and safe passage to thousands of migrants who have transited from Syria through Turkey in search of safety in Germany and other European destinations.
Eastern European countries such as Poland and Hungary, both of which have almost exclusively Caucasian and non-Muslim populations, have steadfastly refused to share the burden, citing fears of cultural and religious disparities. Overall, the response by wealthy and stable countries has been wholly inadequate to absorb the growing numbers of displaced persons.
Suspicions of the migrants’ mixed (economic) motives, coupled with anti-immigrant, and Islamophobic sentiment and security fears, have put the brakes on the mechanisms of an already clogged and outdated refugee admission system.
European borders are closing at an alarming rate, putting in question not only Europe’s adherence to its obligations under the Protocol and Conventions, but also raising questions about its commitment to the humanistic values upon which the EU is founded.
There is no easy answer to reducing the multi-dimensional “push-factors” that propel political diasporas. Their resolution is politically challenging in the best of economic times, requiring consensus and collaboration among domestic and international entities. The current climate of economic uncertainty has made the protection of refugee interests even more difficult.
In previous times (the ‘50s and ‘60s), there was interest in and the political will to provide financial aid as a way of solving problems in distant countries. In other periods, military intervention or “hard power” was deemed to be the appropriate way of providing assistance in troubled regions.
More recently, the endeavor of “nation-building” has emerged as a means to address the issues of reconstructing failing polities. Presently, there seems to be a low appetite for any of these solutions, which, as we have seen in the cases of Iraq and Egypt, carry unpredictable and often counterproductive consequences.
Undoubtedly, repressive governments, failed states, warring factions and other agents will continue to displace vulnerable populations. Asylum law provides a stop-gap mechanism for protecting those who are forced to opt for the “suitcase over the coffin.”
However, the current resettlement process is not a sufficient response to the massive numbers of exiles who cannot remain in their country of nationality because they face persecution on account of one of the enumerated grounds.
Stable nation-states with the means to do so need to step up and make good on their obligations under the Convention and Protocol, as well as on their pledges of liberty, equality and humanitarianism, by devoting resources to resettle and assimilate refugees like Aylan Kurdi’s family.