No liberty lantern for the world’s wretched

William Saunderson-Meyer says almost everywhere refugees are having doors slammed in their faces


Wednesday was World Refugee Day. It must mark the lowest point in the plight of these marginalised masses, since 2000, when the United Nations introduced the commemoration. 

Until next year, that is. On present depressing trends, the plight of refugees and migrants on 17 June 2019 will almost certainly be worse.

In the United States, Refugee Day coincided with a row over officials taking migrant children from their parents and holding them in separate detention facilities. This was necessary, the reasoning went, to ensure that kids are not incarcerated alongside criminals, as the US pursued its “zero tolerance” policy of prosecuting anyone who enters illegally.

Hungary, this week, passed legislation that criminalises lawyers and activists who help asylum seekers. Anyone who “facilitates illegal immigration” will face a year in jail, this in the country that has thwarted refugees with a barbed-wire border fence and a studied indifference to the European Union’s “mandatory” asylum quotas.

Here at home, Lawyers for Human Rights penned an open letter to President Cyril Ramaphosa, charging Home Affairs with disregarding the SA constitution, as well as international treaties and law, with its “very many harmful, unlawful and cruel practices and policies”. The situation, it says, has worsened since Malusi Gigaba became minister earlier this year.

Gigaba begs to differ. SA does not have a refugee problem, he insists. Rather, “We have a problem of irregular migration, with large numbers of economic migrants abusing the process of asylum.” 

Gigaba’s response could have been uttered by his collegial equivalent in any of a dozen or so European countries.

If you are liberal, these are “refugees” and “asylum seekers”, with connotations of them being hapless victims of war, civil collapse and repression. If you are conservative, these are “economic migrants”. This has the less charitable connotation that they are exploiting heartstrings and loopholes, in equal measure, to escape dismal lives in what Trump infamously dubbed “shithole” countries.  

It does not matter what terms you prefer. The crux is that the apparently unstoppable flood of people across borders is fundamentally changing the political make-up of a significant number of democracies, including countries, such as Scandinavia, with strong historical commitments to social justice. 

Opposition to soft migration policies is the biggest political issue in Poland, Bulgaria, Czech Republic and Slovakia, to name but a few. It is what recently led to the election of populist anti-migration governments in Italy and Austria. It is also the social cleavage that triggered the British vote to exit the EU.

Germany’s politically once-unassailable Angela Merkel has seen her political fortunes wane in direct proportion to the influx, since 2015, of 1.4m migrants. Given Germany’s stature in Europe and since Merkel was the most powerful champion of open-door migration, the international ramifications are significant.

Parties on the left will have to come to terms with the fact that human compassion and international law simply no longer cuts it. Nor does the academic research that unambiguously shows that immigrants are an economic benefit to the societies they migrate to. If these political parties want to be elected, and of course they do, they are going to have to make radical policy changes.

It will be interesting to see how all this this plays out in Spain. Two decades ago the foreign-born component of Spain’s population was 1.6%. It is now 14%, one of the highest in Europe.

Last week it had what was a rare pleasure for a former fascist dictatorship, that of being the darling of the world’s human right’s organisations, when the country’s new Socialist government accepted a boatload of 600 African migrants who had been turned away by Italy and Malta. The new arrivals will be allowed to apply for asylum.

The ship in question, the Aquarius, is operated by Médecins Sans Frontières and is just one of a number of vessels scouring the Mediterranean to take aboard African migrants who are trying to cross in frail and overloaded small craft. It is also a classic example of perverse incentives.

However laudable the intentions of the humanitarians, the more migrants they “rescue”, the more attractive they make it for others to pay unscrupulous people-smugglers large amounts of money to take them to the promised land. Human exports from Africa are, once again, becoming a major trading activity, along with people from the Middle East.

The arrival of the Aquarius is likely to be the beginning of an unending convoy. Migrant arrivals to Spain in 2018, so far, are already 50% higher than last year.

But Spain is an anomaly. Buoyed by its success with the Aquarius, the Italian government will continue its hardline policy. Others, like Greece, might follow suit. 

The EU is reaching a tipping point. Fortress Europe is pulling up the drawbridge. So, too, the US, albeit that President Donald Trump has made a U-turn, for now, on the incarceration of children away from their parents.

Almost everywhere, the world’s refugees are having doors slammed in their faces. No longer, long time since, that promise of succour, articulated by Emma Lazarus and engraved on the Statue of Liberty:

Give me your tired, your poor, 
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, 
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. 
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, 
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

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