Since March, I’ve been working on a new, in-depth project — the culmination of a cross-country US road trip, and a personal attempt to understand America’s immigration story. There’s much more to come — including a podcast and a book — but in the meantime, here’s a website from some very talented people at ODI that shares a small part of the story, through long-form essay reflections, photos and audio interviews from some of those we met on the way.
All images: Jessie Parks
The Hallowe’en terrorist attack that left 8 dead in New York is believed to have been carried out by Sayfullo Saipov, a Uzbekistan national. President Trump lost no time in linking terrorism and immigration:
“The terrorist came into our country through what is called the “Diversity Visa Lottery Program,” a Chuck Schumer beauty. I want merit based.”
“I am calling on Congress to TERMINATE the diversity visa lottery program that presents significant vulnerabilities to our national security.”
So just what is the diversity visa lottery program?
The diversity visa lottery program is often called the Green Card lottery. Every year 50,000 visas – which make the holder eligible for permanent residency and offer a pathway to future US citizenship – are given to nationals from countries with historically low rates of migration to the United States. Countries with higher rates of migration – calculated as states from which 50,000 of more citizens have immigrated to the US in the past five years – are excluded. For the lottery which is currently running (until 22 November 2017), for Green Cards to be awarded in 2019, that means citizens of 19 countries are barred. This list includes Bangladesh, Brazil, Canada, India Pakistan, and the United Kingdom (except Northern Ireland – more on that later). The visas quotas are distributed across six geographic regions, and a maximum of 7% of total DV winners can come from any one country. Over 9 million people entered the DV Lottery in 2016.
Can anyone “win” a visa if they apply?
No. There are still minimum requirements which must be met. Although it is free to apply, the lottery still requires applicants to demonstrate that they have a certain degree of skill and wealth. Applicants must have a high school education or equivalent professional experience, and they must also, if selected, be able to prove they will not be a “public charge”. This requires them to show proof of funds – or a pre-existing job offer – which equates to income of greater than 125% of the US Government’s current poverty guideline (in 2017, that was $30 750 for a family of 4). If you can’t show that, the other option is to depend upon connections, by getting a relative or friend already legally resident in the US to sponsor your application.
The DV lottery isn’t an option for the very poorest: they’re unlikely to meet education or financial requirements. Nevertheless, compared to other migration systems which are designed to weed out the poor, the DV Lottery stands out as offering relative equality of opportunity, including those from poor developing countries who don’t have family in the US who qualify to sponsor them for a reunification visa, and aren’t eligible for a high-skilled H1-B visa. In the past decade the Green Card lottery has become a particularly important route for African migrants to the US.
What are my chances?
When it comes to this Green Card lottery, you actually are more likely to win than to be struck by lightning: the odds of “winning” the DV lottery are pretty reasonable. The US government actually selects 125,000 entrants at random for further processing – meaning that in last year’s lottery, about 1 in every 100 applicants “won” a visa processing number. The extra “winners” are chosen because every year, less than half of successful applicants actually complete their Green Card application – failing to finish the paperwork in time, or falling short of the eligibility criteria. Despite Trump’s stated concerns over vetting, lottery winners must successfully pass through a series of interviews and have all their papers in order before they can arrive in the US. Their biometric data is also collected.
So the Green Card Lottery helps the poorest migrants?
Social mobility isn’t the point of the lottery – ostensibly, it’s ethnic and cultural “diversity”. But in practice the “diversity” can sometimes be hard to spot. The visas’ regional quota system means the “winners” of the 2015 lottery included a number of citizens from wealthy developed countries: 1798 Australians, 1354 Germans, 816 French and 589 New Zealanders. Another quirk of the system: quite a number of Green Card winners are already in the United States, legally residing as workers or students on visas that don’t make them eligible for permanent residency. For these DV entrants, the Green Card lottery is less a ticket to the US and more a means of escaping other notoriously slow-moving and bureaucratic immigration channels.
Why is there a Diversity Visa lottery in the first place – was it a “Chuck Schemer beauty”?
Far from being intended to promote diversity, the DV lottery actually began as a classic example of pork barrel politics. In 1965, the Immigration and Nationality Act finally opened the US up to non-white immigration (ethnic and racial quotas introduced in 1924 had effectively prevented any non-white immigration, reserving half of visas for German, British and Irish migrants, and allocating just 2% of visas to non-Europeans). The 1965 Immigration Act was a vital step away from the use of migration quotas to institutionalise racial discrimination. Yet for the Irish and Italian communities – who had benefited from the extremely generous quotas on offer over the past four decades – the 1965 reforms actually reduced their opportunity to immigrate legally to the US. The result was that in the late 1980s, a number of politicians representing Irish and Italian communities in the US – sought to redress this loss by introducing a “diversity lottery”. This would offer – especially at the outset – additional visas to those nations “adversely affected” by the immigration reforms of 1965. And the most “adversely affected”? The Irish. From 1992-4, 40% of the diversity lottery winners were Irish citizens. Remember I said we’d get back to why Northern Irish residents can still apply for the lottery, even though other British citizens can’t? That’s a legacy from the early days of the lottery. Chuck Schumer was one of a number of Representatives and Senators who collaborated on the program. More famous advocates at the time included Senator Teddy Kennedy.
So is the DV lottery a stitch-up?
Critics today certainly argue that the programme is ripe for corruption, with many self-appointed “visa agents” in sending countries trying to fraudulently charge applicants fees for their services. And there are charges that these “winners” don’t deserve immediate access to green cards and permanent residency, especially when many skilled workers holding H1-B visas are forced to wait years before they are granted anything other than temporary status. There’s also the argument that privileging “diversity” over other forms of migration is not in the US’ interest. This in effect returns to the idea that it’s those with skills, money or connections who should be admitted, because this is both fairer to “the brightest and the best” who want to migrate, and more likely to serve US interests.
In 2013, with lobbyists for a number of industries keen to secure higher numbers of H1-B and other temporary visas for highly-skilled migrants, the Senate agreed to scrap the Green Card lottery and opening up more labour market visas instead. That immigration reform bid failed in the House, but it’s worth noting that Chuck Schumer was one of the “Gang of Eight” who came up with the plan. Given the complex politics surrounding immigration, it seems unlikely that Trump’s call to scrap the DV lottery will gain much traction in Congress, except as a quid pro quo for some other concession (DACA, anyone?)
Does anyone think the Green Card Lottery is a good idea?
Philosophers and economists argue that lotteries can be the fairest way to distribute a good when demand outstrips supply, as is the case with US visas. African migrants have been particularly vocal in expressing concerns about the possible ending of the lottery, largely because there are relatively few other routes available to them. Visa lotteries – by distributing a small number of visas on the basis of luck, not skill – help to counter a global drift towards migration systems that lock those without connections out.
The counter-argument, of course, is that the US isn’t just “distributing” visas: it’s also “accumulating” migrants, and not all migrants are equal. Choosing blindly may be just, but it’s not necessarily strategic, nor is it in the national interest. If you follow this logic, visas shouldn’t be distributed by ballot: they should be auctioned.
Yet other defenders point to less tangible benefits. The DV lottery contributes to the idea of America as a place where anyone can come and work for a better life. It helps build the idea of an open and welcoming America prepared to give all-comers a chance. The mythology of the US as a nation of immigrants is a powerful story, but it’s one that doesn’t bear close scrutiny. The US immigration system as a whole is bureaucratic, complicated and costly: the continued existence of Green Card lottery helps to shore up the ideal of America as a place where newcomers can still arrive with nothing and build a new life.
Will the Green Card lottery survive?
For the DV lottery to end, Congress has to act. There is bipartisan support for reform: the Senate has already voted once before to scrap the lottery. But that was as part of a comprehensive immigration package. It’s not clear whether there’s any interest in just getting rid of the Green Card lottery. For businesses and families, the Green Card lottery is expendable. Businesses want more visas for workers with the specific skills they need. Families want to keep reunification channels open. Both routes have already been threatened by Trump’s administration. Campaigners for undocumented children and their parents want a pathway to legal residency and citizenship and a stop on deportation processes.
For all these groups, the DV lottery is relatively unimportant. By giving the lottery new political weight, Trump’s statements this week may actually open up the opportunity for negotiation on these other issues. It’s not too hard to imagine a compromise being struck whereby Congress agrees to end the DV lottery in exchange for protecting some of the other immigration programmes under fire.
But equally, it’s not too hard to imagine Congress doing nothing at all.
And if that’s case, the Green Card lottery will continue to offer would-be immigrants from around the globe a chance every year to see if their number comes up, and allow a lucky few winners to start a new life in America.
Should the Green Card lottery survive?
The question of whether the DV lottery will survive is ultimately a political one. The question of whether it should survive is harder to answer. Trump’s concerns about security are ill-founded: there’s no evidence that the lottery is any more liable to being “used” by terrorists than other visa categories (follow the fear of infiltration to its logical conclusion, and you’ll end with totally closed borders). The diversity lottery is vulnerable to corruption and fraud — but the victims are applicants who pay scam agents and not the US.
So the real question is whether a lottery is the best way to distribute some US visas to would-be migrants. Many would argue the lottery should be scrapped because it doesn’t serve the national interest. And at first glance, the idea that immigrants should be admitted on “merit” and not chance is seductive. It’s particularly attractive to those who can make a claim that their employees or family members “deserve” a visa most, or who can afford to pay for visas through auctions or investment schemes. But the total number of US visas available is not fixed: this is not a zero-sum game. There’s no reason why securing more H1-B visas, for instance, requires fewer visas to be available through the lottery. And it’s worth remembering that the DV lottery is tiny: 50,000 places are at stake. The US welcomes a million immigrants a year.
In the final analysis, the best case for keeping the DV lottery isn’t one about numbers. It’s one about identity: American identity. And it’s one about hope. The American dream is rooted in the ideal that with luck and hard work you can come to the US and beat the odds. It’s a myth — American immigration history has always been complicated by inequality and prejudice and displacement — but the DV lottery is a tiny way in which that myth is made a little more real. In the end, the most compelling case for keeping the DV lottery isn’t about the migrants at all: it’s about America.
For anyone interested in learning more about the experience of Green Card lottery winners, I would highly recommend listening to BBC/NPR radio documentary “Abdi and the Golden Ticket”.
You can find another great personal account of applying for the Green Card lottery in the New York Times here
For policy analysis, check out the Migration Policy Institute’s work on this subject here.
 Although this number is calculated without including those admitted as refugees or asylum seekers, or through other humanitarian visa programmes like NACARA, or those admitted as diversity visa-holders. This explains why citizens of countries like Iraq, Cuba and Guatemala remain eligible for the lottery, despite more than 50,000 nationals from these countries having arrived in the US in the past 5 years.
 Law, A. O. ‘The Diversity Visa Lottery: A Cycle of Unintended Consequences in United States Immigration Policy’, Journal of American Ethnic History Vol. 21, No. 4 (Summer, 2002), pp. 3-29: p.21
I wrote my last blog post here on 4 November 2016.
Four days later, Trump won the election.
This website’s silence over the past year is not entirely coincidental. And at times, I’ve felt very guilty for my absence when advocacy matters more than ever. In the past twelve months, there has been so much to say about injustice, especially when it comes to immigration. There’s the Travel Ban. There’s DACA. There’s the wall.
But I also know that despair and rage make for angry and self-righteous copy. I know that shrill voices do not win arguments. In a world where there is too much outrage, I’ve come to think that silence is sometimes underrated. It can bring unexpected gifts.
And a year after Trump’s election, here is the unexpected: in a year which has thrown me sideways, personally and politically, I am now perhaps as happy as I’ve ever been. I struggled for years to know what I wanted to “be”. In 2017, watching and waiting, I’ve finally realized I am happiest when I’m telling stories. Writing. Recording. And one thing I am still sure of: there are so, so many immigration stories that need to be told.
So welcome to migrantsandcitizens.org, version 2.0. The timing is serendipitous. The reworking of this website coincides with the beginning of another adventure. We’re packing our bags and heading East. Over the next year, I’ll be traveling across America, from Angel to Ellis Island, trying to make sense of my own immigration experience while also unravelling the histories of the immigrants who arrived here before me, often to an uncertain welcome. If there’s a place you think I should visit or people you think I should talk to, let me know. Otherwise, check in soon for an update on my new project, Welcome to America: Travels through an Immigrant Nation’s History.
From 5,000 miles away, I no longer recognize my country. At first glance I thought the newspaper headlines were a joke: promises of forcing firms to publish “Foreign Workers’ Lists” too obviously fascist to be anything more than a Facebook meme. I never imagined that – with just a month left to stop the spectre of a President Trump – I’d turn to American news for solace. There’s still grounds for optimism here: there’s at least a 50% chance that Trump will be gone on 9 November. It may never happen. In the UK, Theresa May is in power. And populism is the order of the day.
So xenophobes and racists rejoice: yours is the new “spirit of citizenship”. If the choice is between this nationalism, and being cast out as a “citizen of nowhere”, the latter seems preferable. I am metropolitan, and I am privileged, and I want my child to grow up as a “citizen of the world” – especially now he cannot grow up as a citizen of Europe. If this means I have no voice and no future in May’s Britain, I will mourn. But I will not return.
Of course, this is the Conservative Party Conference: they are all preaching to the choir. It’s not clear how much of May’s and Home Secretary Amber Rudd’s speeches on immigration – and nationalism – is actual policy, and how much is rhetoric designed for standing ovations and tabloid headlines. The skeptical (or the strategic) might wonder whether even Rudd’s rapid retreat, in response to fierce criticism of her proposal to make British companies declare the proportion of foreign workers they employ, was pre-planned to make eventual legislation on other topics seem “moderate”.
For there’s as much poison in some of Rudd’s other, less-remarked upon initiatives. The criminalization of landlords who rent property to irregular migrants will drive a black market in overpriced and substandard accommodation, posing dangers not only to migrants but risking the public’s health. Pushing irregular migrants out of the legal banking system will simply increase the power of exploitative recruiters and employers. For a Government that likes to talk so much about how they are determined to eradicate the “barbaric crime” of “modern slavery”, they seem remarkably unconcerned about driving irregular migrants further into the shadows.
So I raged as I listened to silver-haired May deliver silver-tounged lies, coating a single truth – that the majority of the British public are worried about immigration – with convenient populist assumptions. The arrival of more European migrants has coincided with the stagnation of the British working class. But as every social science student knows, correlation is not causation.
In fact, the Home Office’s own advisory committee has repeatedly found little evidence that migrants “take British jobs” except in fairly specific circumstances. They did find that business’ are likely to be punished for breaking labour laws “once in a million years”. You don’t need to build high walls when you build a floor to your labour market. You can protect citizens and migrants. But that might not be the point. If we stop being angry at migrants, it may be harder for this government to pretend they’re looking after the ordinary people while simultaneously dismantling any social safety net.
This is not a Britain I want to belong to. And yet what ultimately made rage most about this week’s Conservative bandwagon was May’s very clear message that people like me – liberal and internationalist – don’t belong; that we don’t deserve a voice; that we ‘don’t understand what the very word “citizenship” means’.
I do know what citizenship means. I wrote a book about it. I know that citizenship can liberate you from domestic tyranny and foreign aggression, that it can bring autonomy and dignity, that it is the cornerstone of fundamental equality in the face of entrenched privilege. And it is for this reason that I know that the citizenship we should aspire to has nothing to do with cheap nationalism. The citizenship we should aspire to depends upon tax reform not concrete walls. It depends upon optimism not just obligation. Citizenship is a question of community, not a flag-waving jamboree.
I am insulted. I am angry. And I want no part of this petty patriotism. The greatest irony of all is that – talking about the Union and Scotland – May promised that she ‘will never let divisive nationalists drive us apart’. Scottish nationalism bad, British nationalism good: reductio ad absurdum. Even for a politician, it’s quite an achievement to break your own vows the very moment you make them. This will not end well for any of us.
The circus was in town. I had a ticket: but I did not really want to see the show. I’ve not much appetite for tightrope-walking, especially when you know in advance the performer – in this case the United Nations – has been set up to fall. The choreography is predictable: the performance cliché. Here are the men in navy and grey suits, shoes shined. Here are women in power dresses and block-colour blazers. Here they are watching their smartphones, not the speakers at the roundtable. After all, everyone knows that the main event is just a sideshow: real powerbrokers hover in the corridors. That’s where the coffee is.
I skipped the headline act altogether this time – the United Nations High-Level Summit on Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants – and arrived in New York in time for the off-Broadway numbers that followed, including the Concordia Summit Private Sector Forum on Action for Migrants and Refugees. Given that even the United Nations seemed unable to muster much more than half-hearted enthusiasm for its New York Declaration, it seemed reasonable to miss the performance, spokespeople reading out their pre-prepared statements to a vetted audience. Everyone had known for a month that this meeting’s outcomes would not amount to much at all, beyond some half-hearted promises to “consider” better outcomes in two years’ time. For yes, in 2018, we can expect to revisit all these debates again, by bureaucratic (if not popular) demand. Whether two “Global Compacts” – one on migrants, one on refugees – will offer anything of substance is yet to be seen. I will not hold my breath. The acrobatics feats of diplomatic language too often mask sleight-of-hand and disappearing convictions.
What struck me once actually in New York, however, was not so much failure as irrelevance. New York was the centre of the show: but up close you fix on the details, not the drama. You see the greasepaint, the taped cracks in the scenery, the seat-fillers and the empty rows behind them. You see how unimpressive it all is. Of course, the show goes on: the real audience is elsewhere, somewhere beyond the fourth wall, tweeting about #Brangelina.
Even when we were talking about Syria, no one was really talking to Syrians. Let alone other refugee crises or other refugees. Politicians appealed to domestic voters, with promises to be tough on immigration, and tough on the causes of immigration. Theresa May could as well have been speaking in Brussels or Washington as New York: a political performance for the Daily Mail. The UN logos simply added a touch of gravitas. The same was true of David Miliband – currently of the International Rescue Committee – whose remarks at the Concordia summit, about the need to distinguish between refugees and migrants, made the most sense to me framed by British politics, and continuing speculation about whether he’s going to attempt a prodigal son’s return to rescue the UK Labour party from itseslf. Even the op-ed writers and the critics – rightfully angry – were mostly reduced to calling foul from the sidelines.
So what, exactly, is the point of all this pagentry? I hoped a week in New York would help me shape an answer to that question: it didn’t.
At the events and meetings I attended in New York there were, of course, many people I respect and admire – who I know share my politics and beliefs, who are outraged and sickened by our failure to deal with this refugee crisis, at our collectivity hostility and selfishness in choosing to build walls rather than open doors. Some of the bravest and most committed people I know work for the UN. Out in the field, humanitarians save lives. But agency is nothing without structure. And the UN’s institutions add up to less than the sum of their parts.
All this is the stuff of obituaries. And there is plenty to grieve. Yet in fact, though the week has left us exactly where I expected – which is no claim of clairvoyancy as much as it is an ability to read the words published a month ago – I left New York calmer than I arrived, strangely comforted by the sharing of failure. No one in New York I spoke to wanted to pretend that this was good enough. And that is important, because it is not good enough. Recognising that failure is a first step.
And then, instead of turning in, I looked out, and I saw New York. A dirty, noisy, sweaty city… that on every street corner offers a testament to what free movement can achieve. This is a city where migration has always been contested, always disputed, but which has also been at its most successful when it has also been at its most open. New York – with all its energy and all its possibilities – would not exist without newcomers. Immigration is the city. Meeting a friend – and recent immigrant – she confessed that when she hears the Star-spangled banner now, she cries: ‘How did that happen?’ she marveled.
I’ve had enough of performance politics. I don’t want to watch the circus. This is not the way we change the world. But I also know that was never what the UN was intended to be: it’s very formation was a piece of Cold War realpolitik whose very purpose was inaction, with a dose liberal imperialism thrown in. The UN is a means, not an end: the end is a fairer world, better migration, sanctuary for refugees. If the means no longer serve the end, we must find another way.
So my week in New York was ultimately a reminder that the answer doesn’t lie in bureaucratic diplomacy, inching forward without reference to urgency. But the answer also doesn’t lie in doing nothing. When a private citizen can make more immediate difference than many states – which is what happened when George Soros pledged to invest $500 million in refugee businesses – it’s a sign that there is possibility to be measured alongside states’ and institutions’ failures. There are many people out there who want better. There are still places of welcome. The UN may be a lost cause: a better world is not.
‘Borders are the worst invention ever made by politicians’. This was the claim made earlier this week by Jean-Claude Junker, the very President of the European Commission. So is he right? And if so, having invented them, must we now live with them forever?
Juncker’s words have inevitably attracted considerable ridicule. The Sun declared that the ‘delusional old hippy’ had ‘finally lost the plot’. The UK government responded in more measured but no less absolute terms. Prime Minister Theresa May, for instance, sought refuge in public opinion, responding that ‘the British people think that borders are important, having more control over our borders is important’. Just two months after the shock of the Brexit referendum, that much is clearly true. We do “believe” in borders.
So too do Donald Trump and his supporters, beguiled by promises to ‘build a wall’ between the US and Mexico. And Trump is not alone. There is a global push to build more walls. There are fences that separate the Spanish North African enclaves of Cueta and Melilla from Morocco, Uzbekistan from Turkmenistan and Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia from Yemen, Botswana from Zimbabwe, and China from North Korea: all built in the name of deterring “illegal” immigrants. The list goes on. Israel spent upwards of $270m to build a two-layer fence completely sealing the 266km Egypt-Israeli border, in the hope of deterring irregular immigrants – many refugees – from crossing via Egypt from Sudan and Eritrea.
Only twenty-five years ago that the world danced in delight as the Berlin Wall fell, and with it the Iron Curtain. South Africa’s “snake of fire”, a lethally-charged electric fence running along the border with Mozambique, was also switched off just one year later, as apartheid crumbled. Yet three decades later, border fences are back in fashion. Nationalism is resurgent: liberalism in crisis.
Yet Junker is clearly right that for the wretched of the earth, the consequences of such fences are horrific. Because of border fences, refugees today crowded like cattle into makeshift camps, prisoners on the edge of Europe. Because of border fences, Mexicans must risk death by dehydration before they can arrive in the US to begin filling up white people’s water glasses for the minimum wage. Because of border fences, smugglers make billions – and so too do the security companies on the other side of the walls, profiting from our every fear.
So as a cri-de-coeur condemning horrific human suffering, Juncker’s words resonate. Good fences do not make good neighbours. Instead, this belief in the righteousness of borders allows us sit and watch in quiet indignation, as refugees desperate for their lives try to scale our walls.
Given this, who could defend borders, paper lines and steel walls that remind us of the permanent crisis of a divided mankind?
And yet, while my first instinct is to applaud Juncker without reservation, I hesitate.
I am reminded that the very idea of liberal democracy has always been an unhappy compromise. Liberalism is about individual freedom and equality and opportunity. Democracy is about freedom too, but freedom from tyranny: freedom measured in collective terms. It requires that you work out who “the people” are: it requires that you exclude the Others. Nations need borders to exist in a way Empire does not.
So do we need nations? I think we do… at least until we come up with a better alternative. A world without borders may be some kind of utopia, but it leaves unanswered important questions about power and identity. Self-government matters. Community matters. Institutions that deliver health and education and social services to citizens matter.
And while I would not for one second want to suggest that this is what we have in our hollowed-out neo-liberal states run by elites with Capital, it is hard to imagine a world without borders – a world without nations – offering a social safety net either. Liberalism unfettered offers freedom, but not much protection. History tells us to be wary of allegedly benign dictatorships with civilising missions: Empire is not a cure for inequality. We can see this well enough when we look within our own communities.
So I don’t think we need borders to protect us from the enemies beyond, the terrorists and “bad” refugees conjured up to keep us from sleeping. But I do think borders – some kind of physical limit on any single state – may be a crucial safeguard against the enemies within, a limit on the corrupting tendencies of power.
This is why instead of wishing for a world without borders, I want a world with better borders. Let us keep citizenship; let us acknowledge the value of community and the practical necessity of accountable government able to build roads and schools. And yes, in this lies a defence for some kind of nationalism, some kind of republic. But this is not the Nationalism of Trump or May; not exclusionary xenophobia and racism; not violent sectarianism. I have never understood why “porous border” is only hurled as an insult, a synonym for poorly policed and insecure. Imagine a world in which – rather than presumptively exclude as we do now – borders were open enough to presumptively include. This, after all, is the freedom the European Union offers to its citizens. It is the kind of freedom Germany offered in opening its doors to Syrian refugees last year.
May and Trump, of course, would call “foul”: or rather “flood”. They’d point to the rise in German nationalism and the Brexit vote as proof that this is not what “the people” want, raise the spectre of a million poor migrants knocking down our doors. They might remind the idealist crusading against inequality that Europe’s internal borders have dissolved only as higher walls have been thrown up around its perimeter. For democracy is, in the end, a self-interested exercise. But for all those who paused at least momentarily to think about Juncker’s comments this week, it would be good to pause for a moment longer and ask why, exactly, are we so afraid of turning the question “why should we let them in?” into its mirror reflection; “why should we keep them out?”
I haven’t written much here in the past year. It is not for a lack of things to say, but rather a search for words adequate to meet so much misery. Syria’s refugees; Europe’s xenophobes; Brexiteers; Trump. And these are only the headlines. I hear daily from friends and colleagues – an endless onslaught of tweets and Facebook posts – about numerous other outrages the world has largely chosen to ignore, but which reverberate in the echo chamber of my social media feed.
I don’t want to write only for an audience already in agreement with me. But how do you find words to speak to the 52%, to the people I never talk to, whose anxieties and fears are mine, inverted? How do you find words that aren’t just clever technical expositions, words that will move mountains not minutiae? How do you find words that aren’t just empty? There has been so much talking in the past year. Yet after at least three international conferences, a hundred charity drives and ten thousand op-eds, more refugees are drowning than before.
But this is not just a case of writer’s block. The past year has also been an abrupt introduction to the new anxieties of parenthood, fears that throw new shadows on a world turned upside down. A year ago, I returned to work in the same week that photos of Alan Kurdi – a toddler dead on a Turkish beach – shocked the West into a brief spasm of humanity.
It was impossible to escape. Acquaintances who had never shown any previous interest in refugees or migrants wrote about their outrage: for a few brief days, everyone cared. Yet a small part of me wished the world could have chosen another time or another photo with which to wake up –momentarily – to the cruelty of our refugee policies.
I was overwhelmed by my uselessness in the face of such enormous need. How are you supposed to solve a refugee crisis on 20 hours childcare a week, long-distance from San Francisco? Pushed by sleep-deprivation and hormones and fear of failing, anxiety overtook me. It does not, require that much insight to realise that when you check on your soundly sleeping baby and are – momentarily – convinced they are dead, because they are lying on their mattress just like the little boy on the beach, you need some rest. Over the past year, not-writing has at times been simply an act of self-preservation.
A year later I am no longer so anxious. The failings of so many with power and with privilege make me angry instead. I have also become better at recognizing when I need to look away — and better at forgiving myself for that, and for the fact that I am not on the humanitarian frontline. Instead I’ve started to see the contributions I can make: ideas, arguments, writing.
Yet motherhood has changed my work: I care with new urgency about what the world will look like in thirty years time. It is harder to think of politics without also thinking of faces. I am more emotional.
And at first, I though this emotion was something to be mistrusted. After all, research is all about critical reason; policy is all about pragmatism. The academy teaches its students to think, not to feel. How often have I told my own students to “engage in critical analysis; don’t engage in emotional advocacy”? Academia privileges facts: datasets and methodology win tenure. We write our ideals and our beliefs and our politics in the footnotes.
Yet look out at the world: appeals to pure reason are losing. In this terrifying age of post-fact politics, engaging with emotions may be be our best hope of turning back a rising tide of xenophobia and violence. Watching Brexit and Trump dismiss “experts” and win plaudits for doing so, I do not think that the case for migrants’ rights will not be won by technocrats. It will not be won by calculating contributions GDP, or the value of remittances. We do not need more statisticians: we need more philosophers. We need experts, yes, but experts who are also capable of also trading in emotion.
A year’s silence has been good for me. Silence lets you hear the other voices around you. Keep shouting, and you may never notice that no one else is listening to you. But ultimately, change doesn’t come from silence. Right now the world is a dark and terrible place, but parenthood means I have to believe it’s still worth fighting for. So it’s time for me to leave the echo chamber: it’s time to write again. We don’t need more words: but we do need better ones.
Our Green Cards arrived today. Shiny plastic; biometric bureaucratic confirmation that we can stay in San Francisco indefinitely.
Do they matter? I’ve been trained to be skeptical of official labels and categories: legal status does a poor job of defining lived experience. There are real advantages to being Permanent Residents, above all the fact that my husband is no longer a tied labourer: our right to reside here is no longer dependent upon his employer. And perhaps we will be able to apply for a credit card now. But then again, he likes his work and we have money in the bank. So our Green Cards will not change the way we live.
But I am surprised how many of the people I tell of their arrival respond with an enthusiastic “Congratulations!”; I am surprised by how many people I tell. Even the Federal Government sees cause for celebration: the papers that accompany their arrival are the first immigration notices we have received in three years to proclaim “Welcome to the United States of America”.
Even as I feel welcomed, I also feel guilty. I think of the articulate undocumented student I shared a platform with last week – far more American than I will ever be – and am reminded above all of just how much my life as an immigrant is mediated by privilege. I think of the Indian women I’ve been interviewing, waiting years for their husband’s green card applications to be approved so they have the right to work here. I wear the rights that come with Permanent Residency lightly because I can. It’s further proof of how immigration law entrenches inequality.
My thoughts inevitably turn to questions of homemaking. I am struck by how intangible I find the “United States of America”. Nationalism is always abstract nouns and optimism: “freedom”, “democracy”, “tolerance”. But this country is so vast in scope – geographically, politically, socially – that it is hard to see a coherent whole. That was easier to imagine from the outside. I grew up in a Britain by turns defensive and derisive when it came to American culture, hardened into active dislike during the Bush years. I have both family members and friends who wonder aloud how we can bear to live here, in an America replete with guns and the death penalty and excessive self-regard. Every time we drive north past San Quentin prison, I wonder the same.
But the truth is, lives are not national: they are local. And I am happy here. We arrived here two years ago at a time in our lives when we were sad and uncertain and exhausted, chasing pots of gold: we have found rainbows. I look out the window and see blue sky and cherry blossom; I see my neighbours drinking coffee. Old ladies smile at my son on the bus; in the evening creeping fingers of fog will roll down the hill. The San Francisco in the media is all rising rents and anger and gentrification and homelessness. There is all this, yes: but what I have also found is community. Sitting in a bar with friends, talk turns to the future. None of us are “natives” although few of us are immigrants. But we all know why we want to stay here. That word again: “community”. This has nothing to do with fingerprints and legal status and plastic green cards: but it has everything to do with identity and home.
I am doubly lucky. We have not only been granted the right to stay here, we have made the choice to do so. We are not fleeing war, or poverty, or injustice. But choices still have consequences. In choosing to remain — even if we eventually return – there are losses to mourn. However much Facebook and FaceTime might connect us, friendships and family are diffused by distance. We miss weddings, birthdays, births. Other people’s lives continue. We have come to realize that successful immigration requires in part that you master the art of letting go. There is a different life we could have lived, and knowing that this is the right choice does not mean it isn’t a bittersweet one. I have new friends: I miss the old ones. I miss daffodils and old churches and last orders in timber-framed pubs. Then I laugh at myself, because that is the kind of England that Americans imagine from afar.
The “Permanent” part of Permanent Residency scares me a little. I am not good at rooting myself to places, not good at staying still. I still prefer to say we are here “indefinitely”: the future is usually surprising. After all, this was never where we intended to be. But for now, we are here: and for now, we are home.
The latest hellish chapter in the Syrian refugee crisis is currently unfolding at Croatia’s borders. Thousands of refugees were forced to wait in knee-deep mud, as Croatia and Slovenia refuse to allow more than 2,500 people to cross over their border each day.
Solving this refugee crisis will demand not just compassion but creative thinking – though political leaders have so far demonstrated a capacity for neither.
While the 1930s offer grim warnings of what can follow when you build borders to shut out the unwanted, the 1920s offer more optimistic history lessons. In particular, the Nansen Passport – a document intended to help refugees travel across international borders – is due a revival.
A model that worked
Nansen Passports were inventedfollowing a conference in July 1922 at which delegates from 16 governments agreed to issue travel documents that would allow refugees to travel to join family or seek out employment. Named after League of Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees Fridtjof Nansen, the objective was “the admission of refugees to countries where they would be able to support themselves.”
Today’s refugees have – in theory – access to Convention Travel Documents, which are intended to serve the same purpose. However, limited numbers are printed. Costs are prohibitive for many refugees. The application process is opaque. Many CTDs are not compliant with international standards requiring machine-readable travel documents, narrowing their use. Many states refuse to admit refugees traveling on CTDs, fearing that they will not return back to their state of first asylum.
Nansen would have recognized these problems. In 1926, Nansen complained to an international conference that refugees faced “serious discrimination” in attempting to travel “in pursuit of their livelihood.” Yet the refugee passport system established in the 1920s was nevertheless remarkable. Importantly, refugees themselves financed their Nansen Passports. Frustrated by states’ continued reluctance to provide funds, Nansen issued passport stamps, for which nonindigent refugees were charged five gold francs.
By the 1930s, the Nansen stamp fund was large enough to directly help refugees become self-supporting. In 1934, for instance, the Nansen Office assisted 782 refugees with loans intended to help support businesses – from restaurants to doll factories. Nansen Passports were eventually recognized by some 52 governments and used by 450,000 refugees. They stand as evidence of an approach to refugee protection in the 1920s that saw freedom of movement as a form of burden-sharing.
Further confirmation of the extent to which refugees were viewed as economic migrants can be found in the fact that between 1925 and 1929, the International Labor Office assumed operational responsibility for refugees. ILO operated as a refugee labor exchange, matching refugees with labor needs outside Europe. Refugee exile was thus one part of a broader goal: to tackle global unemployment.
Looking at labor needs
A centralized migration bureau matched receiving countries’ employment needs with refugee quotas, often broken down by occupation. In 1926, for example, many refugees found work as agricultural laborers. 10,000 Ukrainians were placed on Canadian farms. In August 1928, the director of the ILO reported that the number of unemployed refugees had dropped from 400,000 to 200,000 since the office had become involved in refugee work.
Times change. Yet refugee crises have changed remarkably little in the intervening century. It is still economic destitution that fuels irregular migration across Europe. Governments are still reluctant to unlock refugees’ human capital, despite labor market gaps and demographic need.
Refugees’ journeys from the camps in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon across Europe are not just a search for sanctuary. Onward movement is also about economics and inequality. Onward movement is about refugees deciding that it is not enough to wait in a camp, their saved life a slowly rotting one. And this crisis will not be solved without recognizing the complex connections between asylum and migration, between political safety and economic security.
So imagine if – in time for their centenary – the international community renewed refugees’ Nansen Passports. In parallel, a revolving fund and employment service could be established. Nansen Passports could be issued for a minimal fee, and used to travel on regular airlines and ferries – breaking smugglers’ strangleholds. Refugees would be responsible for meeting the costs of their own onward migration from the place they had first claimed asylum – but they could travel legally and would be assisted in finding employment.
Nansen Passports alone will not solve Syria’s refugee crisis. But they could ensure that no refugee is criminalized for jumping a fence or hiding in a train out of desire for more than mere survival. They could offer refugees dignity, autonomy – and hope of a better life. Faced with intractable war and immeasurable loss, we should at least be able to offer that.
Refugee protection is broken. So what comes next?
By now, a thousand Op Eds have called for bold and creative thinking in order to solve Syria’s refugee crisis – or rather to end Europe’s migration “crisis” (which is not quite the same thing). We have had calls for resettlement and relocation; for international conferences; for humanitarian visas and special migration programmes. Lawyers have argued the case for seizing Syrian assets;. Entrepreneurs have advocated for the founding of a new state, “Refugia”. Politicians have made the case for just bombing the smugglers’ boats.
There is no shortage of new ideas – and, increasingly, new initiatives too. But of course, what we should do and what we have done are worlds apart. And when history judges the world’s response to the refugee and migrants crises of 2015, it will not absolve us. The verdict will be one of catastrophic inaction.
Yet 2015 may also be a turning point in our understanding of what refugee protection is. We know – all of us – that the current system is no longer fit for purpose. But what comes next is harder. The hawks talk about crushing the smugglers and protecting borders; the doves about letting the huddled masses in. Too often in the last few months those two positions have appeared irreconcilable, with refugees the losers.
However amidst the noise of Op Eds and panel discussions and pilot projects, all anxious to stress original innovation, I think we can detect the shape of things to come. Perhaps the most important development is the extent to which so many of these new ideas about “protection” are writing out the state in favour of the market.
So if states will not fund more resettlement places for refugees, why not allow individuals, civil society and the private sector to sponsor refugees, requiring states to offer minimal direct assistance? Canada’s programme has received unparalleled attention: lobbyists are seeking to develop similar plans in the US. Other private actors have similarly stepped in where the state has failed. Swedish entrepreneurs have challenged the state to enforce carrier sanctions by founding Swedish “Refugee Air” .The Catrambone family established “Migrant Off Shore Aid” – and have so far saved 11,680 lives. Others have turned to the technology-enabled “sharing economy” to organize accommodation for refugees and aid workers.
Some speak the language of market economics: tax breaks, special economic zones, labour visas. Some prefer to talk about community and solidarity. After all, the outpouring of public sympathy for Syria’s refugees has offered rare comfort in the face of state hostility. I have lost count of the number of friends and acquaintances – previously with only the vaguest of interest in refugee crises – who have organized their own aid drives, insisting “Refugees Welcome” must be more than cheap rhetoric.
But the common thread is that the conversations I have right now are increasingly not about what states can do. They are about what private citizens, local governments, religious organisations, universities, businesses and NGOs can do.
Even solutions which appear to turn on reasserting state power: bombing smugglers, building walls and even creating new states like “Refugia” are arguably interventions that speak to the failure of existing “national” sovereignties and rely upon the logic of market disruption.
Of course, some of this is not so new. NGOs are, by definition, not part of the state. The principle of independence is (in theory) central to humanitarian action. And it’s important not to overstate the shift. Borders and visas are still jealously guarded by governments: responding to refugee crises is still a question of state action. In a world where citizenship is a perquisite for the “right to have rights”, states remain the ultimate guarantor of human rights and basic safety. The market can offer you assistance: it can’t offer you protection without the backstop of the law.
But as governments roll back the extent to which they assist their own citizens, it’s difficult to believe that refugees will not be asked to depend upon market forces too. My guess is that the protection system which will eventually emerge from the rubble of the 1951 Refugee Convention is one in which states have less responsibility towards refugees, certainly in terms of social and economic protection.
This could be disastrous. If governments seek to retain control who can assist refugees and how — while building walls to keep refugees out – existing state failures will be compounded.
But it could also be an opportunity to build a thicker sort of protection. The space vacated by the state could be filled with community actors, building direct solidarity with refugees and asylum seekers. Access to markets could provide refugees with autonomy and dignity to a much greater extent than a life encamped and dependent upon aid.
I do not believe in a smaller state. I believe in a better state. We should not stop calling for states to do more: they should. But humanitarian action is not about ideals. We cannot expect that they will listen. When it comes to refugee protection and assistance right now, states are already in retreat. And this means we also need to advocate for states to follow the logic of their own free-market, small government, big society theory, so that government regulations and visa policies don’t prevent others assisting refugees even as they refuse to.
Fortune-telling is no science. But right now, it is clear refugee protection is broken. And I think it’s all-but-inevitable that more reliance upon civil society and private actors is what follows. So the challenge is to meet this brave new world with ideas that make protection work with minimal input from the state. How exactly do we do that? A much harder question to answer. I’m still waiting for the crystal ball to clear – and in the meantime, answers in an op-ed, please.
World peace. An end to hunger. A cure for cancer. Who would dispute that wish list? But faced with the hard-edged reality of war and famine and disease such wishes lose their meaning, exposed as no more than beauty contestants’ empty aspirations. Such wishes don’t come true.
Similarly, in an ideal world – that peaceful, prosperous tomorrow – there would be no refugees. But humanitarians and politicians must deal with the present. A present in which European governments use tear gas to repel small children seeking sanctuary at their borders. A present more easily ignored than solved. Which is why it is alarming to see a turn towards talk of tackling “root causes”.
Worse still: the United Nations High Commission for Refugees appears to be joining the chorus, ready to reintroduce the idea of “preventive protection” as an antidote to in-action. An idea that for many observers is irrevocably haunted by the ghosts of Srebrenica’s safe zone.
This year’s annual UNHCR High Commissioner’s Dialogue – Antonio Guterres’ last as High Commissioner – will focus on understanding the “root causes” of refugee crises. This means a focus on solutions, but also on the “prevention” of refugee movements in the first place. But UNHCR should not be leading the charge away from talking about asylum and resettlement, however great the political failures of states.
“Prevention” and “root causes” are ideas resurrected from the 1980s and 1990s. Former High Commissioner Sadruddin Aga Khan was talking about ‘Root Causes and Prevention’ back in 1983, in the light of the Indochinese crisis. A decade later, the push to repatriate refugees at the end of the Cold War was framed as the defence of a new “right to remain”. And while I’m the first to argue that there are many lessons in refugee protection to be learnt from a past too easily forgotten, there are also many ideas worth forgetting. “Prevention” is one of them.
Why? Because a return to focusing on “root causes” and “prevention” risks abandoning the urgent need to look for solutions now. Because it implicitly peddles the convenient fallacy that repatriation can work as the solution to refugee crises, forgetting that even when you solve world peace you will still be left with millions of hungry bellies. Because it also ignores the large body of evidence – and the near-unanimous conclusions of respected scholars – that “preventive protection” in the 1990s was an ignominious failure, ill-conceived and ill-executed. Bosnia and Sri Lanka are gruesome reminders of what may happen when people can’t move in the face of danger.
UNHCR is at pains to distance Preventive Protection 2.0 from its predecessor. The concept note for the Dialogue stresses that UNHCR doesn’t want to prevent people moving, just address the ‘factors that trigger displacement’, so that refugees ‘are not obliged to move’. And some may detect a note of despair in the document – a defeated admission that UNHCR is ‘painfully aware of the limits of its own actions’, as the number of refugees and displaced persons keeps rising.
No one could disagree that it would be better if conflict were prevented in the first place. And of course UNHCR cannot solve refugee crises without assistance from a multiplicity of actors. But analysts are equally united in concluding that the causes of flight are complex: and the process of building a lasting peace still more complicated. And ultimately, UNHCR’s job is not to solve refugee crises – it is find solutions for refugees. This may look like a small distinction, but it’s an important one.
For while UNHCR may have the best of motivations in pursuing “root causes”, it isn’t hard to imagine that many states see the attraction of “prevention” as a means of redirecting refugees away from the borders they have closed. The line between prevention and containment is a thin one: UNHCR should absolutely not start to reframe ‘protection activities for internally displaced persons or other affected populations’ as work on “prevention”.
Similarly, the line between early repatriation and constructive refoulement is also a thin one. History suggests that many governments display a quite literally incredible optimism when determining that refugees’ countries are now safe for return. Afghanistan, South Sudan, Congo, Burma, Iraq: there is a long list of places where recent refugee “solutions” have floundered thanks to premature declarations of peace.
So what should UNHCR do? I believe that there is a role for UNHCR in tackling “root causes” and building “preventive protection”. But it is the same role it has always been assigned: to act as the guardian and protector of asylum rights. For the best way to prevent a future refugee crisis is to avoid sending back millions of men, women and children to smouldering ruins and scarce resources – a move all but guaranteed to re-ignite past conflicts and set new ones alight.
How do you use refugees to build peace instead? You offer secure legal status in a country of asylum, followed by socio-economic support for return when refugees judge the time is right. And should the worse happen again, ex-refugees who can travel back to their former host countries as permanent residents do not have to risk their lives rushing border fences, and do not have to depend on humanitarian aid.
Asylum doesn’t have to be just an emergency. It can be an opportunity: to learn new skills, build new social networks and political movements, increase economic resilience. Here’s an alternative history lesson: the Guatemalan refugees who spent a decade in Mexico in the 1980s learnt Spanish, founded political organisations and negotiated the terms of return directly with the Guatemalan government. They could do so because they had found safety. Asylum is part of the solution.
So ultimately: you want to solve refugee crises? You want the refugees to go home? Well first let them in, and let them earn. Even better, give them a passport. Accept that peace may take years, and reconstruction longer still. That even when refugees go home, you will need to admit migrants whose remittances will rebuild homes and schools and businesses. Because migration is part of how you prevent refugee crises and how you develop a more equal, more peaceful world.
That is not the answer Europe wants to hear. But it is still the right answer.
Call them irregular migrants, not refugees. Call them reception centres, not camps. And it’s true that a problem out of sight is a problem out of mind. But more money for camps – whether in Turkey and Lebanon or on the north shores of Africa – is not a problem solved. It is responsibility abdicated.
On Monday, Europe’s leaders failed – yet again – to agree on a formula to relocate 120,000 refugees from the borders of Greece, Italy and Hungary, prolonging a refugee crisis of their own making. Meanwhile, UK Prime Minister David Cameron toured refugee camps in Lebanon, explaining how £1 billion in development aid is the right way for Britain to show it cares about Syrians.
Such words may have been cloaked in humanitarian concern, but it was with a veil so transparently thin that even Cameron could hardly disguise that £1 billion was really a price worth paying to make sure refugees stay put, as ‘part of our comprehensive approach to tackle migration from the region’.
The UK is not alone. Canada – another country with a government apparently intent on dismantling any humanitarian legacy – has recently promised $75 million in lieu of any additional resettlement places. Too many states now appear to believe that more money is an effective substitute for asylum, and that solving their immediate crisis – refugees arriving at their border begging for sanctuary – is equivalent to solving the refugee crisis.
More money will make things better. It is clear that there is an urgent need for more humanitarian funding in the Syrian region – a multi-billion dollar shortfall has led to refugees’ monthly food budgets being halved. Beyond Syria and the newspaper headlines, other crises are suffering acute neglect, and still worse funding cuts. So let us not fool ourselves that we are generous with our cash, when it is past failures to respond adequately that let politicians ride to the rescue in a blaze of PR glory to fix humanitarian crises once more of their own making.
But in the end, money is a salve: it is not a cure. For containment is not an answer. It is never an answer. At best, it offers a temporary pause. At worst, it facilitates a dangerous political amnesia. For good, orderly, well-run camps let us reframe the refugee story in familiar and comforting terms: a distant tragedy, where poor victims are ministered to by white heroes. Yet even in the best camps, refugees’ lives are left in limbo – unless there are real solutions on offer.
We know this. We have known this for sixty years. In 1955, the first UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Gerrit van Heuven Goedhart accepted the Nobel Peace Prize. He chose to speak not of UNHCR’s humanitarian accomplishments, but the global community’s political failings. Ten years after World War II had ended, 100,000 refugees were still living in camps: ‘black-spots on the map of Europe [that] should burn holes in the consciences of those who are privileged to live in better conditions. Everything possible must be done to close them.’
Five years later, the camps had closed. States opened their borders to admit the last of the “hard core” – in so doing establishing the modern refugee resettlement programme over which today’s political leaders squabble.
Now, eyes wide open, we talk of building new camps. And as a logistical response to emergency, camps have their place. But it is a temporary place. Stretch a camp into a city, and unless you can also make refugees into citizens, you are simply administering human misery.
Caught up in the drama and the urgency of immediate crisis, we cannot afford to forget that many of Syria’s refugees will not go “home”. Even were peace to come tomorrow, Syria is in ruins. So pinning our hopes on return alone offers no solution. Return – when the time is right – must be accompanied with opportunities for safe and legal migration, both to fund reconstruction and to offer those families brave enough to return in the first days of peace a safety net.
It is an unwelcome, inconvenient truth. But it is a truth none the less. Sixty years on from Goedhart’s refugee camps, and refugee camps still don’t work.
So where now? Well, in the past two weeks I’ve found myself turning back to read about responses to refugee crises in other kinder and more optimistic ages. In 1955, Goedhart urged the international community to be creative — “[we] should not be afraid of a bold experiment. It is better to develop one new method through a number of failures than at all times to follow the beaten track.” And creativity worked. So we also need to think beyond tired calls for more aid, more resettlement. We need to bring in new actors – entrepreneurs, civil society, private citizens – to remake a better humanitarian protection.
And we need to start now. For Goedhart also offered his audience a warning: “if we wait too long, the uprooted are bound to become easy prey for political adventurers, from whom the world has suffered too much already.” These portentous words – echoing sixty years into the future – are still a call to replace moral cowardice with courage. Europe’s leaders should not be building refugee camps. They should be welcoming refugees. We must persuade them to do so.