Thursday, June 20, 2013

Aliens, Refugees, Illegal Immigrants, and Global Citizens

1 planet - 57.5 million miles of surface land - 7 billion people - 1215 million live on less than $1.25 per day  - 43.7 million refugees/displaced. That's what the data shows. Today, June 20 is World Refugee Day and here are my reflections on not just refugees but also global citizenship. Just for comparison purposes, I start with other statistics intending absolutely no correlation, if you'll pardon the pun. The US population is 313.9 million (2012) and the population of California is 38 million. Of these, 11.5 million people are illegal immigrants and it is estimated that only 7.7 million will qualify for legal status under the new immigration bill that is currently being debated by our government leaders. Worldwide, the number of people who are refugees/displaced is greater than the population of the whole state of California and its only 4 times the number of illegal immigrants in the US. California though has about 239 people per square mile while the United States has 87. Refugees and stateless people, by definition, have no land at all, no place they can call home. Who are these people and where do they come from? Who is helping them and what does the Bible say about refugees? What can followers of Jesus do to help refugees/stateless peoples?

The impressive sounding United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is the Refugee Agency founded officially in 1950 to help with displaced Europeans after the Second World War. In 1954 it won the Nobel Peace prize for its groundbreaking work with European refugees. By the beginning of the 21st century, however, most of the refugee problems were in Africa (e.g. Democratic Republic of Congo) besides the 30-year old Afghan problem. The legislation that guides their work is the 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to The Status of Refugees and expanded by the Protocol on The Status of Refugees in 1967. This was republished in 2001 by UNHCR's Refugees Magazine to honor the 50th anniversary of the event. The documents are available on the UN Treaty Collection website too. The Wall Behind Which Refugees Can Shelter is the title of the 1951 Convention document and it defines a refugee, their rights and the obligations of the signatory states towards refugees. This year, the UNHCR for World Refugee day (today) has highlighted the 5 countries of Syria, Somalia, South Sudan, Congo and Mali as areas of humanitarian crisis and chosen as its theme: One Family. Sudan is one with which most of us are long familiar. There's been a civil war going on in that country from the 1950s, even before I was born! Two years ago South Sudan finally gained independence but the refugee problems - ~200,000 refugees + 190,000 newly displaced in 2012 with South Sudan serving as a source and destination country for men, women, and children from Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia and Congo besides inter-ethnic abductions among Sudanese communities and who are then subjected to forced labor and sextrafficking - pose immense challenges. Similarly, the Syrian Civil War which started in 2011 along with the Golan Heights disputed territory since 1964 has resulted in more than 486,000 Palestinian refugees and displaced more than 2 million people. These are people without a nation, without a passport and without the means to gain a formal identity, like most other people. Syria is also a destination country for women brought from the Philippines, Indonesia, Somalia and Ethiopia to work as domestic servants and then forced into sex trafficking. Mali is another horror story since the Tuareg rebellion which displaced about 229,000 people last year alone besides the 13,000 refugees from Mauritania. Many of the boys are organized into forced begging but men and boys are equally forced into debt bondage and working in the salt mines. Btw, information about refugees is found under transnational issues for each country in the CIA Factbook.

I empathize with those forced to flee their home for whatever reason - oppression, persecution, violence, deprivation - and I admire organizations like the UNHCR for trying to solve the refugee problem. I don't know much about refugees historically, politically, or personally and their problems bother me as I do have firsthand experience of the identity and resulting other problems of resident aliens and legal immigrants. Thus, I was surprised to learn that the 1951 Convention, the Magna Carta of modern International Refugee law is under attack today. "Its values are timeless" according to Tony Blair, former Prime Minister of Britain, but its methods and operation need reform. Apparently, it was set up to help fewer refugees than the millions we now have. It works very well for people needing asylum in another country (an international system of protection), but not necessarily to help the thousands of migrant workers and refugees live free of violence/oppression in their own countries (domestic systems of protection, conflict prevention, return, and re-integration). According to Rund Lubbers, a former Prime Minister of the Netherlands and a High Commissioner of UNHCR, "no wall will be high enough to prevent people from coming" to wealthier countries and these countries need to do more to invest in the sorts of programs that will prevent large-scale migrations rather than just helping in crisis situations. In other words, we need to be more active about helping people avoid the sorts of quarrels, genocide, drought, and other crisis that lead to refugee situations.

Lubbers' comment makes me wonder how or if illegal immigrants streaming into America from Mexico fit the refugee label or status. The essential humanity of every person requires we treat them on a case by case basis rather than making generalizations except how realistic is this today? 7.7 of the 11.5 million illegal immigrants, it has been estimated, will qualify for amnesty under the new immigration bill, should it pass. According to the Catholic Church most of the illegal immigration into America is motivated by survival, families cannot earn a living wage that meets the basic necessities of life. Hence the Bishops of the Catholic Church have made their position fairly clear: Financially blessed sovereign nations must welcome the foreigner out of charity and respect for his humanity while at the same time good governments must make every effort to secure the border. The Jubilee Year of the Old Testament - when debts were forgiven, to put it simply - only came once every 49/50 years and that was nice. Our amnesty laws forgiving illegal immigration and providing a pathway to citizenship are now every couple of decades and an addition to America's already generous immigration and asylum policies. Illegal immigrants pose several challenges: 1) They have broken laws by entering the country illegally and working illegally as well and such laws just promote similar future behavior. 2) It is a normal human desire to want to live in the wealthier countries or parts of the world. I don't mean to glorify poverty but material prosperity is not the sole determinant for well-being and a lot of the illegal immigration to America is doubtless driven by the desire to give the next generation better opportunities, if not survival itself. What can followers of Jesus do with regards to these very different problems of 1) war/violence refugees and victims of trafficking and other forms of modern slavery, 2) politically displaced persons and 3) the problem of illegal immigration?

The Bible has a lot of references to refugees, right from the beginning when Adam and Eve were forced out of the Garden of Eden. I have always been struck by the Leviticus rules exhorting kindness and consideration to the aliens in the land among the Israelites; You shall not strip your vineyards bare, but leave them for the poor and the alien. Most telling though was God's conversations with Moses as He gives His Law: With me, you are but aliens and tenants (Leviticus 24: 23). In the eyes of God, we are aliens, tenants, sojourners. Leviticus 19: 33-34 and 24: 22 also spoke to me: When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God (19:33-34); You shall have one law for the alien and the citizen; for I am the Lord your God. (24;22). The baby Jesus and his parents too were real-life refugees when they went to Egypt, fleeing from Herod's search for the child (Matthew 2: 13-15). Jesus, in his parable of the sheep and the goats (judgment of the nations), said. those who welcome strangers will inherit the kingdom (Matthew 25: 31-46). Hospitality to the stranger is a mark of the true Christian according to Paul (Romans 12: 13). The Bible, as far as I can tell, makes no distinctions between the different types of strangers and asks us to be kind and helpful to all. I have no problem with this but I do have questions such as my obligations to an illegal immigrant.

My solution to this knotty problem is to start working towards a true global citizenship and do away with the concept of nationhood. National citizenship is an accident of birth. We also now know that for the survival of our planet we must all voluntarily choose to be good global citizens. In other words, whether we like it or not, we're already global citizens! Why should we continue to carve up pieces of the world and be limited to national citizenship politically? To take just two examples, trade and higher education, we've come a long way towards achieving international cooperation. Many medical students from the US/UK now routinely go to developing countries for a year or a semester to study diseases and medicine there. Countries have also started to cooperate politically. One lovely example of the European Union for example has enabled previously warring neighbor-citizens of Europe to travel and work in those countries without needing visas, travel or work permits. It won't be easy to achieve the same kind of world union politically. I believe it can be done and indeed, the time is coming when it will be indeed be done. Isn't this the biblical vision of one kingdom under God/Jesus Christ?

According to the CIA World Factbook, there are 267 world entities today; when I studied geography in elementary school we just called them countries but by middle school we learned about nations and nation states. Even as I wondered about entities, I realized why as I browsed the alphabetical list starting from Afghanistan and ending with the European Union. We're still engaged in battling for ownership and development rights when the land, oceans, and everything on earth is not really ours. I have to come back and study this list filled as it is with interesting entities such as Arctic Ocean, where Canada and US are disputing how to divide the Beaufort Sea and the Northwest Passage yet continue to work cooperatively on the continental shelf; French Southern and Antarctic Lands; and British Indian Ocean Territory. Meanwhile, I will continue to pray for peace on earth, peace and God's blessings to the aliens, refugees, displaced, stateless persons, and illegal immigrants. I will continue to do what I can to educate myself about their problems and offer whatever support I can to make their lives a little easier. And, to all those who ask me, where are you from, I will continue to give them my tongue-in-cheek answer that I came up with a long, long time ago: Space Cadet, Planet Earth. I might even add, In-Training Leader, Milky Way Galaxy :)

Am I being idealistic? You bet! "A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not even worth glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing...Progress is the realization of Utopias," wrote Oscar Wilde. I agree. What about you?


Special Issue of UNHCR's Refugee Magazine. The Refugee Convention at 50. Available full-text online.

June 2013 Immigration bill: "Under the bill, which legalizes illegal immigrants and invites in foreign workers, immigration will total 10.4 million more people over the next decade and 16.2 million by 2033... About 7.7 million current illegal immigrants will have obtained legal status by 2018, the CBO said. Current estimates say there are about 11.5 million illegal immigrants in the U.S., but not all of them arrived early enough to qualify for the bill’s legalization and some others won’t seek legal status...The CBO said legalizing illegal immigrants and bringing in workers will cost $262 billion in new tax credits and other spending, but that’s more than covered by the $459 billion in higher taxes paid by newly legalized illegal immigrants and future workers...analysts did say the bill is written ambiguously so that it’s possible newly legalized immigrants or others would be eligible for food stamps or college aid. The analysts said newly legalized immigrants would likely be able to get unemployment benefits if they lost their jobs and met the criteria of their state’s unemployment program." Read more online Washington Times dot com.

Global citizenship. There are many definitions and one of the most popular comes from the area of "international education" where it is defined as education that allows young people to develop core competencies that will help them engage with the world and make it a more just and sustainable place. While this is good and absolutely critical (one needs knowledge and understanding besides empathy for diversity, sustainability, social justice and equity, peace and conflict, globalization and interdependence), I am talking about being a political citizen of the whole planet earth.

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