A US songwriter's take on the global refugee crisis


The United Nations has a strict definition of the term "refugee," whereby you are only a refugee if you are fleeing war or persecution of some kind. If you are fleeing a place because there is no way for you to feed yourself or your family if you stay, the UN defines this kind of movement as "migration." Until 1967, the only refugees recognized by the original refugee convention were Europeans. So clearly there's lots of room for improvement.

In any case, however you define the term, the history of what some call civilization has been full of refugees. Most sensible people think that if you're starving, that's also a good reason to seek out a place where you might not starve, and that also counts as being a refugee. That is the definition of "refugee" that I use -- anyone who is fleeing for their lives, for whatever reason.

There is a lot of propaganda here in the US -- in the schools, histories, in the media, etc. -- that we are a country of immigrants. Of people seeking a better life in a "new" world. To be sure, there were some very wealthy and powerful Europeans who were seeking greater degrees of wealth and power in the Americas, and they found it.

People like the Van Renssalaer family, of royal Dutch extraction, who came to New York in order to be given much of the state by the Dutch crown. Through this massive land grant to the already-wealthy, they got much, much wealthier through the practice of exploiting peasants, aka "tenant farmers," up and down the Hudson River Valley. There are a lot of other similar examples throughout North and South America.

Even people who have swallowed the line about "migrants seeking a better life in the new world" are aware that millions of people were brought to the Americas in chains, mostly from Africa, so clearly weren't "migrants." They may also be aware that there were 500 nations full of people already living within the borders of what today is known as the United States. 500 nations full of people with different languages, customs, and highly advanced farming, forestry and game management practices, who were systematically driven off of their lands and killed through a web of market-incentivized methods of extermination. Including but not limited to the European practice of "scalping," which involved white settlers getting paid by the local authorities on a per-scalp basis.

But what of the European "migrants"? What of the ancestors of the majority population today in the US and Canada? My ancestors, for example? Aside from the Van Renssalaers and their ilk, the Europeans who settled North America were certainly primarily refugees. They came not seeking a better life, but seeking to live. They were fleeing the violent, disease-ridden, often war-torn cities of Europe. Fleeing corrupt, despotic rulers. Famines, pogroms, inquisitions and crusades.

They were refugees seeking survival, seeking not to be killed for practicing a certain religion, seeking to have land to farm so they could eat -- land that was systematically stolen from them in Europe in order to force them into miserable, fatal jobs in dangerous, deadly factories. (In England they called this practice "enclosure." In Scotland it was known as the "clearances." In Ireland, the Irish called it slavery, and referred to each other as slaves -- an accurate description of their condition through most of British colonial rule there.)

The refugees coming from Europe to the Americas over the course of many hundreds of years were coming from Europe because countries like the US and Canada had a whites-only policy for accepting refugees, aka "immigrants." If not for this racist policy -- now a slightly less racist "quota system" -- perhaps there would have been a greater proportion of refugees migrating from other parts of the world. In fact there were, but many of the Chinese, Japanese and other non-whites who came here to build the railroads and work the coal mines were sent back later, and could never get citizenship, by virtue of the fact that they weren't European.

Generally, these European refugees came here with promises of work and land. They often found neither, but were sometimes given the opportunity to have land to farm if they went west and stole it from someone else first. This was the principal method of westward expansion, backed up by genocidal military campaigns to help clear land for settlement.

This process of settlement also produced massive flows of refugees throughout the Americas, such as the Cherokee and hundreds of other nations -- millions of people altogether -- forced at gunpoint to leave their ancestral lands and try to survive somewhere else. Usually somewhere with rocky soil that the whites didn't want to bother with.

If you're familiar with the history I have laid out here so far, it's very likely that you're unfamiliar with what I'm about to tell you.

Before the Americas became the primary method for the European ruling classes to give rebellious peasants the "flight" option (within the "fight or flight" equation), European refugees went south and east instead of across the Atlantic. That is, throughout what in Europe they called the Dark Ages, starving European peasants fled in their thousands every year to live in relative safety and prosperity in lands ruled by the Ottoman Empire.

That is, European Christians fled Europe in order to live under Muslim rule in the Middle East and North Africa. Every year, in their thousands. It was a one-way flow. Muslim farmers from Ottoman lands wouldn't think of moving to Europe. Such a move would likely result in them being killed for the crime of not being Christians. Also, while most of Europe was ruled by petty, xenophobic despots in the post-Roman period, the Middle East and North Africa, by contrast, was ruled by comparatively enlightened rulers. Things in the Ottoman lands were much more predictable, much more stable. You got taxed once a year, rather than whenever the local baron wanted to build a new castle or make war on his neighbor. And you could freely practice any religion and speak any language without fear of persecution.

By far the most dramatic chapter in the history of refugees on our planet took place in 1492, when the new rulers of Spain, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, declared in their Edict of Alhambra that all of Spain's approximately 800,000 Jews (the Sephardim) had three months to leave Spain before they would be killed.

Thousands of Sephardic Jews died in various attempts to get out of Spain, "aided" by Spanish sailors who generally took them out to sea, only to cut them open and dump them overboard once they got far enough from land. (There were rumors that the Jews were eating gold and diamonds, so the Spanish sailors had to verify whether or not this was true, rather than saving their lives.)

However, the vast majority of the Sephardim survived the Alhambra Edict -- by being rescued by the Ottoman fleet. That is, the Ottoman ruler, the Sultan, sent his navy to Spain in order to rescue Spanish Jews, and resettle them within Ottoman lands that had not recently been overrun by xenophobic religious bigots such as Spain's new rulers.

Contrary to what happened with the Jews who stayed in Europe -- such as those who went to Portugal or Russia, so many of whom were ultimately killed -- Jews in the Ottoman Empire lived in peace and prosperity for over a millenia. (If westerners know anything about Ottoman history, they usually know about the Armenian Genocide of 1915. Although this was an unspeakably awful chapter in the history of humanity -- the dying gasps of the Ottoman Empire in the midst of losing the First World War -- it is not representative of the thousand-year rule of the Ottomans.)

After the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, European and American powers could finally do what they had wanted to do for centuries -- divide up and rule the Middle East. You'll note that the European colonial powers had at this point taken over much of the world -- which was easier to do when you were coming with modern weaponry backed by a dynamic, ruthless economic system into a place that had so far suffered neither of these developments, such as North America or Australia. Attempting to colonize other parts of the world that were at a similar level of "development" proved far harder.

Prior to the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, colonial powers had made very significant inroads in terms of economic domination of places nominally under Ottoman rule, such as Egypt. The British and American colonists in Egypt, in fact, pioneered new ways of exploiting not only the living there, but the dead, as well, in their practice of using the cloth wrappings of the dead to make paper in the paper mills in Maine.

But to rule most of the former Ottoman lands, the colonial military campaigns that we know of as the First World War had to take place. With tens of millions killed, millions starved to death, and untold numbers homeless and destitute, European and North American powers were prepared to run things in the defeated lands, and they did.

Colonial rulers in the Middle East then did what they had already done in much of Asia and Africa. They drew borders, created new countries, with an aim to create countries and systems of governance that were inherently unstable politically. They did this by dividing tribal lands up into different countries (with half the tribe in one country and half in another), and by picking an ethnic or religious minority in each country that was a sufficiently small minority that it wouldn't be too threatening to the colonial power -- but would be sufficiently large that it was big enough to control the rest of the colony's population, if provided with enough weapons and ammunition.

In the new country of Iraq, the ruling class became elements of the Sunni minority. In Syria it was the Alawite minority. In Lebanon, the Maronite minority, and so on.

There were lots of ups and downs in the past century of US and European domination of the Arab world. One country in the region even managed to have a thriving, multi-party democracy for a while -- Iran -- until it was overthrown by the CIA in 1953. Because of this kind of behavior on the part of the CIA and the divide and conquer policies of the colonial and neocolonial powers, the region has largely been in a state of turmoil since the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

Western powers have worked hard to exploit divisions at every turn, fueling conflicts such as the Iran-Iraq War, the Lebanese Civil War, and the Syrian Civil War, and sending massive amounts of military and other forms of aid to the specifically Jewish-European colonial land grab known as the state of Israel.

These western policies have resulted in millions of Palestinian refugees -- mostly descendants of the 700,000 Palestinians driven out of their homes at gunpoint after Israel declared itself to be a Jewish state in 1948.

The US-UK occupation of Iraq created a refugee crisis in the region, both in terms of "Internally Displaced People" (refugees within their own country) as well as millions of Iraqi refugees flooding refugee camps, towns and cities throughout the region, particularly in Syria. This refugee crisis and the many strains on Syrian society caused by it also helped foment the Syrian Civil War, which has resulted in an even larger outflow of refugees. Since these refugees effectively can't seek refuge in neighboring countries because they are all already suffering from bona fide refugee crises themselves, many of them go instead to the traditionally unwelcoming, colder lands to the north and west -- Europe.

Internal European conflicts have resulted in massive numbers of European refugees who sought refuge elsewhere in Europe. There have been some nice success stories with such movements of refugees, such as 1943, when thousands of Danish Jews were transported by other Danes to Sweden, where they were given asylum. (This story is in stark contrast to the lesser-known episodes of German civilians fleeing the aerial bombardment of their country, who were starved and refused medical aid in places where they fled to, such as Denmark.)

For most of the past thousand years, though, Europe has generally been an intolerant place for anyone different from whatever the norm was considered to be at the time. Catholic and Protestant despots had a longstanding tendency to kill people who were perceived to be different. While the Ottoman world was made up of relatively thriving, multicultural societies, Europe was a place where you were far more likely to starve, and far, far more likely to be killed in a crusade, a pogrom, or, later, in a gas chamber.

The gas chambers of Nazi Germany were in a way a logical conclusion to the long tradition of European xenophobia, bigotry and intolerance. They certainly were not an exception to the rule of the crusaders, inquisitors, and mass murderers that you can see memorialized with statues throughout European lands.

But now, if you ask most people in Europe or North America, you'll probably find that people think of religious intolerance as being a mostly Muslim phenomenon. Today, westerners know much more about the jihadi groups such as Al-Qaeda and Islamic State than they do about the much longer and even deadlier (though otherwise very similar) European tradition of crusades and inquisitions.

For most people in what we call "the west," history has essentially been turned on its head. For centuries, millions upon millions of Europeans fled Europe. Many of them went to the very Muslim lands where the predominantly, historically Muslim refugees today are leaving.

While it is beautiful to see the solidarity with Syrian and other refugees to be found in abundance on the streets of modern-day Germany, Sweden and elsewhere, it is also a fact that the xenophobes throughout Europe and the US are playing a massive role as well -- such as the neofascist president of Hungary today, the ascendant neofascist parties such as Le Pen in France or the Swedish Democrats in Sweden, and the governors of 27 states in the US who are refusing to take Syrian refugees. And the federal government in the US, which is only prepared to take in a tiny fraction of them in the first place.

It is also beautiful to see governments like those in Germany and Sweden standing by international law, standing by their commitment to take in refugees. (The Syrians of course all qualify as refugees according to the stricter UN definition.) But of the 28 countries in the European Union, that leaves 26 others who are breaking their own laws by refusing to take meaningful numbers of legitimate refugees, leaving Germany and Sweden virtually alone in Europe to shoulder this responsibility.

And there is no country in the world that seems even to be considering doing what the Ottoman Sultan did over 500 years ago. That is, not just giving safe haven to those fleeing war and persecution, but actually sending their navy to the war zone and rescuing them. If there were a single ruler in the west who was capable of behaving as ethically as the Ottoman Sultan did half a millenia ago, the world would be a much better place.

[This article first appeared at David Rovics' Songwriter's Notebook.]

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