Uganda's Refugee Hospitality Puts the Affluent World To Shame

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The distinguished scholar and humanitarian activist Noam Chomsky places Western attitudes towards refugees “among the signs of the severe moral-cultural crisis of the West that is mislabeled a ‘refugee crisis.’”

According to the latest report of Amnesty International:

Measures implemented by EU leaders to strengthen search and rescue capacity in the central Mediterranean in April 2015 dramatically decreased deaths at sea. But this priority, which saw several countries provide more rescue boats closer to Libyan territorial waters, was short-lived. Instead, EU governments have shifted their focus to disrupting smugglers and preventing departures of boats from Libya: a failing strategy that has led to ever more dangerous crossings and a threefold increase in the death-rate from 0.89% in the second half of 2015 to 2.7% in 2017.

This “failing strategy” confirms Chomsky’s observation that what is occurring along the central Mediterranean is actually more of a Western moral crisis than a “refugee crisis” and racism is the underlying cause. Can you imagine this being the case if the ones needing to survive were Europeans? Libya, Egypt and Sudan are places where refugees are subjected to degrading treatment, extortion, extreme abuse and slavery as they are tortured, raped and murdered. In Egypt, organ harvest from kidnapped refugees is a thriving business involving doctors and medical professionals. In Libya, where numerous warlords control different parts of the country, Christian Eritreans and Ethiopians were beheaded by ISIS . The yet-to-be-told story is that of refugees victimized and enslaved out of sight in the deserts of Libya and in Sinai Egypt. Dealing with the so called officials from these countries to deter refugees is the ultimate cynicism. To depend on the support of the “Libyan Coast Guard” operating in lawless Libya is tantamount to complicity with criminal gangs. According to a UNHCR study:

[T]he... instability in the country [has] contributed to create an environment where human smuggling and criminal networks flourish. At the same time, the collapse of the justice system and reigning impunity have led many armed groups, criminal gangs and individuals to participate in the exploitation and abuse of refugees and migrants.

When a reporter asked Mahatma Gandhi what he thought of Western civilization, he famously replied: "I think it would be a good idea." President Donald Trump is talking about the defense of Western Civilization these days, but where is the evidence for any degree of civilized action in his policies? Precisely because they are the most vulnerable, attacking refugees and the poor has been the distinguishing hallmark of his presidency thus far. The United States is increasingly a stingy and heartless bystander when it comes to refugees and other vulnerable populations. The United States and Britain as well are the leading merchants of weapons spearheading military interventions, yet they are hesitant to deal with the clean-up of the mess created by the current refugee “exodus” from war-torn countries awash in those very weapons. Ben Norton of Salon.com writes:

The five wealthiest countries [the U.S., China, Japan, the U.K. and Germany]— which make up half the global economy — are hosting less than 5 percent of the world’s refugees, while 86 percent of refugees are in poorer developing countries that are often struggling to meet the needs of their own people.

The Ugandan Exception

Uganda on the other hand through its compassionate policy towards refugees, exemplifies the moral high ground abandoned by the United States under President Trump and frankly even to a lesser extent under former President Obama. There have been many remarkable testimonies on Uganda’s exceptional reception of refugees. Julian Hattem writing for the Washington Post states:

Instead of being locked in crowded camps surrounded by barbed wire, the 1.2 million refugees in Uganda are given large plots of land in sprawling settlements to build homes or, if they like, small farms. If agrarian life isn't for them, they can move freely around the country, traveling to towns or to the bustling capital of Kampala, which 95,000 refugees call their home.

Uganda has been hailed by many including the IMF and the United Nations for its enlightened refugee policy. But critics say that President Yoweri Musevini of Uganda is a dictator who is using refugees to enhance his stature and to cover up for his excesses regionally and domestically. I don’t dispute this criticism but will simply say that all dictators are not cut from the same cloth. For example, Ethiopia lets in refugees only to warehouse them in camps, where they become vulnerable to smuggling and trafficking. Héloïse Ruaudel and Susanna Morrison-Métois of OECD have compared refugee conditions in Uganda and Ethiopia, verified the restrictions refugees face in Ethiopia by contrasting it with Uganda, where refugees are able to work and become self reliant. Ethiopia benefits financially from European countries, China and international institutions under the pretext of helping and hosting refugees; and politically by appearing magnanimous while blocking a political solution with its neighbor Eritrea through a ‘no war no peace strategy’. For over a decade and half, it has also held peace hostage by flouting international law, preventing the border demarcation and thereby contributing to the refugee influx from Eritrea. Refugees don’t fare better in Kenya, which has been threatening to displace 600,000 Somali refugees by closing the Dadaab settlement. Sudan’s president Omar Al Bashir and Egypt are also guilty of refoulement of Eritrean and Sudanese refugees on countless occasions. Therefore, the policy must be understood in the context of regional and international comparative realities.

Unfortunately, we live very far from an ideal world. For example, Fidel Castro was a dictator but he also built the best medical system in Latin America. In contrast, there are no apparent redeeming qualities for the dictator in Equatorial Guinea. We can continue to talk about ethnographic studies, durable solutions and I appreciate the value of these studies, when they are done right. However, only people in the ivory tower can tell a drowning human being about swimming lessons, when the very immediate task is literally survival. As Foucault writes (in Maladie Mentale et Psychologie, p.45), we must leap “into the interior of morbid consciousness, [trying] to see the pathological world with the eyes of the patient himself”. In the context of the “refugee crisis,” it is necessary to cultivate the quality of empathy that engenders such a strategic intuition.

One needs to realize, the relatively generous policy of Uganda comes at a price as Bidi Bidi, the largest refugee camp in the world has reached a breaking point. Nevertheless, Uganda’s proactive refugee policy remains among the best, if not the best approach to host refugees. Some refugees in Uganda have found a way to become thriving entrepreneurs and employers. Unfortunately, as much as Uganda’s treatment of refugees has provided a model for how a “civilized” country behaves, many countries in Africa remain a hellish nightmare for African refugees.

Sudan, Libya, Egypt and South Africa are among the horrific places to be a refugee. Refugees have been burned alive by South African mobs. In the words of a German diplomat in Niger: “the Libyan camps where traffickers hold would-be migrants resemble concentration camps”, but with German elections about a month away, Angela Merkel is now advocating support for the activities of the “Libyan Coast Guard.”

Libyan and Italian complicity against refugees is not new. Gaddhafi used asylum seekers as pawns in his relationship with Europe. Libya was rewarded with favorable trade terms and political deals: oil deals, and the U.K.’s softening of stance towards Libya on the Pan Am air tragedy in exchange for containing African refugees in detention centers. Abuses against migrants in Libya escalated during the civil war in 2011, with migrants, refugees and asylum seekers suffering from both sides, but particularly from anti-Qaddafi forces who cited the use of Qaddafi of some sub-Saharan African migrants as mercenaries. After the resistance against Gaddhafi gained momentum, refugees were literally pushed to the sea in decrepit boats raising the number of those who perished in the Mediterranean dramatically.

For Europe, to try to enter a deal with Libya for outsourcing or containing refugees like it did with Turkey at this time is outright criminal, conditions in Libya are more comparable and in some ways worse than Somalia with more violent actors and lawlessness. There are few livable options for refugees with limited opportunities for resettlement: of the 16.1 million refugees of concern to the UNHCR around the world at the end of 2015, less than one per cent were resettled. In the United States, President Trump “capped the number of refugees allowed into the U.S. in fiscal year 2017 at 50,000, down from former President Barack Obama’s target number of 110,000.” This has caused despair and ‘devastation’ among some families who were hoping to reunite with family members after years of separation but who were suddenly unable to do so due to this cruel policy. Some refugees say, ‘it is easier to get to heaven than to make it to the United States’ under the reign of President Trump.

In contrast to Uganda, Europe and other wealthy countries are increasingly shunning refugees. Europe may pride itself for its respect of universal individual rights but the plight of drowning African refugees in the central Mediterranean has become the new normal. To discourage crossing the Mediterranean, European countries replaced the stronger Italian rescue operation the Nora Nostrum, with Triton. The Triton operation was expected to complement the Nora Nostrum, instead it replaced it with no clear mission and with a stated function of “border management” within 30 nautical miles from the European border. The worry was that the Nora Nostrum was a “pull factor” for refugees from Africa. One can only conclude that the notion of universal individual rights and the conventions in place concerning refugees are fast giving way to extreme xenophobia and right wing populist rhetoric. If Europe can get over its phobia refugees, one can envision a win win scenario. According to Oxfam: “Italy alone will need an estimated 1.6 million workers over the next decade to sustain its welfare and pension plans.” Italy’s agribusiness industry is in need of workers that could be filled by Africans who are eager to work.

Instead, the securitization of border control has gone a step further, with NATO launching naval patrols in the eastern Mediterranean. The C-Star is a ship run by anti-immigrant “members of the extremist Generation Identity group” from Germany, France, Austria, the U.K. and Italy to prevent migrants from reaching European coasts. It tried to force a ship owned by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) to change its route. In 2017, Europeans have delegated the Libyan “Coast Guard” to apprehend refugees in boats at sea forcing them to disembark back in Libya, abandoning them at the mercy of gangs purporting to belong to the “Libyan Coast Guard”. This situation is a logical extension of the “fortress Europe” mentality. These gangs have shot at refugees resulting in refugees panicking and drowning.

There is also little effort to try to integrate earlier arrivals with asylum in Italy and Europe in general. Often, refugees are treated with little dignity as we witnessed in August 2017 in the blatant abuse in Rome, while evicting refugees from a building they had inhabited for as long as five years. Some of the victims were the elderly, pregnant women, children and the disabled. One woman who was physically manhandled by police was fresh out of the hospital after an operation for breast cancer.

Across the Red Sea from the Horn of Africa, Saudi Arabia is threatening to deport about half a million Ethiopians. Some of these Ethiopians might qualify for asylum, according to refugee law but Saudi Arabia is not signatory to international conventions for refugees. Ethiopians from the Somali and Oromia regions have been taking horrendous risks underscoring their desperation, crossing the Red Sea on rickety boats to Yemen, which is itself in the midst of a cholera epidemic and a terrible civil war, exacerbated by Saudi and United Arab Emirates military intervention in a geopolitical rivalry with Iran. Refugees who were captured trying to cross Yemen have been forced to join the opposing factions. The war in Yemen is now a quagmire with no solution in sight. This route is so treacherous, smugglers have pushed people off boats to their deaths. These Ethiopians were trying to reach Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States in search of safety and jobs at a time that Saudi Arabia is planning to deport half a million of their countrymen.

European Good Samaritans and their Challenges

In contrast, European citizen humanitarianism, the ever exemplary NGO MSF and Save the Children, private initiatives like individuals like the Moroccan-Sicilian Nawal Soufi use their mobile phones as a lifeline for refugees in boats braving the Mediterranean. The humanity of ordinary people from the island of Lampedusa is depicted in the film, Fire at Sea by Italian director Gianfranco Rosi, which won the Golden Bear prize at the Berlin film festival. It tells the story of the migrant crisis through the eyes of locals. Some ordinary fishermen and humanitarians have responded humanely during incidents where ships left refugees to die to avoid any responsibility. According to Frontex, (the EU border and coastal protection agency), “around 40 percent of all rescue operations are carried out by volunteers.” Survivors of one of the worst shipwrecks in recent European history in which 366 people died on october 3rd 2013, off the Italian island of Lampedusa, reported that boats nearby did not help.

Ironically, NGOs are now under attack falsely accused of enabling smugglers and encouraging refugees to make the dangerous trip across the Mediterranean. MSF and the German NGO Sea Eye’ have suspended their life-saving activities due to conditions put on them by the Libyan Coast Guard and the Italian government requiring compromise on their core principles. In early September, this was followed by the Malta-based Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS), suspending its life saving activities in the Mediterranean saying, "it wanted nothing to do with Libya’s interception of migrant boats leaving its coast." Dr. Joanne Liu, international director of MSF visited detention centers in Tripoli during the first week of September and wrote an open letter of challenge to European governments to stop aiding and abating the crimes of the “Libyan Coast Guard”, by supporting the interception of refugees in boats trying to reach Europe via the Mediterranean. She painted an extreme picture of suffering in the detention centers in Tripoli unlike anything she had ever seen before. Conditions are reputed to be much more horrific in other parts of Libya.

In Europe, attitudes towards refugees are only hardening. More legal as well as physical barriers, razor wire fences are erected, while the dehumanization of refugees as swarms, infiltrators, criminals, vermin, terrorists and threats to security gets heated. Poland, Austria, Slovakia and Hungary refuse to accept their share of relocated refugees from Africa and the Middle East. Hungary and Slovakia filed a case with the European Court of Justice objecting to their quota of a small number of refugees. The court has ruled against their action but implementation maybe a whole different issue.

A Europe-wide agreement could define an asylum seeker and standardize legal rights and standards for reception and treatment, but the future is more likely to be more fences and restrictions as governments face more and more extreme challenges from right-wing political parties. These challenges tend to be acrimonious, with blames oscillating between the front-line states (Greece, Malta, Spain and Italy) and non-front line countries like Austria and France bordering Italy. France neither allows entry for irregular migrants camped out in Ventimiglia, nor are “French vessels carrying migrants rescued in the Mediterranean Sea [allowed] to dock in its ports. The boats dock in Italian ones instead.” Out of frustration, Italy is threatening to “invoke wartime law to let 200,000 migrants head for UK, Germany and France”. In retaliation, the non-front-line countries are threatening to exclude the front-line states from the privileges of Schengen.

In the most recent EU meeting in Estonia, responses to the refugee crisis center on restricting the activities of life-saving work by NGO’s and in collaborating with African dictators and the so called Libyan Coast Guard in order to return refugees into the conditions from which they fled. “About half of the more than 90 million euros ($103 million) allotted for the refugee crisis on the Mediterranean route is to be spent on the providing the Libyan coast guard with more weapons and training.” Blaming NGOs's is in reality a diversion from the lack of inaction and impotence of the European Union. According to a study done by the Forensic Oceanography branch at the University of London:

As long as migrants are forced to resort to smugglers for lack of legal pathways, proactive Search and Rescue at sea will be a humanitarian necessity – whether it is operated by states or NGOs. Only a fundamental re-orientation of the EU’s migration policies to grant legal and safe passage may bring the smuggling business, the daily reality of thousands of migrants’ in distress and the need to rescue them to an end.

The Way Forward

Uganda points the way forward. Uganda is a wonderful model for compassionate hospitality towards refugees, but the country is reaching a breaking point due to increasing demands for civilized accommodation of the large numbers of refugees. What was promised for Uganda from donors, during last year’s high level summit in New York has not been forthcoming. Supporting viable resettlement programs and working towards durable solutions will go a long ways to helping the “crisis”. The closing of legal channels of movement has meant a rapidly growing industry in the smuggling of human bodies. Creating a safe and legal route for refugees gives the option of having claims processed in countries of first arrival and helps to put the human smugglers out of business. Sponsoring massive educational and media campaigns in refugee camps about the hazards of journeys across the deserts of Libya, Sinai, Sudan, Yemen and other routes taken by refugees is essential. Part of what I view as durable solution is also using economic and political leverage to promote human rights while proactively engaging to settle political conflicts and rewarding good governance in refugee producing countries. At present, increasing life-saving rescue operations in the Mediterranean is the right thing to do. Wheeling and dealing with the dictators who are the very reason for these flights is cruel and uncivilized.

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