I, We or All: A Review Essay on Refugees – I. Background

Rescue: Refugees and the Political Crisis of Our Time, David Miliband, New York: Ted Books, Simon & Schuster, 2017.

Running on Empty: Canada and the Indochinese Refugees, 1975 to 1980, Michael J. Molloy, Peter Duschinsky, Kurt F. Jensen and Robert J. Shalka, Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2017.

by

Howard Adelman

Part I of V: Background

From 2007-2010, David Miliband was the Foreign Secretary for the UK. He ran against his own brother for leadership of the Labour Party in Britain. When he lost, he became President and CEO of the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a humanitarian organization based in the U.S. with 27,000 employees engaged in both overseas relief and the resettlement of refugees. The lead author of the second volume, Mike Molloy, has been a Canadian ambassador and administrator in the Canadian government; he was the senior coordinator for the Canadian Indochinese Refugee Task Force from 1979 to 1980.

The latter volume, Running on Empty, is about the performance of Canadian government officials responsible for developing the policy framework as well as the administrative tools for locating Indochinese refugees in over 70 camps spread over seven countries, identifying, documenting, screening, selecting, processing, and arranging for their transportation to Canada. Immigration officials were also responsible overall for the reception and integration of those refugees within Canada. Further, because of the unique Canadian private sponsorship program, they also took on the duty of matching over half of those refugees with sponsors (32,281 of just over 60,000 Indochinese refugees). That was accomplished with the commitment of a surprisingly very small group of dedicated officials. Molloy shares authorship with three other retired immigration officers, including Peter Duschinsky, Kurt F. Jensen and Robert J. Shalka. For convenience, however, I will dub the second, and very much thicker, volume, Molloy’s book.

Miliband’s book is a call to humanitarian arms to deal with the current overwhelming refugee crisis. Molloy’s book, one-third history and two-thirds government officials’ recollections, offers a historical retrospective on one country, Canada, and its response forty years ago to a single historically very large refugee crisis. Miliband brings to his work his personal experience of coming from a refugee family and his professional experience as a politician dealing with major issues. Molloy brings to the historiography of the Canadian response to the Indochinese refugee crisis his background as a dedicated and very experienced Canadian civil servant.

However, although background might, in part, account for the distinction between the two volumes, a major difference remains between the two works. Miliband wants to inspire goodwill while Molloy documents that the capacities and decision-making structures of institutions are critical to the resettlement of refugees – even without majority support for the extension of goodwill towards refugees. Is it possible that, whatever goodwill exists, it is scattered and diffused and what is needed, and possibly in short supply, is a regeneration of governmental institutional memories and skills?

Both books are demonstrations of how “our lives depend on strangers.” They are both about how civil society deals with refugees. Only occasional insertions of personal anecdotes bring to life the spirit and sacrifice of the refugees themselves. For both books are written from the standpoint of the rescuers rather than those rescued. For a brilliant, and very angular, perspective from the eyes of a refugee, read the 2016 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen which I recently reviewed.

However, the Miliband and Molloy books have very different starting points. Miliband’s book addresses an ethical question: “What are the duties of the rest of the world toward the innocent victims of war?” What are our duties to strangers? Molloy’s book is a chronicle of administrative history, primarily a record of the role Canadian officials played in developing and carrying out policies and procedures of the Canadian government in attacking a large refugee crisis. One book is about what we ought to do and why. The other is about doing and behaving and the ethos that both informed and emerged from that activity. Miliband’s book is primarily about the need and importance of filling our hearts and minds with lofty ideals and principles. Molloy’s book is about how so few could do so much “running on empty.”

They did not do it alone. But they proved to be the fulcrum of the whole enterprise, for they brought together laws and norms, political leadership and administrative expertise, media relations and committed groups in civil society, that allowed any part of the whole amorphous movement to take advantage of opportunities that appeared – and undermine negative forces that also reared up. These elements formed a family. Not one of these elements was sufficient, but working together in relative harmony and in different combinations, each proved to be a necessary component for large-scale, effective and sustainable intervention to support the successful resettlement of large numbers of Indochinese refugees.

In practice, lofty moralism, in terms of universal obligations of all Canadians, seems to have played a very minor role. For the movement was not based on the universal rights of refugees nor universal obligations towards them. One can envision the possibility of the effort backfiring if leadership had stressed a universal obligation towards the refugees, for that would have meant putting what turned out to be a majority of Canadians on the defensive and, hence, possibly induce them to become more actively resistant. Instead, local efforts and witnessing seemed to be the order of the day rather than lofty moral imperatives. If this somewhat undermines the idea of “global citizenship,” so be it.

Perhaps, it is better to work up from the local towards the global without taking our feet off the ground, though keeping in mind the necessity of a large co-operative international undertaking.

Both books are set within the context of waves of refugee crises that have plagued history since WWII and the enormous existential crisis they pose to the contemporary world. Many states suffer from natural disasters, most likely, many a result of man-made climate change. The governments of those states assume responsibility for countering the disastrous effects, sometimes with help from other states – heavy rains accounted for 246 deaths in Zimbabwe, 144 in China, 150 in Peru, 156 in Afghanistan, 174 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 213 in Sri Lanka, 300 in Colombia, 600 in Sierra Leone, and 600 in India. Many homes are lost. Thousands are displaced. Hurricanes Irma and Maria in Puerto Rico caused $95B in damages, killed an estimated 500-1,000 (64 officially) and 300,000-600,000 Puerto Ricans are expected to migrate to the mainland in 2018.

However, as devastating as these catastrophes are, they do not compare in any degree to the suffering and destruction that directly results from human causes, mainly the malfeasance of governments, the terrorism of non-government opponents and civil war between different sectors of society. Citing the Norwegian Refugee Council Grid 2017: Global Report on Internal Displacement, Miliband writes: “In 2016, more than 24 million people were internally displaced due to natural disasters.” This means that, of the 40.3 million IDPs, 60% were the result of horrific natural causes, 80.6% of those “the result of weather-related hazards.” But this is very misleading. As Grid 2017noted, “A significant percentage of total new displacements in the context of sudden-onset disasters are usually related to planned or spontaneous responses … in 2016, evacuations … present only short-term displacement occurring in a relatively safe and orderly manner.” (p. 31) In contrast, IDPs as a result of intractable and recurrent armed conflicts are disorderly and prolonged, averaging ten years. For many, “there is no end to their displacement in sight.”

This is the major continuing crisis of the post WWII years – the prolonged and enormous challenge of refugees, many of them warehoused in refugee camps for long periods. Both Miliband and Molloy are committed to emptying those refugee camps. They oppose warehousing or, as Miliband phrases it, “funeral homes for dreams.” (77) It is not so clear why or how these refugees can best be helped.

The greatest humanitarian crises result from terrorism and civil conflict which produce enormous numbers of internally displaced people and refugees. As Miliband wrote, “refugees and displaced people are fleeing wars within states.” Civil conflict in the Central African Republic resulted in 600,000 IDPs and 512,000 refugees. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, 4 million have been displaced, 1.7 million in 2017 alone; 2 million children are malnourished. The recent conflict in Burundi resulted in hundreds of thousands of refugees. In Myanmar, almost 600,000 Rohingya were forced to flee to Bangladesh as a result of ethnic cleansing.

In 2017, the Afghanistan conflict resulted in 23,000 fatalities for an accumulation of at least 1,250,000 over the course of that long war. In Iraq in the same year, there have been 13,000 fatalities with an accumulation of at least a quarter million during the war. In the Mexican drug war, there have been almost 15,000 deaths, with an accumulated total of over 100,000. In Syria, almost 40,000 died in 2017 leading to an accumulated total of 400,000 in that many-sided conflict. Relative to this record of fatalities in Afghanistan, Iraq, Mexico and Syria, refugees who survived may be considered the lucky ones.

Miliband writes about the Dadaab (“rocky hard place”) and Kakuma (“nowhere”) refugee camps in Kenya. (I lived in the first for almost a month and took my Princeton students to the second for a ten-day study mission.) He insists that “displacement as a result of conflict or persecution is long term, not short term.” He is correct. But it need not be, as evidenced by the resettlement of the Indochinese refugees. It is not simply because civil wars last longer, as Miliband correctly observes, but because Western countries await a definitive outcome in hopes that the refugees can be repatriated. There is a second reason, and a horrific one to acknowledge. Western countries only acted to initiate a large scale resettlement program for the Indochinese refugees when the countries where the Boat People first landed – Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Hong Kong – threatened to send the boats back to sea if the Western countries did not agree to resettle them.

In the exodus of the Boat People from Vietnam, an estimated 200,000 to 400,000 drowned or were killed by pirates or perished from thirst and disease. These humanitarian crises are heart-wrenching. However, as Miliband documents, there has been in parts of Europe and in the U.S. a backlash against bleeding hearts, an advocacy of me first, of my people foremost, of a kind of nationalism and populism that views strangers primarily as a threat rather than as a responsibility or a crisis which calls forth a positive response. Both books are written against that background, Miliband’s much more explicitly.

To be continued…

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s