Muslim Responses to Refugees
Public Speech for European Muslim Network, Granada, Spain, 4 June 2015
Professor, Migration Ethics and Human rights
Research Center for Islamic Legislation and Ethics
Qatar Faculty of Islamic Studies
Hamad Bin Khalifa University
Since January, more than 36,000 people crossed the Mediterranean, at least half of them asylum-seekers fleeing conflicts in Syria, Somalia and Eritrea.
Nearly 1800 migrants are feared to have drowned over the past few months.
In 2014 around 170 000 persons were brought to safety
It is not necessary for me to go through the chapter and verse of Islamic commitments to refugees. It is perfectly clear that Islam requires believers to assist and protect vulnerable people, whether Muslim or non-Muslim. The Hijra itself provides an understanding and empathy for what it is like to be persecuted and need to travel to safety - to a place where one can live with protection and sustenance to practice one’s religion and culture.
The reason for the tragedies we are witnessing is because of borders of nation states that not everyone can enter. Human migration has not been liberalized under capitalism as have products, services and finance. It has been the opposite – and more so with the rise of anti-immigration or xenophobic nationalism in Europe that is both on the right and left of politics. Migration is still fettered by the principles of state sovereignty and the right of states to determine who is allowed to enter their country – and in some cases who is allowed to exit. As George Orwell said “nationalism just means thinking that you’re better than other people”.
Just to remind everyone:
According to the 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (and its 1967 Protocol), a refugee is someone who:
"owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his/[her] nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself/[herself] of the protection of that country."
Some of the rights contained in the 1951 Convention include:
The right to work (Articles 17 to 19);
- The right to housing (Article 21);
- The right to education (Article 22);
- The right to public relief and assistance (Article 23);
- The right to freedom of religion (Article 4);
- The right to access the courts (Article 16);
- The right to freedom of movement and choice of residence (Article 26);
- The right to be issued identity and travel documents (Articles 27 and 28);
- Prohibition of expulsion or return where life or freedom is threatened (“refoulement”) (Article 33).
Some 49 European States are bound by their ratification of the 1951 Refugee Convention (and the 1967 New York Protocols). 11 Muslim-Majority countries have ratified the convention: Algeria, Djibouti, Egypt, Iran, Mauritania, Morocco, Somalia, Sudan, Tunisia, Yemen and Turkey. Iraq and Jordan passed their own refugee protection laws but along the same lines as the convention. In 1994, the Arab League passed the “Arab Convention on Regulating the Status of Refugees in Arab Countries” (again, largely based on the 1951 UN convention), but it was never ratified or implemented. In 2012 there was the Ashgabat Declaration of the International Ministerial Conference of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) on Refugees in the Muslim World [which account for around half of the world’s refugees). This declaration basically supported the 1951 Convention and its 1967 Protocols and urged the UNHCR to continue its work. The 1990 Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam stated clearly in Article 12:
Every man (sic) shall have the right, within the framework of the Sharia, to free movement and to select his place of residence whether within or outside his country and if persecuted, is entitled to seek asylum in another country. The country of refuge shall be obliged to provide protection to the asylum-seeker until his safety has been attained.
As you are all aware, there is a substantial anti-immigration politics in Europe and other developed countries and “arguments in favour of migration aren’t being articulated because politicians are fearful of being labelled ‘pro-immigrant’” (EU Observer, May 28, 2015).
It should be pointed out that not all those making the boat journeys to Europe across the Mediterranean from Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Turkey are considered as refugees. They are often referred to as “mixed migration” flows. That is, so-called voluntary economic migrants and asylum seekers can be involved in the same trajectories, the same transport, and same routes and suffer the same indignities, abuse and exploitation – from smugglers, traffickers and criminal gangs.
Refugees are forced to move to save their lives or preserve their freedom. By definition, they have no protection from their own state - indeed it is usually their own government that is persecuting them. They cannot stay at home.
This is not to say that we should not feel sympathy for those economic migrants who are from poor countries and are naturally seeking a better life for themselves and their families. They should be given opportunities. But persecuted refugees have the protection, in principle, of international laws and conventions and funding, however inadequate, to support them.
In what is being referred to as the “criminalization” of asylum seekers and irregular migrants”, this contradicts Article 31 of the Refugee convention that states quite clearly that refugees have the right not to be punished for illegal entry into the territory of a contracting State.
Yet there are many “reception centers” and “detention facilities” (the former sounds more benign, even welcoming) for refugees and irregular migrants throughout Europe and in the North African countries, the latter being largely funded by Europe. Asylum seekers are routinely placed in these detention centers that is against EU policy and protocols – and against the 1951 Refugee Convention.
The Global Detention Project (The Detention of Asylum Seekers in the Mediterranean Region April 2015) recently published a report on detention centers in Greece, Italy, Malta and Spain – as well as in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco. They conclude, “the protection environment across all the countries in the region is bleak. The conditions of detention asylum seekers face in North Africa are often horrific and inhumane". There are thousands, for example, in the Nafusa mountains of Libya from Eritrea, Sudan, Somalia and elsewhere; as well a other detention camps established under agreements between Gaddafi and Italy. They cannot apply for refugee status and there are reports of whipping, electric shocks and severe beatings. In Europe there are also serious shortcomings. For example, under the Dublin III regulation, Greece is no longer considered a “safe country” for asylum seekers because of the terrible conditions and abuse in their detention centers, so they cannot be returned there.
The issue of “illegality” has been given even further prescience in the European debate or rhetoric. The proposals to use military action to target the boats in Libya and to place more focus on people smugglers and human traffickers is another point of contention. The assumption that those who undertake these journeys are hapless victims of smugglers (there is little in the way of human trafficking) is a misnomer. They are in fact courageous people who do their calculations and raise the money in full view of the mortal risks they face. As has been pointed out, in any military action there will be “collateral damage” that “will kill men, women and children from some of the world’s poorest and most war-torn regions.” (Julia Davidson, The Guardian, 17 May 2015).
As the European Union looks to the UN Security Council to approve military action against the smugglers and traffickers in Libya, the notion that irregular migration is a threat to international peace and security is rather absurd.
There is no moral basis for the use of lethal force against peaceable women, men and children, including victims of torture and those fleeing persecution and war. Europeans and their leaders must remember their own history, recent and not so recent, and the responsibilities Europe bears for the people on the boats. Rather than sending in the military, Europe should resettle many more refugees and dismantle the barriers to movement that have been put in the way of all but the most wealthy. (Julia Davidson, The Guardian, 17 May 2015)
And in a barbed satire by the Scottish comedian, Frankie Boyle, who says of Britain’s colonial history, as it prepares to repeal its Human Rights Act,
We have streets named after slave owners. We profited from a vile crime and feel no shame. We fear the arrival of immigrants that we have drawn here with the wealth we stole from them. For much of the rest of the world we must be the focus of bitter amusement…
(The Guardian, 20 April 2015)
SYRIANS IN EGYPT – two cases
Imagine a well educated Syrian - a doctor who had enough money to fly to Cairo and was granted refugee status there. He cannot work as a doctor there. In fact he cannot find any work other than menial work and he cannot accept that his wife does domestic work in someone’s house. After 2 years his money has run out and he and his family are living on UNHCR handouts. He has a 16 year-old son. He wants him to be a doctor like him and his grandfather before him. His son, to assist the family, works in a factory 12 hours a day. He will not finish high school and his life as he had expected it to be will not be realized. His father sees that his son’s life will never be what it should be. So the doctor sells everything he has in order to get his son to Europe to get an education. If he does not do it, he feels his son will be lost. He arranges for him to get on a smugglers boat on the coast of Alexandria. If he left him in the factory, he could not live with himself. It would be too painful. His father cannot see him marrying and having a family. He cannot bear to tell his family that his son is a factory worker. He says, “If my son dies along the way, we will say it was God’s will.”
Or another case where one child of 11 years has a blood disorder. His blood needs to be changed every 2 or 3 months and it costs about $450 per month for his treatment. He cannot go to school. He cannot go outside and play. He cannot be resettled in another country, because they will not take a sick child. The family cannot afford his medication. Basically, they are watching him die. If they can get him to Europe, he may have a good chance of getting a bone marrow transplant. His father has decided to take him on one of the boats, because he cannot live with himself to sit and do nothing.
What would you do? These are the kinds of issues that should also be addressed when looking into the root causes of the problem. They are not just security issues, but humanitarian issues.
There are thousands of unaccompanied minors (under 18 years) in Europe. In 2014, there were 23,000 (86% males) also arriving on the boats, or being left behind. They are supposed to be given a guardian, but they are often placed into very overcrowded schools and reception centers. Are Muslim children being taken care of by Muslims? A large number of them simply disappear – they may leave to join family members they know are in Europe, or they become victims of traffickers when they search for work.
I have been asked to address the question of how the European Muslim Network can participate in this.
I think entering into the intellectual and political debate should be accompanied by evidence of just how the European Muslim communities are responding with direct humanitarian support.
Many Syrians are also survivors who have endured brutal torture and treatment in Syria. They also are desperate to find a decent life in Europe. How are they received when they arrive in Lampedusa, or Malta, or Sicily? Are they met with sympathy, or uniformed security people with grim, scowling or hostile faces? There are many civil society organizations (NGOs) that do volunteer work in the detention centers throughout Europe, particularly the Red Cross. Are these mainly Christian organizations, or are there Muslim NGOs participating?
The humanitarian response would be for members of the Muslim community to be there when they arrive after the harrowing, death-defying journey. To go to the shores where they land and talk to the Syrians at the very least – to greet and welcome them; give them a face and a language they can recognize; and visit the detention centers (or reception centers as they like to call them); many will be there for long periods of time. If their asylum case is denied, and they appeal, it can take up to two and a half years, remaining in the detention center. They often need food, clothing, support and all manner of everyday things that are not always provided.
Those who manage to leave the detention centers want to make their way to other European countries, like Germany, where there are large Muslim communities. Track the routes they take – such as through Serbia where there are reports of people being robbed, beaten and raped. Find ways to rescue them. The idea is that there are new Muslims arriving that are being discriminated against because of their vulnerabilities. Take them to Muslim neighborhoods. Let people of their own faith open their hearts and their homes to them. Why leave it to the vagaries of the state? Coordinate with the authorities of each state that deals with refugees, UNHCR, Red Cross, Red Crescent, Muslim Relief, and other humanitarian NGOs. Coordinate with those who can help in Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco. Do not leave it up to Frontex and the private security corporations who seem to have extraordinary presence, not only at the borders and detention centers, but in their own interests are also engaged in the military style policy recommendations, such as the EU’s 10 Point National Security Plan released in April. The two main transnational corporations are:
- G4S, the largest security company in the world involved with defensive and protective services, prisons, electronic surveillance equipment and other services. They provide border control along the U.S. - Mexico border, migrant and asylum seeker detention facilities in UK and Australia (with notorious accusations of abusive and brutal behavior). They secure several American military bases and provide airport security in Baghdad and Amsterdam as well as protecting Israeli settlements in occupied Palestine.
- Finmeccanica specializes in space and defense industries, aeronautics, helicopters, space, defense and security electronics as well as energy and transportation. All put to use in border control technologies for the 72 countries in which it operates, including Europe.
To her credit, in response to the military security proposal, the UN Security Council President, Dina Kawar, noted correctly (30 April): “It’s not about protecting Europe. It’s about protecting refugees!”
The recent proposal to relieve the burden on Italy and Greece by relocating 40,000 Syrians and Eritreans has created its own controversy, with a number of countries (from various reports, Britain, Ireland, Denmark, Hungary, Latvia France, Poland the Czech Republic) strongly opposing it. The “economic migrants” will be deported.
In addition, there is now a refugee quota distribution system proposal that pays European States to take refugees. They can sell or trade their quotas among them. (see Mollie Gerver, “An EU quota trading system for refugees would offer a fair method for alleviating Europe’s migration crisis”, LSE, 25 May 2015.)
This is one of the most distasteful and cynical ideas. The assumption is that countries will be motivated more by money than by humanitarian principles and their legal obligations under the Refugee Convention. It is an indication of the level of sickness of spirit that Europe has reached. Muslims should oppose it.
Alternatively, Francois Crepeau, the UN Special Rapporteur for Migrant Rights suggested for the current refugee crisis in Europe:
“Global North countries (representing 850-million inhabitants) could collectively offer to resettle one-million Syrians and Eritreans over the next five years. If we take only the population as a distribution key, it would mean, for the United Kingdom, around 14,000 people a year for five years, and for Canada, less than 9000 each year for five years. This is entirely manageable. A drop in the bucket.”
This made perfect sense, but as I thought about it, I wondered why Muslim-Majority states were not included. Are they not considered as possible destinations here, rather than the exclusive ‘Global North’?
Now you may think this is politically naïve, but why can’t Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, or Qatar take refugees – Muslim refugees? These are wealthy Muslim countries. There are plenty of jobs, and they need labor. While they may provide money for refugee relief, it is not the same as providing refugees with protection and a livelihood. Many refugees are well educated, and GCC countries could specify certain skills; many will work as laborers. They have not signed the ’51 UN Refugee Convention, but they are parties to the OIC Declarations on Human Rights and Refugees.
With the massive numbers of Muslim refugees arriving into Europe perhaps there should also be a massive public show of Muslim support for them. Politically, it will be seen as Muslims wanting to boost their population in Europe that is currently about 9 per cent (perhaps that is part of the reason for the anti-immigration nationalist backlash). But there is no shame in that. All migrant communities around the world do it.
So, in short: I suggest entering the discourse around the historical colonial backdrop to the refugee crisis, the false assumptions of “illegal” entry of refugees, the misplaced focus on smugglers and traffickers, the dangers of military-style interventions, the illegal use of detention facilities – and with an increased emphasis on humanitarian responses – and do not accept the disgusting notion of “compassion fatigue”!