Faculty Journal Posted on Thursday, December 15, 2016

100 Days of Refugees, History, and Crimes against Humanity

Jill Rosenthal Assistant Professor of History, Hunter College; PhD, Emory University, 2014

Step 1: Pay Attention to History

Now is the time to attend to the lessons of history. History reminds us that the crises of today—the refugee flows and the hopeless anger—are linked to broader trends and seemingly unconnected actors.  History lessons also offer us hope.  Paying attention to history reveals that contemporary refugee crises are not unprecedented (and indeed that the “flow” of refugees once went in the other direction as Europeans sought safety and shelter in Syria, amongst other places).  The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was a legacy of immense displacement in Europe during and following World War II.  After that war, world leaders created those implements of international refugee protection we now call the Refugee Convention.  The generation that survived WWII gave us the tools—as imperfect and subject to political whims as they remain—to ameliorate the suffering of today, should our leaders choose to use them.

The past also teaches us that rarely are the wealthy countries of our world motivated to act solely out of humanitarian concerns.  The millions of people attempting to flee Syria will not be helped with platitudes and well wishes – that much is clear.  It is lazy, yet effective, to scapegoat and blame those who fear for their lives in order to justify new oppressive regimes, as we have seen this past year time and time again.  There is nothing novel or creative about these scare tactics.  A new framework is needed if we are to address the suffering of others who are often portrayed as distant and “other” to us here in the U.S.  So, to the Trump administration I suggest another paradigm, less that of human suffering and more of self-preservation—an issue that surely remains at the top of all our agendas.

Step 2: Admit that Refugees are People

What will become of the refugees from Syria, from Somalia, from Iraq, from South Sudan (and far too many other places) should they be ignored?  How will they perceive of their worlds and their options if forced back into the brink of terror?  And yes, it is terror.  To not be able to care for yourself or your family, to live in constant fear of a knock on the door or the sound of AK-47 chatter made so cheap by our international weapons networks, is terror.  We are gambling that those with “genuine fears” for their safety at home, if forced to remain in those spaces of death, shame, humiliation, and fear, will either die or acquiesce to a world of continued pain and disenfranchisement.  History tells us that this is rarely the case.  Radicalization—religious, political, ethnic, or other (what Catherine Newbury, Gwendolen Carter Professor of Government at Smith College, presciently called the “cohesion of oppression” in Rwanda), tends to follow the thwarted dreams of individuals and populations.  This makes sense: we as a nation did the same.  As a nation of refugees we rebelled against the perceived tyranny of the British Empire.  The actuality matters less than the perception, history tells us.

The new administration needs to support those fleeing violence around the world, and to remember that in so doing they are not only following the tenets of our various religions and moralities, but also protecting Americans from the anger of those we so casually ignore and exploit (see the links between oil production, violence, and refugee flight in South Sudan).  Aiding refugees by providing safety and opportunities to find work and education is therefore critical in the fight against terror.  It also turns out that in so doing we can very concretely not only ameliorate the plight of refugees and prevent future terrorism, but also increase our own economic well-being.  Research shows that integrating refugees actually increases the economic standing of host communities.  Surely if human decency and political strategy are not enough, we can rely upon our capitalist traditions to welcome those who may bring us enrichment.  Again, on this point, we can turn to history—to the 800,000 Vietnamese refugees whom Americans reluctantly welcomed into this country as they met our political strategy of fighting communism.  Despite the initial skepticism, these immigrants greatly enriched our communities.

When thinking about refugees, the new administration should bear in mind that we are talking about actual, real life, flesh and blood, emotionally complex people who know the full spectrum of the human experience, including sorrow and happiness, not relief objects or inanimate “tides”.  It is also essential that our new President recall that most refugees and displaced persons reside not in Europe or America, but in the “global south.”  As such, the EU exchange policy with Turkey, in which Turkey would accept a returned “irregular” migrant for each Syrian refugee admitted to the EU (and billions in Euros), is as dangerous as it is failing.  As Kenya threatens to close the world’s largest refugee camp at Daadab, and Niger attempts to negotiate its own deal with the EU, it is clear that Europe’s outsourcing of refugees has stoked the anger and opportunism of transit and host countries.  Humiliation and shame, frustration and anger—these are the kindling that foment mass participation in violence and terrorism.  As food rations begin to run out for the world’s largest refugee camps, it is time that the new administration commit to offering refugees asylum in the U.S., condemn refugee outsourcing in Europe, and increase food and cash aid to refugee populations as part of our national security strategy.

Step 3: Admit the Luxury, and the Danger, of “Never Again”….Again.

There are tangible things we can do to prevent new refugee crises.  Ensuring that communities around the world have access to education and, concomitantly, the internet can accelerate people’s ability to understand their choices and to enact change before flight becomes necessary and inevitable.  It is no surprise that authoritarian regimes seek, increasingly, to limit internet access at the first signs of opposition—a threat that requires action by the new administration.

Where such flights are occurring and crimes against humanity are in evidence our President must not be silent.  Syria matters, but so too does Somalia, South Sudan, Afghanistan, and Iraq.  Sadly, the list goes on.  Burundi is on the brink. South Sudanese refugees are running out of food in Uganda.  Our international community has a habit of saying “never again” again, and again, and again, the words hollowed by the ease with which they are uttered.  The Trump administration needs to offer, at the least, continued, intense, and vocal opposition to rigged elections abroad and ignored term limits. And, at the very least, we need to ensure that our efforts at peacekeeping do more good than harm.  The U.S. should make it a priority to ensure that the abuses practiced by peacekeepers are not simply distant political scandals. The actions of peacekeepers in Somalia and the Central African Republic are not simply regrettable.  They can lead to real, sustained, and understandable, popular anger towards a rich and western world whose paltry efforts to ameliorate suffering often do quite the opposite. In a world where mining practices often lead to death, where colonial era policies of resource extraction still instill terror, our new president must take responsibility, something that is occasionally done, but seldom with resolve.

Returning to History: a Plea

History lessons remind us that well before there was an Bashar al-Assad and groups called ISIS, al-Shabaab, and Boko Haram, there was a Sykes-Picot agreement that created the borders we refer to as the nation-states of the Middle East.  These narratives warn us of the perils that corporate governance, the ruling of people for the profit of distant yet ever present companies, continues to wreak across the globe.  The past demands that we recognize the patterns of human action, the processes through which individuals manipulate the suffering of economic recessions and depressions, paired with “terrorist” acts, to convince their constituencies that it is the fault of vulnerable minorities, not government policies, that cause the plight of the present.  History shows us how a Reichstag fire in Germany, or the shooting down of a president’s plane in Rwanda, paired with economic collapse can lead to the most horrific dictatorships and genocides the world has ever known.  Now is the time to heed such warnings.

This post appeared as part of a Roosevelt House series on the first 100 days of Donald J. Trump’s presidency. To read the rest of the series, click here.

Jill received a PhD from Emory University in 2014 and was the William H. Bonsall Acting Assistant Professor of African History at Stanford University (2014-2016). She received the Fulbright Hays Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship/Institute for International Education Graduate Fellow (2011-2012) and a Stanford Faculty Research Grant (2015). Her book manuscript in progress, Becoming Tanzanian in a Time of Refugees: Rwandan Migrants, Humanitarian Aid, and Nationalism in Ngara District, Tanzania, argues that transnational aid to Rwandan refugees unfolded as part of a broader project of nation state formation and regulation–one which deeply affected regional narratives of community and belonging. Becoming Tanzanian utilizes over one hundred multi-sited interviews and archival research conducted in Geneva and throughout Tanzania. Jill’s research has been published in The Journal of African History.