Human tsunamis and the world refugee system

Published on Pambazuka News, by Tricia Redeker Hepner, Mai 5, 2011.

The dictatorship in Eritrea results in large numbers of people feeling the country. But once they enter the international refugee system their problems are only just beginning, writes Tricia Redeker Hepner.

The world’s attention is understandably fixed on the post-tsunami nuclear disaster unfolding in Japan and the equally seismic political transformations shaking North Africa and the Middle East. Much speculation swirls around the impact of these events regionally and globally. Will fallout reach the shores of Europe and North America? Will more dictatorships be swept aside by swells of democratisation? What role should the international community and the United Nations play?

In at least one country, the answer to the first question is clear, if not the second. And the third is another story altogether. The Northeast African nation of Eritrea marks its 20th year of independence next month. But the festivities will be marred by mourning. President Isayas Afwerki remains firmly entrenched in the seat of power, claiming with alacrity to have foretold the groundswell overtaking his Arab neighbors while banning television coverage of the demonstrations and reorganising the military to pre-empt a possible coup. 

Meanwhile, the ripples radiating from the epicenter of his brutal regime are unrelenting, and the fallout has a human face. Tens of thousands of men, women, and children have fled Eritrea in wave after wave of despair. While some of these refugees make it to the shores of Europe and North America, many more do not … //

… Those who have the connections and money might hire a smuggler, usually for tens of thousands of dollars, who will take them on a risky and tortuous journey to Southern Africa, then Brazil, through Colombia or Venezuela, perhaps Cuba, then Nicaragua, Guatemala, and finally Mexico, where stuffed in the cargo bay of a bus, or in the custody of a coyote, they will cross the border of the US and ask for asylum. For their efforts at being ‘above board’ – that is, presenting themselves to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) – they are welcomed to freedom in America through its prison system. While this may stimulate the privatised prison-industrial economy, it is first and foremost an extension of human rights abuses shouldered by refugees.

In detention, they discover legal-dilemma redux: many of the same problems that stalled the refugee process in Sudan follow them to the United States. They are possibly terrorists, or implicated in persecution and human rights abuses; they are cowardly deserters of a sovereign state’s military; and of course, they are always criminals for having the audacity to migrate illegally. But had the legal refugee process been responsive to actual human circumstances, such illegality would be far less likely.

I am compelled to shed light on stories such as these not only to highlight the victimisation, suffering, and exploitation that runs through them in every direction like capillary veins, that multiply with each person involved, with each new step through ‘the system’ in which legal and illegal intersect all the time; where the life-force that drives people to make such choices in the name of survival and hope can be snuffed out in an instant for profit, power, or sheer indifference. Nor is my primary intention to malign institutions like the UNHCR, or the asylum system in the US and Europe, which are as full of dedicated and committed advocates for refugees’ rights as they are of infuriating inefficiency, corruption, and bureaucratic senselessness.

My goal is to illustrate the complexity and global scope of human rights dilemmas that structure refugees’ lives, and the failures of institutions, policies and laws designed to manage them as technical problems rather than protect them as human beings. It is not enough to simply address the human rights violations that lead people to become refugees at the source, crucial as that may be. All along the way, refugees face multiple and nested issues that are sometimes endemic and even actively produced or aggravated by the very systems designed to protect them.

While earthquakes, tsunamis, nuclear accidents, and revolutions may be dramatic and momentous events, it is worth remembering that their wrenching daily equivalency plays out in political and humanitarian disasters like that of Eritrea’s refugees, more invisible than the radiation seeping into the Pacific but no less poisonous for those affected. As Eritreans mark the 20th anniversary of their revolution, any thoughts of Egypt or Libya will focus on the lives of loved ones lost in the Sinai or Sahara, or those whose fates are yet unknown. Their suffering, and the ripples of despair that radiate throughout the lives of their families and compatriots, is fallout from Isayas Afwerki’s dictatorial rule. But it is also fallout from the international community’s failed, inadequate, and draconian migration policies and laws. The fallout has not only reached our shores – it also originates there. What comes around goes around. Human lives are the currency we use to pay for the failures of modernity. (full long text).

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