I try to imagine it, but I can’t, quite: the sudden necessity of leaving home, the arrangements to flee. Maybe there is time to grab passports and other necessary documents; maybe these vital things have perished in a fire; maybe they never existed. For those lucky enough to survive the treacherous Mediterranean crossing: the landing, the endless walking, the multiple encounters with border guards, soldiers, police. Sleeping in the cold, carrying children, trying to keep the group together; hunger, thirst.
Now it’s November; getting chilly in the refugee encampments and detention centers of Europe. That chill became all the more menacing this past Friday, when a string of coordinated attacks terrorized Paris, killing at least 129 people and injuring hundreds more.
Increased scrutiny of asylum seekers and the closing of borders in many European nations preceded the Paris attacks. But now there will be increased pressure to further secure and militarize national borders.
Already there are calls on both sides of the Atlantic to restrict refugee admissions from Syrian and elsewhere in the Middle East. Already there are allegations that allowing asylum to predominantly Muslim refugees might be dangerous to the nations that receive them. Here in Wisconsin, Governor Walker joined several other state governors in calling for states to exclude Syrian refugees, even though refugee admissions are the purview of the federal government.
The fates of displaced persons are at this very moment being transformed, solely on the basis of their religion and national origins. Moustafa Bayoumi describes this as the mapping of “geographies of suspicion.”
The current refugee crisis has been triggered by decades of warfare waged by the United States and its allies in the Middle East. As journalist Max Blumenthal points out, one of the few ways to escape constant war and terror in occupied Gaza is to join the refugee stream and take passage across the Mediterranean.
Historian Vijay Prashad points out that the month of October, 2015 saw 714 casualties, in Iraq alone as a result of violent terror. The monthly death rate remains constant over the past twelve years since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. The escalation of violence by the Islamic State, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in Syria is only the latest chapter in a tangled and bloody history.
The “pitiless war,” now to be pursued by France and quite likely other nations, including the United States, will kill and displace thousands more. Because they hail from Middle Eastern geographies of suspicion, refugees from the coming wars will have a hard time finding asylum in the west. There will be increased surveillance at the borders, there will be enhanced detentions and deportations.
Prompted by the displaced persons crisis in Europe after World War II, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which affirmed the right of all people to “security of person” and “freedom of movement” as well as outlawing discrimination based on religion or national origin. In 1950 the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) began the work of resettling the refugees created by World War II and the European holocaust.
The founding Convention of the UNHCR recognized basic rights for those seeking asylum in other countries, including access to courts, to education, and to necessary travel documents, including passports. The Convention recognized that the seeking of asylum would inevitably involve the breaking of national immigration regulations, but it also forbade the expulsion or return of refugees against their will.
Shaped around the figure of the European displaced person, the UNHCR only gradually expanded its work to incorporate all of the world’s refugees. Along with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which has never been ratified by the United States, the UNHCR Convention remains a statement of principles for the treatment of those forced by war and persecution to flee their homes. Today, circumstances for refugees on the ground are often far from these high-minded principles.
Much more visible in the corporate media than bombings in Beirut and Baghdad that also claimed lives last week, the attacks in Paris have already inspired a military response. As many more people are forced to flee their homes and join the migrant stream, they should be able to claim the rights vouchsafed to refugees by the UNHCR. Military response to ISIS attacks in Europe is certain to create more loss and displacement.
In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, even more people will be driven to leave their homes. How do we ignore the fear-mongering of political leaders and news media, remembering instead that the vast majority of these asylum seekers want only safety and security for themselves and their loved ones? They enter new nations not as agents of terror, but because of the consequences of it.