Politics July 23, 2018
If you had to flee your country, where would you go?
The polarized refugee crisis increased exponentially in the past years resulting in increased global sociopolitical concerns.
In 2018, there was a “sharp decline” of refugees admitted to the United States compared to previous years. The Donald Trump administration enacted immigration policies, affecting refugees. The admissions cap limits refugee entrance and resettlements to a maximum of 45,000 people, the smallest since 1980 when the refugee program was created.
The U.S. opinion on the refugee crisis is deeply divided based on partisanship and ideology. Citizens question whether the U.S. should take responsibility to accept refugees seeking asylum. According to statistics from the Pew Research Center, in 2018, 51% of Americans believe that U.S. has the responsibility to accept refugees. And 43% disagree, with a majority of Democrats making up the former and Republicans leaning towards the latter.
Pronounced: ref·u·gee / refyo͝oˈjē. Defined as a person forced to leave their home country. Someone who flees from something. Be it persecution, war, violence and or natural disaster. Someone trying to escape.
In September of 2015, a haunting image scattered across the internet. The image of a small boy’s lifeless body washed up on a beach in Turkey shocked the world. The boy was three-years-old. He was Aylan Kurdi, one of the countless Syrian refugees at sea seeking new lives in Greece before their boat overturned. To this day, there are more than 5.6 million Syrian refugees who’ve fled the onslaught of the bloody civil war. There’s over 6 million internally displaced people and more than 13 million needing humanitarian assistance.
Kurdi’s image became equally famous to his predecessor. The unnamed “Afghan girl” became world renown after her picture was plastered across the cover of National Geographic’s June issue in 1985. It took 17 years later for the world to know her name, Sharbat Gula. She’s one of more than three million refugees that fled from the war when then-Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. With her siblings and grandmother, Gula fled the violence. They trekked over mountains to Pakistan. Found themselves in a refuge, where National Geographic photographer Steve McCurry took her iconic photograph.
She remembers being angry when the strange man photographed her as a child. It was her first and last time in front of a camera lens until she met him again years later. Little did she know that the George Bush administration used her photo as propaganda, “both as an argument for bombing Afghanistan and for delivering aid to it.” Her image played into the “politics-of-pity.” Creating a narrative of the U.S. as the “liberator” through bombing Afghanistan. Without her permission, she became the face of the devastating effects of warfare—to encourage more warfare.
In 2016, Gula once again found herself making headlines indicted for fraud. Pakistan was cracking down on refugees and fake IDs. Gula possessed fake identification papers and faced imprisonment for up to 14 years. She and thousands of Afghan refugees committed fraud in order to stay in Pakistan, away from the violence in Afghanistan. She claimed she had a fake ID for “only two things – to educate my children and sell my house – which were not possible to do without the ID card.” Sadly, she served15 days in prison before being deported.
Both Kurdi and Gula were two children that became the face for millions of refugees worldwide.
Following Syria’s refugee crisis, news spread of the exodus of the Rohingya people from their home in Myanmar to neighboring countries in 2017. It later revealed that the people were the victims of persecution. Since then, nearly 700,000 Rohingya people have escaped to neighboring Bangladesh in one of the world’s “fastest growing refugee crisis.”
The Rohingya are an unrecognized ethnic group from Myanmar denied citizenship. Rohingya Muslims make up most of the Muslim population within the predominantly Buddhist Myanmar. According to BBC, even before the latest exodus, many of the Rohingya were leaving Myanmar “to escape communal violence or alleged abuses by the security forces.”
The latest crisis began in August of last year due to conflict between the Myanmar’s police and Rohingya militants. Leading to a major military offensive targeting Rohingya civilians. The United Nations described the situation as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” Though the Myanmar military denied any charges on the grounds that it’s only fighting the Rohingya militants, an exodus of more than half a million Rohingya have escaped the alleged violence.
The struggles of refugees goes a lifetime.
Many flee suddenly without time to prepare. Those fleeing war and persecution often bring close to nothing with them. People unable to flee are internally displaced. Those able to flee might find themselves in refugee camps, where resources are limited and the future is unknown. Some will stay at one of these camps for years, even decades. Those considered lucky are able to resettle in a country that provides asylum.
Yet, the struggles don’t end for those who resettle in a host country. Without time to prepare, resettling means to restart their life. It includes learning a new language and searching for employment. All the while taking care of their family in a new society. The financial and social struggle is unimaginable for many people. On top of everything, they live with uncertainty and anxiety of further displacement and statelessness. Sadly, many suffer from traumatic experiences as a refugee and are unable to get the necessary psychological help.
Last year, The New Yorker reported the strange phenomenon which arose in Swedish hospitals during the early 2000s among refugee children who gained asylum in Sweden. The children reportedly fell into a comatose state. The diagnosis was Uppgivenhetssyndrom, known as resignation syndrome. The syndrome was only known to exist in refugees in Sweden, a country known for an accepting policy toward refugees, recently becoming more stringent. Hundreds of refugee children had supposedly given up on life due to the threat of deportation. The Swedish medical community had theorized that it was the result of either the trauma experienced in the children’s home country or the dread of returning to their home country or both.
The strange condition causes refugee children to become passive, apathetic, immobile, mute and unresponsive. Pictures like the one above show children that appear lifeless. One doctor likened them to Snow White, “they just fall way from the world.”
Refugees constantly fear of deportation and going back to the nightmare they desperately fled from.
North Koreans defectors struggle with this. The path to escaping North Korea is narrow and at many times fatal. The heavily guarded Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), divides the two Koreas, prompts most North Korean refugees escape through the border between North Korea and China. If they’re caught by the Chinese policemen at the border, they’re immediately sent back to North Korea. Returned, they face the punishment of death or life imprisonment and slavery in gulags, modern-day concentration camps. Punishment for the crime falls not only on the escapee, but on the escapee’s family who suffers along with them.
Writer and refugee Hyeon-seo Lee describes the struggle of surviving outside of North Korea and crossing the border to defect in her harrowing memoir “The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story.” She recalls hiding with other North Korean refugees from Chinese police officers. While attempting to defect, Lee’s mother and brother were imprisoned while trying to reach the South Korean embassy in Laos. The journey to South Korea, a safe haven that welcomes the refugees, gives them automatic citizenship and helps them resettle, took months.
There’s no easy solution to a problem involving millions of victims. With the help of Children of War Foundation (COWF) founder and executive director Amel Najjar, discussed some ways to alleviate and approach the global refugee crisis.
According to the UN Refugee Agency, at the end of 2017, there were an estimated 173,800 unaccompanied or separated children. Due to their susceptibility to danger, children and families should have priority in resettlement. Children are vulnerable and underdeveloped. They’re often in danger of malnutrition, disease and in the case of Syrian refugee children face child labor, marriage, abuse, the lack of educational opportunities and are in danger of becoming child soldiers.
Najjar states that the current refugee system process within non-governmental and UN agencies of refugee relocation and integration result in “generational loss and long term economic impairment” that carry with it short and long term healthcare and social outcomes.
Well-versed in the refugee crisis in the Middle East, Najjar speaks of the “permanence in ‘camp’ sites” that “gradually turn into communities of their own” instead of integrating into host countries. According to Najjar, the slow shift of initiatives to progress the integration of refugees “will take at least a generation or longer to sort out in regions such as Jordan and Lebanon.” The strained resources, unstable politics and dependency on foreign aid, further these regions struggle with the balance “between prioritizing the needs of local citizens and refugees.”
Citizens of host countries for immigrants and refugees expect assimilation. Some citizens believe that refugees have the obligation to assimilate, adapting to the customs and cultures of the host country. This expectation has caused conflicts between immigrants and refugees and citizens. There’s a several videos showing citizens berating immigrants and refugees for not speaking a host country’s language. American politicians like Sarah Palin and President Trump insist that people living in the U.S. should speak English. Or in Palin’s words “speak American” even though the U.S. doesn’t have an official language at the federal level.
In Norway, refugees are able to get benefits including a stipend if they attend culture classes. Lessons explain Norwegian’s cultural expectations and social attitudes to new refugees who’ve lived their lives in a country far from the European nation.
The attitude of assimilation should change to integration, becoming a part of the community while keeping one’s traditions and cultural heritage in tact. This way refugees can embrace their cultural identity, yet becoming aware and learning about another culture.
Regarding different approaches to the refugee crisis, Najjar discussed the “unspoken phenomenon” of the “brain drain” within the refugee and migrant context. This refers to the migration of “professionals and income capable refugees” leaving for host countries, resulting in camps and communities left with “low-skilled laborers” and less educated population with little leadership. Most host countries have standards for accepting refugees, preferring intellectuals that can assimilate and contribute to the country’s economy. This leaves countries without their greatest resource, people. In response to this, Najjar believes professionals, community and business leaders “should be the ones to stay or repatriate, as they are vital for communities to flourish.”
Najjar also advocates for “mandatory secular education, and prevention programs, including sex education, preventative health, and maternal health, starting with children and women.” Through her work in Haiti and the Middle East region, she saw that the lack of education creates preventable problems that hinder economic and social advancement.
Countries have become increasingly strict with refugee admissions due to the growing crisis. From these countries’ perspectives an influx of refugees with people who need house, means to live, food and resources to rebuild their lives appears daunting and draining of resources. It’s more than a merely “accept them into our country” issue. In many countries, it can mean a labor force competing with an already competitive work force. The possibility that refugees will provide cheap labor, decreasing the opportunities for employment for citizens is a fear that many people have.
For example, South Korea bears the responsibility for most, if not all North Korean refugees. The highly-involved government processes North Korean refugees from other countries, placing them on flights to South Korea. The government provides help with employment, housing, an allowance,psychological services, cultural and educational courses and resources.
Najjar emphasized that “almost all host countries bearing the burden of large concentrations of refugees, are those that are scarce for resources for their own citizens.” A large population of refugees drives up basic necessities such as water, grains, gas and housing. This puts additional strain on locals. Then, there’s “identity issues” as refugees go without work permits, IDs or aid. She says the refugee crisis and a mass migration shift stained and exhausted the global community of “human capital and funding needed for appropriate refuge.” For example, the refugee situation in Jordan. There the country has limited the number of non-profits entering the country due to the growing need for businesses in order to accommodate the growing workforce including refugees.
She notes that “global issues such as natural disaster, climate, resource depletion and exploitation, civil conflict, among so many other reasons for communities to migrate or seek refuge” are issues that contribute to the crisis of displacement.
The refugee crisis creates a “domino effect, where both host regions or surrounding communities suffer too.” New Orleans, South Sudan, Philippines, Ukraine and Fukushima are examples.
Not every country has the means and resources to take in a large amount of refugees. In 2017, Turkey hosted 3.5 million refugees, the most worldwide, followed by Pakistan and Uganda, both with 1.4 million refugees. The pressure of hosting refugees takes a toll on countries.
Najjar said Jordan is “currently strained on all levels.” In Jordan, she explains, Palestinian refugee camps have become cities of their own though aren’t yet “fully integrated” even after 40-50 years of integration. Najjar then includes the over a million Syrian and Iraqi refugees seeking refuge in Jordan, make up a population of over 2 million out of a total population of 9.4 million. She revealed, “NGO, governmental and aid agencies are fragmented and work against each other.” With a “common unifying goal” Najjar believes they can achieve success and create progress in host countries.
The greatest way the global community can help refugees is through empathy. Leaving one’s homeland is hard enough. Having your home and families stripped away due to violence and persecutions is an occurrence no one should experience. Perhaps giving them faces, instead of mere statistical numbers, will help better empathize with them.
As founder of COWF, Najjar’s seen the refugee crisis up close. The growing inequalities in regions “where the most vulnerable who have fled or suffered from injustice, have lived within the fences of camps, have been isolated, exploited, abandoned or have lost everything due to diminishing resources.”
She added: “Rather than trying to move people back or wait for war to end, or resources to normalize, I think collectively as a global society, we should focus on the presence and permanence of these clusters, regardless of them being internally displaced or uprooted by uncontrollable circumstances.”
Yet, despite the seemingly unending issues, she remains hopeful. Because advances such as technology “bring our shrinking world closer together in a more just fashion, as we’re more connected than ever before.”
It’s time for the global community to address the refugee crisis together for the well-being of our future.
“Those children are our future, a future that my own children will live in, it’s uncertain but there’s always opportunity to gain trust, to heal and live amongst each other in solidarity and remember that children are a reflection of who we are today.”
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