The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: humanity

History’s Most Troubling Chapter

It seems like every time we see a list of the greatest problems faced by our troubled world that the refugee challenge is repeatedly positioned in the top five. At no time since World War Two has the subject dominated us in such a fashion. Yet we frequently fail to understand how the narrative of people moving across the planet in fear of their lives has been developing, with each generation facing unique hurdles and implementing new solutions.


Take a look at the chart above, provided by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and via the good folks at VOX. It’s staggering and a revealing glimpse as to why so many think the world is a deeply troubled place. Conflict, persecution and political designs have driven more people – 64 million and counting – from their homes than at any other time in history. Of that number, 40 million are displaced people and almost 25 million are refugees.

The term “refugee” was already commonly used by the late-18th century. The French Constitution made it a legal classification in 1793. The issue became more pressing in the 1800s, but by the 20th century it was rapidly gaining global prominence. Hundreds of thousands fled the Soviet Union due to violence and persecution in the early part of the century. Following World War One, millions were on move as the map of Europe was being redrawn. A similar pattern emerged following the Second World War. The partition of India in 1947 resulted in some 10-12 million people displaced. The following year, after Israel achieved statehood, 700,000 Palestinians fled to other nations.

Things got so bad that in December 1950 the phenomenon of refugees became so pronounced that the United Nations established the UNHCR to coordinate a global response. Its mandate was designed to last for only three years, but global developments took varying turns when new conflicts in Africa produced ever more movements of people fleeing their homelands. The UNHCR mandate was extended. With the fall of Vietnam in the 1970s, one million more refugees began migrating elsewhere.

But this last decade has been unlike anything seen or experienced historically. Today 1 in every 113 people on earth is either a refugee, internally displaced (IDP), or seeking asylum, and more than half of these are children.

News coverage sometimes gives the impression that Europe is where everyone is trying to escape to, but that is misleading. The top five host countries for refugees aren’t in Europe, but in places like Turkey and Lebanon. Nevertheless, Europe has become the target destination of some one million refugees.

All this forms a portion of the refugee narrative. It winds its way throughout the decades, in varying emanations, and forming direct challenges. Far from isolated incidents, the emergence of the refugee phenomenon links history in unusual ways and forms something of a backdrop for the challenges of each generation.
The tendency has always been there to portray refugees or displaced people as those who leave of their own volition for greener pastures. The reality is much different, as millions are forcibly expelled from their ancestral homes, leaving them with two choices: cross borders or stay and face imminent death. This puts a different spin on the reasons why so many are migrating across the globe: they were forced.

Patrick Kingsley, in his moving book on the European refugee crisis, notes the following:

“The choice is not between the current crisis and blissful isolation. The choice is between the current crisis and an orderly, managed system of mass migration. You can have one or the other. There is no easy middle ground”

Currently, that “orderly, managed system” has yet to be refined and implemented. In the meantime, the sheer numbers of families and individuals traversing the globe is a clear sign that our world is rapidly becoming a borderless one. It is also becoming more troubling with each passing year. What we face at present is merely the most recent episode of humanity’s troubling journey towards peace and security.

Gandhi’s Seven Sins

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Part one of a new series on Gandhi’s Seven Sins.  Link to it here – goo.gl/6WOp8v

As the World Moves

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Read this post on National Newswatch here.

IN CANADA, THERE IS FREQUENTLY THE SENSE that the refugees brought into the country in the last year posed not only a challenge but a kind of calling card to the world of why we still remain such a compassionate land. We feel good about what we’ve done. The disruption of thousands of Syrians families into our communities has been slight compared to the sense of inclusion and accomplishment the challenge created for us.

Yet all this can provide a rather rosy sense of the refugee problem that stands in stark contrast to the rest of the world. It has been reported that there are more displaced people and families in the world than at any time since the Second World War. Then the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) came out with new data revealing that we have already exceeded the refugee fallout from that great conflict – 65.3 million, or one out of every 113 people on the planet. As imposing as that is, it also represents a 5.8 million increase over last year. Here are some revealing statistics from the findings:

  • The population of displaced people around the world now exceeds the entire population of the United Kingdom
  • If the total number of displaced formed a country, it would be the 21st largest in the world
  • 24 people are being displaced every minute
  • over half the refugees come from Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia
  • Up until now, Turkey has played host to more refugees than any other nation
  • Among the great number of refugees, 100,000 are unaccompanied children

So, yes, outside of climate change, the refugee dilemma in the most serious of modern times, but we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that it is the affluent West that is taking on the greatest load. As the Globe and Mail’s Geoffrey York reminded us recently, it is the poorer nations, not the wealthy ones that are bearing the brunt of the phenomenon. That makes sense when we consider the political thunderclouds in France, Germany, Britain, the United States, and now Turkey, as a result of its recent coup, that has now created a strong backlash against immigrants and refugees. The relative peace in Canada aside, the age of relatively compassionate democracy seems more on its way out than expanding.

All this leaves the poorer parts of the globe to deal with the refugee fallout. As York reminds us, 86% of all refugees are being sheltered in poor and developing nations. Five of the ten largest hosts of refugees were from sub-Saharan Africa. On the basis of challenges to the national economy, those bearing the greatest burden are the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Pakistan, Uganda, and Kenya. In Lebanon, 183 of every 1,000 people are refugees.

Canada was rightfully mentioned in the UNHCR report as a world leader in generosity towards refugees – second only to the United States. In the past year, we have accepted 20,000 refugees, while the U.S. took in 66,500. The problem is that no matter how great our collective and individual generosity, the world itself is fraying at the edges and more refugees are being created every year than can possibly be managed, sheltered, and empowered.

Of all the intense risks the Western political order is facing – irrelevancy, gap between rich and poor, climate change, the inherent flaws in globalization, political dysfunction – it could well be that it is the manic creation of refugees that could succeed in destroying it when war, poverty, and racism couldn’t.

The solution to this most pressing human problem of the modern era is not more generosity alone, but a rising global movement of social equity, female empowerment, and political pluralism that together can bring about solutions in those troubled nations from which today’s refugees are forced to flee. It is a cause worthy of Canada’s leadership role in the world, but it will require a united army of compassionate nations even greater than that assembled in World War Two.

“The story of humanity is essentially the story of human movement,” writes author Patrick Kingsley in his The New Odyssey. Right now our human story is rumbling about in some dark chapters. This could well be the moment for Canada, as a softer, more tolerant nation and protected on three sides of its boundaries, to capture the world’s attention by building a global consensus to bring a troubled world back from the brink of destructive human fallout.

Light in the Tunnel

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WITH THE DEATH OF ELIE WIESEL I find myself wondering if the world is in the final stages of going silent. There was once the great pantheon of moral voices that housed individual so gigantic on the world stage that their very words could summon generations to action. We know who they were: Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Vaclav Havel, Mother Teresa, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and a few others. Most became Nobel Peace Prize winners and went on to challenge their world to stop taking things so easily.

A Holocaust survivor, Wiesel became the clarion voice against human injustice in these last few decades. Everything he said and wrote came from the backdrop of Auschwitz – memories from which he had to endure until his final breath at 87 a few days ago.

He reminded me a lot of Canadian Romeo Dallaire. They were voices of the modern generation haunted by experiences they could never escape. They fell into despair often, but always for the sake of a better humanity they pulled themselves out of their darkness to speak to a world once more that they feared was losing its ethical spine. At times they were difficult to endure because we could see on their faces the incredulity that came with watching the rest of the world walk away from the tragic lessons of history.

Increasingly, Wiesel’s inner despair came not from the past but from the present. Around the world entire groups of people, along with individuals, were undergoing great hatred and oppression and yet so few were raising their voices as a result. Yes, governments needed to act with alacrity, but individuals appeared to be losing their will to fight for others.

Ironically, Wiesel came to terms with where he could see that courage lived out – among the victims themselves. As he would say so eloquently about Auschwitz in a 2002 speech:

“People say occasionally that there must be light at the end of the tunnel, but I believe in those times there was light in the tunnel. The strange way there was courage in the ghetto, and there was hope, human hope, in the death camps. Simply an anonymous prisoner giving a piece of his bread to someone who was hungrier than he or she; a father shielding his child; a mother trying to hold back her tears so her children would not see her pain—that was courage.”

These are powerful and uplifting phrases, but Wiesel had increasing difficulty finding this kind of courage in a modern era, where people jumped daily from one cause to another, quickly losing the thread of progressive humanity. Just as Stephen Hawking has come to see hatred in the modern era as the greatest threat to humanity, Wiesel wondered why we would permit both individual and collective hatred to leak its way back into a civilization’s bloodstream without raising our voices to deal with it effectively.

In a world where everything was flattening out – money, deep romance, love of humanity, employment, politics – Wiesel fretted that the same thing was happening with hatred. We were becoming very good at tolerating it. We were finding it easy to just not get involved in fighting outright racism or even poverty. In remaining remote from it all, we were becoming less human as a civilization, assuming that we had little part in it all. And yet Wiesel understood from experience that such actions, or lack of them, merely left the field open to the haters.

He watched as wicked attacks took place on Twitter or other social media venues as people shook their heads in shock at the vitriol emerging about race or vulnerable women, about alternative lifestyles or noble causes, and wondered why we weren’t raising our voices to stop it. He understood instinctively that our refusal to speak up about such things, to mire ourselves in our isolation, meant that the bad guys would win – they always win in such situations. And so he wrote: “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

I asked someone here in Scotland this week, a seasoned observer and activist in humanity at the University of Saint Andrews, just who were the great moral voices of our day. She struggled and struggled. Yes, there was Malala or maybe someone like the Dali Lama, but the great ones are disappearing rapidly. From the great church of humanity from which the moral voice of our great quest for peace and justice emerged, has come an increasing silence. What will replace those voices? Twitter? Facebook? Celebrities? Pundits? They are not the same as a Mandela and we are losing our way in their absence. Wiesel is gone and the silence is tragic in its own way.

“I must do something with my life,” he said recently. “It is too serious to play games with anymore, because in my place, someone else could have been saved. And so I speak for that person.”

In the absence of the great voices of moral clarity must come the great collective voice of individual citizens joining to cleanse our world of hatred. We’re not there yet.

The Good in Common

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WALK ALONG THE STREETS OF ANY Canadian city for a few minutes and you’re inevitably presented with a conundrum. There at the front entrance of a store or on a busy pedestrian corner is a homeless individual seeking help. All at once you are confused – to help or journey by?

This isn’t a post about poverty, but it is about Canadian citizens being confronted with the troubling possibility that our systems of compassion are failing. Author Robert Bellah put it poignantly regarding the American context: “… the difficulty of being a good person in the absence of a good society.” Either way, whether we withhold money from that homeless person or provide some spare change, we inwardly understand that neither option is the best one. In Canada – a compassionate nation – we come to see that our systems and institutions of well-being are failing, and because they are, we are faced with countless individual decisions every day to fill the gap.

Whether it’s about poverty, post-secondary education, Indigenous people, or trying to launch a startup business, we eventually come face-to-face with the idea that our “good” society might not be so great after all. At some point we bought into the idea that “loving our neighbour” meant government taking care of them exclusively. For a time it appeared to work, but then financial struggles came; we forgot to collectively fund our compassion. Where we had grown content with pursuing our individual options free of society’s greater challenges – poverty, climate change, political dysfunction, or growing deficits, to name a few – we’ve now come hard up against these realities in ways that face us everyday. We failed to comprehend that in granting the unending requests for cheaper credit, and the diminishing of corporate and personal taxes, that the bank balance for our public life together was in arrears.

Ultimately, we come to our greatest difficulty: by increasingly losing trust in our institutions, we are losing the capacity to care for ourselves in significant fashion. Thus personal acts of charity replace what once were more equitable government programs. The declining public support of research regarding climate change gives way to blue boxes. Self-help employment programs emerge when meaningful work across the various economic spectrums declines through a lack of oversight and pivotal investment.

And so we are left with the homeless person before us, and the ethical decision as to what to do about his or her condition. Somehow the greatness of our society seems diminished each time we are confronted with such choices. We know we can make differences individually, but we also understand that only the collective actions of all citizens through their shared institutions and initiatives can address the myriad challenges before us. To solve our daunting problems, or even deal with the sense of hopelessness inside of ourselves, it is necessary that we enhance and improve our capacity to think and act through our institutions.

It would be correct to say that we form our institutions, just as they have formed us, and our outlook on life. Today we are tempted to believe that all we require are committed individual actions, governed by some fair-minded rules and regulations, to solve our problems. Except that we aren’t. Added to such commendable efforts must come the collective resources of institutional support. If the greatest problems that confront us are collective in nature – finance, government, poverty, corporate – then only a gathered response from all of us will overcome such challenges. Social commentator Dennis McCann said it suitably:

“It is central to our very notion of a good society that it is an open quest, actively involving all of its members. The common good is the pursuit of the good in common.”

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