Refugees
Responding to the woes of asylum seekers by saying, “Let them eat cake, in Rwanda” doesn’t cut it Image Credit: Shutterstock

Here’s a puzzle about the contradictions of the human mind that aliens visiting our planet may have them scratching their heads: Muman migration, the odyssey of human beings fleeing for their lives from armed conflict or searching for better lives in a land of opportunity, is as old as human history — indeed a record of that history — yet today, millennia after the fact, remains a subject of contentious, impassioned debate.

Why have humans, these aliens would ask, still scratching their heads, not already concluded that in this small global village they inhabit together they should all be guests in each other’s homes? And why, Oh why, has a country like the United States, a nation of immigrants, turned against immigrants — a country whose Building Father, George Washington, in 1775 asserted, “I had always hoped that this land might become a safe asylum to the virtuous and the persecuted part of mankind, to whatever nation they belong”, a country where it was proved, two centuries later, that the policy was indeed beneficial both to the “asylum” and to “the persecuted part of mankind” who had sought it — proven when in 1964, after signing the Civil Rights Act that year, President Lyndon Johnson declared, “This land flourished because it was fed from so many sources, because it was nourished by so many cultures and traditions and peoples”.

It is old hat to ask plaintively why people from the impoverished South, the three quarters of humanity who live in the developing countries of Latin America, Africa and Asia, were treated so shabbily, at times so cruelly, by the privileged North when they sought a sheltering refuge and a better way of life there. The plaintive question has been asked repeatedly, to the point of litany. Still, we ask again, pray tell, why?

A common refrain

People from the North, inhabiting mostly countries in the Western world, will respond by invoking a now common refrain: “We are protecting our European way of life”. People from the South, along with human rights activists and progressive social critics, respond, briefly and bluntly, “It is racism!”. and cite, as a case in point, the deluge of support showered on the mass of refugees fleeing violence in Ukraine in recent weeks contrasted by the treatment of asylum seekers fleeing violence and poverty in Africa, South Asia and the Middle East in recent years.

Soon after the refugee exodus out of the Eastern European nation began in the first week of March, for example, the European Union immediately resurrected a two-decade-old directive that automatically allowed the roughly four million Ukrainians who fled their country to move freely, live, work and access social welfare benefits within the 27-nation bloc. Concurrent with that, the European Commision announced that it planned to release 3.4 billion euros to fund member states’ spending on education, health care and housing for these refugees.

Compare that, say, with 2015, when roughly a million refugees, mainly from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, came knocking on the doors of these European countries, refuges who, on route, were met in some states by hastily built razor-wire fences, truncheon-wielding border policemen and attack dogs, and in Italy were met by an editorial in the right wing newspaper Il Giornale headlined, “”The immigrant bomb is coming”. (Meanwhile, Poland went on to build a $407 million high-tech border fence.)

In 1991, The United States — being the pioneer that it is — shipped its unwanted asylum seekers, roughly 12,000 Haitians, to Guantanamo Bay. In later years, the plan was copied by Australia, which used Nauru, a speck in the Pacific, and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island to dump its own unwanted asylum seekers, where they waited, and then waited some more, with no genuine settlement of their pleas for refuge ever taking place.

Now Britain, it seems, wants to follow suit. Last week, the government declared that it is drafting a plan to fly thousands of asylum seekers thousands of miles away to, eh, well, Rwanda, to wait there, not in Britain, for the processing of their applications.

Promising to make amends

Yet, on April 7, in an interview with the BBC, the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, apologised, actually apologised, that “just” 12,000 Ukranian refugees had so far reached the country and “only” 1,200 had been taken in by UK hosts under the Home for Ukrainians scheme, promising to make amends in the future.

Look, having a moral duty to assist your fellow-Europeans should not trump, let alone negate, your personal responsibility to assist your fellow-humans, unless, that is, you feel that they are, because of the colour of their skin and their national background, a lower species of humans — which would justifiably prompt one to invoke the “R” word against you.

Close to eight decades ago, soon after the conclusion of the Second World War, the international community reached a consensus, which it formalised as law at a conference in Geneva, stipulating that refugees, irrespective of their nationality, race or religion, who are in danger living in their own countries, may seek and should be granted refuge in others, provided the applicants passed the test of due diligence — a law whose core principle, known as “non-refulgent” asserts that a refugee seeking asylum should not be returned to a country where he or she faces serious threats to their lives.

“But the Western powers that championed the pact”, wrote the New York Times on Sunday, “have been steadily eroding it in recent years — chipping away at their own, and therefore the world’s, obligation toward a responsibility they once characterised as crucial to world stability”.

World stability is underwritten by moral imperatives. Responding to the woes of asylum seekers by saying, “Let them eat cake, in Rwanda” doesn’t cut it.

Fawaz Turki is a noted thinker, academic and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile