THE FRUSTRATION ON HIS FACE SAID IT ALL, and his emotions weren’t unlike our own. President Obama, like other political leaders, is in a pickle – not because there isn’t the need to help refugees, but because their constituencies are divided as to how to respond. The Paris attacks changed everything, filling the refugee conversations with an intensity and sense of urgency that has made dialogue more difficult.
When reminded that Republican governors (three of whom are running for president) claimed they wouldn’t accept Syrian refugees, and that even many Congressional Republicans agreed, Obama showed visible pain on his face, believing that America couldn’t abdicate global leadership at a time he believed the country’s compassion was so required.
The purpose of this post isn’t to delve into the many sides of the refugee situation, but to consider the implications of the refugee phenomenon itself and provide something of a longer view.
When we are informed that the past few years have seen more refugees than at any time since World War Two, we get that, and it’s worrying. But it’s revealing when we consider where many of those fleeing that conflict ended up. Poles, Ukrainians, and Russians fled to deepest Africa to escape the horrors of Nazi death camps and deportation. Conditions were brutal and dehumanizing on the journey. Official recognition of their plight was all but impossible – they were on their own. Abysmal refugee camps were established but were soon filled to overflowing, with approximately 35,000 Polish refugees alone. Many came from other beleaguered countries in Europe.
It was revealed later by historians that a number of Jews were travelling in this group. For Jewish refugees themselves, the need to flee their homes was immediate and, in many cases, death-defying. Those attempting to get to Britain came in for something of a shock when movements of citizens wanted to bar their entry. Historian Thomas Harding wrote that, “In Britain, these Jewish refugees were greeted with a mixture of grudging acceptance by some and open hostility by others.” As more and more landed on British shores, Harding adds, “The British government had become fearful of how its citizens would react to a wave of Jewish refugees from Germany, and had clamped down on immigration.”
We know, of course, how Jewish refugees were refused entry to the United States on a number of occasions, but what of those biracial Americans who attempted to escape slavery in America by fleeing to Paris, France, as refuge? In their midst were some of the great artists and musicians of the age and in Paris they found a home they could never enjoy in Harlem.
This is all a reminder that how to respond to millions of refugees isn’t only complex, but frequently ironic. The flowing movement of a desperate humanity from injustice and death is hardly new, nor does the current merely flow one way. Obama knew all this, of course, and his frustrations only grew as a result.
As did those of Antonio Guterres, the head of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees: “It’s absolute nonsense to try to blame refugees for terror attacks when they were the first victims of such attacks and can’t be held responsible in Paris, Beirut, or elsewhere.” But he wasn’t done. “It’s not the refugee outflows that cause terrorism, it is terrorism, tyranny and war that create refugees.”
There is an essential truth in this insight, but it is unlikely to sway those Canadians speaking out against accepting Syrian refugees into Canada. Our country is under strain from a human dilemma that we didn’t ask for but have been forced to confront. The ability of thousands whom we have never met to divide us is a real threat, but the potential for such divisions have come from within ourselves, not from that sea of humanity seeking refuge somewhere … anywhere. The solutions will not prove easy, but will never be possible should we fail to find some kind of consensus, even compromise. We are Canadians, after all, and like it or not, the world prefers to view us as compassionate and accepting.
Richard Fontaine, president of the Centre for a New American Security, delivered a compelling and unexpected challenge to his fellow citizens:
“Civilized nations should see the violence in Paris not as a moment to question our long-held ideals but as a chance to reaffirm them and embrace the most vulnerable among us. It is not just the ethically correct thing to do. This embrace of humanity’s deepest values is itself a rejection of the tortured ISIS worldview.”
ISIS isn’t going away anytime soon, but their duration will extend as long as we give in to the fear and insecurity that undermines the very best of who we are as a people. It is likely that most of us have a refugee somewhere in our ancestry, as many have discovered in recent years. To turn our back now is to deny our very existence and identity. The decision is now ours to make and it will carry an impact far greater than any bomb.