3 Quarks Daily asked a number of writers, artists, scientists, scholars, and public intellectuals to give us brief personal reflections on the Syrian refugee crisis in Europe and other places. The following have sent their thoughts and their responses are below in the order in which we received them:
- Feisal Hussain Naqvi
- Robert Pinsky
- Frans B. M. de Waal
- Mohsin Hamid
- Amitava Kumar
- Gerald Dworkin
- Simon During
- Pablo Policzer
- Ejaz Haider
- Huw Price
- Laila Lalami
- Kenan Malik
- Justin E. H. Smith
Feisal Hussain Naqvi
There, but for the grace of God…
In August 1947, my father’s family left behind all their belongings and fled to Pakistan, huddled on the top of a train. They were refugees.
In December 1947, my mother and her family were in what is now Slovenia. On the day after Christmas, they decided to make a run for Austria. Fortunately for them, the guards were too busy celebrating to notice my mother and her siblings creep across the border.
I am not just the child of two refugees. I am the child of two long lines of refugees.
My father’s family are Syeds, descendants of the Prophet. The family tree treasured by my father shows a path from Arabia to Iraq to Central Asia to Iran to India and then finally, to what is now Pakistan.
My mother’s father came from solid Germanic stock. But my mother’s mother came from a family which had converted from Judaism. While my father’s ancestors had been moving eastwards, my mother’s ancestors had headed westwards.
Given that anthropologists have fairly solid grounds for tracing humanity’s common roots back to the Olduvai Gorge in Kenya, it follows that everybody residing outside East Africa moved there at one point in time. In other words, at one time or another, we have all been refugees. If not us, then our parents. And if not them, then their parents. We would do well to remember that simple fact the next time we respond to the misery of others with anything other than compassion or empathy.
Feisal Hussain Naqvi studied Islamic history at Princeton before going on to study law at Yale. He is an advocate of the supreme court of Pakistan, as well as a columnist for various newspapers.
There’s always a wagon or at least a wheelbarrow
full of treasures (a quilt, a silver cup,
the fading scent of home),
a car out of gas marooned in a ditch,
a horse (soon left behind), snow, a lot of snow,
too much snow, too much sun, too much rain,
and always that special slouch
as if leaning toward another, better planet,
with less ambitious generals,
less snow, less wind, fewer cannons,
less History (alas, there’s no
such planet, just that slouch).
That phrase “less History” with its capital letter, and “less ambitious generals” . . .
Robert Pinsky is an American poet, essayist, literary critic, and translator. From 1997 to 2000, he served as Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. Pinsky is the author of nineteen books, most of which are collections of his poetry. He teaches at Boston University.
Frans B. M. de Waal
Social Darwinism may be dismissed as old hat, a leftover of the Victorian era, but it’s still very much with us. A 2007 column by David Brooks in The New York Times ridiculed governmental support of the needy: “From the content of our genes, the nature of our neurons and the lessons of evolutionary biology, it has become clear that nature is filled with competition and conflicts of interest.”1 Conservatives love to think this, but it is not always how nature works. Nature is full of cooperative species. Taking care of each other, including sometimes outsiders, is part of the equation.
The refugee crisis is a test of the role of empathy in public policy. Do we care enough about the lives of other humans to welcome those who flee brutal warfare? There is always more involved than empathy, however. Empathy is a well-developed trait in most humans, but one that is conditional. It is subject to calculations and filters. We cannot empathize with everyone and everything equally. So apart from the “humane” reaction (a term based on the assumption that we are the only empathic species, which my work shows is false, since I consider empathy a general mammalian characteristic), there is also the more practical question of how we are going to take care of so many people and if there are alternatives, such as removing the causes for their migration.
The whole political dance around the topic is part of a long tradition of empathy affecting public policy. Another good example is the abolition of slavery (Abraham Lincoln was rather explicit about this), and also the healthcare debate in the US is one of empathy, asking the question how much we care about the health of low income citizens. Empathy is a major but poorly appreciated voice in political decision-making, and the glue of any society, even though it is never the only consideration, and always mixed with more hard-nosed economic and political considerations. The European Union is right to listen to this voice, and to counter xenophobic tendencies, which unfortunately are also part of human nature.
1David Brooks “Human Nature Redux” (New York Times, 17 February, 2007).
Frans B. M. de Waal is the Charles Howard Candler professor of Primate Behavior in the Emory University psychology department in Atlanta, Georgia, and director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center.
Why do we believe that some people have the right to forbid others from moving from one country to another? ‘Asylum seekers’ is perhaps the wrong term. ‘Staying alive’ seekers might be better. One day the human beings of planet Earth will look back at our era and think of us, those who claim to love freedom but who live in societies that legalize migrant detention and deportation, with the same puzzlement that we think of those who lived in societies that legalized slavery.
Mohsin Hamid is a Pakistani novelist and writer. His novels are Moth Smoke, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, and How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia.
There Should Be No Children
I don’t know about you but sometimes it seems I get all my news only from Facebook. I have small children and the television has been commandeered by them. The kids watch shows with names like “Girl Meets World” and I think I know more about some of the characters on such shows than I do about, oh I don’t know, let’s say, Angela Merkel. Talking of Merkel, on Facebook some months ago, I saw a video of her conversation with a Palestinian girl. In that video, Merkel was saying that not everyone could be allowed to come into Germany from around the world—and then we saw the Palestinian girl, who had presumably asked a question, crying and being consoled by the Chancellor. But now the posts on my Facebook page show a different side of Merkel, one who has been leading a response that welcomes refugees fleeing from countries like war-torn Syria. The children in the TV show “Girl Meets World,” perhaps because the father of the central character is a History teacher, are often seen debating issues like democracy and popular will. My knowledge of the show is thin, and fragmentary, but I wish one of them, or perhaps their teacher, would tell me how the change happened in Merkel. That is not all. If “Girl Meets World” wants to get real perhaps they could even invite the Hungarian camerawoman, Petra László, whom we have by now all seen on our timelines kicking and tripping refugees. In the video on my wall there was mention of an internal memo at a Hungarian news channel with the following directive about the reporting they were doing on the refugee crisis: “There should be no children.” I have been thinking that there might hide the clue to Merkel’s changed thinking. The children. What we are seeing in the clips that people are posting are images of desperate parents taking the extreme step of putting their own lives and what’s more, the lives of their children, at risk because they want to live. It’s all very difficult to comprehend simply as status updates on Facebook, there’s something rather removed, and even shameful, about it. I feel guilty and helpless, and even more guilty for finding myself uninformed and helpless. I have shown my older child the clips of people in Germany welcoming refugees with teddy bears. I guess I was trying to press on her a message about a feeling of shared humanity. What I haven’t shown her are clips of a father or a mother, an elder brother or a sister, holding a child in a boat or trying to break away from the police.
Amitava Kumar is an Indian writer and journalist who is Professor of English on the Helen D. Lockwood Chair at Vassar College.
It is clear that the situation facing the world with respect to migrants is both extremely grave and also unprecedented in scope. The United Nations agency for refugees estimated that at the end of 2014, before the current wave of migration began, there were almost 60 million forcibly displaced persons. Roughly a third of these people were refugees with the balance being displaced in their countries of origin. In 2012 half of the refugees were under the age of 18.
Syria is one of the hardest hit countries estimated to have one-half of its population either refugees or displaced. The current estimate for refugees is 4 million people.
What is to be done? What is obvious is that there is an obligation on the part of every nation that is capable of doing so to accept some refugees into their country and provide them with the aid they will need to survive. Whatever the rights of sovereign states to place limits on the amount and pace of immigration, say, because of the interest in preserving a national culture, they are swamped by the desperate need of the current wave of refugees.
But there is not very much that goes beyond this that is obvious. I do not mean to be skeptical here. There are many things that are not obviously true that are nevertheless true. It is just that they need to be argued for.
Does the requirement to grant admission mean that that the refugees have a claim to permanent residence or may they be sent back once conditions are safe for their return?
Is it more effective, as Peter Singer has proposed, to give “ much more support to less affluent countries that are supporting large numbers of refugees: Lebanon, Jordan, Ethiopia, and Pakistan are obvious examples. Refugees living securely in countries that border their own are less likely to attempt hazardous journeys to remote regions and more likely to return home once a conflict is resolved…also makes economic sense: it costs Jordan about €3,000 ($3,350) to support one refugee for a year; in Germany, the cost is at least €12,000.”
Is it more effective in the long run to alleviate the threats to refugees by acts of intervention in their respective countries? For example, in Syria to intervene militarily against the Assad government. Or to provide massive aid and military protection to the refugees in rebel-controlled territory.
Les Green, an Oxford professor of law, has argued recently that “Coordination among refugee-accepting countries is often required—but by effectiveness, not fairness. What matters is getting refugees settled, not how the costs of doing so are distributed (except, of course, where that is instrumental to getting more people resettled quickly).” I do not think that this is clear. Is it irrelevant that Qatar, the Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain have offered zero resettlement to Syrian refugees while Lebanon had 1.2 million? Fairness should not be used as an excuse for inaction but it is a relevant consideration.
There have been some calls for giving priority to women and children refugees. Bad idea.
It is outrageous that the US has accepted only 1500 Syrian refugees since the war began.
Gerald Dworkin is a professor of moral, political and legal philosophy. He is currently Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Davis, and has also taught at Harvard, MIT, and the University of Illinois, Chicago.
As a New Zealander, long-time resident in Australia, who currently lives in Berlin, I have to say that the Syrian refugee crisis comes to me mostly as a rebuke. No: make that a shaming. How can it be that Germany is accepting 800,000 extra refugees while Australia has reluctantly agreed to take 12,000 more and New Zealand the grand total of….aaahh!…. 600?
Actually I don’t care much about the reasons why: it’s the outrage and shame that matters.
But of course there are reasons for these differences between Germany and us down under. Reasons that don’t make it easier to come to terms with what is happening. More specifically, reasons that don’t make it easier to take a moral or even a political position towards the situation.
Obviously the state of things in the Middle East muddies position-taking to begin with, even granted Daish’s cynical performances of cruelty and destruction for the global media.
Who really knows where right and wrong fall in the current political chaos in the region? Who knows what kinds of interventions might help or make things worse?
In a minor key, the same erosion of judgement shadows the stark difference between Germany and downunder in their responses to the refugee crisis.
It is not wrong to say that the Antipodean response has its roots in old white colonial racism, just as it is not wrong to say that Germany, in its generosity and empathy, is still acquitting itself for its terrible past.
But in the end that isn’t why each side is doing what they are doing. Rather, the Germans can imagine their economy as being helped by a million or so more new entrants, while the Antipodeans can’t.
To put it bluntly: the Germans think of their economy as creatively productive and controllable and which therefore can use more “human resources,” while the Antipodes think of their economy as extractive, as a lucky gift, and so, for them, more folk just means a smaller slice of the pie for everyone else.
To counter the shaming effect of Aussie and Kiwi callousness, to let the lucky countries down under do more for refugee crises to come (more and more of them most likely), it’s their imagination of their political economies that will have to change.
And that’s a difficult and slow task which doesn’t invite moral or political judgment. And won’t be helped by them.
Simon During is a professor at the Centre for the Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Queensland. His most recent book is Against Democracy: literary experience in the era of emancipations.
The image of Alan Kurdi’s lifeless body on a Turkish beach has brought about the end of the world created by 9/11. That, at least, is how it appears to this observer from Canada. If the end of the Cold War raised hopes—however faint next to the horrors of the Balkans and Rwanda—of overcoming “us versus them” struggles and divisions, 9/11 and its aftermath created a world that unapologetically relished those divisions. But just as everything changed during the morning of 9/11, everything appears to have now changed after the shock caused by the image of a small drowned boy.
The image has had a special impact in Canada. Alan Kurdi’s aunt lives in Vancouver, and had been trying to bring her family out of Syria by sponsoring them in Canada. Her brother Mohammad’s application had been unsuccessful, an outcome that led their brother Abdullah, Alan’s father, to risk crossing with his family into Europe by sea. The Harper government, in power since 2006, has prided itself on making it harder for refugees to enter Canada. It has stoked fears of illegitimate refugees taking advantage of Canadian generosity, and has severely restricted the refugee application process. Mohammad’s application was rejected because it lacked independent confirmation of his refugee status, by Turkish and UN authorities, a requirement that given the magnitude of the crisis is almost impossible to achieve for most refugees. Gatekeeping through red tape. Harper’s government has also overturned a long-standing Canadian tradition of international peacekeeping, and embraced the use of military force, in Afghanistan and now Iraq and Syria. No Canadian government over the past couple of generations, and possibly since the end of the Second World War, has done more to stoke fear of outsiders by demonizing its enemies than Harper’s.
Canada is in the middle of an election campaign, and Harper’s Conservative Party touts its ability to lower taxes and manage the economy, along with its commitment to “protect Canadians against jihadi terrorists.” “Us versus them” is not a footnote to this government’s policies—it’s part of the main argument. How fitting that it was an image of a child that exposed this xenophobia, and shook people awake. What could be more universal, more of a common thread among all of us, than our love for our children? Than our desire to protect their innocence? Than our pain when it’s lost? In Hans Christian Andersen’s story, an innocent child, who does not yet understand the adult conventions of what must and must not be said, points to the emperor and cries out that he has no clothes. Today, the image of an innocent drowned child challenges us all to point our fingers at our own local and very naked emperors.
Pablo Policzer was born in Chile and arrived in Canada with his parents and sisters as refugees in 1975. He is the author of The Rise and Fall of Repression in Chile (Notre Dame, 2009), and works as a political scientist at the University of Calgary, where he directs the Latin American Research Centre.
Gone are the days when upheaval in one part of the world would stay isolated or spillover only to neighboring states. Gone also are the days when the expression of states’ power could ignore humanitarian concerns. There’s too much information now and it travels at the speed of light. True also is the fact that history has come back to haunt us. The Middle East and its artificial post-colonial states bearing the cross of the arbitrary lines drawn on the map by European colonial masters are imploding, one by one. The post-colonial states of the region began a journey fraught with internal fault-lines and ruled by extractive elites. That had to come to an end. Only the end, as always, has to come through bloodshed. History has combined with internal and external causes to create the mayhem we are witnessing today, resulting in perhaps the biggest migration of peoples from states torn asunder by civil wars; Syria, Iraq and Libya being the three prime examples.
While it is heart-wrenching to see people, men, women, children, dislocated from their own homes and risking their lives trying to cross the Mediterranean, it is no longer an issue that only concerns the soft-hearted. The crisis, perhaps unique in human history, now concerns hard-nosed policymakers, running governments in Europe.
Corollary: the result of a flawed history in combination with today’s savage wars of peace is coming home in the shape of mass migrations. A child’s body, washed ashore, is not just an isolated incident. It’s a policy problem. It not only beckons the conscience of the world, especially the developed world, it also forces the hand of reluctant policymakers to review policies. Europe can either develop a policy independent of the United States or blindly follow Washington and bear the results. You can’t bomb states and expect the problem to remain confined. Europe has to realise that it is geographically much closer to an imploding M.E. than the U.S. The developed world has created a wicked problem of perpetual war. It must now bear the consequences.
Ejaz Haider is a prominent Pakistani journalist and television anchor. He was a Ford Scholar at the Programme in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security at UIUC (1997) and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Foreign Policy Studies Programme.
Like all Australians, I’ve been shamed in recent years by our politicians’ race to the bottom in the treatment of refugees arriving by sea. Australians of my generation are old enough to remember when things were better, in the years after the Vietnam war – when the plight of ‘boat people’ was not exploited so heartlessly for political ends. It has been downhill since then.
Like many Australians, I was once a boat person myself, arriving as a migrant by ship. My family were exchanging one comfortable life for another, but most of our fellow passengers were poor Italian migrants, paid by a generous and farsighted Australian government to emigrate from the same shores that now provide haven for the boat people of Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. It may be too much to hope that today’s governments be as generous and farsighted; but perhaps, out of the tragedies in Syria and elsewhere, we might at last be witnessing a turning of the moral tide.
Huw Price is an Australian philosopher, currently the Bertrand Russell Professor in the Faculty of Philosophy, Cambridge, and a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge.
The image of Alan Kurdi, the two-year-old Syrian refugee who drowned on a beach in Turkey, has at last awakened the world’s conscience to a crisis that has been building for the last four years. This crisis is all the more harrowing for its predictability. In early 2011, when the Syrian revolution began, its goals were remarkably modest: the protesters demanded political reforms and the release of political prisoners. But the brutality with which the Assad regime responded to these early protests ensured that the opposition spread and that the confrontation turned into a civil war.
In the early months of the war, millions of refugees fled to Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, and Iraq. In a bitter irony, Russia, the Gulf monarchies, Europe, and the United States—countries that supported or armed one side or another of the Syrian conflict—strenuously avoided taking in refugees. Only now, with toddlers drowning on beaches has the crisis fully come home.
In the face of this horror, I ask myself: what could I, in my limited ways, have done about this? I have written about the Arab Spring, I have donated money to refugee relief organizations, I have asked my representatives in the Senate to urge the US government to take in more refugees, but none of this seems adequate. Syria is being cleansed of its people and its cultural heritage erased. And yet none of our world leaders seems to be in any hurry to help find a negotiated end to the war, which is ultimately the only solution to the refugee crisis.
Laila Lalami is a Moroccan American novelist and essayist. She was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction for her novel, The Moor’s Account (2014), which received strong critical praise.
Justin E. H. Smith
One of the memes circling around the French Internet shows the mayor of the town of Roanne telling a huddled group of refugees that they cannot stay, since they are not Christian. “Neither are you,” is the reply. The crisis has in fact starkly drawn out the two primary senses in which this label is used today: the one, understood by the mayor, which is identitarian, political, and intent on boundaries; and the other, which is cosmopolitan, effectively anarchist, and contemptuous of boundaries. It is good, at least, to see these two senses in such clear relief, as it is to see so many Europeans, likely the majority of whom are secular-identified, spontaneously manifesting the charity (another translation of which is ‘love’) to the refugees that those with proper training in scriptural matters (presumably the mayor of Roanne?) are supposed to have learned. The popular wave of European citizens declaring ‘Refugees Welcome Here’, a slogan that has appeared everywhere from Twitter hashtags to football banners, was a heartening reminder that sometimes masses of people can act directly, and circumvent the ideological opposition and bumbling incompetence of state agencies and officials.