Strangers in the Night: The UN Reaches a Turning Point on Displacement, Dr. Robert Zuber

18 Sep


When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison and visit you?’  Matthew 25 (Christian Scriptures)

Early on this Sunday the UN is fairly quiet, but soon many dozens of heads of state will converge on this neighborhood to begin a one-day High Level Summit for Refugees and Migrants.

Over the past few months, we have participated in numerous discussions and meetings focused on measures to address the unprecedented movement of persons – including millions of children – forced from their homes due to a variety of factors, but mostly from the impacts of climate change and from the indiscriminate armed violence from which few in the affected zones ever fully escape.

The policy focus on so many persons on the move – most in situations of considerable vulnerability – has been a necessary and welcome development, and we join with many others who are hopeful that Monday’s Summit can achieve consensus on the role that all states can play – and play together – to share responsibilities and minimize impacts on lives already disrupted beyond imagination.

As one would imagine, however, the long preparatory process leading to Monday has been characterized in part by political compromises and, especially, by the limitations of our collective compassion.

  • With regard to the former, we have noted a strong resistance by some states (mostly citing sovereign interests) to include the vast numbers of “internally displaced” persons in relevant policy resolution language, preferring to focus only on those persons involved in cross-border movements.
  • We have witnessed intense disagreements regarding the prominence given to refugees from Syria to the relative neglect of other significant sources of refugees and displaced, including from South Sudan, Somalia and Afghanistan (though the Security Council thankfully did discuss the Afghan displacement this past week).
  • We have reinforced facile distinctions between persons “forced to leave” and others who “chose to leave” sometimes even lumping them all together with “terrorists” or others ostensibly using the “cover” of vast human movements to find less hindered passage to Europe.
  • Despite the heroic sea rescues conducted by the Italian Navy and the extraordinary hospitality provided by Canadians and others, many states have (not so) subtly backed off their initial commitments to the displaced as domestic frustrations rise and voters insists that leaders shut borders to most all of the “strangers” seeking entrance.

And it is on the compassion side of things where our commitments to displaced persons also need a serious adjustment.

Here, it is relatively easy to harken back to earlier times in my life when “strangers” at our doorstep were more likely occasions for service than for fear, when you cooked dinner for who was in the house at that moment, not just for who was in the family.

For better or worse, we don’t live in such an age now.   The problems we confront as this UN Summit unfolds are so vast and intertwined; the media-stoked fears so deep and pervasive.  Despite the urgings of Pope Francis and other religious leaders, despite the fact that so many are on the move towards countries whose weapons and economic policies have contributed to the current mass exodus; despite the images of maimed children that tug at our souls, we continue to roll up our “welcome mats” and insist (not entirely without reason) that political leaders should make no assumptions about what local citizens are prepared to do in response to a problem they themselves did not create and that their leaders have done little or nothing to prepare them for.

Hearts are hard now, seemingly harder than they have been in my lifetime.  But leaders are also less responsible now, more often unwilling to “own” the repercussions of decisions they themselves have made, let alone decisions made by others “on their watch.”

The image of hard-hearted leaders and their constituents from the “developed world” running away from the needs massing at our borders, closing our doors in the faces of strangers running from bombs most likely sold into “service”  by our own governments, is indeed a chilling one. We can only hope and pray that we ourselves will never require the assistance we are busily about denying to others.

Throughout the preparations for this Summit, one of the terms often used by diplomats is “burden sharing.”   The relevance of this term to policy is well-known.   Despite all of the fussing coming from some European leaders and US political candidates, a chart of states providing most of the hosting for Syrian and other refugees headlines several lower and middle-income countries – Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Pakistan and Iran.  These are states often coping with their own shortages of water, employment opportunities and public services; these are states often enduring their own internal political turmoil.  “Burden sharing” is a compelling and legitimate goal of the Summit – to build capacity of refugees and their host states, and create a regulatory framework that guarantees the safety, security and rights of refugees and, if and when it becomes appropriate, to facilitate their successful return home.

But “burden” has taken on another connotation during this preparatory process – not the burdens of care necessitated by circumstance, but the burdens represented by the people themselves, the “strangers” that keep showing up at the house long after the porch has filled.  These are the strangers who, among other challenges, navigate the violent chaos of Libya so that they can overpay traffickers to pack them into small boats for a life-risking journey to what is often an inhospitable destination.  And then, while coping with their own losses, they have to find the language to explain all of this to their equally traumatized children.

And all the while the rains in their homelands refuse to fall, while the bombs that decimated their communities back home refuse to stop falling.

There is much at stake at the UN on Monday.  A genuine commitment to share the burden on services and governance would be welcome, but full effectiveness of any such effort will require us to stop the bombings and other “push” factors, to accept more responsibility for some of the intolerable living conditions that our own policies have wrought, and to find ways to warm our hearts again to the needs of the strangers we are now so often choosing to neglect, the strangers that we ourselves might one day become.

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