Some thoughts on Syrian refugees.

I must be getting soft, but the image of the drowned Syrian child haunts me. Perhaps it is because I have a two year old or perhaps I am just getting sentimental and weepy in my advancing age, but it is doing my head in. I am not going to be the same for having seen it.

I say this because I have watched and read the coverage of the crisis for a while now and like so many others have not only wondered why the EU cannot craft a viable humanitarian response, but have also been struck by the nasty attitude of so many commentators here in NZ as well as in Europe, most of them on the Right, when considering the plight of these godforsaken people. So let me outline my thoughts on the matter.

The Syrian civil war is a man-made humanitarian disaster. Had it been a natural disaster with the same human impact, I doubt that the response would be the same as it is today. It no longer matters who started it, who is involved, who is to blame and when it might end. The people who are fleeing the war are non-combatants whose hand has been forced by events beyond their control. Those who say they have a choice to stay or go are either fools or cynics. That is like saying that a person subject to domestic abuse has a choice to stay or go. Or that a person has a choice to stay or go in a fire. Sure, they could stay but is that really an option? Did that Syrian child and his family really have a choice? Did they deserve their fate for having “chosen” to seek refuge in a supposedly safe part of the world? (the mother and two boys, ages 3 and 5 died; the father survived and has returned back to Kobani to bury them).

When people up stakes, leave most of their material possessions behind and bring their children on perilous journeys to foreign lands to which they have no prior ties and which are culturally alien to them, they are not “migrants.” They are refugees fleeing catastrophe. It does not matter if the catastrophe is human or environmental in nature (and in Syria it has been both). The bottom line is that they have undertaken great risk–in fact, they are risking it all–to flee the country of origin because of a calamity that is no fault of their own. They are refugees seeking safe haven wherever they can find it (which means a place that is stable and economically viable), and any attempt to define them otherwise is not only wrong but viciously inhumane.

Many of those leaving are secular Muslims and Christians who have been targeted by either Assad’s forces, Daesh or both. Many are the bulk of the shopkeeping and white collar service classes whose livelihoods have been destroyed by four years of war. The majority are moderate in their beliefs and political orientation, which is why they (or at least the men) have chosen not to fight. Their children have no educational opportunity at home, much less future careers.  They do not seek passage to Europe to establish a caliphate or even Islamise it. To the contrary, they are fleeing exactly that possibility.

For those who say that they should have “chosen” to seek refuge in Gulf or North African Muslim states, be aware of two things: 1) they are refused at the borders; and 2) they are considered undesirables in any event given their relative secularisation and the fact that they are considered second-class Arabs (as are Palestinians) by many Gulf oligarchies (they very same that are funding and arming Daesh). So that possibility simply does not exist.

Refugees do not choose to leave or where to stay. They may have their preferences but they live at the mercy of others. But that is the operative term: mercy. Along with compassion and empathy, that is what distinguishes open societies from closed ones.  And yet Europe has shown itself closed-minded on the issue in spite of the ongoing tragedy unfolding on their beaches and doorsteps.

Unfortunately, in today’s polarised ideological climate those virtues are disappearing in the West. That includes New Zealand, where Islamophobia and the “greed is good” mantras of the so-called neo-liberal elite have combined to encourage xenophobic, “me first”  “f*** them” attitudes in the population. In spite of the fact that as far as I can tell no Syrian has ever done harm to New Zealand (and NZ has a small Syrian expat community), the National Party and its supporters do not want to increase the country’s refugee quota in the face of this humanitarian crisis. It apparently does not matter that NZ’s international reputation as a humane and open society rests in part on its attitude towards refugee issues. Nor does it apparently matter that as part of the UN Security Council, New Zealand has a diplomatic obligation to lead by example. Or that a broad reading of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine suggests that protection be awarded to those fleeing conflict as well as those immediately subject to it.

Say what you will, the Syrian exodus is a true humanitarian crisis. The people fleeing are refugees, not migrants. The world, or at least that part of it that is open and funded on notions of compassion, empathy and mercy, has a duty of care to them. It is therefore imperative, and a matter of pure humanity, for Europe and other open societies to step up and help the refugees as much as possible. We may ask ourselves why China, Russia and other nations do not heed the call of the desperate. But the fact is that it does not matter whether they do or not. The moral imperative is to ourselves as well as to those in need.

That is why it is despicable for the Key-led government to shirk its responsibilities on this matter. We have the room, the facilities and the community to support an increased refugee quota targeted at the displaced Syrians. The people we accept will be vetted and are highly unlikely to be interested in jihad or Islamisizing the country. If we can spend $28 million on a flag referendum and $42 million on a boat race challenge, then surely we can find some (considerably less) money to cover the costs of their assimilation. And who knows, we as well as they might be the better for it.

To not do something is a sorry indictment of what we have become as a society, and for those in the government that refused to act, their collective shame will last long after they have departed. The bottom line is clear: regardless of partisan orientation the time to act is NOW.

21 thoughts on “Some thoughts on Syrian refugees.

  1. I believe it is a primary human duty to help those in need. I hear xenophobic rantings here in Hamilton and am appalled. Emotions are quite high here – high like I have not seen before.

    If the Key-led Government does not act on this next week (Cabinet meeting on Monday), It will be a bad day for New Zealanders.

  2. “If the Key-led Government does not act on this next week (Cabinet meeting on Monday), It will be a bad day for New Zealanders.”

    They will act swiftly in order to trump Labour’s and the Greens’ respective bills. My prediction is they will “bow to the will of the people” and agree to an emergency intake of say… 800 people – at least 50 people more than Labour. What happens after that will depend on what their private polling tells them.

    It will be an initial ‘about-face’ based on political considerations rather than humanitarian, but I guess that is better than nothing.

  3. I didn’t feel anything when I saw the photo. I’ve been to Hiroshima and seen their photos and I’ve watched the TV news more than a few times. I’m desensitised I suppose.

    What does bother me a lot though is the reaction. When people don’t raise an eyebrow at reading that 100,000 people died in the Syrian Civil War, but all of a sudden get dust in their eyes at a picture of one still baby.

    Not many are talking about fixing the problem either. Should we take refugees, yeah, but I’m sure they would rather stay in Syria/Lybia/Burma/etc if conditions where better. It’s not like these problems are difficult to solve either, if the powerful governments were willing to treat their poor rivals as future friends.

  4. Korakys.

    It is not that people ignore all the other images of children killed and maimed in war, it is just that those are not widely disseminated in the mainstream press because they are too gruesome. This photo resonates because the child could well be asleep, much as my son is during his naps, and because he and his family were trying to flee.

    I am very bothered by the callous, often sociopathic reactions of many, mostly on the Right, who publicly express their lack of concern about this child, his family or the refugees in general. One look at Rightwing NZ blogs tells you that empathy and compassion are a rare commodity in that crowd. I wonder how that came to be, or if the Right has always been the province of the cold hearted and merciless.

    Of course many if not most of the Syrian refugees will want to go back to rebuild once the conflict is over. But there are large strategic interests at play that go beyond Assad and Daesh, and until those are reconciled repatriation is not likely.

  5. On the issue of whether Syrians will return to their homeland; this is my deepest concern.

    I do wonder if the next two generations will want to go back home, as they will not know anything else than their ‘home’ being a refugee camp. It will be a ‘foreign’ place for them perhaps? Especially for those living in camps in neighbouring countries like Jordan.

    I believe this is a much bigger issue to confront – hopefully not though?

  6. The trouble is the NZ population has been completely brainwashed with the idea that islam constitutes an ever present terror threat. My guess is most people care about these people, it is just they don’t care enough to let them live amongst us, just in case.

  7. Quentin and Sanctuary:

    That is why action needs to be taken ASAP about finding a resolution to the conflict. That will have to involve the Russians, who have vested strategic interests in Syria that go beyond Assad but whom are equally disposed to see IS defeated. The sooner the crisis can be resolved the sooner people can return. Many may choose to stay in their new homes, which to me is fine since I believe that the vast majority of those will integrate.

    The point about irrational Islamophobia in NZ needs to be confronted head one not only by NGOs and fair minded people but by the government itself. Unfortunately, a lot of that irrational fear is due precisely to the government’s scare-mongering on the issue of jihadis, foreign fighters and home grown terrorists.

  8. Agree re Syrian refugees, we should take them. And refugees fron other places in the world (Africa, South Asia, climate refugees from the Pacific). And expressing outrage at the Australian prison camps in Manus and Nauru.

    Instead we send climate refugees back (not viable long term), whinge about the cost of taking refugees and pass laws allowing the government to bulk imprison refugees who arrive on our shores.

    For shame,

  9. Tried to edit previous comment, was going to add that getting to surplus and tax cuts more important to National than any shred of humanity.

  10. My major point was that many don’t seem to care about what words say, but do care about photos and video. I would argue that the words have been as widely disseminated as the images have.

    It’s as if words aren’t as believable, despite their credibility.

    Maybe it’s because photos can be “read” much faster than words can?

    All I really know is that I’ve been reading about immigrants drowning and Syrians dying for years and the public reaction to do something about it has never been near this big before.

  11. New Zealand should make a rational assessment of the nations and its peoples interests. New Zealand is a western oriented society with a lifestyle based on the UK and USA. In my view immigration from the Middle East into New Zealand has already helped turn central Auckland into a centre with elements of a third world ghetto.
    In all the defence assessments I have made in writing on the Collins submarines, Anzac frigates, Nuclear ships issue and writing a significant parts ofthe major cold war era wikipedia articles on RNZN and RN warships, I consider all technical, strategic, US, UK, USSR and their armed forces perspectives and responses. However my own view of the postwar NZ Foreign Service, MFAT is they have a basic kiwi left wing, Asian, China bias orientation and that the NZ diplomats have never had any understanding of the RNZN, its ships or how the US UK viewed it. My view is MFATs view on developing relations with Australia in CER and recently China and the Grosser view that NZ future lies in trade with China, Russia and India along with the relentless emphasis on nuclear disarmament and the lost Palestine cause shows MFATs opinion is not worth taking into account.

  12. Robert:

    I am not sure how the second part of your comment relates to the first, or the post for that matter.

    I also disagree with your claim that immigrants from the ME have turned central AK into a place with “elements of a third world ghetto.” Hyperbole notwithstanding, one can agree that parts of central AK have deteriorated in recent years in parallel with other areas being rejuvenated, and neither is caused by ME immigrants per se. In fact, I would argue that the deteriorated bits have more of a local origin than a foreign one, and the imposition of market driven social policy may be responsible for that.

  13. So much of our response has just been sooo incredibly wrong.

    For starters, the PM talks about our refugee services being overwhelmed… like they couldn’t be expanded. If only we had a situation whereby people were looking for work and are seeking a way to help other people.

    We’ve come across a situation where we’re no longer able to ignore the lack of any sort of moral leadership. National have been, are, and will probably continue to be a complete failure on this front.

    As individuals we’re failing and I can’t for the life of me work out the why of it. We’ve all heard the xenophobic “we’ve already got too many of them immigrant” type comments on FB but WHY?!?

    We used to be proud of the way we stood up for what’s right. We rioted during the 1981 Springboks tour. We gave the America the finger when we signed the New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament, and Arms Control Act into law standing up for what we believe is right. Between the mid 1930’s and 1980’s, we had a welfare state that put people first. We were the first self-governing country, in 1893, to have all woman able to vote in a pariamentary election.

    *THAT* is our cultural identity.

    And somehow we’re having a conversation about a flag and cultural identity where cultural identity = whatever that sports player says we should have on a flag. And we don’t want refugees because of “reasons”.

    If it takes a photo for us to remember who we are, so be it. I for one cried when I first saw it. Perhaps as much for our lost identity as much as the heartbreak of a dead child.

    We are better than this…

  14. Thanks Nevyn, for the thoughtful comment, although better minds than mine have pointed out that the reality of the pre-1985 past was not so rosy as many would like to think it is. However, it does seem that NZ is going through an identity crisis, something I think has to do with the impact of market-driven logics on the very fabric of society as well as the forced imposition of branding exercises on it. Empathy and compassion are not part of either.

  15. Pablo I think we have to put our own interests and the cohesion of our society first. I’m far from totally inhuman and in fact put a high priority on Womens right to freedom and sexual freedom and Maoris being equal partners in NZ with Pakehas, and therefore other interests being secondary. However I believe the very large intake into Australia of Vietnamese boat people allowed by Malcolm Fraser and the currret generous 12,000 quota of Syrians being admitted to Australia by Abbot and Julie Bishop, is proportionally too great for an already stressed society like New Zealand.Absorption of the Vietnamese into Sydney took 20 years and many seem largely concentrated in a few ethnic suburbs. My more hard line comments on stopping refugee flows which caused the Standard to ban me, are more related to specific issues like the vulnerability of British security interests at the English channel tunnel entry point and the continuing problem of boat people for Australians security and relations with Asian nations. My point about NZ Foreign Affairs and MFAT is while in some respects cynical operators with not much of a bottom line, possibly even reflected in Clark Governments small intake refuges, fundamentally the perspective of Foreign Affairs since as early as the 1960’s, has always been that of the NZ left looking to China and Asia and the future, and not really taking the NZDF view seriously , viewing it as questionable value and military hardware acqusitons as simply trade trade offs.

  16. Robert:

    I appreciate the clarification. Indeed, the “absorption” issue is a big one for a small state like NZ. I guess, as a former student of mine has characterised it (and I am sure that he is not the only one to do so), that the problem is not only one of numbers but whether those being absorbed are willing to integrate (as opposed to assimilate). The cultures of violence prevalent in the Arab world and which largely define male identities in it are one trait that needs to be screened carefully when considering intakes. Moreover, many of those coming to NZ are deeply traumatised and will need long term care. Thus the issue of who/how many has to be handled compassionately but with caution. On that I think we can agree.

    Contrary to some opinion, you will not get banned here if you remain relatively polite and on point. The two people who have claimed to be banned, Hugh and Paul Scott, quit voluntarily after disliking my replies to them. Even Redbaiter has gotten a shot here, although he wisely figured out that this forum was not suited to his style of argumentation.

  17. Not rosy, no. But something to be proud of. We had a direction and were heading toward it. It kind of feels like we’ve thrown the baby out with the bath water and are now wondering how to start. We like ice cream right? We should base our identity on ice cream… or entertainment… or something.

  18. Nothing wrong with being impassioned about it. We should be.

    I think, however, it’s important to counter the government’s view by raising the issue of open borders, rather than just coming up with some arbitrary figure of how many Syrian refugees NZ should take – and reaching a number not much more ‘generous’ than Key’s:

    Despite the only too petty-kiwi nationalist views which dominate on the left here, open borders are in the interests of workers as a global class:

  19. I am in favour of kindness to refugees but I think it is important that competent intelligence specialists screen them to ensure that we are not inadvertently admitting foreign intelligence agents to NZ among genuine refugees.

  20. Jonah:

    Interestingly, I once held a job that among other things involved observing the interrogations of suspected Cuban agents who tried to mix in with refugees crossing the Florida Straits. The vetting of refugees normally begins with the UN as part of its re-settlement efforts and carries over to local intel agencies.

    Having said that, I would find it very unlikely that spies from the ME would go to such lengths to get to NZ, if for no other reason 9and thee are plenty of others) than that they do not know where they will wind up until days before they are relocated.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *