Refugees, immigrants and double standards
BY: Aijaz Zaka Syed Name:  aijaz-zaka-syed.jpg
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Dubai eye

The writer is a Middle East based
columnist.

Viet Thanh Nguyen is an American writer and author of the bestselling novel, ‘The Sympathizer’. He came to the US with his family in the summer of 1975 after a long and arduous journey from the war ravaged Vietnam.

Nguyen’s debut novel has created quite a sensation in literary circles and has gone on to win the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The novel has been characterised as an “immigrant story”. However, the author himself chooses to describe it as a war story and himself as a refugee who, like many others, has “never ceased being a refugee in some corner of my mind.”

In a fine piece in the New York Times this week, the writer whose collection of short stories titled The Refugees comes out in February, makes an impassioned plea for people of his kind – the desperate souls driven out of their homes and lands by wars and conflicts and forced to seek refuge far from home in distant, alien lands.

Pointing out the critical difference between immigrants and refugees, Nguyen argues: “Immigrants are more reassuring than refugees because there is an endpoint to their story. However they arrive, their desires for a new life can be absorbed into the American dream or into the European narrative of civilisation. By contrast, refugees are the zombies of the world, the undead who rise from dying states to march or swim toward our borders in endless waves.”

Today, according to available statistics, there are an estimated 60 million stateless people out there, one in every 122 people alive today. But these numbers are hardly accurate, nor do they reflect the grim reality of the lot who are dying every day on high seas and on equally perilous routes on land for that promise of a future beyond the horizon.

This week, more than 6,000 people were rescued from sinking, overcrowded boats off the Libyan coast in a single day alone. Luckily, help reached them in time. However, many of them are not so fortunate. Who could forget the stunning images of the Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi, whose tiny, plump body had washed ashore in Turkey after his family’s disastrous attempt to reach Europe?

Call them refugees or migrants, they are all aware of the fatal nature of their journeys. Yet more and more of them are taking to seas – often at the cost of their lives. Apparently, an uncertain future is better than a doomed present.

It is hardly surprising that most of these refugees are originating from the greater Middle East – Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Yemen and Afghanistan – and from lands that have been turned upside down as a result of reckless abuse of power and mindless ‘interventions’ by world powers.

So there is perhaps a kind of poetic justice in these political and economic refugees from the global South heading northwards and landing on Western shores in droves. Yet, with the exception of Angela Merkel’s Germany, most liberal Western democracies have stiffed up their backs to stem this tide of desperate humanity with steely resolve, unmindful of their role in creating it.

The European Union has struck a morally indefensible deal worth billions of dollars with Turkey to keep refugees locked inside their camps. Apparently, the number of arrivals in Europe is already significantly down this year thanks to the deal with Ankara.

On the other hand, the arrival of refugees has set off a massive backlash of Islamophobia and racism across Europe, giving rise to extremist parties led by lunatics like Geert Wilders.

France, the home of liberte, egalite and fraternite, sees no irony in forcing Muslim women to take off their burkinis, the full-body swimwear increasingly preferred by Muslim women, in the name of freedom. Clearly, modesty is a threat to liberal nudity of French beaches.

In countries like the Scandinavian paradise of Denmark, Muslims are finding themselves increasingly under attack with some Danes, known for their avowedly progressive self-image, openly declaring themselves ‘racist’ and calling for kicking out Muslims.

While the reluctance of the all-white, Christian continent to accept predominantly Muslim refugees from the Middle East is understandable, the resistance against refugees from Syria and other hotspots is even greater in the land of the free, a nation that was essentially built by immigrants.

Ironically, even the ancestors of politicians like Donald Trump, who has hated his way to the Republican presidential nomination and promised to ban the entry of Muslims and build a wall with Mexico to keep out immigrants, arrived here as immigrants like everyone else. Thanks to the sweetness and light that Trump has been spreading, there’s been an unprecedented surge in attacks on Muslims across the country.

While the US takes great pride in being the ultimate land of opportunity and a country built by immigrants, it has been incredibly small-minded in accepting refugees from Syria and other conflict zones.

Probably it’s the fear of the so-called radical Islam that is to blame. The recent attacks in Paris, Brussels, and in San Bernardino and Orlando in the US itself don’t really help. But let us not forget that these refugees are also victims of war, violence and extremism of the Isis kind.

They have come looking for refuge and protection. They would be grateful to get a toehold and would remain indebted to host countries forever. Such people pose no threat to anyone. They are no different from the first white settlers, the Puritans who arrived in the US in order to escape persecution in Europe.

Australia, another country built by immigrants, sees no irony in turning away desperate asylum-seekers in rickety boats and incarcerating them in islands like Nauru and Manus in inhuman conditions. Ironically, Australia’s national anthem promises refuge to all newcomers:

For those who’ve come across the seas/ We have boundless plains to share.

The same promise is offered by the iconic Statue of Liberty in New York, captured so evocatively by Emma Lazarus:

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she/ With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore./ Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,/ I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Today, if there are any truly homeless, tempest-tossed people on earth, the wretched refuse, it’s these refugees. They have fled their countries because staying on would have meant certain death. Indeed, their efforts to fan out across the world to protect their loved ones are nothing short of heroic.

As Nguyen puts it, many of these refugees have undertaken and are undertaking journeys that were as perilous as those undertaken by early astronomers and Christopher Columbus himself, the man who discovered America. This is perhaps why migration is seen as a sacred tradition of prophets. Islamic history would be incomplete without migration.

As Nguyen and millions like him show, most refugees not just do well for themselves but they also end up enriching their societies and adopted countries in unimaginable ways.

Look at the living, breathing miracle that migrant workers have fashioned out of sand in the Arabian Desert. Dubai’s skyscrapers are unimaginable without the sweat and toil of Asian workers. The great American dream would be incomplete without its share of enterprising immigrants and hardworking refugees. Where would be Australia, New Zealand and Singapore without their immigrants?

But while imploring the Western countries to open their doors to refugees, Muslim societies cannot lose sight of their own duty. If anything, their responsibility to protect their own kind is even greater.

Email: aijaz.syed@hotmail.com