A Perilous Hejira

Photo (Brian O'Callaghan)

As Midas like governments protect their oft ill-gotten gains and move to reinforce borders, a narrative of fear and violence is steadily building regarding forced migrants, asylum seekers and refugees. The Mediterranean is turning into a mass grave and many ASEAN countries willfully continue to ignore the plight of migrants, asylum seekers and refugees. These issues are hardly a new phenomenon in our global history yet they are being pitched as a malapropos catastrophe. The humanity of displaced people is not being recognized under laws. There is a blatant and all-encompassing refusal to see the humanity of others. Highly restrictive immigration policies are being enforced across the globe, denying innocent civilians’ safe haven from wars that are ironically often started by the very countries that now choose to close ranks. With supplies unable to get into besieged towns in Syria and Libya in flames and run by militia, individuals are understandably fleeing for their lives. In Syria, the alleged use of chemical weapons, civilian massacres and torture have forced millions to flee. The media line regarding asylum seekers, forced migrants and refugees is predominantly negative. However, 80% of the world’s refugee population is hosted by developing, rather than developed nations.

Migrants, asylum seekers and refugees are seen as ‘other’, they are not us. Once the ‘Other’ is seen as a threat to ‘our’ sense of nationality, then ‘we’ learn to “demand their exclusion from the sphere of human values, civic rights and moral obligations”. We must critique the whole process of the handling of refugees and migrants, as Agamben writes, “It would be more honest and, above all, more useful to carefully investigate... [the] deployments of power by which human beings could be so completely deprived of their rights... that no act committed against them could appear any longer a crime”. Perhaps most of the general population cannot conceive or emphasize with migrants, asylum seekers or refugees because they live comfortable lives far removed from the threat of war or displacement.

Ardalan is a former Kurdish refugee who eloquently transported me back to the dangerous scenes that paint one section in the tableau of his life. The year was 1996, he was 9 years old, a life in its tentative first act. He said “In the middle of the night we were forced to flee from Saddam Hussein, me, my father and my 3-year-old brother. My mother was out of the country visiting relatives in Sweden. She had no clue of our whereabouts for months’’. Ardalan and his family were forced to make a perilous journey with no belongings, to wait in camps that were blown to pieces by landmines. Ardalan witnessed the deaths of landmine victims before his very eyes as he tried to protect his young brother. His brother was then the same age as Alan Kurdi, the Syrian boy who last year, drown in the Mediterranean making the crossing to safety. Weeks and weeks rolled on into months as Ardalans mother waited in the cold north, unsure if they were alive or dead. This was a world before social media. Ardalan explained “that the universe seemed to contract and everything was slowed down, planes were cancelled, borders shut, and routes closed in a maze of shambolic bureaucracy’’. Like so many migrants and refugees who are forced into making these journeys to survive, the chokehold remains. Flashes of reprieve line up for introduction but are denied light. They feel unwelcome and unwanted in the bosom of this world.

Ardalan remembers, when they finally left for Sweden “we just kept thinking the plane would turn around’’. Finally, after months they were reunited. With confessional loquacity Ardalan dripped words like brushstrokes across his unknown history. It is a narrative shared by so many forced migrants and refugees. Without question the events that transpired in 1996 are forever etched on his mind but they don’t define him as a man. “As a family, we have put the experience behind us, we lived in Sweden for years but now we have returned home together to Iraqi Kurdistan’’.

 

Encouragingly, not all forced migrant stories end in tragedy, some take another arc, one that leads to family unity, where time carves solid educated characters that see displacement as temporary and it can be.

Imagine today, the frightened children holding close to their siblings. The distraught fathers and mothers, clutching their children and living each second perched on a stool above the precipice. Ardalan’s particular story is twenty years old yet nothing seems to have evolved. Let’s gaze into the emotional life of a migrant, it could be you or I, yet empathy seems lost on governments and on the far right. Is it a kind of cultural superiority that permeates an increasingly narcissistic society? Whether people are given the title of ‘migrant’ ‘asylum seeker’ or ‘refugee’, they all end up in the same boat.

The displaced people of the world are often a legacy of conflict or drought, yet they seem resented for needing help. Some of the world’s largest camps are in Africa and south Asia. It is hard to imagine the scale of these camps, some of which have existed for quarter of a century. In Dadaab and Kakuma, Kenya 402,361 and 124,814 refugees respectively, live in camps. The Kenyan government has recently announced that it wants to close both camps due to threats to national security. The Economist has reported “that the threat of closure is a desperate appeal for more funds’’. Camps are often on arid land and they rely completely on external aid. Ethiopia’s complex of five camps hosts on recent counts, 198,462 people, mostly Somalis fleeing drought and famine in their home country. People often sleep in the open. Millions of  forcibly displaced Palestinian refugees are spread across camps in Jordan, Lebanon, the Syrian Arab Republic, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. Thailand has a large camp on the Myanmar border called Mae La established in 1984, with 50,000 mostly ethnic Karen occupants remaining stateless. The plight of the Rohinya, one of the world’s most persecuted minorities is an issue that Aung San Suu Kyi refuses to address. More than 100,000 Rohingya in Myanmar continue to live in camps for internally displaced persons, prohibited from leaving by authorities.

Migrants are often stuck in rapidly deteriorating conditions at border crossings and ports such as Calais in France. Lone children are among the most vulnerable. There is a bureaucratic inertia that suspends resolution as officials engage in more ‘discussion’ with little foresight or strategy. The Geneva conventions are utterly useless in the face of this crisis and need to be re-thought. While Danish MP’s debate about seizing refugee’s valuables like the Swiss do, perhaps governments need to cut military spending and redirect funds to assist anticipated humanitarian crisis? The majority of refugees want to return home, if they have any homes left. Assimilation is a near impossible challenge for many and they are bewildered and fearful in a foreign land.

More than 10 million homes are unoccupied across Europe. 700,000 homes lie vacant in the UK, in Spain more than 3.4m homes lie vacant, with as many as 2m homes in France and Italy, and 1.8m in Germany. 90,000 properties stand empty in cities like Sydney alone. The numbers are staggering yet refugees and migrants wait in limbo to be housed in detention centers. Detention camps are often secret and run by companies for profit. The shocking and fiercely criticized off- shore Australian ‘processing center’ at Manus Island, Papa New Guinea is operated by Serco (before them it was G4S) and is so isolated; we don’t truly know what is even happening there. The inhabitants of Manus and Christmas Island detention camps are “stripped of every political status and wholly reduced to bare life’’ in totally inhumane detention conditions. All of these primitive detention camps will be in hindsight one of the greatest crimes of this age. It has been recently announced that Manus Island looks set to close but what is to be the fate of its 850 inhabitants? Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Peter O’Neill has said that PNG “will immediately ask the Australian government to make alternative arrangements for the asylum seekers currently held at the regional processing center, we did not anticipate the asylum seekers to be kept as long as they have at the Manus center.”

As the reality of the camp becomes ever more acceptable in society, we see that colonialism and racism are alive and thriving in the polis when individuals can be treated with fear and suspicion and housed in a secretive hellish limbo.

Are we witnessing the silent solidarity between humanitarianism and the powers it should fight? We witness the neutrality of many Humanitarian organizations, charities and a large swathe of the general public who refuse to comment on any of the actions of political regimes. The general public is happy donating millions of dollars to fund humanitarian aid, while showing great hostility and fear to those same suffering faces when they are a little closer to home sinking in boats off the coast. We have to understand our current political frame as a materialistic ideology and at the core of this ideological framework is the bourgeois nation–state, which bestows some individuals with ‘rights’ and progressively incorporates them into a body (the nation) and ‘others’ it disregards and literally casts aside. “As Kristeva (1993) argues, the nation is an effect of how bodies move toward it and create boundaries. The citizens become members of the body–nation, members to be managed, measured in certain ways, and contained (Minca, 2007).’’ So, if we now see with clarity the solidarity of government and humanitarian groups in this crisis, then it is up to ordinary individuals to lead. Sweden, Greece and Germany are the most benevolent European countries in ‘Fortress Europe’ right now but more must be done and quickly. As Turkey secures promises of €6 billion of aid in return for taking migrants back from Greece, let us be clear this is not a question of mere human capital for profit. We need to resist fear mongering around the issue of migrants, there are over 700 million people living in Europe, the number of forcibly displaced people worldwide is around 60 million. With cohesive policies, bureaucratic clarity and community support these issues can be tackled productively. Public perception really does matter.

Refugees don’t need our self-righteous hashtags, men, women and children need our authentic understanding of their circumstances as they become increasingly vulnerable to human trafficking. The waves of refugees are coming. They need fair and transparent status determination procedures. They need medical, psychological and emotional support. We need to look at the root of the recent spate of attacks in Europe, the complexities of our cultural and religious differences and mental health issues caused by the trauma of war and life in the camp.  It is high time to review and renew the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, its 1967 Protocol and indeed all international and regional human rights treaties. They are us and perhaps we could one day be them.

Works cited

Guy S. Goodwin-Gill and Jane McAdamThe Refugee in International Law - Third edition March 2007. 

Rupert Neate – Guardian, UK, ‘Scandal of Europe's 11m empty homes, 23 Feb 2014.

Michalinos Zembylas- The Open University of Cyprus, Agamben’s Theory of Biopower and Immigrants/Refugees/Asylum Seekers Discourses of Citizenship and the Implications for Curriculum Theorizing (Journal of Curriculum Theorizing ♦ Volume 26, Number 2, 2010)

Interview: Source - (name changed) Former Kurdish refugee recounts his personal story of forced migration, Chiang Mai Thailand, 2015 – Interview by Brian O' Callaghan

http://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/APHR_Rakhine-StateReport.pdf 

The Economist - http://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-andafrica/21698675-or-are- refugees-bargaining-chips-kenya-says-go-home, 14th May, 2016.

 

Statistics

http://www.therefugeeproject.org/ 

http://www.unhcr.org/

http://blogs.wsj.com/photojournal/2013/09/03/worlds-largest-refugee-camps/ 

http://edition.cnn.com/2008/WORLD/asiapcf/05/27/thai.karen/ 

http://www.genocidewatch.org/myanmar.html 

by Brian O'Callaghan