The Impossible Problem of Refugees

Toward the southern tip of Bangladesh lies a sprawling, buzzing hive of tents and tin shelters laid out on once-green hills. Now everything is dirt, dirt and people. More than a million of them. They go in and out of huts cooking, gathering fuel, pumping water, visiting medical centers, visiting, talking. A few miles away lies the river separating the dusty camp from the country of Myanmar. Some days, they can still see the houses of fellow Rohingya burning in the land they left.

I left the Rohingya refugee camp devastated. Chased from their homes by the military, denied citizenship by both their home country and their country of refuge, the Rohingya are helpless. Some were killed by soldiers in Myanmar. Most have no jobs and no prospect of work or of serious education. Half of the world wants them to go back to Myanmar, which looks like a death sentence. The other half wants Bangladesh to receive them as citizens, which it seems Bangladesh will never do.

Bangladesh is not alone in that refusal. In Jordan there is a camp with hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees — all but a handful have been refused Jordanian citizenship for decades. In Greece there are thousands of Syrian refugees in dozens of camps, none of whom have been granted citizenship by any EU country. Turkey, Kenya, Colombia, the United States of America — all have been called on to accept more refugees. None have been willing.

It is tempting to condemn this failure as blind selfishness. Those who have enough — homes, food, hope — will not share. But I cannot accept that. In 2016, when the Syrian crisis was at its worst, Germany opened its borders and offered asylum to anyone who could reach the country. A million refugees streamed through Greece, across Central Europe, and into welcoming German cities and towns. It was a beautiful moment — a country which had failed to act during the Holocaust was passing this test with flying colors.

But as the sheer pace of change became slowly apparent, some Germans began to worry. Some refugees were not integrating well. Sometimes their culture or religion clashed intensely with those of their hosts. There was a terrorist attack, a few murders. And the German state was spending millions of euros supporting refugee families. In the 2017 election, a previously unnoticed party, the Alternative for Deutschland (AfD), won approximately 20% of the national vote. Its platform? Shut the borders, deport as many refugees as possible, and return to “traditional” German culture. The longtime moderate leader of Germany, Angela Merkel, nearly couldn’t create a coalition because of the election results. When she did, one of the first things she pledged to do was vastly reduce the number of refugees who would find asylum in Germany.

That is the practical reason that nations cannot give citizenship to every refugee who knocks on the door. Admitting large numbers of refugees ultimately strengthens the position of far-right, ultra-nationalist factions. Such factions, by their hateful rhetoric and polarizing condemnation of “anti-home country” conduct, tear their nations apart.

I don’t wish to condemn everyone who supports such factions. There are reasons, other than racism and fear, that people buy into such stuff. It’s partly economics. The Nazi Party rose to power in a time of misery and poverty for many of its citizens. The Midwestern states which decided the 2016 election for Donald Trump have too many abandoned factories and unemployed workers. But such legitimate frustration is too easily channeled into illegitimate racism and nationalism by far-right factions like the AfD. Germany’s example shows that the flow of refugees into modern democracies must be limited to prevent such factions from gaining power.

In a refugee camp in Filippiada, Greece, men sit under canvas tarps in hot July heat. One flicks through pictures on his phone. Two others talk languidly. Another yells at the kids who, bored without any school or work, have started stealing from an aid organization’s tent. The wives of the men sit in the air conditioning in their one-room units, slowly preparing dinner or talking. Nobody gets up before ten o’clock — there is nothing to be done but eat, sleep, and wait to see if their asylum applications are accepted by someone in the European Union.

Many will wait years. Their children will grow up in refugee camps, changing schools frequently without any real job prospects awaiting them after their limited education. In the hundreds of semi-permanent refugee camps scattered throughout the world, the situation is similar. They are not allowed to work in the countries which received them, lest they take jobs which would otherwise go to native workers. They are not allowed to move on their own and find a community which will receive them. They must wait, wait for forces far beyond their control to make a decision.

This is the general alternative to granting asylum. For the millions of displaced persons across the world, it is a daily reality. Generations are growing up in frustrating idleness and semi-literate dependency. The governments, like that of the United States, who fund these camps are pursuing a worthy goal: the preservation of the lives of refugees, even if they cannot grant them asylum or citizenship. But is such a life, in permanent limbo, worth living?

In the United States Holocaust Museum hangs a picture of the German transatlantic liner St. Louis. It sailed from Hamburg in 1939 with 937 passengers bound for Cuba, most of them Jews hoping to apply for US visas as refugees from Nazi Germany. Both Cuba and the United States turned them away because of anti-immigrant anxiety and the economic troubles of the Great Depression. They were within sight of the Atlantic seaboard when they cabled President Franklin D. Roosevelt to ask for asylum. He refused. They had to return to Europe. Almost three hundred of them died in the Holocaust.

We wish now that America had done more — wish that Roosevelt had made an exception when the passengers contacted him. But there were tens of thousands more Jews in Europe hoping for American visas, and they also died in the Holocaust. Even if America had mustered the political will to allow the passengers of the St. Louis to enter, there were others who were going to lose — anti-immigrant anxiety and anti-Semitism were too high in 1939.

Could such a thing happen today? If, in some dystopian future, all British citizens of Jewish heritage (over 200,000) were suddenly subjected to discrimination and forced deportation, would they have somewhere to go? Or would they be stuck in refugee camps in Europe?

Almost surely, they would have somewhere to go: Israel. Israel is now the Jewish nation-state. It stands up for Jews in other countries and proactively calls out anti-Semitism. It serves as a refuge of last resort if Jews are deprived of citizenship in other countries and represents Jewish rights before the United Nations and other international bodies. It is armed, giving its statements and threats real weight. It is inconceivable that 900 Jews on a boat could find no country for refuge today. If worst came to worst, they could go to Israel.

So many other minorities don’t have that guarantee. The Rohingya. The Kurds. These minorities are being persecuted in their respective countries. There is a certain attractiveness in creating countries for these nationalities. Then they could stand up for their people, like Israel does for the Jews.

But the creation of Israel created both political and refugee problems which haunt the Middle East to this day.

And there are other refugee problems which would be unaffected by creating a new country. Syria, Afghanistan, Sudan, Somalia, Congo, Libya, each of these countries has thousands or hundreds of thousands of its inhabitants living in refugee camps. War is the culprit here, not persecution — the indiscriminate destruction of war. Some of these refugees hope to return to their land, rebuild homes, start over. Others are fed up with the endless violence and hope for homes in more peaceful countries.

However, the United States of America has been condemned, often justly, for trying to play police in such situations. What right does it have to tell Vietnam that it cannot be communist and then to invade to enforce its opinion? What right does it have to tell Iraq it cannot accept Saddam Hussein as its leader anymore and then to invade to force him out? Other Western countries have been similarly condemned in the past, for their colonialism and neocolonialism and general nosiness.

So we are justly hesitant to intervene. If civil wars are tearing Syria, Sudan, Libya apart, those countries should, as much as possible, solve their own problems. But one thing has become clear in recent years: refugees from a civil war are the world’s problem, not just one country’s. Or rather, they are one country’s problem which gets passed to the rest of the world because no one takes responsibility for it.

Yet sacrificing American — or British or Russian or Chinese — lives to prevent a refugee crisis is equally distasteful. NATO, for example, certainly has the strength to intervene in Syria and stop the most of the fighting within months. It could divide the country into military districts and start rebuilding. Almost every Syrian throughout the world who didn’t already have asylum in another country could return home and start over. But it would cost billions of dollars, hundreds or thousands of soldiers’ lives, and an unknown period of commitment in another foreign country.

Nobody wants that.

(1) Grant asylum in the West to all refugees and provoke the rise of far-right factions which could quite easily lead to the downfall of democracy

(2) Keep all refugees in semi-permanent refugee camps until the crises resolve themselves, condemning them and their children to a life of semi-literate, idle dependency

(3) Create new countries for persecuted minority refugees and run the almost certain risk of creating new refugee and political crises

(4) Intervene to stop civil wars to prevent refugee crises and sacrifice more blood and treasure in potentially endless foreign interventions

I worked in a refugee camp for three months. I have visited several others throughout the world. I have read hundreds of articles and spent sleepless nights thinking about them. And these are the only four solutions I can think of to any particular refugee crisis. It is useless, it is more than useless to think that any one of them is a good solution.

Refugees have been a problem throughout history, but the current population of the world and the creation of firm borders across the entire face of the world have made it particularly acute in our day. They are people. They deserve our compassion. But compassion is not enough. We must find better solutions, better than sending them all to Mars or building new islands for them. I just wish I had better options.

(This picture was a gift from Mustafa, a boy in the refugee camp in Greece.)