Refugees, then and now

Addressing Congress last week, Pope Francis, like the most inveterate American politician, invoked his immigrant past. And he urged America not to fear welcoming new “pilgrims,” a word whose resonance I’m sure he well understood. He may have been speaking about the current US debate about illegal immigrants from Latin America, but it was inevitable that his words would also be linked to other waves of “pilgrims” across the sea– Syrian pilgrims. As if in response, the Administration quickly announced that the quota for refugees admitted would be increased to 85,000 in 2016 and 100,000 the following year.

The gesture was not universally embraced. While the Pope invoked the Golden Rule, Congress invoked questions about resources and national security.

There is an existential crisis upon us today, not only on America, but on Europe and much of the rest of the world. People are on the move, the largest number of displaced persons since the end of World War II. Europe is inundated with millions fleeing the madness in Syria and the Middle East. In speaking recently to a meeting of EU presidents, European Council President Donald Trask claimed that there are currently eight million displaced persons in Syria, while four million more have fled the country, mostly for Europe. In discussing the crisis, he promised only one thing: the problem will not end “anytime soon.”

While the loudest headlines may be coming from Europe, there is hardly a continent not somehow embroiled in a refugee crisis today. Across the Mediterranean, refugees from Africa and West Asia are braving the sea in suicidal flotillas seeking sanctuary in Greece, Italy and Spain. The rest of Africa is a Rubik’s Cube of displaced populations festering in camps having fled wars, ethnic cleansing and persecutions in their home countries. In addition to the millions of refugees from wars in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen there are other Muslims in camps in Bangladesh– Rohingya, fleeing Myanmar and what has been called “one of the worst persecutions in the world.” Mass graves of Rohingya have been found over the border from Myanmar in Thailand. Those who have succeeded in “escaping” are warehoused by the thousands by human traffickers in boat camps, rusting offshore hulks. And of course, in the Western Hemisphere Mexicans and other Latinos are headed north to the United States and an increasingly hostile reception, intensified now by the heated rhetoric of a presidential campaign.

Welcome, as John Cleese famously quipped, to 430AD.

Cleese was referring to history’s cyclic nature and the fact that traumatic mass migrations like these are nothing new. They have rarely been peaceful, and in the resulting clash of cultures the newcomers frequently win, destroying established societies and uprooting those who had been there before them.

Cleese’s particular reference is to what is oft called the Migration Period, 4th through 9th centuries AD, a time of intense barbarian movement into and through Europe, when such tribes as the Goths, Vandals, Anglos, Saxons and Lombards were pouring into a declining Roman Empire from one direction, while Huns, Slavs, Bulgars and others were pushing in from another. In the mix, the Roman Empire ceased to exist, while the names of many of the newcomers remain emblazoned on the maps.

Two thousand years earlier, around the 12th century BC, what was arguably the world’s first internationalized society of Egyptians, Hittites, Canaanites and Minoans crumbled under the onslaught of mysterious strangers, who remained to build a new civilization on the ruins of the Late Bronze Age.

But history also has its stories of less ruinous outcomes. Huguenots fleeing persecution in 17th century France resettled peacefully and prosperously in surrounding European nations. 18th century Turkey welcomed – and was transformed by – the assimilation of from five to seven million Muslims from the Caucasus, Crimea, Croatia, Greece, Romania and Yugoslavia. The 19th century found populations fleeing the potato famines of Ireland and the pogroms of Russia finding new and successful lives in Europe or the United States. Examples extend throughout history and geography.

But today isn’t the 17th, 18th or even the 20th century. Today’s crises move quickly and forcefully across the globe and leave little time for reflection. Even where good intentions exist, they aren’t sufficient to meet the needs of the refugee populations.

Syrian Syria

Syria via Shutterestock

Under the Common European Asylum System, every refugee is entitled to asylum in Europe. Last week, EU Interior Ministers voted to relocate 120,000 asylum seekers in Europe, a well-intentioned effort that was already impracticable when adopted: nearly half a million refugees have already arrived in Europe so far this year. Nearly 9,000 entered Croatia in a single day. Last week Slovakia announced that they will sue the EU over the quota plan, which was also appealed by Hungary, Romania and the Czech Republic. Hungary, the scene of massive recent refugee disturbances, last week passed laws giving draconian new powers to the military to help contain the situation. Even Germany, which had initially put out the welcome mat for refugees (with, of all places, Buchenwald as the welcome center) has suspended the agreement that allows for free movement across Europe’s borders. With Germany’s withdrawal from what is called the Schengen Agreement, there is the possibility of reversing decades of European integration.

The Gulf States are providing plenty of cash for humanitarian relief – $700 million from Saudi Arabia alone – and are housing plenty of refugees of their own (even if the West refuses to call them refugees). Nevertheless, the situation is complicated for the Gulf States. The Saudi air force has been bombing parts of Syria held by the Islamic State. Are these refugees fleeing the Islamic State (good), or fleeing the bombing (bad)?

Which, while harsh, is instructive of why today’s crisis differs from refugee crises of the past. Even granting history’s migratory success stories, the game in 2015 is radically different, the cost of mobility are much lower and the stakes much higher.

At what point does humanitarian action become a national suicide pact? When does decent humanitarian behavior court the ultimate destruction of the humanitarian?

Forget Donald Trump’s rants about Mexican murderers and rapists. Are we in danger of opening our doors to the next generation of extremist proselytizers and terrorists? Today’s land of opportunity could become tomorrow’s target of opportunity. There has been no shortage of news stories in recent years of terrorist acts, actual or contemplated, by displaced, new-grown radicals from abroad.

But the photograph of a dead boy awash on a Turkish beach becomes the iconic image for this latest humanitarian crisis, and comes to haunt us. Pope Francis, in his remarks to Congress, said, “You must … view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation. To respond in a way which is always humane, just, and fraternal. We need to avoid a common temptation nowadays: to discard whatever proves troublesome.”

And so we are left with the horrific images of despair and unimaginable chaos, to ponder our own part in ameliorating this crisis that is upon us, in no small part of our own making.

Answer, anyone?


Ira Meistrich is an independent television producer and writer with an eclectic background in documentaries and in military history. Ira has worked for the news divisions of all major networks, and in more than 28 countries over the course of his career. His films and documentaries have achieved critical success worldwide.

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9 Responses to “Refugees, then and now”

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  2. Naja pallida says:

    There’s a serious problem with the absolutely-no-boots-on-the-ground strategy that is being waged by the outside-Syria powers, in that air strikes are relatively indiscriminate. We’re relying on intel from sectarian forces on the ground, or satellite imagery, or drone flights. ie, nothing entirely reliable. So, we take our best guess that yeah, Daesh forces are occupying an area, and we bomb that area. As much as we claim “smart bombs” allow us to pinpoint our targets, people still live in those areas. If you had bombs dropping regularly anywhere in your neighborhood, you’d probably want to leave too, lest you and your family become collateral damage. Now, with Russia getting involved in airstrikes, there’s even more risk for civilian casualties. Estimates put Daesh fighters at around 30,000 men, on the high end. In a country of millions. Who is more likely to suffer from indiscriminate air strikes? What do we hope to gain? Half-assing a war isn’t going to serve anyone. It didn’t work in Iraq or Afghanistan, and we’re doing even less for Syria. Not to say that I believe we should be doing anything. The regional powers, you know the ones who are actually impacted the most by this situation, have more than enough capability to stomp Daesh inside a month, if they actually cared to do so.

  3. Indigo says:

    Answer? as in solution? There isn’t any. Your first insight is correct, the globe is caught up in another massive migration of peoples. Yes, Mexicans are coming across our borders. But Guatemalans and Salvadorans and further south are coming across Meixco’s border while some US citizens are drifting north to Toronto, Montreal, and ever fabulous Vancouver. There’s no answer to an influx of Americans into Vancouver, they’re stuck with us. Just as the Austrians and Germans are stuck with the Syrians and Florida absorbs more and more Caribbeans.

  4. Naja pallida says:

    That depends, do you count priests fleeing prosecution in sex abuse scandals as refugees?

  5. Kenster999 says:

    How many refugees is Vatican City accepting?

  6. Bill_Perdue says:

    Edited. All the countries that were ruled by Stalinists for decades were bombarded with right wing propaganda and in many of those states the only thing the christer cults and the Stalinist agreed on were their joint condemnation of LGBT and women’s rights and their shared right wing nationalist racism/chauvinism.

    The US and NATO created the crises in the Mideast by attacking nation after nation and driving millions from their homes and livelihoods. The US and NATO should immediately make arrangements to accept millions of refugees, withdraw from the region and, pay out trillions in aid to rebuild those nations and end their aid to the zionist colony in Palestine whose clear aim is to either kill or drive all Palestinians into refugee status.

  7. goulo says:

    It’s sure depressing and disturbing seeing the increasing xenophobia and nationalism which accompanies the increasing refugee immigration.

    Random anecdote:

    Sunday I saw a march of 4000 angry anti-immigrant protestors where I live in Poland. They put up signs demanding literally no immigration to be allowed. (Kind of Trump-like know-nothingism.) Some carried white supremacy signs and symbols. Some loudly chanted white supremacist slogans like “All of Poland only for whites” (which a similar march was chanting a few weeks ago). Various anti-Islamic pro-Christian right-wing nationalism slogans. Their intense constant blathering furious screaming and sense of near-violence was creepy.

    Saturday I was in a different Polish city and by coincidence saw a gay pride / feminism / tolerance / equality type parade. There were 500 people in it.

    The hate parade had 8 times as many people as the love parade. :(

  8. Bill_Perdue says:

    Although few in either party recognize the fact, most Latino and Latina people fleeing from their homes are refugees created by the economic and environmental destruction of their homelands by Democrat Bill Clintons NAFTA.

    Originally a Republican anti-union (design to export union jobs) bill, Bill Clinton promoted it, elbowed votes for it in Congress and signed it. He did the same for several other Republican bill including DOMA, the bills gutting welfare and the deregulation acts of 1999 and 2000, which created the depression that began in 2007.

    Republican and conservative racists want to expel these refugees while Democrat and liberal racists want to stop them from entering the country, make them wait years in low paying jobs, fine them, deny them full documentation and prevent them from voting. Hillary Clinton is one of those racists and so is BS, whose BS’s ideas about immigration are racist and chauvinist. “WASHINGTON, D.C. — Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders outlined his immigration reform plan Thursday, saying he would support comprehensive immigration reform and go further than President Barack Obama to protect undocumented immigrants already in the United States. But when it comes to allowing new immigrants into the country, Sanders reiterated his position that opening the border would hurt employment and wages.

    “But here’s where I do have concerns,” he continued. “There is a reason why Wall Street and all of corporate America likes immigration reform, and it is not, in my view, that they’re staying up nights worrying about undocumented workers in this country. What I think they are interested in is seeing a process by which we can bring low-wage labor of all levels into this country to depress wages for Americans, and I strongly disagree with that.”

  9. Ol' Hippy says:

    I wish there was an easy answer, there isn’t, there are tough choices one has to consider while also seeing a real need for compassion for all the refugees fleeing violence in their country of origin. The US needs to start allowing some of these poor people in but we do need to be careful at the same time as to avoid violence here. The real problem though is no one wants to get the Syrian leader to stop killing his own people. This has only gotten worse with Russian forces arriving in Syria. There are just too many players in a multitude of areas in the middle east and Africa. Mr. Putin doesn’t seem to want to let the refugees into Russia so I don’t see an end game to his being in Syria. I don’t think Mr. Putin does either for that matter. I check this site latter to see if anyone else has any good suggestions for this crisis.

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