Millions of Refugees Are Suffering from the Crisis of Having a Passport from 'Nowhere'
There are countries in the atlas that barely exist in the world. There is no Palestine. Afghanistan can be found there, but on the ground it is a phantom. Like Syria, another ghost of an earlier time. Or Somalia, a metaphor for the destruction of nations. ‘Libya has become Somalia,’ we say casually, erasing the fact that Somalia is a real place with a population of over ten million people.
But these countries—Palestine, Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia—are also names of passports that mean little. Those who carry these passports arrive at international borders and find a new queue—not national passport holders or foreign passport holders, but refugees. Their passport can be shredded. It has lost its currency. In 1922, the League of Nations provided a ‘Nansen Passport’ as an emergency document to refugees from Russia. Later this passport was provided for refugees from the Ottoman Empire—particularly Armenians and Assyrians. Today there are Refugee Travel Documents—but these are not so easily obtained. Countries that signed the 1951 Convention on Refugees and its 1967 Protocol chafe at their obligations.
In 1939, the English poet W. H. Auden was dismayed by the Western treatment of Jewish refugees from Germany. Those that could flee the horrors of the Nazi regime came with what little hope they had left, and yet that hope was blocked on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Historian Louise London’s Whitehall and the Jews, 1933-1948 shows that although Britain took in seventy thousand Jews in the Nazi years, the British government sat on half a million case files of those whom it did not admit. Other Western states were not much better—the United States took in only thirty-three thousand German Jews between 1933 and 1937, and only one hundred and twenty-four thousand German Jews between 1938 and 1941. Jews were routinely turned away. Anti-Semitism had its history both in the Nazi death camps and at the border patrol of the Atlantic states. Auden reacted bitterly,
Dreamed I saw a building with a thousand floors,
A thousand windows and a thousand doors:
Not one of them was ours, my dear, not one of them was ours.
Stood on a great plain in the falling snow;
Ten thousand soldiers marched to and fro:
Looking for you and me, my dear, looking for you and me.
Last year, the Universal Human Rights Student Network called upon poets to write about the refugee crisis of our times. Seven hundred poems came from ninety-three countries. The winning poem, by the Nigerian writer Lind Grant-Oyeye, speaks to the migrants’ hopes—‘fantasies of prized certificates, a desire for the majestic seal of approval,’ the passport, the entry stamp. Precious pieces of paper held through ‘dark subways, tunnels to the unfamiliar....untested promise lands.’ Grant-Oyeye holds her emotions tightly. ‘She heard some had swam belly-up in wavy pools,’ she writes, ‘chillin’ in the historic tempest.’ The Mediterranean is a dangerous sea. The South Pacific belies its name. Almost as bad is to make it across the water, to be thrown into a concentration camp and to be deported elsewhere. Lampedusa and Nauru are names of this purgatory—islands on the River Styx.
Great noises are made in Western capitals about the devastation in Syria—calls for No Fly Zones rattle along once more. Of course the death and destruction is repulsive—the slide of one more country into the shadows shameful. But there is no evidence that such rhetoric would amount to anything. It is a shallow morality that is eager to bomb another country but not to welcome its fleeing citizens. ‘Syria’ becomes a talisman for Western superiority over Russia’s role in the bombardment, but not ‘Yemen’ or ‘Palestine’ or the ravages that have overtaken the Congo.
Looking beyond Syria into the wasteland of the Global War on Terror and the IMF’s Structural Adjustment Program, we see millions of refugees on the roads whose protection is not anywhere on the radar of these Western capitals and their moralistic leadership. There are now at least twenty-one million refugees in the world today—many of them children. What is striking in this figure is that a quarter of them—over five million—are Palestinians, who have been refugees since the Naqba (Catastrophe) of 1948. Their plight has somehow been separated from that of ‘refugee’—they are now seen as something other than what they essentially are, namely victims and survivors over generations of the crime of dispossession of an entire nation. A political solution to the Palestinian dispossession has been long off the table. What remains is a security solution—how to encage the Palestinians till they lose their national appetite. It is slow motion genocide.
Amnesty International releases a report with a startling title—Tackling the Global Refugee Crisis. From Shirking to Sharing Responsibility (2016). Researchers at Amnesty dug through the data on refugees and found that ten of the world’s one hundred and ninety-three countries host half of the world’s refugees. These are not especially high-minded countries. They happen to be neighbors of those states in crisis—Pakistan and Iran for the refugees of the Global War on Terror, Kenya for the Somali refugees from that flank of the Global War on Terror, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt for the refugees from the Syrian Civil War. Uganda hosts refugees from the resource wars in the Congo and in Burundi as well as from the war in South Sudan. The West has taken a small fraction of the refugees. It follows the pattern set in World War II. Ships of fools are turned away. Shards of the song by Woody Guthrie—Deportee—play in the corridors of power—
We died in your hills, we died in your deserts,
We died in your valleys and died on your plains.
We died ‘neath your trees and we died in your bushes,
Both sides of the river, we died just the same.
Woody Guthrie was singing about the Mexican workers who had been deported and who died when their plane crashed in Los Gatos Canyon in 1948. This is the soundtrack that could play on the US-Mexico border, in the Mediterranean Sea and in the South Pacific.
The Western moralists say that if they don’t take in refugees, they at least finance the lives of refugees in the neighboring states. Even this is a falsehood. At the donor conferences, there is a great deal of press coverage about money pledged to the refugee crisis. The targets set by the UN Refugees Agency (UNHCR) are not always met in the pledges. For Syria, the pledges amounted to 48% of what UNHCR requires. But the story is even worse. The money is pledged but not delivered. Less than a third of the pledges have been honored towards Syria. Only 37% of the money pledged for the Burundi refugee crisis has been funded, while only 20% of the pledges for South Sudan have come through. These are countries with scarce resources—they cannot tackle their own problems, let alone those of the refugees that enter their countries. Institutions in many of these countries are at breaking point. They will soon generate their own refugees for elsewhere. The cycle is satanic.
In a recent statement, UNHCR wrote acidly, ‘Never before has UNHCR had to manage its programmed operations with such a high funding gap between approved budgetary requirements and funds received. The humanitarian system at large is faced with a critical financial dilemma: while the numbers of people forcibly displaced across the world continue to rise, the funds available for humanitarian aid are not keeping up with the rapidly expanding needs.’ These are powerful words from a UN agency. They are running on fumes to manage a crisis that has no easy political ending. Resources wars, addictions to regime change, refusal to allow regionalism to emerge, ecological tragedies from climate change—these are the sources of the refugee crisis. There are no answers to any of these in the current period. We will have a refugee crisis for a very long time.
The UN’s next Secretary General is the former head of UNHCR—AntÃ³nio Guterres. The General Assembly, by acclamation, pronounced him the new head in the morning of October 13. Guterres is remembered fondly in the UNHCR for handling an agency that is massive with a gargantuan mandate and with so little international support. It is unlikely that Guerres will be able to bring any special answer to the refugee crisis. There is a Fear of a Refugee Planet afoot. Answers cannot only come from the UN. There has to be a much greater civil upsurge to honor the terms of the 1951 Refugees Convention and a much, much greater focus of energy to change the conditions that produce refugees.