Who deserves what? Some reflections on the refugee crisis

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Writer and Philosopher Dr Arianne Shahvisi

I am half-Kurdish, spent my childhood summers in Iran, and recently lived and worked in Lebanon for two years. I have a strong connection to the region known as the Middle East, the calamitous centre of the world, the geopolitical hotbed under whose surface oil will bubble for the next few decades, and across whose lands trouble will erupt. A year living back in Europe has not shifted the sense that I am looking at the world through the wrong end of a telescope; living in some twee diorama as the real world unfolds elsewhere, forever beyond the refractive bias of my lens. I hope to turn that telescope around for a few moments, and share some thoughts on the political origins and moral ramifications of the current refugee crisis.

I was exactly a year old when, in 1988, with chemical weapons whose components were supplied by the US, then-Iraqi president Saddam Hussain gave orders for mustard gas and nerve agents to be dropped on the Kurdish city of Halabja, killing 5000 people on the spot, their bodies strewn in tortuous postures across the streets they had been walking, and leaving 7000 others with serious long-term illnesses and genetic mutations which will persist for many generations to come. My first political bit-part was appearing in a local Lancashire newspaper with my mother, who took me to the town centre to collect money for the Halabja relief effort that same spring. Myself and my older sister grew up loathing and fearing Saddam Hussain; he was the bogeyman of all our games.

Yet I was just shy of sixteen when, in 2003, I took the train into London for my first major demonstration. Along with a million others, my outrage latched onto chants that my memory still tunes into from time to time. A trip to London still felt like a treat, and beneath those glorious archaic buildings my voice rose up in fury at the UK’s disingenuous and illegitimate attack on the very same regime I had been raised to detest. Even I, as an earnest yet callow teenager, I understood that my enemy’s enemy was not my friend.

A decade later, I moved to Lebanon, two years after the beginning of the Syrian revolution, which is now this century’s most devastating and bloody conflict. Every evening, I walked past women on the streets of Beirut whose stunted children (who have known nothing but war) sleep fitfully on scarves laid on the pavement, their hair bleached by sunshine, their skin ruddy with exposure. These are some of the most destitute of the refugees, those who, even if they wanted to, will never afford to pay smugglers for perilous passage to Europe. Lebanon (a tiny country scarcely larger than Wales) hosts almost two million such people, at great cost to its own stability and resources, while the UK still struggles with the thought of a few thousand.

I say all this to demonstrate that my lifetime has been coincident with the zenith of Western imperialism. In the last few decades, new forms of colonial impunity have been tested time and again in the full view of the largely silent and wilfully confused international community. While the age of European settler colonialism is over, what we are seeing now is the empire’s caustic punchline: a reminder that crushing the living will leave fossils that echo down the ages: they are here because we were there. The arrival of people fleeing regimes whose brutality and insecurity dates back to the final years of the British Empire is a sort of catastrophic insurgence: our crimes have not been forgotten.

There’s been a good deal of discussion about what we should call the thousands of people arriving in Europe from the Middle East and Africa. At first, they were migrants—people moving—then they were refugees—people fleeing. “Migrant” was deemed to disguise their desperation, to make their journey seem like some thrill-seeking treacherous choice, a foolish luxury. Critics preferred “refugee”: it better expresses their intentions—seeking refuge—and elicits more public sympathy. Yet what about those migrants who are not fleeing imminent death, but are instead fleeing the anxiety of insecurity, whether financial or otherwise? Using the term refugees seems to commit us to drawing hard lines between those who deserve to remain in Europe after a perilous journey, and those who do not. Public discourse in the UK shies away from the obviously humane response that anyone who is prepared to face the danger, humiliation, and loss of leaving their home and community behind is worthy of a dignified welcome, rather than suspicion and interrogation.

In order to answer the question “Who is deserving?” we need to look carefully at who and where we have been, and who is now asking for our assistance. Many of the migrants to whom the present crisis refers are nationals of Syria, Eritrea, and Afghanistan. Though geographically and culturally distinct, the three countries have a good deal in common. All of them are currently led by extraordinarily repressive regimes. All are rich in natural resources, and are bordered by other lands that are rich in natural resources. Most important of all, what these countries have in common is that their fates were sealed by British intervention.

In 1916, Britain and France secretly negotiated the borders which demarcate the modern states of Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, drawing the so called “line in the sand”. Not only was the agreement an archetypal case of divide-and-rule, it prioritised the economic and military interests of European colonial powers, and thereby enforced an artificial division upon the Arab world. The Skyes-Picot agreement is implicated in all of the regional territorial and sectarian struggles that have occurred since: it is no accident that Lebanon, Iraq and Syria have struggled to maintain peace and stability as they negotiate the unending difficulties of belonging to a state whose borders and governance were conceived by self-interested foreigners. And it is precisely this agreement, and the borders it enforced, that is now the target of Islamic State militants, whose goal is to reverse the agreement and break down the borders.

There is so much to say about Syria, and even more to cry for. My optimism wanes as the years go by, and the silence of world powers reveals itself to be a long-term commitment to complicity. Here I will say only this: as I grow older, and become more attached to places, and the networks of people attached to them, my heart grows heavier and heavier for the people of Aleppo and Homs, in particular, whose cities, and much of their infrastructure, will never be recognisable to them again. Western commentators mourn the loss of Palmyra, and the many other ancient cultural sites in Syria that have been reduced to rubble by Daesh, but we reserve too little thought for the living cities which exist now only in memory, rendering many people permanent refugees.

In Afghanistan, in an attempt to prevent Soviet expansion, and with an eye on country’s mineral wealth, in the 1970s the US and UK began to support anti-Soviet fundamentalist Islamists, the mujahideen. In conjunction with Saudi Arabia, they supplied forty billion dollars’ worth of munitions to these fighters, equipping them to build sophisticated weaponry and the “madrassa” (religious schools) where young people were indoctrinated into religious conservatism. The mujahideen later became the Taliban, and some of these young people became those responsible for the bombings of the twin towers, and the fighters with whom the US and UK paradoxically went to war under “Operation Enduring Freedom” in 2001.

Eritrea came under British military administration in 1941, after British troops wrested the country from colonial grip of Italy. After the Second World War, and despite Etitreans being strongly and openly in favour of self-determination, Britain opted to hand over Eritrea to Ethiopia, as a reward for Ethiopia’s cooperation in the Second World War, and with the aim of having the country under the control of an ally, in the strategically important Red Sea basin. Unsurprisingly, just a few years after the contrivance of this uneasy alliance, the Eritrean war of independence began. While Eritreans eventually won independence in 1996, tensions with Ethiopia remain, and the regime is today one of the harshest dictatorships in the world.  Around 5000 people flee Eritrea every month.

In all three cases, and in so many others (consider India, Pakistan, Israel, and Palestine, for starters) Britain forced through decisions which belonged only to the people of these lands. Every such act of colonialism is a denial of sovereignty. And since those decisions were made with Western economic and military interests in mind, the consequences have been inevitably disastrous for the people who had to live with their fallout. If you call yourself British, those decisions, and the ways in which they have carried the British economy from strength to strength, enabling us to lead lives that are comfortable and enjoyable, are a central part of your identity.

And in light of this contrast, I often find myself remembering how lucky I am to be British. When I use the NHS, public transport, whenever I am comforted in moments of uncertainty by the fact that I have the security of a welfare state, and whenever I am proud that I can offer affordable education to young people in a publicly-subsidised academic institution, I am filled with gratitude for my good fortune. To have a comfortable life, a range of opportunities, the ability to express my political views publicly (as I do here) without fear of reprisal. But then I remember that that’s the wrong conceptual frame. British people are not lucky. Nor are those in Syria, Afghanistan, or Eritrea unlucky. Rather, we reside at opposite ends of past and present political and economic forces.

And on that analysis it’s clear that I’m undeserving of my fine education, my good health, my low levels of baseline stress, the enormous luxury I have of never having had to resort to violence to defend myself, my family, my land, my identity. Because all that I value is premised on the wealth and stability of a country that has built those things on the back of enslavement, poverty, and theft, at such great cost to so many others. And they, living their entire lives against the backdrop of conflict, having poorly-equipped hospitals, interrupted education, internal displacement, lost friends and relatives, and, in the end, weighing their lives against the horror of drowning, uncared for, unnamed, and quickly forgotten, in the very same seas we holiday in, and deeming the risk worthwhile … if they are not deserving I think we have to abandon the words altogether and start again.

If we are to do justice to our own integrity, to say nothing of the dignity of others’ existence, we must move away from the myopic view that borders, physical or legal, should be robust enough to forge dams against our moral intuitions. For one, respect for borders is the polar opposite of the policy we as a nation operated for most of our history. One cannot invade lands, in total violation of the sovereignty of other peoples, extract resources and cheap labour, decide to redraw the borders at will, and then, in the end, when those people risk life and limb to end up twenty-odd miles away on the other side of Channel, lecture the nation about the necessity of tightening our own borders.

How do we honour Aylan Kurdi, how do we honour the still nameless fourteen-year-old who this month was fatally injured in a hit-and-run in Calais, and the many other children who have died on their journey towards comfort and safety? We honour them through our own children and young people, by teaching them the truth about their warm beds at night and their hopeful futures. It falls to us to teach them the history lessons the government will not permit their educators to provide, the histories the newspapers daily deny all of us, the polarities most of us, in our more honest moments, would rather forget. Aylan’s young face was supposed to awaken the desire to finally pull our heads out of the sand. A year has passed and everything is unimaginably worse than it was.

It is high time we stopped speaking of others as deserving or undeserving, and instead turned those words back on ourselves. Our undeserved privileges are the spoils of our nation’s most shameful transgressions. Just as we have paid taxes into the national budget, the people of Syria, Afghanistan, and Eritrea (amongst others) continue to pay heavily in every aspect of their lives. And just as we benefit from the subsequent public services, so too should those we have wronged so badly. Because although this place will never be home to those, who as well as uncertainty, grief, and homesickness, will also undoubtedly experience racism and hostility at the hands of a misled public, the right to some modicum of security is the first and the easiest thing we can offer them.

If you can afford to do so, donating to the one of the many organisations providing care in European refugee camps is an important first step: we must attend to the urgent needs of the many tens of thousands living in squalid, overcrowded conditions at the end of their brutal and degrading journey from terror to uncertainty. For so many, receiving adequate medical care will be the first humanising act in years of rejections and humiliations. But of course, this will not be enough on its own. Our leaders will not decolonise, so we must ourselves begin to atone by revising our collective understanding of our identity as a nation. As Malcolm X said: “If you stick a knife nine inches into my back and pull it out three inches, that is not progress. Even if you pull it all the way out, that is not progress.” It’s time to pull out the knife, attend to the wounds, and meet the burden of recognising ourselves in the scar.

Adapted from a speech given at a Doctors of the World UK Calais fundraiser in Brighton.