The World-Wide Refugee Crisis

Climate extremes and war are driving people from their homes, and they must be free to go somewhere.

Along with the concept of democracy, Greece produced those mythologies on which all Western culture is founded—perhaps none more persuasive than those concerning the feats of Zeus.

In one of these myths, Zeus—father of all the gods—sent out two eagles, one at each end of the earth, and commanded them to fly towards each other. At the point where they met, a sacred stone, the omphalos, was placed, designating the navel of the world, which enabled communication with the divine.

Countless generations of students educated in the West have been taught that the Mediterranean—literally, the centre of the world— was the “cradle of civilization,” and on the Mercator map projection of the world, this centre was located in the sea separating Europe and North Africa. But anyone who has studied history knows this cannot possibly be true. Greek culture came long after East Asia.

From the beginning of time, the centre of Asia was the birthplace of empires, and the Silk Road was the route along which everything and everyone traveled.

From the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean coast, a stretch of fertile land—the Fertile Crescent—made societies possible. Here, 4,000 years ago, Hammurabi, King of Babylon, composed the first laws that laid out the obligations of his subjects and the promise of his protection.

Persia became the guiding light of stability and fairness in a civilized context of people from different places, with different skin colour and eye shapes, different clothing, and different languages.

A trilingual inscription carved into the face of a cliff at the UNESCO site, Behistun, near the city of Kermanshah in western Iran, conveys its meaning in Persian, Akkadian, and Elamite. It records how Darius the Great, one of Persia’s most renowned rulers, put down uprisings and revolts, drove back invasions from abroad, and wronged neither the poor nor the powerful. Keep the country secure, the inscription commands, and look after the people righteously, for justice is the bedrock of the kingdom.

Tolerance of minorities was legendary. As a result of policies that included the release of the Jews from their Babylonian exile, one ruler was known as “Messiah,”  blessed by “Lord, the God of Heaven.”

All the Greek historians and philosophers make reference to Persia. In the opening lines of the Bacchae, Dionysus says, “I have come to Greece” from the “fabulously wealthy East,” a place where the plains are bathed in sunshine, where Bactria’s towns are protected by walls, and where beautifully constructed towers look out over coastal regions.

Asia and the East were the lands that Dionysus “set dancing” with the divine mysteries long before those of the Greeks. (—from The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, Peter Frankopan, 2017)

The world is changing around us, and this time will not be like last time.

After WWII, displaced people were on the move, and many countries offered refuge and hope for a future different than any of them had dared to imagine.

That movement of people, by land, ship, and plane, was made possible by adaptable government policies, and by financial support that was almost completely voluntary. Moral responsibility fell on the shoulders of groups and families who were moved to help—putting into practice The Golden Rule, that we should treat others the way we would want to be treated.

For Lloyd Axworthy, Chair of the Waterloo based World Refugee Council, those days are over when we can leave the crisis to the good will of volunteers and donations.

His perspectives on the crisis are well informed by his experience in federal government, both as Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs and again as Minister of Employment and Immigration.

Axworthy recognizes a paradigm shift in the expectations of Western governments. No longer can they leave it to churches and humanitarian organizations to manage problems that are global in scale and increasing exponentially in magnitude.

One of the explanations for this completely new understanding of the movement of refugees now is clear. The recent UN Refugee Agency report notes that 84% of these refugees are not being hosted in First World countries—as in the post-war period—but rather, in developing countries. The economic and social stress on these inherently less well off nations is untenable. Add to this stress the assault on agriculture by pervasive drought conditions, and the water shortages that become more dire each month, and you have the conditions for a torrent of refugees.

“Many of these poor countries have been real heroes of our time,” Axworthy said on CBC radio recently. “Uganda, which is not a top-of-the-run economic elite, has accepted over a million refugees from South Sudan.”

Climate extremes and war are driving people from their homes, and they must be free to go somewhere.

Axworthy believes naming and shaming are positive incentives to get reluctant governments to initiate refugee policies that would fund the humane accommodation of these desperate people. They must be allowed to move out of danger.

Some countries, Axworthy claims, are committing international humanitarian crimes by turning away refugees and sending them back to countries that are clearly not safe.

The danger is permanent displaced persons camps. This is no kind of solution, either for the immediate relief of suffering or the security and health of the next generation. Yet many countries make the political argument that their existing systems of healthcare, water, and education cannot tolerate increased demand. The tax dollars are going elsewhere.

A very real policy solution to address the question of money to fund expanded services for refugees, Axworthy has suggested, is to unfreeze dictator assets, and liquidate their holdings in yachts and artwork, diamonds and property. “There are billions of dollars sitting in the bank accounts of a bunch of bad guys, and the bad guys are the ones who caused the refugee problem,” he said.

The matter of cause is debatable, and the label of “bad guy” is a trope.

But there is no question that our humanity has never been under such a test, and the Golden Rule has never been a more important guiding light to the civilized world.

But there is no question that our humanity has never been under such a test, and the Golden Rule has never been a more important guiding light to the civilized world.