Part II of V: I, We or All: A Review Essay on Refugees – Xenophobia, Idealism and Pragmatic

Running on Empty: Canada and the Indochinese Refugees, 19, Peter Duschinsky, Kurt F. Jensen and Robert J. Shalka 75-1980, 

Michael J. Molloy, Peter Duschinsky, Kurt F. Jensen and Robert J. Shalka, Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2017.

 

Humanitarianism

In 1807, the German philosopher Johann-Gottlieb Fichte addressed the German nation in Berlin that was then occupied by the French. For him, and for many others, the state is the expression of and the instrument for reifying and protecting the values of the nation, of the “people”. However, as Tillich wrote in The Courage to Be, “There is a moment in which the self-affirmation of the average man becomes neurotic ….  If this happens—and it often happens in critical periods of history—the self-affirmation becomes pathological. The dangers connected with the change, the unknown character of the things to come, the darkness of the future make the average man a fanatical defender of the established order. He defends it as compulsively as the neurotic defends the castle of his imaginary world…This is the explanation of the mass neuroses which usually appear at the end of an era.” (69-70)

Whether it was Fichte in Germany, the historian Lionel Groulx or the National Citizens Coalition in Canada during the Indochinese Refugee Movement, or Donald Trump and his followers today, these are the enemies of both Miliband and Molloy. But the two authors view the problem from very different perspectives. Miliband focuses on the mind-set of governments and citizens who share in a globalized vision of global rules upheld by global norms and funded by global humanitarian efforts. Molloy documents a bottom-up enterprise in one nation, Canada, in which civil servants formed the fulcrum between political leaders and citizen activists; hearts and minds combined and were prompted by and fed into a unique Canadian political ethos.

Miliband wrote that it is easy for the government, caught up in developing and implementing policy “to allow the story of its purpose and values to be lost.” Molloy has documented how those purposes and values were expressed in the very fact and the manner in which policy was developed and implemented. The irony, however, is that Miliband considers that he was better at government than politics whereas his “approach was to rally people affected by the issues around big goals,” a political rather than a governing function. Molloy writes primarily about the detailed functioning of government in dealing with a refugee crisis in order to achieve big goals.

Thus, though united in their opposition and in their support for refugees, they differ quite radically in the value assumptions underlying both their activities and their analyses. Miliband argues that welcoming vulnerable and vetted refugees is about rights and is about doing what is right, is about defining a national character as well as serving national interests (65-66). Molloy’s depiction suggests it is a much more mundane task of preparing the legislative and regulatory framework, developing the professionalism and élan among staff, and working in tandem with civil society and the media. National character is not so much a prerequisite of such action but what is developed from that action. The treatment of refugees is not a weather vane of values (Miliband 115) but a mode which allows for expression and expansion of one set of values.

“This is a fight for international cooperation over unilateral grandstanding, for the benefits of pluralism over the tyranny of groupthink, and for the enduring importance of universal values over the slicing and dicing of populations and religions in a fake and faulty clash of civilizations. It is a fight for values, insights and institutions that imperfectly uphold the best of human nature in the face of the impulses and arguments that humour the worst.” (Miliband 119) Though Molloy too endorses pluralism, ethnic diversity and multiculturalism, his emphasis is on good governance to hold it all together.

David Petrasek in a 2 February 2018 article, “Liberals’ Vague ‘Values’ Talk Undermines Rights Promotion,” puts the difference in stark relief as he allies with Miliband and rakes the current Trudeau government over the coals. The issue is not over the universality of human rights, but over the grounding and defence of policies in support of human rights. Do we do so because it is the decent thing to do, an expression of virtue, because of international laws and instruments that make rights binding on all states, and the utility of rights in preventing armed conflict, supporting democracy and good governance? Molloy would not dispute any of these claims, simply their relevance in tackling the bulk of the refugee problem. That required rooting the response in terms of expressing a specific set of Canadian values that both Conservative and Liberal governments in Canada at the time believed in.

As Molloy noted in his volume co-authored with Peter Duschinsky, Kurt F. Jensen and Robert J. Shalka, in 1937 Prime Minister Mackenzie King insisted on rejecting Jewish refugees because of “the unchanging, fixed nature of a Canada based on British values.” (449) Molloy, and Prime Minister Trudeau currently, based their positive response to refugees on developing rather than reifying Canadian values.

As Canada’s current Foreign Minister, Chrystia Freeland, opined, Canada should promote its values – diversity, pluralism, multiculturalism, the rule of law – but not impose those values, not insist that the values must be adopted by all states. Witnessing was the order of the day, not insisting that everyone act on the basis of a universal set of principles or rights. This is the central difference between Miliband and Molloy. The latter also includes positioning Canada on the world stage while acknowledging the crucial role of the media and an involved citizenry.

“Look after the most vulnerable, by upholding their rights, and you don’t just help them, you set a benchmark for the way shared problems are tackled. You establish mutual responsibility as a founding principle of international relations. And you set the stage for tackling other problems, from climate change to health risks.” (Miliband 119) The reality, however, is that if Canada had based its intake of refugees on the basis of refugee rights established in the Refugee Convention, the country would only have been able to admit a very small fraction of the large number that it did admit.

For Miliband, the most important lesson he obtained from government service was the need and importance of being self-critical, of standing outside “your own mind-set and recognize its flaws as well as strengths.” This cognitive exercise is indeed crucial. Miliband notes that Canada stood second to the United States in the most refugees resettled the previous year – 47,000. President Trump cut by more than half the Obama administration’s FY 2017 admissions ceiling from 110,000 to 50,000. Trump also suspended all refugee admissions for 120 days, and limited admissions of refugees from Chad, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Syria, Venezuela, and Yemen. The administration set the refugee ceiling at its lowest level ever – 45,000 for FY 2018; only 53,716 were resettled in 2017 compared to 84,994 in 2016; only 37% were principals. Of those 53,716, almost two-thirds were spouses and dependent children brought over through sponsorship rather than through the family reunification program.

In other words, Canada with only 10% of the population of the U.S. and an even smaller percentage of its GDP, now admits almost as many refugees as the U.S. Miliband refers to the unique Canadian private sponsorship program that makes Canada such an outstanding leader in refugee settlement, but does not examine that model or attempt to learn whether lessons learned could be applicable elsewhere. Perhaps it is not enough to look inside oneself; it may be even more important to examine in detail the experience of high-performing countries.

Miliband asks why we should help refugees. This is a very different question than why we do or how we can help refugees. Miliband answers, as many have before him, we are enjoined (by the Bible, the Qur’an, etc.) to love the stranger and help avoid the globalization of indifference. He quotes Rabbi Jonathan Sack’s injunction to identify as strangers, as if the two obligations to love and to identify with, were the same. But one injunction says that we love because we regard the other as ourselves. The other, also echoed in the Qur’an, says that we help the strangers because we regard or have experienced ourselves as strangers.

Is this a distinction without a difference? It is not. There is a radical disjunction between beginning with a universal imperative versus starting with experience. The first cognitively dictates an emotion – love; the second emotionally dictates behaviour. Molloy’s book offers evidence of the efficaciousness of the latter. Hannah Arendt argued that refugees were not in the end protected by a universal doctrine, whether of rights or a universal imperative, because the very nature of being a refugee is that you are denied “the right to have rights.” For in the nation-state system, the effort to protect refugees through a universal doctrine of rights has had only a marginal impact on the number of refugees offered protection.

If refugee assistance is at the heart of the purpose and nature of the global order according to Miliband (115), relatively little would have been done for the Indochinese refugees on the basis of rights and duties. Receiving countries had not signed onto that global order. Resettlement countries became involved, not to expand the global moral order, but simply to play a part without making a universal claim.

Molloy’s book demonstrates how a doctrine of identification as strangers by a minority of Canadians helped very large numbers of refugees who lacked individual rights, even rights under the Geneva Refugee Convention. Miliband cites his own family history to claim “that it was the decisions of individual citizen that saved the lives of my relatives eighty years ago, and that same spirit is what is needed.” However, he seems to have ignored the import of his own family history

The core issue is that, as Michael Walzer wrote, refugees lack membership in a state that will guarantee their protection. Nations have the right to determine who will become its members. The issue then is how and why and by what means will nations accept refugees who are not their members, refugees who may, on first appearance, have little culturally in common with a nation’s current population.

This raises the issue of nomenclature. There are Convention refugee claimants, asylum seekers who arrive at a country’s borders or its airports and claim refugee status because they were victims of persecution under the Convention. If their claim is recognized, they are protected by the state in which they made the claim for it was determined that they cannot safely go home. Such asylees are not to be confused with refugees fleeing war and conflict, a confusion Miliband in his compression sometimes makes. (p. 39) Refugees of the latter kind cannot by and large claim that they were targeted; they fled violence and war, not persecution. As Molloy makes clear, these were part of what was called a “designated class,” identified by membership in a group rather than an individual with a well-founded fear of persecution. They were accepted for resettlement from outside the country because the possibilities of repatriation or settlement in the first country in which they landed did not seem to be feasible. Humanitarian rather than Convention refugees make up the vast majority of the refugee population.

So why do we accept them if we do not have to do so as a matter of right and because our country has signed the Geneva Convention? Miliband offers six reasons: 1) ideals; 2) it is in our DNA to be compassionate; 3) the creation of institutions like the Atlantic Charter during WWII began to define global obligations and mutual interdependence among states; 4) refugees are our obligation as a consequence of a resettlement country’s foreign policy mistakes; 5) the need for stability in an interconnected world; and 6) for strategic reasons since, if nothing is done, there will be no stability and security for ourselves if refugees lack a national home in which they are members and can be protected.

Were these reasons valid when it came to the Canadian resettlement of Indochinese refugees?

To be continued…

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