A number of years ago my eyes were badly injured during a recreational soccer game. As a result of this injury, I was temporarily blinded for a few weeks. At the time, I had no idea if I could ever see again. Although this was a traumatic and frightening experience, it was not without its rewards. The whole ordeal was a lesson in blindness. It taught me how I took my vision for granted all along. It taught me empirically what it means to be deprived of one of the most precious senses. Above all, it taught me how easy it is for one to suddenly lose his vision. When I recovered, I began to cherish my eyes and used my sense of vision with a great deal of joy, care and appreciation.
Not long after this ordeal, I found the opportunity to work as a graduate intern at the UNHCR Head Office in Ankara, Turkey. I was responsible to interview asylum seekers and screen them according to the UNHCR’s refugee determination criteria.
This experience was similar to my eye injury, although it was very depressing, it was nonetheless very rewarding. It brought me close enough to witness the plight of those refugees who were in serious financial, psychological and even physical pain. The uniqueness of such an experience is the realization of the same ubiquitous reality that one witnesses night after night on the television screen, but this time perception of this reality is aided with more than one sense. The focus of this perception is on displaced people who are human beings like everyone of us with flesh, feelings and hopes, but are dehumanized by having been turned into file numbers. One of the most unforgettable incidents while I was there took place during an early morning interview. A middle-aged asylum seeker was just admitted to the office for his first interview. Although the man appeared healthy, he was under so much stress that as soon as he started to reveal his grounds for asylum he collapsed with a heart attack. He died in the office, right in front of the legal officer and an interpreter. I was told later that this was “nothing,” incidents such as someone burning himself in front of the UNHCR building or somebody throwing his sick child in front of a vehicle to relieve the child of the pain were common incidents there. The situation at the UNHCR camps was far worse than the Head Office.
My daily experiences were particularly depressing for a new employee who had to face the misery of destitute and then make a yes or no “moral” decision. Indeed, reading Locke, Hume, Hobbes, Kant and all other theoretical writings on ethics meant nothing when it came to a real life situation. It was striking to see that the permanent employees were very accustomed to this operational ennui. It frightened me to think that the same thing could have happened to me if I had stayed there a little longer. There, in the legal unit of the UNHCR, legal officers are involved in making decisions on the future of these applicants. They act like quality control inspectors on an assembly line filtering out unwanted goods. The irony in this process is that the needless determine the fate of the needy in accordance with ethical values which are relative and culturally biased. Being involved in this pedagogical process was indeed my greatest difficulty, especially when the system is known to be deficient from experiences elsewhere.
As one of the consequences of the U.S. rampant jingoistic military intervention in the Persian Gulf, the majority of the refugees coming into Turkey were Iraqis, who were fleeing the severe economic hardship imposed on them by Western economic embargos. The distinction between convention refugee and migrant worker is clear in the UNHCR Determination Handbook, and of course “the UNHCR does not act as travel agency” in population movements. Thus, those who do not fit the convention definition are doomed to be rejected. None of the asylum seekers get any benefit from the UN, unless they are first recognized as a convention refugee. The result is tantamount to a disappointing brush-off for a great number of those who seek asylum.
The standard and ubiquitous cliche: “we regret to inform you that …, thank you for your interest in UNHCR, we hope that you are successful elsewhere in your future objectives” appears in the only correspondence that a refugee receives from the UNHCR. Indirectly, the rejectees are treated as though they are guilty of committing an embarrassing crime like shoplifting or plagiarizing an essay, while their only “misdeed” is trying to provide better living conditions for their family. “You migrant worker, how dare you impersonate a convention refugee.” A “crime” that without any hesitation anyone of us would commit being in their position. Often both the needless and the needy are where they are due to an accident of birth and fate. The needless, seemingly immune from displacement, are indifferent to the needs of the needy. The needless never think that they too may easily become one of the needy, just as we hardly ever consider that we may lose our precious eyesight.
The rejectees often remain in Turkey illegally, hoping to reach their destination through smugglers. The smugglers, who can hardly be trusted, often prey ruthlessly on the vulnerability of these desperate people. They charge as much as U.S.$10,000 to provide them with a forged passport and an airline ticket. While in Turkey, if they are caught, they are subject to prosecution and deportation by the Turkish authorities.
As a result of this obviously faulty process, many NGOs and refugee rights advocates have campaigned for broadening the 1951 UN definition of a refugee. Although concerned for human rights, I personally never favoured the idea of keep changing the “outdated” definition of a convention refugee in order to accommodate the larger number of asylum seekers of 1990s and onwards. That is simply because we should always seek an optimal solution as opposed to a band-aid approach and false comfort. Therefore, we must handle any problems at the foundational level, to see what has caused the cracks in the structure in the first place. Thus, we ought to remove the sources which have generated the defects, rather than just dealing with symptoms. Furthermore, if we try to revise the 1951 definition of refugee in order to accommodate the current situation, then what are we going to do in the next few decades when the 1990s or 2010s definition is once again outdated? We have already tried this approach once in the 1960s through the added rights implementing by the 1967 Protocol and that soon after deemed to be insufficient.
Therefore, it seems that changing the definition every once in a while is far from being an optimal solution or a foundational approach. The curing solution does not lie in allowing more refugees to settle in the West. Our attention, if genuine, ought to be in eradicating the problem from its root, which is indeed viable if our priorities are just and correctly focused. For example, in the case of Iraqi refugees, if the UN enforced economic blockade against Iraq was never imposed, then many of these refugees whom I met in Turkey would not have abandoned their homeland, possessions, culture, way of life, family and beg for membership in a foreign and often hostile society. Why should Western powers punish Iraqi children by putting a ban on exportation of medicine and baby formula? The Iraqi refugees are the victims of the so-called “New World Order”, which evidently breathes disorder.
Three decades have passed; Turkey is once again a major gathering place of refugees from the Middle East. However, this time, they are not the downcast non-convention refugees who are escaping poverty. They are the genuine convention refugees, consisting of Syrians and Iraqis fleeing war zones, an internal war composed and conducted by Western powers.
Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen are the regional nations that one by one are being destroyed primarily for their natural resources or for their vital strategic location. The Middle East is deliberately destabilized by state sponsors of terrorism run by a bunch of well-groomed psychopathic warmongering criminals to ensure the survival of Israel and cheap oil shipped to the West.
The democracy loving, human rights loving and freedom loving Neocons have turned the Middle East into an eerie graveyard where the masked scavengers feast. Destruction of properties, environment and human life, nothing seems to stop the perpetrators of these insidious crimes. The heartless imperialist strategy of divide and conquer in the form of “sectarian violence” is in effect to tear apart the Middle East, while cunningly pinpointing the collaborators of this tragedy as the people’s own “antiquated backward” religion. The crisis is painted to look like Arabs are victims of a domestic self-inflected misery.
History attests that so long as the causative and interconnected factors for human displacement are left loose, the plight of refugees around the world will continue to persist. So long as there is profit in war and money is the be-all and end-all of human existence, there will never be peace on Earth. In essence, so long as Man refuses to humble himself and does not realize his unique place in the universe, there will always be wars and human misery. Surely, there is no other solution for our interrelated social ills.
Revised and expanded, a shorter version of this article was published in: Refuge, Vol. 13, No. 8, January 1994, pp. 25-26