Imagine the scene. A desperate mass of stricken, exhausted, frightened people find refuge. Perhaps for the first time in years, they sleep with two eyes shut. Bam! A powerful group wrenches the money, jewels and property from their hands. Highway pillagers? Blood-thirsty criminal gang? Friends of Joseph Kony? Nope, nope, nope. That’s the work of the Government of Denmark and the Government of Switzerland (see e.g., here). In other words, it is the cunning policy of governments obligated by law to protect these very people. Governments, I might add, one does not usually associate with regime thuggery. This doesn’t pass the smell test.
In a related example of erecting clever barriers because a wall seems too crude, Obama’s US government will set up screening centers in Latin America, to “head off migrants . . . before they start traveling to the United States.” And who will be implementing these barriers screening centers? No, not Donald Trump. It’s UNHCR, the UN agency dedicated to defending refugees and the right to seek asylum.
Denmark? Switzerland? Obama? UNHCR? With friends like these … And lest the humanitarian community feel superior, let us remember that the appeals for money to fund programs in Syria have been unmistakably louder than appeals for Western governments to open their doors. A logic reminiscent of George Bush has evolved: if you help us feed/clothe them over there, they won’t come over here.
As Sara Pantuliano and others have astutely argued, it is time to change the narrative. Rather than view migrants as risks (or, for that matter, leeches, criminals and terrorists), she elaborates, the debate needs to be reframed to recognize “the substantial social and economic contribution they can make to their host societies.” Certainly, a more balanced understanding of migrants and refugees is necessary. But will a more accurate, positive spin on the situation work?
I have my doubts. Once a public debate is permeated by fear, once politicians seize upon those fears to gain power, once a gaping us-them divide blocks humanizing discourses . . . Well, let’s just say it becomes extremely difficult to engage in the sort of discussion where facts possess the power of persuasion. Look at the gun control debate in the US, or the past decade of immigration debates that have cropped up in much of Europe. People become fact-resistant, positions entrenched, opinions shouted at the other side. In the situation we have today, facts don’t matter as much as we would like to believe.
More importantly, arguing the facts, arguing the other side of the coin, does not reframe the debate, it reinforces it. By accepting those terms for the discussion – the pros and cons of refugees – one undercuts the idea that asylum and refugee decisions should be based on principles, on the law, on an ethic of compassion. To reframe the debate, we need to discuss what is right and what is human, regardless the consequences. We need to avoid the a policy discourse of self-interest: asylum cannot depend on whether or not the safe haven needs you. Is Germany’s open door a more moral approach than other nations? Or a more enlightened understanding of domestic needs and migrant potential? I hope the former, I fear the latter.
If we want to salvage the sinking ship formerly known as the right to seek asylum, if we want to defend the 21 million refugees in the world, facts may be useful, but principles must be foremost. Not because loudly proclaiming what is right will win the argument, but because it is the argument most worthy of losing.