The Rich World Has a Shockingly High Tolerance for Cruelty
"When a fire broke out last week at a Mexican detention center for migrants and asylum seekers in Ciudad Juárez, just across the border from El Paso, it seemed like cosmically bad luck, a double tragedy: People forced — by political instability, criminal violence, climate change or economic deprivation — to flee their homes, faced a devastating fire while trying to seek refuge. At least 39 people died. The world took notice. Mexican authorities launched a criminal investigation.
But was it really so random? Or was this double tragedy a portent of what’s to come in a world where seemingly unsolvable conflict and climate change are already creating disasters across the globe?
When I saw the news reports, my mind immediately turned to my recent trip to southern Turkey, where I went to report on the aftermath of the devastating earthquake in February. There are more than 3.5 million Syrians in Turkey who have fled the Syrian civil war; I met dozens of them while traveling in the country. When the earthquake hit, they, too, faced cosmically bad luck, a double tragedy.
The earthquake was an act of God, but their situation is man-made. These Syrians cannot return to their homeland because of the brutal conflict there. But they can’t really go anywhere else, either, because the Turkish government has — in exchange for 6 billion euros from the European Union — sealed its seafront to prevent anyone from heading to Europe.
The people who died in the Mexican detention center were similarly trapped. Facing unprecedented arrivals from South and Central America, the United States has pressed Mexico to warehouse asylum seekers, relying on a Trump-era pandemic policy that it may soon effectively replace by restarting the practice of detaining families who try to cross the border without authorization.
This is the morally dubious system that the rich world has created for managing the tens of millions of people in the poor world who have fled their homes: Stay there, but we’ll pay. As more and more people seek to escape natural disasters, conflict or some cruel combination of the two, rich countries have demonstrated that they will go to great lengths to ensure that these displaced people stay as far as possible from their shores, keeping them stuck in an excruciating purgatory in so-called “third countries.”
It was only a matter of time before one of these holding pen countries found itself in crisis — an earthquake, a climate change-induced natural disaster, a new war or political crisis — destabilizing the supposedly safe refuge while creating further humanitarian disasters.
Do the grand global commitments the world made to protect defenseless people in the aftermath of World War II mean anything anymore? The rich world has developed a shockingly high tolerance for cruelty in order to keep out desperate people.
I traveled through parts of Turkey with Ahmed Kanjo. Early in the war, Ahmed was an anchor based in Aleppo, Syria, for an Arabic-language news station. But since fleeing with his family to Turkey, he had struggled to make a living practicing our craft. I hired him to work with me as an interpreter.
The earthquake had damaged the apartment building where he lived with his wife and four children. He sent his family to stay with his brother in another region for safety from the endless aftershocks, but returned to Gaziantep, Turkey, to work. So he was bunking in Gaziantep with his friend Abdul Kadir, a young man who told me he had escaped from Aleppo after being beaten and harassed by the Syrian intelligence services.
One evening, Ahmed, Abdul Kadir and some of their friends sat cross-legged on the floor, drinking spiced coffee, the air thick with cigarette smoke. I thought about Ahmed’s work as a television journalist. He had shown me video clips, including one in which he was hunkered down in a trench, speaking to the camera as explosions and gunfire rang out around him. Even though I don’t speak Arabic I could tell he was a gifted presenter, cool under fire but able to convey to the viewer the emotional and physical stakes of battle. Ahmed told me he missed his work.
“Every conversation revolves around where you are going to go,” he said. “The world thinks the Syrians in Turkey are fine. They opened a sanctuary, but it is actually a prison.”
Ahmed and I shared more in common than a profession. My roots are in Ethiopia, a country, like Syria, famous for producing refugees. My mother escaped just as a brutal Marxist military dictatorship took hold. She married an American and they bequeathed to me the dark blue passport that made it possible for me to move freely in the world, to have the job that brought me to Turkey, to live a life of freedom. What, other than the luck of geography, separated my life story from Ahmed’s? Or any of our lives, for that matter.
During a lull in the conversation a quiet, gravelly voice spoke up.
“Do you have any questions for me?”
It was Abdul Kadir’s 90-year-old grandmother, Rabia, who had been sitting quietly, listening to our conversation while resting on a daybed.
I asked her what life in Turkey was like.
“We felt safe here because there are no barrel bombs, there is no shelling, there is no war,” she said. But it was clear that absence of fear was not sufficient to make a life.
I asked what she missed most.
Her olive oil, she said. She pressed it herself, from trees in her yard.
“We left all our memories in Syria,” she told me.
This longing for home is something people who rail against migrants never seem to think about. I think of my mother, an American citizen for decades now, who will every now and then tell me she wants to build a house in her hometown in Ethiopia. In every poor country I have visited there are the half-built houses of those who emigrated, brick-and-mortar repositories for the dream of return. Very few people choose to leave home. It chooses you.
In the aftermath of World War II, the world created a system to protect people forced to flee because of war and persecution. “Refugee” is a legal designation for someone fleeing across an international border because of persecution or conflict, which is technically distinct from the broader category of migrants, people who move from one country to another for other reasons — economic or physical survival, for example. These categories have always been more porous than we’d like to admit, but in a world beset by conflict and calamity the difference begins to feel quite academic.
Like a lot of postwar commitments, our commitment to refugees has, over time, come to exist more in theory than in practice. It is officially a shared global responsibility, but in reality, the burden of hosting these people has fallen overwhelmingly on poor and middle-income countries, with rich countries largely footing the bill.
At home, rich countries create an impossibly narrow path to asylum that excludes almost everyone with a valid claim while preserving the possibility, however scant, that a lucky few will pass through the eye of a needle. But in reality, the eye of the needle has all but closed. The United States and Europe acknowledge the existence of a category of person called a refugee, who is worthy of special protection, but we make the barriers to seeking that protection nearly insurmountable. Instead, we treat the people who seek to prove their worthiness like criminals until proven otherwise.
The governments of rich countries may well be satisfied with this bargain, in which those forced to flee their homes are provisioned at the expense of rich country taxpayers with the basic needs for human survival. But even this meager program, which does considerable violence to the original idea of refuge, does not enjoy a great deal of support among the citizens of the rich world. Instead, we appear headed for a Hobbesian future in which we simply accept the awful fate of certain peoples as the bad luck of geography.
It appears we have no choice but to continue on this gloomy path. The politics of migration have become completely toxic. In 2015, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany boldly declared in the face of an influx of refugees to Europe: “We can manage it.” Germany took in more than a million people fleeing conflict and persecution, the vast majority of them from Syria. Germany did manage. But voters across Europe rebelled. The following year Merkel and other E.U. leaders struck their bargain with Turkey to stop the flow of migrants.
No one else stepped up. Of the roughly 32 million refugees in the world today, the United States’ current cap for resettlement is just 125,000. In 2022 the United States came nowhere near meeting it, resettling just 25,000 refugees. The Biden administration struck its deal with Mexico after a political uproar — stoked by Republicans and their allies in the news media — greeted the arrival of tens of thousands of Venezuelans escaping from their country’s economic and political collapse.
“It’s clear that there’s pretty radical polarization of political views,” David Owen, a philosopher who writes frequently about the moral and ethical dimensions of migration. “The space of policymaking is moved quite far to the right.”
It is hard to imagine a leader with the moral courage to do today what Merkel did back in 2015. Even the ostensibly “good guys” in the rich world want to seal the borders.
Canada — and its liberal prime minister, Justin Trudeau — has long portrayed itself as a country willing to welcome refugees and eager for skilled immigrants to replenish its work force. But the truth is that, facing an influx of people illegally crossing via the U.S. border, Canada acted like any other country: At the end of March, Washington and Ottawa struck a deal that allows Canada to turn back more people who try to cross the border from the United States. As the French say: “Chacun pour soi et Dieu pour tous.” Every man for himself and God for all.
Here are some of the headlines from the weeks between when I sat drinking coffee with Ahmed Kanjo in Gaziantep and when the detention facility in Ciudad Juárez burned: the British home secretary glad-handed with the officials from the repressive government of Rwanda, a country with a long record of human rights violations to which Britain hopes to exile asylum seekers. More than 80 migrants died in a boat that sank off the coast of Italy. A United Nations inquiry concludedthat the European Union had “aided and abetted” human rights violations by underwriting the Libyan Coast Guard to patrol the Mediterranean Sea and detain would-be migrants.
These human beings who yearned for safety and freedom, when facing a second cataclysm, were simply left to suffer and die."