Xenophobia And Fear Drive The West’s Debate On Refugees – OpEd


By Yohannes Woldemariam*

The current drastic displacement of African people has not occurred since the days of the slave trade. The Mediterranean and the waters between Indonesia and Australia are now a graveyard for Eritreans, Sudanese, Somalis, Syrians, and Afghans – all leaving their homes in search of protection and an end to persecution. They are humans – mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, daughters, and sons. As conditions in their home countries continue to deteriorate, they are left with little choice to stay. Worldwide an unprecedented 59.5 million people are displaced.

The tragedy mounts around the world but complacency and apathy also abound. Millions of people struggle to seek protection from predatory governments but the affluent world turns a blind eye with many nations insisting the burden of accepting refugees is too great and claiming refugees take advantage of entitlements without working – a myth not supported by facts. This is done using rhetoric like ‘asylum shopping’ and ‘economic migration’ to delegitimize refugees and claim they seek opportunity without responsibility under the guise of protection.

The European Union, Australia, Canada, the United States and Israel disregard international refugee law , for example; Australia patronizes Papua New Guinea as an offshore detention center, allegedly paying smugglers to return refugees to Indonesia. Italy’s former Prime Minister Berlusconi made deals with the late Libyan leader Gadhafi to curtail refugee flow.

Israel describes refugees as ‘infiltrators’ who ‘dilute the Jewish character of the nation,’ and rejected all but 4 of over 17,000 asylum requests while planning to expel more refugees to Uganda or Rwanda. Among the victims of the Islamic State’s beheadings were some who left Israel to escape unbearable warehousing and detention centers to Rwanda and Uganda, and continued on to Libya in search of safe haven.

The British Prime Minister David Cameron described asylum seekers as “swarms” while promising to spend [url=http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/30/world/europe/britain-and-france-scramble-as-channel-crossing-attempts-by-migrants-continue.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&module=mini-moth&region=top-stories-below&WT.nav=top-stories-below$11 million[/url] to beef up security along the English Channel bordering Calais in France.

Denmark produced a flawed study to justify denying Eritrean asylum seekers asylum, but before the ink was dry on the Danish study, the U.N. commission of inquiry on human rights produced a damning picture of Eritrea. Moreover, the Eritrean scholar Professor Gaim Kibreab of London South Bank University whose testimony is extensively quoted in the Danish study has since disassociated himself from the conclusions of the “study.” Norway is also negotiating a deal with the Eritrean government to try to return Eritrean asylum seekers to Eritrea. This is all ironic, since western governments widely consider President Isaias Afeworki of Eritrea to be one of the world’s most oppressive leaders.

Accusations of economic migration usually cite that ‘legitimate’ refugees would stop in the first country of arrival, but doing so is not always realistic. For Eritreans, there are few safe havens in the whole East African region, let alone in neighboring countries. Crossing over into neighboring Sudan is unsafe. Trafficking gangs operate around refugee camps in the east, abducting displaced people to hold them for ransom while security forces are known to kidnap Eritreans to return them home. In neighboring Ethiopia, Eritrean asylum seekers risk getting sucked into the low-level conflict between the two countries since the 1998-2000 border war. Eritreans seeking asylum in the first, second, or even third country of arrival is simply not a viable option.

The use of an irrational fear of asylum-seekers for political and electoral purposes while prohibiting boats on the high seas (Australia) and building walls and fences (Israel, Hungary, and Spain) is a growing practice for many states. Australian Prime Minister Abbot’s ‘stop the boats’ policy utilizes its navy to intercept boats carrying asylum seekers, which is in violation of the U.N. convention. Interception at sea and other measures to curb Eritrean and African migration often results in violations of the non-refoulement principle, which is the cornerstone of the international refugee regime intended to prevent people from being returned to countries where their lives and liberty would be at risk.

Dublin II is another EU agreement that stipulates asylum requests be determined in the first country of arrival. This puts the responsibility to protect on the countries situated in the south and east of the EU. Contemporary conditions demand expanding legal channels of entering the EU. The EU’s rules on allocating responsibility for processing asylum-seekers needs to be reviewed to give better protection for asylum seekers and to harmonize an EU-wide policy. Yet, the EU struggles with how to share 40,000 refugees, a drop in the bucket compared to the need.

The current system of resettlement of individuals recommended for refugees to enter safe countries involves waiting for indefinite periods in dangerous neighboring countries and is replete with problems while delivering unsatisfactory results. The United States takes in 80% of the resettlement cases in the world but only authorized 17000 eligibilities from the entire Africa for fiscal year 2015. The affluent world has more than a moral responsibility to refugees. Western countries take on just a fraction of the world’s displaced persons. According to the U.N. Refugee Agency, of the 21 countries that hosted over 1 million refugees between 2003 and 2012, just one European country (France) made the list. As of 2014, 86% of the world’s refugees were hosted in developing countries.

Lack of “burden sharing” by the developed states may provoke poor countries to abandon this regime. Sadly, even in the ANC ruled South Africa, “Jacob Zuma’s son, Edward, mused…that foreigners were not only drug dealers but a ‘security threat’ and must go, he was reflecting an entrenched idea linking migrants to criminality, held by 55 percent of South Africans, according to a SAMP survey.” I hear an echo of Donald Trump coming from an African.

The answer really is to strengthen the refugee protection based on enlightened self-interest: the promotion of human rights and the health of the global economy, security, and stability. If the developed world shirks its responsibility to protect by refusing to accommodate the paltry number such as in Calais, Italy, Greece and Malta, it is likely that developing countries will abandon the norm of “burden-sharing.” What kind of a world will that be?

Refugee protection should also engage refugees themselves. We are not dealing with passive sheep. These are highly motivated and hardworking human beings who find themselves in unfortunate situations and want to survive, regroup and join their scattered families. Refugees are not helpless as Germany is finding out with its Syrian refugees who are contributing to its economy and helping to rescue its demographic labor imbalance. Actually, it is the refugee producing countries who are losing from this exodus due to brain drain.

To callously suggest that refugees be returned to the circumstances that forced them to leave their home countries betrays a serious lack of compassion, and a refusal to engage with the motivations for why people flee their countries. It is also a refusal to acknowledge, at least partial responsibility by the countries who dominate the international economy, and who contribute to militarization and war. To state this is not to absolve dictatorial regimes, but puts the issue in its global context.

* Yohannes Woldemariam teaches international relations at Fort Lewis College in Colorado, USA.

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