Forget boundaries; what we need are bridges

We need to stop scapegoating refugees and start treating them like human beings, argues Siamak Nooraei.
between the bridges

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American humorist Ambrose Bierce defined a boundary as ‘an imaginary line between two nations, separating the imaginary rights of one from the imaginary rights of the other’. Although uttered in jest, his observation carried within it the bitter essence of what refugees, asylum-seekers and forced migrants the world over face today.

For millennia, borders have served as bastions of stability in various parts of the world. Through boundaries, governments have managed and minimized external threats, exercised authority over their territory, facilitated trade and exchange, delivered social services, and allocated to citizens, visitors, and other classes of persons rights, freedoms, and obligations.

Nonetheless, boundaries have, in many ways, limited refugees from access to bare necessities needed to lead dignified lives. Borders give credence to the idea that different ‘nations’ have different ‘rights’, that physical and legal barriers are required to restrict ‘foreign’ access to such rights, and that topical solutions – such as tougher immigration policies – will discourage asylum-seekers by making the process excessively difficult.

However, reality points to the fact that, in spite of tough policies, refugees continue to flock to other countries for asylum. Today, tens of millions of people have left their countries of origin to escape war, persecution and natural disasters. Many have sought refuge in bordering countries, while others dared to venture as far as Europe, North America and the Pacific.

Tens of thousands of people have embarked on perilous voyages, often paying exorbitant sums of cash to human traffickers. Many of them have perished along the way, and those who managed to make it are often placed under indefinite detention, in sub-standard living accommodation, until their refugee claims are processed.

Bordered modes of thinking

As the refugee crisis shows no sign of ceasing, there is a need to pay closer attention to the root causes of population movements lest the situation escalates and cause irreversible damage to global political stability, security and economy.

To achieve this, the international community needs to address several factors.

First, states must re-evaluate some of the most taken-for-granted assumptions about international politics. It is assumed that political boundaries should delineate the rights of nation, and that each nation is primarily responsible to its own citizens. The idea of the nation-state is, then, legally sanctioned by the norm of national sovereignty, which allows governments to pass their own laws, and exercise legitimate force over a given geographic territory.

Today, we can see that nationalist movements exploit antiquated notions of nationhood to scapegoat immigrants and refugees for their countries’ socioeconomic problems

This subsequently leads to the notion that a national government ought to look after its own people; who are often given civic rights solely on the basis of their imagined national identity. Lamentably, citizenship is typically guaranteed either through birth or – when possible – through naturalization, which effectively excludes refugees.

History shows that such bordered modes of thinking, in many cases, have led to serious instances of xenophobia, racist sentiments, nationalism and, in extreme cases, even genocide.

Today, we can see, often too readily, that nationalist movements across the world exploit antiquated notions of nationhood to scapegoat immigrants and refugees for their countries’ socioeconomic problems.

Undeniably, ideas of national sovereignty, territorial integrity and borders are, in part, responsible for giving certain groups of nationalists within these borders a sense of entitlement and the right to treat refugees and immigrants as unwanted aliens.

Secondly, the refugee crisis demands a political solution. Through concerted effort, the international community must resolve the root causes of population outflows. Human-made factors such as political instability, war, persecution and socioeconomic problems have compelled tens of millions to flee their home countries.

At the present, protracted armed conflicts in the regions of North Africa, the Middle East and Asia are responsible for the largest share of involuntary population movements. Armed conflicts normally reflect deep grievances of some factions and demographics within certain countries. Often, armed political and religious groups rise against dictatorships to offset socioeconomic alienation, and ethnic and sectarian persecution. The international community must therefore tackle the root causes that lead to war and violence.

To do so, it must engage with moderate stakeholders within conflict-ridden societies. Moderates can help bridge the divide by negotiating a political solution that avoids taking extreme positions and focuses on including various ethnic and sects within a democratic political system.

Scapegoating foreigners

To stop the onslaught of refugees, then, the international community can work with troubled areas such as Syria, Palestine, Afghanistan and Libya – to establish consociational regimes, which guarantee representation of different ethnic and sectarian groups in democratic governance.

In this way, the world can work towards liberalizing and modernizing social and economic relations in the aforesaid regions, which in turn creates economic opportunities for the locals and political stability for the country.

Third, the international community must co-operate closely to ensure that existing and prospective refugees are protected against discrimination, racism and xenophobic sentiment in host countries. Across the world, from the Middle East to Europe to North America to the Asia Pacific – refugees face a slew of xenophobic sentiment.

Governments should address factors that give rise to anti-immigrant and anti-refugee sentiment: high unemployment, negative inflation, and growing income gap between rich and poor

From direct sectarian confrontations in Lebanon to anti-immigration protests in Germany, there is a troubling trend of scapegoating ‘foreigners’ for the epidemic socioeconomic woes in host countries. There are three main ways to address this problem.

The international community must allocate more funding, resources, expertise and oversight to host countries to deal with the onslaught of forced migration. Countries that receive large numbers of refugees from conflict zones should be given more humanitarian aid to better provide shelter, nutrition and healthcare for refugees. Also, governments in host countries should address factors that give rise to anti-immigrant and anti-refugee sentiment: high unemployment, negative inflation, and growing income gap between rich and poor.

Lastly, the international community should confront climate change in order to prevent a major source of large-scale population movements in the future. With increasing CO2 emissions and reluctance on the part of the world’s biggest economies to cap their output of greenhouse gases, tens of millions of people will have their livelihoods impacted by epidemic global warming. Rising water levels and droughts will force people to leave their homes in search of safer environments.

This, in turn, increases pressure on host countries by raising their social and economic costs associated with accepting refugees and asylum-seekers. So it is imperative for the international community to take pre-emptive measures by reducing the global economy’s reliance on fossil fuels, capping CO2 emissions, and investing in alternative and more environmentally friendly energy sources.

What the world needs today is to treat refugees like human beings. They move to get away from danger and to seek elsewhere resources required for survival. Governments should take every step possible to support them once they cross their borders. At the same time, the international community must tackle the root causes that force people to flee across borders: war, violence, persecution, socioeconomic issues and climate change.

This is one way, in which, to bridge the imaginary, and arbitrary borders that separate us from our common humanity.

Siamak Nooraei is a writer and essayist based in Toronto, Canada. He holds a BA in Political Science from York University and an MA in Political Science (Comparative Politics and International Relations) from Brock University. His interests include human rights regimes, identity politics, counter-radicalization, international law, and democratization. He lived in Iran for most of his youth and offers a unique perspective on Middle Eastern politics.