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War Refugees and the Rest of the World

Fall 2015 Nez À Nez

War Refugees and the Rest of the World

Proposition: The West has a duty to take in Syrian refugees/migrants

Michael Cotey Morgan is Assistant Professor in the Department of History, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (in favour): The stories grow more gruesome with every passing week. Whole families drown in the sea or suffocate in the back of a truck, while the lucky ones have to face down riot police and sleep outdoors without shelter or food. Those who have reached Europe, though they number in the hundreds of thousands, represent only a fraction of those whose lives have been thrown into chaos by the violence in Syria in recent years. Millions more remain trapped in places where civil order has collapsed (or been replaced by a fascistic death cult) or otherwise confined in burgeoning refugee camps in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. The confluence of war, greed and indifference has created an integrated economy of human misery stretching from the English Channel to the Persian Gulf.

There is no end in sight to the war in Syria, or indeed to the profound threats to international order itself in the Middle East. So long as these crises continue, the flow of refugees will too. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, European governments have received well over half a million asylum applications since the beginning of the Syrian civil war. The crisis comes at a bad time for the continent. Ongoing economic problems, in Greece and elsewhere, have predictably fuelled an upsurge in xenophobia, even in countries through which most of the refugees travel only briefly. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, for example, insists that his government has no duty to respond to the crisis because it has nothing to do with Hungary; that is, that this is mainly Germany’s problem. Coils of barbed wire now make the point more eloquently than even the sharpest nationalist rhetoric.

But with each boat that reaches a Greek or Italian beach, the question repeats itself, as inevitable as the ebb and flow of the tide: How should Europe – and the Western world more generally – react? In an ideal scenario, the refugees would return to their homelands, where peace has been restored and the work of reconstruction has begun. And yet, barring a dramatic turn of events in the Middle East, this situation remains the purest fantasy. Despite what some politicians hope, the problem will not resolve itself as long as they continue to look away. Until the problems that caused the crisis in the first place are solved, only second-best solutions remain.

Two initiatives immediately present themselves. First, Western countries – not just those in Europe, but also Canada, the US, Australia and others – should draft a joint plan to accept and integrate all of the migrants who have already arrived in Europe. They have already taken steps in this direction, but they fall short of a comprehensive solution. Second, and more importantly, Western governments must work to improve the living conditions of those refugees who remain in the Middle East. These governments should not, however, carry the financial burden alone, but rather should lean on wealthy countries in the region and beyond to pay their share and more. The rule of thumb might be: if a country is wealthy enough to host the Olympics or the World Cup, it is wealthy enough to contribute.

This is the only response compatible with the humanitarian values to which Western governments have so loudly pledged themselves over the decades. It is also the only pragmatic response. The refugees will not stop coming, and they cannot go back. Many of them are well-educated and want nothing more than the chance to work and raise their families in peace. A truly visionary policy would therefore regard their arrival not as a threat – to European budgets or social cohesion – but as an opportunity, even at a time of economic dislocation.

Wolfgang Krieger is University Professor of Modern History and History of International Relations at the University of Marburg, Germany (against): Our current debates here in Europe are steeped in illusions. While some think that we should welcome all refugees from Syria and Iraq, regardless of their numbers, others believe that we can keep them all out if only our governments had the guts to send them back. Neither variant is realistic.

By issuing a blanket welcome we would cease being masters in our own home. The immediate reaction would be a massive right-wing political shift, given that there are solid majorities across Europe opposing free-for-all immigration. These voices are particularly pronounced in Eastern Europe, where people have, in recent history, seldom seen immigration from far-away African, Middle Eastern or Asian lands. Western Europeans, on the other hand, have been living with massive numbers of such immigrants since the 1950s. One need only look around the railway stations of London, Paris, Amsterdam, Hamburg, Frankfurt or Milan to see this reality.

Still, in Western Europe, many people – not just neo-fascists and racists – are seriously concerned. Their concern is not rooted in the fact that most of the refugees look different, eat different food, and are Muslims as such, but instead in the fact that France, the UK and the Benelux countries, in particular, already have serious problems with Islamist populations and their quiet supporters and outside wire-pullers. By admitting hundreds of thousands more Muslims, these problems are likely to get a lot worse.

While refugees across the ages have brought with them their cultural baggage, the response from the ‘classical’ immigration societies has been to impose on them their own culture, including their languages. This work was mostly done by ‘integration agencies’ and institutions, such as the public school system, the army, the churches, the labour unions, and the large factories. Today, those agencies have either disappeared (like the military draft) or have been significantly diminished (like the unions and factories). Our public schools are steeped in ‘post-colonial,’ anti-liberal ideology, which holds that all of the world’s problems are the fault of Western societies or ‘liberalism’ or both. Given this pseudo-intellectual self-hatred, how are we to convince immigrants to adopt our culture?

On religious issues, Muslim immigrants pose specific problems because they are often governed not by domestic national churches or religious leaders, but by authorities and sponsors in the Middle East, where the current Muslim-versus-Muslim wars are taking place. Indeed, those wars are fuelled by these very same authorities and sponsors. This poses problems that we can no longer ignore.

Finally, the call for a ‘European solution’ to the crisis is an illusion to the point of being absurd. The EU has been irrelevant or worse in resolving the Ukrainian crisis or in handling the Greek debt crisis – to say nothing about the upheavals in the Middle East. It will be similarly irrelevant (or incompetent) in solving the current refugee crisis. Let us make no mistake: this work will need to be done by national, regional and local authorities, as well as by civil society organizations.

We have no choice but to muddle through. But we must have a realistic perspective of the problems that lie ahead and mend our own ways. We should put the refugees to work and send their children to school. And by giving them all of the chances that a meritocratic society has to offer we must make them understand that we in turn expect loyalty and respect for our host societies.

MM: Lawyers can debate the precise obligations that the relevant statutes and treaties impose on governments, but the West’s response to the current situation depends at least as much on how we answer a more fundamental – and deceptively simple – question: Who are the refugees? If we describe them simply as Muslims, emphasizing one element of their identity over others, we risk descending into stereotypes. We frighten ourselves with images of foreign hordes threatening to overrun our countries with foreign customs and dubious political loyalties. Those who oppose accepting refugees often conjure these kinds of phantoms, as they did in the cases of the Irish in the 1840s, the Jews in the 1930s, the Hungarians in the 1950s, and the Vietnamese in the 1970s. A similar strain of dystopian paranoia animates Jean Raspail’s 1973 novel, The Camp of the Saints, in which unstoppable mass migration from the global south causes the collapse of Western civilization.

But what if we describe the refugees differently: as human beings trying to escape terrible violence? Recognizing the human in them helps us to see our own humanity, and to understand our ethical duties more clearly. As Susan Sontag put it, we in the West “have the dubious privilege of being spectators, or of declining to be spectators, of other people’s pain.” Images of that pain bring our own relative comfort and good fortune into sharp relief. The photographs that have so strongly influenced the ongoing Western debate are powerful precisely because they bring us face-to-face with those who are suffering in appalling circumstances. They prevent us from denying reality, or wrapping it in abstractions about alien religions and cultures. When they see a picture of a drowned child, many parents automatically think of their own children. Photographs – and the emotions that they evoke – offer no substitute for rational argument, but they do reinforce it.

Besides, if one insisted on accepting only those refugees who shared one’s culture, background, faith, language, and so on, no refugees would ever find shelter in any country. If one responded only to those crises that produced conveniently small numbers of refugees, no crisis would fit the bill. The very concept of the refugee would become meaningless, as would the associated duties that Western countries freely took upon themselves decades ago. If the ongoing crisis – the largest since WW2 – does not qualify as an emergency, if it does not force us to take these duties seriously, what kind of crisis would?

WK: I agree that a “debate (of) the precise obligations that the relevant statutes and treaties impose on governments” is useless in the current situation. Such obligations and principles are thrown overboard when the first storm hits the ship. Think of the redistribution of national sovereign debt that is explicitly excluded by the treaties establishing the Eurozone. Neither Angela Merkel nor anyone else in the Eurozone had the guts to say: “Regardless of the Greek financial crisis, this is forbidden under the Maastricht treaty.” Now we are seeing the rules and joint decisions on asylum-seekers and other immigrants quite simply being ignored under the pressure of the crisis. So much for the rule of law at the EU level. And so much for the legitimacy and utility of Jean-Claude Juncker’s thousands of bureaucrats in Brussels.

We need to focus on what I think will be the most important driver in our current and future national refugee policies – namely, democracy. We may make a thousand rules and promises today, but let us recognize that, in the end, these will be irrelevant because certain democratic processes will shape those societies that today accept significant numbers of refugees.

To be sure, this is not about democratic majorities, because even in countries accepting the Syrian refugees in question there are clear majorities opposing the influx of vast numbers of migrants – especially Muslim migrants. Instead, this is about democratic processes by which minorities determine policies and impose their cultural values over time. Consider Israel, where government coalitions depend on tiny religious parties that, in turn, block policies that otherwise enjoy majority support in the population. Israel, a classical society of immigrants, has a majority secular population, but is sometimes powerless against its ultra-religious minorities.

If you think that these are extreme cases, consider Samuel Huntington’s last book, Who are We? (2004), in which he draws up a long list of changes in US society, culture and even in US Supreme Court rulings following, first, the civil rights legislation in 1964 and 1965, and then the huge influx of Spanish-speaking migrants – legal and illegal – from Latin America. Most of those changes were opposed by clear majorities, though some more vocally than others. But in the end, American national identity changed beyond recognition. Huntington was no racist or xenophobe. He simply examined the democratic processes by which national identities are made to change by determined minorities.

Let me emphasize that I am not opposed to accepting Syrian and other refugees – including Muslims. However, I wish to call attention to the changes and challenges that manifestly lie ahead. It is not enough to invoke our Western values, human rights and all the rest of the nostrums. We already know these well. And those European countries that are currently accepting the biggest numbers are the same that did so in the past: remember the Hungarians in 1956, the Vietnamese after 1975, the Iranians after 1979, the Afghans, Yugoslavs, and all the many others.

What we need today are masses of volunteers, lots of money, and hitherto untapped administrative skills. Above all, we need a clear, analytical mind that allows us to anticipate trouble and to get ready for a highly uncertain future in which, in the near term, we will have to absorb and integrate several million refugees. If we fail to think ahead, the refugees from Syria and elsewhere will be the first to suffer.

MM: Western countries may soon reach a consensus to the effect that they have a moral responsibility to help the refugees, and grant them asylum in significant numbers. But even if skeptical politicians come around and place humanitarian imperatives ahead of nativist instincts, the most vexing political and conceptual problems will endure long after the immediate crisis has passed.

Given the current situation in the Middle East, it is likely that most of the refugees who reach Europe and North America will choose to stay. Over the long term, Western governments will have to help them move from the margins to the centre, and give them the chance to become full members of society. Integration is difficult in the best of circumstances – even in the case of well-educated economic immigrants who move to the West in search of professional opportunities. In the case of refugees from Syria, or other countries that have been devoured by war, the challenge is all the greater, and it is unclear whether Western governments have any idea how to tackle it. In an ideal scenario, perhaps, refugees and migrants (or at least their children and grandchildren) would enjoy similar educational results, professional success, and socio-economic standing as native-born citizens. Some countries get closer to this standard than others, but none fully meets it. In some cases – the banlieues of Paris, most notoriously – the situation is grim indeed. Several things are necessary, at a minimum, to give newcomers a chance to flourish and put down roots: the opportunity to gain full citizenship in a reasonable period of time, programmes to learn the language of their new society, and access to good schools for their children.

The deeper challenges of integration do not lend themselves to easy solutions, as they require wrestling with the slippery concepts of pluralism and identity. The US and Canada have it easier than Western Europe in this respect. They have longer traditions of welcoming and accommodating newcomers (even if there are numerous exceptions to this general openness), and immigration figures prominently in their national identities. In Western Europe, however, where identity has traditionally been anchored to narrower concepts of nationality, culture, language, and religion, the obstacles are greater, and the prospect of accepting refugees and migrants occasions commensurately greater anxiety. Although national identities have never been fixed, the task is not to sweep them away but rather to broaden them so that newcomers will, eventually, be able to feel fully French, German or Swedish.

Of course, no one is quite sure how to do this while preserving a meaningful concept of national identity. Some doubt that it is possible to articulate any concept of national identity in Europe without tipping over into either xenophobia or meaningless platitudes. The ongoing debate in the UK about the notion of “British values” and their relationship to the education system illustrates the difficulties involved.

But the biggest task, by far, is to address the problem that gave rise to the refugee crisis in the first place: the erosion of international order in the Middle East. The Western powers have demonstrated a remarkable capacity to stop tyrants and overthrow governments, but have proven woefully inadequate at building new governments in their stead. ISIS and its affiliates reject the bedrock principles of contemporary international order, and, as long as they hold power in parts of the region, humanitarian disaster will never be far away. Restoring order will not be an easy task, and will require far more than just the military destruction of ISIS or the shoring up of unpleasant dictators. Few Western politicians, however, have come to grips with the magnitude of this problem, or have even acknowledged that it is a problem in the first place. Letting the regional conflict run its course, which may take a generation or more, guarantees that it will get worse before it gets better, levying an incalculable price in human suffering along the way. This more fundamental challenge is easier to ignore than the tens of thousands of refugees clamouring for shelter in the West, but demands an equally urgent response.

WK: You have focussed on three points: the need to integrate the refugees; the barriers to integration in Western societies; and the failure of Western regime-change policies in the Middle East. I, too, see the connections between them – but in a different way.

While I agree that we need to face the fact that most civil war refugees – Syrian and other – will not go home, I cannot accept the suggestion that Western civic culture, including our concept of nationhood, stands in the way of rapid and full integration. I know of no Western country that prevents people from attending school or from getting health care or from getting jobs on the basis of ethnic origin, race, gender or any other characteristic that is beyond the power of any person to change. As a rule, Western countries only require that people obey our laws and respect our traditions.

The real challenge is the issue of integration, as many of these refugees come from societies that are steeped in habits of exclusion on the basis of ethnicity, tribe, gender and religion. Many of our notions of human rights are alien to them. The same is true of our civic culture and our political principles, including the granting of equal rights and equal opportunities to women, and also to different religious and ethnic groups.

We should not simply assume, uncritically, that these refugees wish to live like us simply because they have chosen to come here to settle. A number of them will pose serious security risks and may even drift into organized crime (or to continue existing habits) or even Islamist terrorism. We must be vigilant and firm. We must make them understand that it is they who must adapt to our standards, and not we to theirs.

Knowing that the Middle Eastern civil wars in Syria, Iraq and Libya are fought over issues of tribal power, religious differences – chiefly between Sunni and Shiite communities – and over the freedom of individuals to choose their own way of life (including secular and Western lifestyles), we will have to protect those who come over to our side from fundamentalist and terrorist opponents of such freedom of choice. If 9/11 has changed our perspective on public security, then the arrival of millions of Middle Eastern refugees will pose challenges on a similar scale.

To ignore those realities will only perpetuate our failure to bring about peaceful change to Middle Eastern dictatorships, and will shift the battleground to our own front yard. But there is a difference between what needs to be done at home and what should be our policy in the countries of the Middle East. While we must enforce our way of life on those who wish to live among us, we must face the fact that we have no way of imposing those same principles beyond our borders. Yes, it is a good thing to remove dictators like Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, but no, this will not automatically lead to peace and democracy. In fact, we simply do not know how to impose our political system and values on countries that lack all or most institutions and ways of thinking needed to bring about ‘democratic enlargement.’

This is why we must set more modest goals and return to the old international law principle of non-interference – at least as a general rule – while allowing for exceptions in extreme cases. The proponents of human security and humanitarian intervention have not done enough thinking to figure out ways by which we can prevent or escape what happened in Iraq and Libya after the dictators were removed from power. To do nothing or to search for pro-Western opposition movements to whom we can send arms and money so that they will lead the transition to democracy – as we have in the case of Syria – has not worked either. We spent four years waiting for President Assad to ‘fall within the next few weeks’ and repeating the mantra that ‘Assad will have to go.’ Now the result of our policy failure is arriving at our doorstep in the shape of millions of refugees.

One way to construct a new approach may be to link up with the recent initiative that Russian President Putin has led in respect of Syria. Thus far, we do not know exactly his goals are, but we have an obligation to talk to him and find out. There may be a chance to engage him in designing a better policy than Western countries have thus far been able to divine.

At the same time, we need to talk to the governments of Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon – the countries that bear the brunt of the Syrian refugee crises – because most of the refugees streaming to Europe appear to come from camps in those countries, rather than from Syria directly. In recent years and months, we have manifestly failed to give these countries the kind of support they need to be able to cope with such a huge influx of refugees. Others in the region – particularly the Arab petro-monarchies – must also be pressured to contribute their fair share.

In Syria, we should explore the possibility of coming to an agreement with Assad, whose army and administrators are key to stopping the war in those parts of Syria that are still out of reach for ISIS. For only then can we begin to erase ISIS from the map of the Middle East. Anything short of such moves will only make matters worse for the 16 million Syrians who still live in their country. We simply must not repeat the mistakes that the US made in Iraq, where they dissolved the army, fired Saddam Hussein’s administrators, and handed power to a bunch of inept and self-serving pseudo-democrats.

Of course, to do nothing is also not an option in respect of the refugee crisis or in the Middle East more generally. But to let ourselves be guided by illusions and sentimentality would be patently irresponsible – both toward the vast majority of peaceful refugees and toward our own populations.


Michael Cotey Morgan is Assistant Professor in the Department of History, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is currently writing a book on the origins of the Helsinki Final Act.

Wolfgang Krieger is University Professor of Modern History and History of International Relations at the University of Marburg, Germany. His latest book is Services secrets – Une histoire, des pharaons à la CIA (CNRS, Éditions Paris).


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