Roxanne Tellier – The Open Heart
“Come in,” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm”. (Bob Dylan, “Shelter From The Storm.”)
On Wednesday, the world was horrified to see images of a lifeless 3 year old boy, AylanKurdi, drowned and washed up on the sand on a Tunisian beach. It was a day that changed us. We could no longer look away from the suffering of millions caught in a whirlwind of horror brought about by climate change, political unrest, and unrelenting war.
What jarred us out of a dreamy, half-aware interest in Syria’s plight was what we could no longer deny … the people of Syria are just like us. Aylan could have been our son, our nephew, our grandson. His family wore t-shirts and shorts and jeans, not saris or long black burkas or multi coloured rags. They were enjoying a life very similar to our own before the uprising, and were prepared to move seamlessly into any civilized country’s culture. They were not savages, unaware of societal rules. They were just like us.
Several decades of a world economy manipulated by corporations who have bribed politicians into serving the corporate, rather than the peoples, needs have damaged our ability to empathize with and deal with the fact that these people, these refugees, are caught up in a web that is not of their making.
A Cliff McAulay song, “I Am So Weary,” written in response to the problems of refugees throughout the world. Film by Andy Freegard. 2012.
Let’s get our definition straight right away – these people are not “immigrants,” as we have previously defined immigration. They often don’t have proper paperwork, and may be ill, physically or mentally, from the stress of living in war zones. They are refugees, fleeing for their lives, fleeced of their last dollars by the snakeheads who help them flee via a rubber raft that may or may not get them to a more welcoming shore. Many have died, drowning within sight of freedom.
And what has been the response of the governments of some of the wealthiest countries in the world? A cold, dispassionate, numbers-oriented indifference to their plight.
“Maybe it’s a bad idea to make policy by way of Instagram. Maybe it’s right to say that this crisis has been brewing for years and that thousands of other boys have been lying abandoned and dead on beaches. Maybe it’s kneejerk and unfair – improvised and impetuous. Maybe. Or maybe past indifference is no excuse for an inadequate ongoing effort. Maybe a single searing image is what’s sometimes required to jolt people out of their lethargy, galvanize public interest and brew popular demand for a fuller response.
Our government’s policy to date, championed by this minister, has not been sufficiently robust – taking in too few people in need, relying too much on private sector sponsors in the place of direct government action and permitting domestic politics to infect our humanitarian response. Of course we can’t save every life at risk. But we can do a lot more than we have been doing.”
So what HAS Canada done for these and other refugees? What our government has told us is that they are “undeserving people exploiting the generosity of a benevolent government;cheating on application processes; taking advantage of welfare; stealing our jobs. That is the image of “bogus refugees” that Canada’s Conservative government has spent years carefully cultivating.”
And they use those images, appealing to our own inner fears and insecurities, to justify their boasts of halving refugee claimants in the last several years, by installing border agents to prevent refugees from boarding flights. Or installing billboards in Europe to tell the Roma they are not welcome. When those deterrents fail, they’ll resort to even dirtier tricks, like passing new laws that arbitrarily label countries as “safe” so to prohibit people there from applying for refugee status.
The Canadian immigration game is rigged. If and when refugees reach Canada, about 10,000 “irregular arrivals” per year are thrown into detention centers like Montreal’s “Immigration Prevention Centre,” surrounded by razor-wire fences, on the outskirts of major cities.
Others are thrown into provincial prisons, including maximum security enclosures. Canada has the distinction of being the only western country that jails refugees and migrants in the same facilities as convicts. There they will linger, sometimes for years, without even basic healthcare – not even for pregnant women and cancer patients.
Of those people, 100,000 people in the last ten years have simply been deported back to their countries, to face murder, sexual abuse and religious persecution.
How about America, then? When asked whether the United States should assist European countries and accept some of the refugees on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” Republican front-runner Donald Trump confusedly said, “We have so many problems, and the answer is, possibly, yes.” He then went back to his regularly scheduled harangues about getting rid of 11 million undocumented immigrants from Mexico.
To make matters worse and ramp up even more fear, ISIS/ISIL has loudly proclaimed that they’ll use the crisis as a chance to smuggle in their own people as terrorists. (For that alone, for those who would further their insane bloodlust on the backs of terrorized people, they should be crushed.)
What does Australia think? Well, they’ll take some, perhaps up to 4,500, but their far right conservatives have been rousing Australians to a fever pitch over the costs of immigration for years.
“Would the attitude of Australians towards refugees be any different if people knew that the foreign multinational that is behind running the detention centres (UK’s Serco) made $693 million last year from Australian government contracts? Of that $57 million was profit. The revenue of the company, which has the mandate to run the immigration detention services on behalf of the federal government, almost doubled from $369 million to $693 million.
There has been an “increase in detention centres from 12 to 20 across the mainland, Tasmania and Christmas Island. In the 2010-11 financial years, a total of 8874 people were taken into detention. It has also meant a lucrative new $1 billion contract for Serco, in a deal renegotiated with the government last December. A contract to manage the immigration residential housing program had blown out from $44.5 million to $85.6 million.”
Wow. Compassion for humanity? Nope … a high stakes money grab. This is what our governments have wrought. Is that what lies at the heart of all the upraised voices asking what we are to do about Syrian refugees, and why we should be even asked to help?
Christian countries saying there’s “no room at the inn.” Pursing their lips into a sphincter shape plopping out bureaucratic bullshit. Making a profit on the backs of those in genuine need.
In an interview in 2013, Dr. David Suzuki said that”there’s no more room” in Canada, and that more people would strain this country’s resources, although he did say we should continue to open our door to refugees. There is some truth in his belief that our resources and aging infrastructure are already stretched to the limit. But the upside of bringing in people from other countries is what they bring to the diversification of a country known as being a ‘vertical mosaic.’ (Coined by sociologist John Porter in 1965, and defined as “a mosaic of different ethnic, language, regional and religious groupings unequal in status and power.”)
“Sierra Leones Refugee All Stars started playing music together in West African refugee camps while their homeland was being racked by years of bloody warfare.”
And what of those actually fleeing, terrified for their lives, and further terrorized as they encounter police presence, often using force against them? Even when they are offered help, they are afraid they are being sent to camps, like those of Nazi Germany. For some, this flight has them wondering if they’d be better off dead.
Germany, strapped for younger workers, hopes to accept up to 800,000 Syrian refugees. Hungary, on the other hand, wants none of them, and is fortifying barbed wire fences to stop the migration northward. In 2014 the European nation that accepted the largest number of refugees in proportion to its population was Sweden. Hungary, Malta, Switzerland and 13 other countries accepted more asylum applications than the UK, according to Eurostat. Between June 2014 and June 2015, the UK took 166 Syrian refugees.
The reality of the refugees and the meagre belongings they bring with them, assuming they survive their journey, is outlined in this webpage of the International Rescue Committee.
And we’re so desperate for someone, anyone, to help, that the Egyptian billionaire, Naguib Sawiris’s offer of the purchase of a refugee island is being taken fairly seriously, despite the potential problems that might have to be dealt with down the line. At least it’s something … some positive action … some understanding and empathy.
So, what are we, as Canadians to think? What actions do we want our government to take, despite them being in the throes of campaigning for four more years of austerity?
Syria Before and After
Each of us must look to our own heart, and see that the Syrian refugees are people just like ourselves, who were living comfortably in a world just like our own, before the Arab Spring uprisings, and the long drought that turned their world upside down. It could happen to any of us, anytime and anywhere.
Ask yourself – how would you like to be treated if you were one of those people?
Roxanne’s column appears here every Sunday
Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Roxanne Tellier has been singing since she was 10 months old … no, really. Not like she’s telling anyone else how to live their lives, because she’s not judgmental, and most 10 month olds need a little more time to figure out how to hold a microphone. She has also been a vocalist with many acts, including Tangents, Lady, Performer, Mambo Jimi, and Delta Tango. In 2013 she co-hosted Bob Segarini’s podcast, The Bobcast, and, along with Bobert, will continue to seek out and destroy the people who cancelled ‘Bunheads’.