I opened Graeme Wood’s article on so-called “fake” refugees in the Atlantic today with interest. Anyone who works in immigration and refugee law in any country will tell you that the asylum system is broken, based on an unwieldy set of laws mostly drafted after World War II that badly needs an update. Because the system is broken, desperate people must fit their lives into an arbitrary bureaucracy that was created for the world of the early 1950s and not for today’s challenges. Climate change, one of the biggest threats to the entire world, is barely mentioned in the refugee regime. But you go to war with the refugee system you have, not the one you need. In particular, if you are a migrant, you do what you can, as immigrants always have.
In Europe, perhaps unsurprisingly, the response to the inefficiency and contradictory nature of the international refugee system has been to create yet more bureaucracy, as though throwing voice recognition technology, office workers, paperclips and threats at desperate people could ever possibly resolve a system that demands each doctor and scientist and cab driver and farmer fleeing the rubble of Syria be given a separate interview to ask them why they can’t go back, then sends them back to Lebanon because they “weren’t persecuted,” a place where they are forbidden to work, either as a doctor, or scientist, or cab driver, or farmer, or anything else.
After labelling Syrians and other asylum-seekers criminals and terrorists because they used to have jobs and would like to have jobs again one day, Germans are then shocked when other Germans won’t give them jobs. The conversation between refugees and locals always goes like this:
“Why won’t you get a job?”
“But that’s why I came here. To get a job.”
Then, after the refugee finally gives up on finding a job in their field and opens a restaurant, the Germans go out and enjoy tasty Afghani food, or Syrian food, or Congolese food, and have a loud conversation about how their culture is being destroyed. Not, like, actually, physically destroyed like in Syria, but you know, sausage places are being pushed out by tasty Afghani food, a lot of which is too spicy.
Mmmmm…Afghani food. Hang on, I’ll be right back…
But back to Graeme. Graeme begins his article in America by trying to hire a refugee to clean his house. He gets a bunch of resumes from a refugee organization because he is one of the nice Americans, not one of the bad, mean ones, and he wants to do something nice for a refugee. Looking over the resumes, he realizes that one is from a doctor! He laughingly points out that doctors from other countries are now competing for the privilege of scrubbing his toilet! So funny! You can never say the Atlantic doesn’t have a great sense of humor.
Graeme then settles down to read the life stories of the refugees he is considering hiring. I picture him sitting at a dining table, perhaps with a mug of coffee, casually reading over the lives of others and judging their worth. In particular, Graeme is struck by what he calls irregularities in the stories. How could an African doctor not immediately get a job in the United States? Doesn’t that seem weird? This person must not really be a doctor because the United States of America would surely provide such a person with every opportunity in the world. An African doctor would never come here and have to work a cash register in Bridgeport.
There were also people claiming to be refugees from Zambia and Tanzania and Graeme is an expert on both countries, so he knows that there is no war in either place! Their claims must be fraudulent! Never mind that fleeing a war is not necessary for refugee status. Claims of persecution are made on a case by case basis and I can assure Graeme that neither Zambia nor Tanzania are any exception to the general rule that governments often persecute their citizens. But the words “Zambia” and “Tanzania” seem to trigger something in Graeme: maybe not all refugees are what they seem….
Armed with his sudden suspicions, Graeme travels to Germany to see how the nation who brought us the Nazis is dealing with the cultural and social challenges of mass non-white migration. As he discovers, the answer is: they’re managing, but it’s hard.
Graeme begins his section on Germany with the bizarre claim that mass migration only began “seven years ago,” when Syrians began fleeing refugee camps in the Middle East, where they are not allowed to work, to Europe. As someone who has been working in the refugee space for decades, I can tell Graeme that there have been refugee flows and mass migration happening for my entire life. He may remember something called “the Vietnam War” and the “boat people crisis” in this country. He may also remember the Balkans war, the Darfur genocide, the conflict in South Sudan…I could go on, but I won’t.
What was different about the recent migration of Syrian refugees from the Middle East to Europe is that it represented the first time in recent years that Europe received a major flow of non-European refugees over a short period of time. As Graeme himself points out, refugees from the Balkans were white. (Many were also Muslim, but Graeme doesn’t mention this, so I won’t, either.) There were tons of them, but it simply didn’t cause the same sort of reflexive panic that the arrival of a large number of Syrians did.
The arrival of one million orderly, well-educated and relatively well-off Syrians, most of them coming from big cities in what had been a middle income country, seems to have triggered some sort of deep, cultural reaction in Europe, some ancient trauma perhaps dating from the Mongol invasion. No offence to the Europeans, but it’s been a little puzzling to watch their collective freak-out. Almost as puzzling as watching Trump voters from 100% white towns freak out because one million Syrians went to Germany.
Sounding like a Fox News segment, Graeme calls the arrival of Syrian refugees looking for work a “refugee tsunami” and, perhaps most bizarrely, a “bum-rush.” He likens the opening of a falafel shop in Bamberg to the sack of Vienna. I have to go back and read this part of the article several times. Yup. It still says that.
Graeme then spends the rest of the article outlining all of the various bureaucratic systems the Germans have invented to “sort” asylum-seekers into “real refugees” and “fakers” who will, in Graeme’s colorful language, slam the “limo door” on “the fingers of any faker trying to take a refugee’s place.” Why some people should be allowed to get into the limo that is Germany, while others have their fingers cut off is never explored. Why there needs to be a cap on migrants into Germany at all is never explained. Graeme assures us that cutting off a few fingers is simply necessary to stop the return of the Nazis and “the end of a liberal vision for Germany’s future.” Vladimir Putin’s opinion on all this is never discussed.
What disturbed me about this article was less the opinions expressed in it, which are common these days on both the right and the left. After all, white countries don’t want a huge influx of non-white people, much like non-white people probably didn’t enjoy white migration two hundred years ago. I doubt it was easy when all those British people arrived, either, but hey, that’s mass migration for you.
I’m not even bothered by the casual assumption that white people have a god given right to go where every they want, whenever they want, and be welcomed with open arms, but everyone else is expected to stay out of white countries. This is totally typical and is the reason why British people demand beer, hot chips and servile politeness when they drunkenly vomit on their shoes in Bali, but get flaming mad whenever an African person wants to live in the UK and work in a shop.
What bothers me is the glee Graeme takes in cataloging the veiled violence and petty humiliations of the refugee process. Asylum-seekers have their luggage examined, they are forced to tell their stories over and over again, they are interrogated about inconsistencies in their stories, every past indiscretion is questioned. They are poked and prodded and judged, their possessions are confiscated and searched, they are forced to take a battery of tests, treated like criminals and told their lives are worthless a thousand times a day, that they are taking the place of someone more deserving. Graeme makes the German asylum office sound like an episode of Survivor and the Bachelor rolled into one. But here, the prize is to cook kebabs for Germans and listen to them complain about how you are ruining their country with the very kebabs they are eating.
In the Stanford Prison experiment, professors and students at Stanford University chronicled how easy it is to divide humans into two groups and then dehumanize one side. The drafters of the 1951 Refugee Convention tried to create categories of migrants to make it easier for governments to determine who really needed protection and who could probably be safely returned to their home. I don’t think they ever meant to brand failed asylum-seekers as criminals worthy of scorn and mistreatment, but by creating two categories of people, they inadvertently set us down a path that leads strait to a cramped office, a stack of manila files, and an asylum officer being paid by the German government to yell “you lie!!!” at an Afghani woman and her six children. This is how we have chosen to spend our tax dollars in 2018.