Photo Credit: Flickr – Freedom House “Syrian Refugees”
Immigrant. Asylum Seeker. Displaced Person. Economic Migrant. Refugee. Global politicians and bureaucrats throw out 10,000 of these detached units. 10,000. 100,000. 1,000,000. Does the world’s empathy increase ten-fold with each zero? A sudden moral twinge as we see a distant place with flashes of gunfire on television? A flicker of sadness as we see images of child soldiers march across countries many of us can’t name?
The November terror attacks in Paris and Beirut last year reaffirmed our apathy to those who live in the places considered to be “elsewhere”. As the world lit up monuments in French colors for the tragic loss of 130 Western victims, the 40 victims in Beirut saw no recognition. Not a third or so of the media coverage, but instead “an irrelevant fleck along the international news cycle, something that happens in those parts of the world” as Elie Fares wrote. It appears the individuals that have no context in our lives – the ones that are just units in global discourse – are not created equally.
We have a privileged indifference to both the suffering we create and the socioeconomic benefits we reap from a global political and economic dominance. A privileged indifference to the ways in which we have carved up the world for profit and toppled regimes – the ensuing chaos of which helped create power vacuums, years of civil war, and genocides. An indifference to the ways in which a corporate hegemony exploits workers and destroys the environment – places where ineffective and corrupt governments are unable or unwilling to protect their citizens. And even more so, perhaps, we have the privilege to turn it all off, burying these thoughts in the NFL and cheap beer.
When refugees apply for asylum to our countries, our governments deny their applications and calls them “terrorists”. They pretend humanitarian aid to help refugees is an act of philanthropy when it was using the world as a chess board that made them pawns in the first place. Instead of reparations, they behave as if giving aid is an act of charity to those in need when it goes towards dictators’ pocketbooks.
The developed world’s conception of “elsewhere” is rooted in a pronounced separation, a divide that enables us to justify exploitation and dehumanization of “other” parts of the world. The irony is that while our perceptions of “elsewhere” and its citizens are marked by neglecting to remember their very existence, the lives of refugees are defined by the omnipresence of a very different “elsewhere”.
The “elsewhere” of refugees is complicated. It is the “elsewhere” that has helped to create their situation through games of power, but the same “elsewhere” containing a semblance of both safety and economic mobility. While of course many might simply prefer their lives back, this is often not an option because the conflict or persecution left behind rages decades on. There are whole generations born in refugee camps living in a twisted kind of purgatory where they atone for the sins of those living in our “heaven”, waiting for lifetimes to join us. International policies have forsaken them, unwilling to admit their situation is permanent and leaving them in limbo – forbidden to work in host countries and forced to remain dependent on food rations.
Is this a climax? The most displaced units in history. Generations who have lived their whole lives in refugee camps. Ineffective, bureaucratic governments unable to admit the permanence of the situation. Parents who throw their children on a rickety boat to travel the Mediterranean Sea because their chances of survival are greater than if they stay. And we could have ahead of us a century of climate change that could make portions of the Earth uninhabitable? With a potential for droughts, floods, extreme weather conditions, and global conflict over resources, is anyone’s future that hopeful?
A one-way mirror separates us from them. They see a distorted version of us through one side, but we look and can see nothing but our own reflections – a dramatic self-absorption. If we ever hope to break the barrier, we must each cast our own stones at it. We must each refuse to only see ourselves when we look to humanity.
Pawns. Tools. Collateral Damage. Unavoidable Oversights.Glorified Animals. Pests. Cockroaches. Vermin. Terrorists. Rapists. Criminals. Freeloaders. Invaders. Aliens
Whatever unit we must use to increase our apathy. But in the end. It is all the same. Any term – even refugee – fails to acknowledge these units for what they are – human.
– Essay by Laura Beck, Co-Director