Russian-Israelis: identity and trauma

Israel was formed by immigration, and Jews from Eastern Europe were an important part of the Jewish immigration to Palestine ever since the days of the First Aliyah of 1882. Many Russian-speaking Jews arrived in Palestine fleeing the pogroms in Tsarist Russia and would form the backbone of Ha-Yishuv (the settlement). After the Russian Revolution, the Soviet Union’s tightening border controls meant that few if any Soviets were allowed to leave the country, generating a sharp disconnect between the Soviet Jews and their Jewish brethren abroad. After almost half a century of suspended Jewish migration, many Soviet-Jews arrived in Israel in the 1970s and even more in the 1990s, in the periods of Soviet openness towards Jewish emigration. These were much larger waves of immigration, and they had a significant impact on Israel – the Jews were also deeply altered by half a century of socialism. Today, Russian-speaking Jews are an important part of Israel’s demographic, and key right-wing voters in Israel’s politics. 

A migrant’s culture could be defined as a compromise between his origin society’s values and the ones of his host society. Israel’s immigration story is closely linked to Israel’s Law of Return, that stipulated that any Jew has the right to come to Israel. The law reflects a vision of Israel as a safe haven for all the Jews in the world and is one of the cornerstones of modern Israel’s identity. Many have claimed the law promotes a proactive and effective integration policy towards new migrants, who are immediately given Israeli citizenship and allowed to vote.

Israel is a very diverse society, and the simplified distinction between the Jews and the Palestinians often does not account for the complexities of the cultural landscape on the ground. Even when looking at Israel’s Jews, the standard separation between the Ashkenazim (European Jews) and Sephardim or Mizrachim (Middle Eastern Jews) is often insufficient to understand the different origins of modern Israelis.

Ashkenazim in Israel are composed of European and American Jews, but also Jews from the Soviet bloc. The cultural and social divergences between Western and Soviet Jews reflect the Cold War divisions of Europe. In the Soviet Union, emigration was strictly prohibited, and only a few openings were available to Jews who wanted to emigrate. In this closed country, Soviet Jews developed a distinct mindset and integrated into Soviet society against the backdrop of rabid antisemitism, often preserving their sense of Jewish identity in a concealed and heavily secularised form.

Periods of brief Soviet openings toward Jewish emigration led to waves of Russian Jews immigrating to Israel in the 1970s (150,000) and especially in the years 1989 to 1991 (400,000). Another 300,000 to 400,000 arrived during the 1990s. The immigrants on average had a higher level of education than most of the native Israeli population, which was partly because education was one of the only tools of social mobility available to Soviet Jews. Russian-speaking Jews were also overwhelmingly urban and had smaller families on average. While in many ways they have integrated into Israeli society, some have perceived that their Jewishness, which they preserved despite widespread anti-Semitism in their societies of origin, was suddenly under question from the Israeli society itself. The religious establishment in Israel is strongly connected to the state – the Rabbinate’s authority extends to determining someone’s Jewishness on the basis of their mothers’ religious persuasions, according to the halakha law that stipulates that Jewishness is passed on by the mother.

Many Jewish immigrants from socialist and former-socialist countries defined their Jewishness differently, in ethnic and cultural terms, reflecting the way in which socialist states classified someone as a Jew. Several of the new immigrants were sons and daughters of Jewish fathers, and having experienced anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union, they perceived themselves to be no less Jewish than those born to a Jewish mother. Yet Israel’s society limits the rights of patrilineal Jews, who are for example unable to have an official marriage unless they ‘correct’ themselves by subscribing to a full-blown conversion. This includes extensive and sometimes humiliating monitoring by the religious establishment to ensure regular religious activity from the new converts. Adding to this, Russian Jews sometimes brought to Israel spouses or family members who were not Jews, creating a situation where the authenticity of the Russian-speaking immigrants’ Jewishness was increasingly questioned by the Israeli society.

While the Russian Jewish immigration wave of the 90s has significantly contributed to Israel’s economic development, some problems were also apparent. The sheer size of the wave made it hard for Russian Israelis to fully meld into the native society, leading to unfavourable comparisons with the smaller wave of Soviet Jews from the 70s. Those were portrayed as ‘model immigrants’ who, unlike their rowdy counterparts from the 90s, were said to have integrated into Israeli society without much trouble.

There were issues of language, culture, beliefs and economic status. In terms of integration, the Russian-speaking immigration wave was also arguably the only one in Israel’s history to openly preserve the language and culture of their society of origin. Larissa Remennick, a sociology professor, wrote that in the case of Soviet Jews ‘their deities were Pushkin, Chekhov, Pasternak and Bulgakov’, and that the immigrants retained a visceral connection to Russian culture. Russian-language news outlets are still incredibly popular. In a clash of cultures, Russian grocery stores even sometimes sell pork, a deep gastronomic taboo in Judaism and consequently in Israeli society, and an important staple of Slavic and Soviet cuisine. Russian-speaking Jews are mostly secular, with only around 30% reporting religious beliefs. They tend to associate secularism with modernity and use their voting power in favour of a more secular Israel. The immigrants of the 90s often reported high levels of distrust towards politics, with some also noting their disappointment at the economic prospects in their new homeland. In many cases, and despite the harsh Soviet quotas on Jewish students in universities, Soviet Jews were overrepresented in the Soviet intelligentsia, and were expecting to find in Israel comfortable working conditions that matched their professional skills.

Waves of Soviet immigrants have often sparked the ire of the religious establishment which doubted the new arrivals’ Jewishness and worried about the dilution of religiousness in Israel. Undoubtedly, the Rabbinate also feared a loss of political control, which was expected to be precipitated by the arrival of secular migrants. The suspicions have never quite gone away: in 2020, Israel’s chief rabbi called the immigrants from the former Soviet Union ‘religion-hating gentiles’ drawing condemnations from across Israel’s political spectrum. His remarks did however resonate with a portion of Israelis that view the Russian-speaking immigrants with distrust.

Some observers have noted that the Russian-speaking community tends to be attracted to strong leader figures and has embraced Israel’s right-wing parties. There are many reasons for the Russian-speakers’ alliance with Israel’s right.

Some have argued that the Russian Jews’ often hawkish stance on Palestinian issues reflects their perception of Israel as an ethnocentric state. This echoes back to their own experiences in the Soviet Union, where Jews were systematically stigmatised, and markers of Jewish identity had to be concealed and suppressed. In the view of some Russian Jews, Israel was finally a place where Jews had the majority status. Therefore, judging from their Soviet experience, they expected their Jewish status to reflect all the privileges that such a position should entail. Some Russian Jews also associated the Arabs with the upsurge of Soviet anti-Semitism. While obviously not taking part in the Arab-Israel conflicts, Soviet Jews became indirect victims of those conflicts within the USSR, where Israel’s victories caused a steady rise of Soviet anti-Semitism, starting with the Six Day War and continuing throughout the 70s.

Russian Jews also have much more uncompromising stances on Israel’s security. This might be due to the fact that after their immigration to Israel, many have ended up in border towns or settlements, on the frontlines of a conflict they barely understood. The FSU (former Soviet Union) immigrants also figured disproportionately among Palestinian terror victims due to their proximity to the conflict areas. Many sociological studies, for example those by the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism at the Hague attest to the radicalizing effects that manifestations of violence have on immigrants in their adoptive homelands. Their outrage was also amplified by the Russian-language media, which often focused on themes of unjust martyrdom of long-suffering Russian Jews at the hands of Arab terrorists, especially during the Intifadas [Palestinian uprisings against Israel’s control]. Yelenevskaya quotes an article piece:

Once, at the very beginning of Intifada, an old woman, a colonel of the Red Army and a war veteran, was in a car driving along a road in Samaria. The car was shot by terrorists. She had survived the war against the Nazis but was killed by those who continue on their road. Only here in Israel the veterans find themselves on the frontline again. And so do their grandchildren.

She notes that Soviet Jews often viewed Israel’s politicians and Israel’s society as much too lax and were sceptical about the possibilities of a compromise with the Arabs. They also decried an overall lack of order along with what they perceived to be the chronic insecurities of their communities in the face of terrorism, poverty, high housing prices and the two Intifadas. When sometimes a sense of patronising superiority over local Jews emerged, it could be explained by the pervasive socialist-era propaganda of the Soviet man’s superiority, and of the Soviet civilisation as an epitome of Utopian thinking. Aside from this type of thinking, they often carried with them emotional baggage from their home country, which some sociologists eventually qualified as a form of psychological trauma due to the collapse of an entire system of beliefs and meanings with the fall of the USSR. Many Soviet Jews were ambiguous in their relationship to the USSR, both resenting a country that stigmatised and persecuted them as Jews, while often expressing a profound nostalgia for an idealised country of their youth.

Others, such as Larissa Remmenick, have sought to highlight the Russian Jews’ insecurities about their identity, which were reflected by the Russian-speaking immigrants ‘constant need for adjustment and mimicry’. It could be suggested that many Russian Jews opted to imitate and ‘outdo’ the locals by doubling down on radical views such as Israeli nationalism and Jewish ethnocentrism. Many Russian speakers’ rejection of the establishment as too lax and moderate eventually led to them voting for the right-wing parties.

Soviet Jewish votes led to the rise of parties catering to Soviet Jewish interests, starting with Yisrael BaAliyah [Israel on the rise]. The party’s gradual drift to the right of the political spectrum reflected that of the majority of Russian Jews. Eventually came the rise of another party, Yisrael Beitenu [Israel, our home], which sought to capitalise on right-wing secular nationalist votes, predominantly from the Russian community. The party was formed by a group of statesmen led by Avigdor Lieberman, who left the government coalition to protest against Benjamin Netanyahu’s negotiations with the Palestinian Authority.

Today, competition over Soviet Jewish votes is prevalent in Israeli politics and has gotten more spotlight during the repeated election runs of 2019, when Netanyahu’s Likud party tried to peel Russian-speaking votes from Avigor Lieberman’s secular nationalist Israel Beitenu. Streets in Russian-Jewish neighbourhoods often featured signs in Cyrillic proclaiming ‘Only Netanyahu – only Likud’. Some Russian Jews were finally promised pensions which were previously repeatedly denied to them. Election posters featured pictures of Netanyahu holding the hand of president Putin. Many Russian-speaking Jews in Israel originate from Ukraine – and Netanyahu also made a prompt state visit to the country, and its first Jewish president, Volodymyr Zelensky. It can be argued that Likud’s attempts to draw in Russian Jewish votes were not very successful: fundamental distrust towards the religious parties in coalition with Netanyahu’s government prevented many Russian Jews from voting for Likud.

Change is on the horizon. The younger Russian Jewish electorate is more integrated, speaks much better Hebrew, is more moderate, and is slowly shedding some ambiguous aspects of their complicated identity, identifying more strongly with Israel than with an idealised country of their parents’ memories. They retain a strong connection to the Russian language and culture but are often more comfortable with a hybrid or predominantly Israeli identity fusing both Jewish and Russian cultural symbols and practices. They often remain relatively antagonistic towards the Rabbinate’s authority but are less likely to vote for the Russian-speaker parties such as Yisrael Beitenu, instead opting for a wider spectrum of parties reflecting individual preferences and beliefs. Russian speakers will continue to play an influential role in Israel’s politics, and it remains interesting to see how their demographic evolution will affect the Russian Jews’ political affiliation. Perhaps the new Russian Jewish generation will not carry in them their parents’ Soviet traumas and insecurities, will finally be able to lay the questions of identity aside and be full members of Israeli society. But some change in Israeli society’s capacity to accommodate them will also be needed: perhaps a concession on behalf of the uncompromising religious establishment. As of today, there are reasons to remain pessimistic about such prospects.

 

Of Boris and of Banning the Burkas

The following represents the personal view of the NCF Secretary General and does not necessarily represent an NCF position:

There are two issues here. One is that the full face covering is a Mediaeval practice and one that is abusive in so much as it enshrines the doctrine of male dominance over the female. In a sense it degrades women.

It may be right to speak out against this practice.

However, even the birds of the air have need of nests. And whatever the rights and wrongs of that great cultural leveler, migration, one thing is certain, we are responsible for welcoming the migrant that arrives at these shores in a way which does not foster prejudice and hatred. Britain’s former Foreign Secretary’s remarks were calculated. They were written by Boris Johnson in a newspaper editorial. They are abusive of women in themselves, comparing those who practice full face veiling to pillar boxes with slits. Furthermore his manner provokes those already inflamed with Islamophobia (often exacerbated by but not because of the recent terror attacks) into further hatred. The former Foreign Secretary behaved as a racist. The sentiment behind his words, a concern about what the full face veil represents, may echo genuine concern for those women who choose, sometimes of their own volition, to do this to themselves. But he had no right to say that in that way. Not a man who may become our next Prime Minister.

Two wrongs do not make a right. Boris Johnson was therefore quite wrong. He should apologise. And if it was not his intention to foster religious hatred, he should apologise at least for the unwitting effect his remarks had.

Christ told us not to judge “Lest we be judged”. But there is an expectation that politicians in a position of leadership make considered judgements on our behalf. Boris’ remarks were unwise. Boris’ remarks can hardly have helped in these difficult times.

We should do better. But should we ban the burka and the headscarf like they do in France and Finland? Well maybe there is an argument for banning the hoody in young men and the burka in women because they are socially divisive and threatening. But not the headscarf. The French have gone overboard there. Women in the West have worn headscarves for generations as a fashion statement. And old fashioned European Catholics have always worn headscarves. The Muslim headscarf may be more concealing but is still just a cultural extension of the same thing and we should all find it in our hearts to accept it.

Treatment of migrants in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland

The Next Century Foundation submitted the following a written statement to the Human Rights Council in accordance with its special consultative status at the United Nations. Thirty-sixth session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. Agenda item 6. Universal Periodic Review of the UK:

“It is the humanitarian duty of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to offer migrants, who are often refugees from war-torn states, a fair chance to rebuild their lives. The Next Century Foundation notes the concerns expressed in the 2017 Universal Periodic Review. There are major shortcomings on the part of the British government.  Specifically:

  • The UK government is sometimes a poor listener, which can result in inefficient and ineffective dispersal of aid money. Increased communication with refugees, both in the camps to which they have been displaced in the first instance and subsequently in the UK, would inflate their esteem, morale and resolve. Most particularly with regard to those coming from war torn states, the international community in general and the UK in particular could empower local communities in the region to take control of their own destiny by giving them a voice in regard to the dispersal of international aid.
  • An effort should be made to recruit and employ teachers, doctors and nurses or others appropriately qualified who are themselves refugees within the camps wherever possible; and government aid funds should be diverted to this purpose in preference to bringing in Western teachers, doctors and nurses and others to perform these roles. This both lifts morale and provides economic support to key refugees.
  • Within the UK, there are initiatives such as Herts Welcomes Syrian Families, Refugee Action, and the Refugee Council, whose support of the Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme has positively affected thousands of migrants. However, the “temporary protection” which this programme permits is inadequate. Under this programme, migrants are offered the chance to study or work for a limited five year period only. We urge that this time period be extended or that they are offered fast track citizenship after five years.
  • Trained migrant professionals are often not permitted to work in the UK whilst seeking asylum. Asylum seekers should be permitted to work in the United Kingdom whilst seeking indefinite leave to remain, should they wish to do so. The asylum seekers allowance is only £36.95 a week, which is evidently very small, especially when compared to the job-seekers allowance of £73.10. It makes life incredibly tenuous and is utterly unfair, given that they are then unable to work legally and become a burden on the taxpayer. However, whilst it is extremely important that refugees and asylum seekers should have the opportunity to work in the UK, it is also important to bear in mind that safeguards need to be put in place to see that they are not exploited by employers and that they are paid a fair wage for the job that they are doing. This is of importance in preventing bad feeling and resentment on the part of indigenous workers (the “immigrants” should not be perceived as a threat to the jobs and terms/conditions of employment of UK citizens).
  • To be granted university places, all migrants whose status has yet to be determined must have lived half of their lives in the UK in order to apply as if they were native citizens. This denial of university education to the majority of young migrants whose status has yet to be determined prevents migrants from rebuilding their lives, and retaining their dignity.
  • The Lawyers’ Refugee Initiative advocates the use of humanitarian visas, or “humanitarian passports” – that is to say visas for the specific purpose of seeking asylum on arrival – issued in the country of departure or intended embarkation. We urge that this procedure be used extensively by the United Kingdom.
  • In order to speed up the processing of asylum applications and reduce legal costs and emotional strain for all involved, we recommend that the Home Office only appeal decisions in exceptional circumstances, and rarely if the case has been under consideration for more than five years. It should be a statutory duty that all appeals by the Home Office take place within one year and be grounded on strict criteria. The actual asylum application process should be based on criteria that are generous to genuine refugee claims with a mechanism for withdrawing status on conviction of a crime – and fast track citizenship after five years.

We should regard refugees, whatever their circumstance, with compassion and mercy. Compassion and Mercy are moral virtues which elevate humanity and therefore our obligation to refugees transcends any obligation we may have to accept economic migrants and / or the free movement of labour and should not be confused with any such obligation – and the UK is not yet doing enough”.

Note: The Next Century Foundation acknowledges the help of Initiatives of Change, an organisation that co-hosted the migration conference that contributed to the preparation of this submission.

Banksy - "There is always Hope"

Veritas Omnia Vincit

On 13 September 2017, Italy’s ambassador Giampaolo Cantini was sent back to the Egyptian capital after more than one year of soured relations between the two countries over the death of the Italian PhD Cambridge student, Giulio Regeni, in Cairo in January 2016. The 28-year-old student was tortured and killed in Egypt, allegedly by the Egyptian security services who, since the very outset of the affair, have denied any involvement.

The issue quickly triggered an open diplomatic crisis between Egypt and Italy due to al-Sīsī’s government’s repeated avoidance of their responsibility to investigate the murder in the face of hard evidence implying that the Egyptian security services were culpable. For more than one year, faced with the hardline stance taken by the Italian government as they strove to obtain the names of those responsible and the reason for this abhorrent act, the Egyptian authorities have been trying to cover up the truth, forging documents and misleading Italian magistrates with false trails. This misdirection is the umpteenth deplorable act of a state whose crackdown on human rights is going down in history as one of the worst in years. And while everything seemed to suggest the diplomatic deadlock was unlikely to break, out of the blue the Italian ambassador was sent back to Cairo and the crisis magically resolved, as if it had never happened.

No change of strategy, official apology or acknowledgment of guilt was issued by the Egyptian authorities. Likewise, no clear explanation was provided by the Italian government on the matter. So, what led the Italian government to take the incongruous decision to give up its legitimate right to pursue the truth about the brutal death of one of its citizens in a foreign land? Interestingly, the solution to this conundrum may not lie too far away. And with a subtle combination of imagination and cynicism, we might be able to find it.

If the world ran according to a Machiavellian conception of politics, then one might think that everything happens for a reason and nothing in politics is left to chance. Accordingly, one might think for instance that the investigation into the death of Giulio was sidelined in exchange for a halt of the migration flow from Libya to Italy, given the strong friendship that binds Al-Sīsī to Haftar, the Libyan strongman in control of the eastern part of the country. Indeed, the bizarre coincidence of the sudden halt in migrant influxes to Italy on those same days when the Italian ambassador was sent back to Cairo, after years of unsuccessful attempts to curb them, might represent enough evidence to a more cynical mind. Or, equally, the complacency of the Italian government in not taking action when confronted with some “explosive evidence” on the case provided by the Obama administration could serve as a further clue in this respect.

Nobody will ever know what happened on those days for it is no longer the intention of the Italian government to unravel the truth. People will never know for sure why Giulio was killed, who tortured and assassinated him; neither will they know why the Italian government abruptly sent its ambassador back to Cairo, forever waiving the right to justice for one of its citizens, a son of Italy. The truth will be covered up, wiped out according in the Italian tradition of state secrets.

And now only sorrow is left. Sorrow of a girlfriend in losing the love of her life. Sorrow of a family in losing a son. Sorrow of a nation in losing its future and its honour. Yes, its honour. Honour because Giulio is not just a human viciously slaughtered on foreign soil. Giulio represents a vision, a feeling, an idea. The idea that unites men and women of different countries and different cultures; the idea that human rights violations in Egypt are real, raw and ruthless, and affect men and women whatever their nationality; the idea that Italy is a country whose leaders had no hesitation in selling the truth, trust and hope of its own citizens as well as its own dignity in exchange for some political or economic payoff; the idea that western democracies “fill their mouths” with nice words on human rights but that after all it is a mere façade, as they continue to aid and abet such crimes and violations where convenient.

There is a Latin saying whose power and meaning has always struck me. It expresses the universal principle of a vision, a feeling, an idea. The Truth. “Veritas Omnia Vincit”, truth conquers everything. And Giulio represents the Truth, for his death has shined a light on the lies, the falsehood, the cruelty and the wickedness of a global system that brings together democracies and dictatorships, thus rendering them accomplices. It does not matter that the official version will never admit the existence of any deal, agreement or negotiation between Italy and Egypt in exchange for silence on the death of Giulio. For the conspicuous silence on the part of Italian government speaks louder than any official statement.

And hence, Veritas Omnia Vincit: we will know when a state betrays its own citizens, its own values and future for its own gain;

Veritas Omnia Vincit, when public outcry spreads across the world after Giulio’s death, against al-Sīsī’s authoritarian rule, thus uniting men and women who, just like Giulio’s family, have lost their loved ones.

And again, Veritas Omnia Vincit, when the mask of this self-proclaimed democracy is removed revealing the true face of power.

I recently visited a Banksy exhibition at the Moco museum in Amsterdam. I was taken aback by how the author emphasised the existence of a thread that connects sorrow to hope and love. In suffering and grief people can gather and unite, taking solace from the shared experience of finding justice, truth or stillness. Such feelings bring them hope. And being able to connect and to hope means being able to love. This is what is happening in Egypt, Italy and elsewhere in the world at the moment. The sorrow caused by the circumstances of Giulio’s death has spread across the globe, uniting people in hope for justice, for “truth” and for a better world.

“Only in the darkness can you see the stars”, (Martin Luther King Jr).

Giulio is your son, your brother, your cousin; Giulio is your colleague, your neighbour, your friend; Giulio is a vision, a feeling, an idea.

Giulio is hope, love and truth, and he has already won.

Veritas Omnia Vincit.

Ciao Giulio

#veritàpergiulioregeni

Poland’s authoritarian turn?

The recent decision by Poland’s government to pass a law that weakens the judiciary’s independence raises concerns on the overall soundness of the Polish democratic system. The law by which the government acquires de facto control of the Supreme Court represents a heavy blow dealt to one of the fundamental principles of the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary.

Such a decision is a cause for great concern as it represents the pinnacle of a more general trend of recent reforms that are dismantling the democratic tissue of the Country. Since 2015, Law and Justice, also known as PiS – the ruling right-wing populist party in Poland – has been implementing policies and reforms aimed at limiting civil liberties, controlling media and dismantling some of the major checks and balances in place since the end of the Soviet era. While the European Union is closely looking into this delicate issue and threatening the activation of a sanctions mechanism, protests broke out all over the country in response to this illiberal conduct from the Polish government.

Such an immoral turn for Polish politics, however, was hardly unexpected. The PiS is an unorthodox populist party whose members are unpredictable mavericks with no sense of responsibility. Playing games with people’s rights is standard procedure for them. The most glaring example is the controversial immigration policy in force in the country since 2015. Hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing from Syria, Afghanistan or Iraq have been progressively denied asylum in Poland on a simple matter of religious belief. Poland indeed is one of those eastern European countries which has recently engaged in the contentious strategy of favouring Christian refugees as eligible for their resettlement scheme.

While a blade, a bullet or a bomb does not make any distinction between a Christian or a Muslim refugee making all men equal when faced with war or persecution, the enlightened leaders of Poland cynically reserve the right to decide on the fate of thousands of innocent lives on the grounds of their religious faith. Fairly odd for a country which suffered similar discrimination and illiberal laws not such a long time ago and whose social identity is proudly claimed to be based on Christian values. But as we all know, people have a bad memory and they learn very little from history. Do not be surprised if democratic countries such as Poland in 2017 still impose limits on civil liberties, still exert control over media or judiciary, still discriminate against people on grounds of religion. Sit down and make yourself comfortable, a new era of populism is about to start.

More Refugees than Ever Before?

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In a world where one in 200 children has the status of a refugee, it is of upmost importance to think of those who had no other choice than to move away from home. Today is International Refugee Day, a day that raises awareness about the issue among political leaders and civil society. Since the UN General Assembly decided in 2000 to make June 20 a day that would honour refugees around the world, members of society and heads of state have annually been reminded of the challenges that lie ahead. Thus, also today, nation-states must take into account the responsibility they face in terms of hosting and integrating refugees on their territory, while people like you and I must inform themselves of the challenges refugees face in their everyday life.

According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, 28,300 people a day are forced to flee their homes due to persecution and conflict, while the overall number of refugees on a global scale is as high as 22.5 million. Countries like Iran, Turkey, Pakistan and Lebanon, that are geographically close to war zones, are hosting a vast number of displaced families; and throughout the last few years the number has constantly increased. The war in Syria has led to a refugee crisis that forced many to cross borders and to settle down in neighbouring countries as well as striking out for  Europe. We currently face the highest levels of displaced people on record. The number of refugees has almost tripled in the last decade, while thousands have died in the Mediterranean Sea on their way to a better life.

Marine Le Pen is building her campaign on fear of difference, we must unite around our common humanity

Marine Le Pen, leader of the French National Front Party (Front National), has launched her campaign to be the next President of France and she has done so with unflinching ferocity. At her rally in Lyon on Sunday she stated that “what is at stake in this election is the continuity of France as a free nation, our existence as a people”. She is asking the French people to not only prepare for an election, but also for an ideological battle against an imminent existential threat.

So, what could possibly be heralding in the end of freedom and French identity? According to Le Pen, “Financial globalisation and Islamist globalisation” together “aim to bring France to its knees”. Le Pen’s rhetoric of fear has struck a chord in the hearts of many disillusioned and disenfranchised French citizens. Indeed, the Front National is as close as it has ever been to holding power.

But are we really entering a new era of populism, heralded by Brexit and the election of Donald Trump? In much the same way as cliff edges are known to instil a desire to jump, this political precipice might just have the same mesmerising effect, so let us step back, and explore the most constructive options available to us.

There is undoubtedly huge change happening in Europe. Unprecedented numbers of refugees have fled from insecurity and conflict to Europe and indeed concern about immigration is the most common reason given for supporting Le Pen. French citizens are being implored by Le Pen to stand strong and fight against demographic change, but is it not more fitting in our present context to accept that human beings have moved and will continue to move across borders? Perhaps having acknowledged this we will be better able to work towards facilitating a peaceful, sustainable and managed internationalism.

Populations and other groups will naturally reimagine themselves and try to consolidate their identity, especially in challenging times. However, this can be balanced out through emphasis on our common human story. This is not to deny the importance of national and religious heritages but instead to view them within a broader context that perhaps better facilitates unity and empathy. Calls for change cannot be condemned. Instead we must condemn those who promise to liberate one group at the explicit expense of another.

 

European Civilians are Being Punished for Providing Aid to Refugees

In September 2016 the Danish high court upheld a verdict, which criminalised humanitarian assistance to refugees. A children’s rights activist was among the three hundred other Danes who were found guilty of breaching Danish law, and subsequently prosecuted for human trafficking.

Shockingly, there is no evidence of human smuggling in any of the cases presented in court. There was no exchange of money, nor were they clandestine in nature.  Benevolent Danes merely picked up refugees after a train from Germany was stopped in the Danish border town of Rødby. At the time, the government was quiet with no proper policy position in place for refugee migration.  This lack of clarity led to extreme confusion, particularly amongst the Police Force about the legality of helping migrants along their journeys. People simply did not know that helping another human in distress was illegal.

These prosecutions have resulted in large fines and prison sentences of up to two years being given. They have successfully deterred many European civilians from providing help to migrants crossing the continent. European civilians are now faced with a dilemma; either abandon their moral compass and remain on the right side of the law or risk breaching the law but maintain universal humanitarian values that connect us all. This is a unique situation in which the law is at odds with decency, empathy and liberty, virtues upon which the European project is predicated.

Unfortunately, there is also large confusion on the definition of migrant smuggling. The United Nations define the act as exclusively motivated by “financial or other material benefit”. This is in sharp contrast to the Council of the European Union definition which broadly stipulates that anyone who assists migrants to “enter or transit across” a country is in breach of national law and can be prosecuted. Discussing and debating the legality of civilian refugee aid becomes much more difficult when many contradictions are present. Uncertainty will continue to rise amongst the public and further indecision will continue from all parties responsible for tackling the migration crisis.

Whilst we must be wary when comparing recent events with the biggest genocide of the 20th century, punishing European civilians for aiding the persecuted is reminiscent of the punitive policies of Nazi Germany. The intent of this comparison is not to trivialise the Holocaust, indeed drastic measures such as death penalty have not been implemented, and over one million asylum seekers have been welcomed in 2015 alone. But it serves as a continual reminder that punishing civilian goodwill and outlawing instinctive humanitarian qualities will only compound mass humanitarian crises.
refugees-walking

Photo credits to TT

People often talk about the dangers of progressive dehumanisation of refugees, but perhaps we ourselves are subtly undergoing a form of dehumanisation led by these faulty laws? Perhaps we are becoming increasingly desensitised to the refugee crisis? It is at moments like these, when we must remember that history is never repeated unintentionally.

Majed Tw 31/01/2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Response to Middle East migration

The following statement is signed by some of the participants in the conference on Migration, its Genesis and Causes hosted by Initiatives of Change and the Next Century Foundation during World Refugee Week 2016. We believe it represents a consensus view of participants:

Action to support Refugees in recently established camps in the Middle East

• An effort should be made to recruit and employ teachers, doctors and nurses or others appropriately qualified who are themselves refugees within the camps wherever possible, and government aid funds should be diverted to this purpose, in preference to bringing in Western teachers, doctors and nurses and others to perform these roles. This both lifts morale and provides economic support to key refugees.

• That greater emphasis be given to delivering education in refugee camps.

General Action by the international community to ameliorate the refugee crisis:

• That international governments consult local people regarding actions that affect their wellbeing before taking those actions. And that where possible, most particularly in war torn nations, the international community empower local communities to take control of their own destiny, e.g. by giving them a voice in regard to the dispersal of international aid.

• We support an expansion of the definition of refugee under international law to incorporate those displaced by environmental disasters, in particular those human-caused. Whilst the current definition of refugee encompasses the persecuted (as well as by de facto practice those displaced by war), a new legal framework is needed to also address the needs of communities affected by climate change where that climate change is life threatening as in cases of famine as a result of severe desertification or in cases of population displacement because of rising sea levels.

Recommendations specific to the United Kingdom

• That asylum seekers be permitted to work in the United Kingdom whilst seeking asylum, should they wish to do so.

• That the concept of “temporary protection” including permission to work and / or study in the United Kingdom for a limited period be further extended beyond the current Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme.

• That the concept of “humanitarian passports” and of registration for asylum within the region be developed further. The Lawyers’ Refugee Initiative advocates the extensive use of humanitarian visas – that is to say visas for the specific purpose of seeking asylum on arrival – issued in the country of departure or intended embarkation.

• In order to speed up the processing of asylum applications and reduce legal costs and emotional strain for all involved, we recommend that the Home Office only appeal decisions in exceptional circumstances, and rarely if the case has been under consideration for more than five years. It should perhaps be a statutory duty that all Home Office appeals must take place within one year and be grounded on strict criteria. The actual asylum application process should have inspectors who ensure that decisions are made on independent criteria that are generous to genuine refugee claims with a mechanism for withdrawing status for five years on conviction of a crime or proven false information – and fast track citizenship after five years.

Recommendations to the international community of relevance to specific nations in the Arab World

• IRAQ: That a special task force be appointed to provide aid and support to IDPs (internally displaced persons) in and from Ninevah, Anbar and Salah ad Din Provinces so that the community in Northern and Western Iraq feel a sense of hope and encouragement.

• LIBYA: The return of the Ambassadors of the United Kingdom, Italy and France to Libya to support the new internationally recognised government of Libya.
That the international community agree to the request from the new internationally recognised government of Libya for help with land mine clearance – or at the very least technical support and training for land mine clearance.

• SYRIA: That a ‘track two’ conference be convened which participants would attend without precondition and that would welcome members of the government, key international players and those from any faction of the opposition.
Action to reduce levels of extremism:
• That the communities in refugee receiving countries be encouraged by faith leaders to welcome to their homes people new to the area of other faiths or cultures with no agenda other than that of befriending them and offering a listening ear. The West needs to rediscover the dynamic of its own rich spiritual tradition. At best this has been the engine of social advance, just governance and effective peacemaking for our countries. Too often as a civilisation we project an image of material self-seeking, and miss the active comradeship we could enjoy with believers from other traditions.

• All nations of the world face a moral and spiritual challenge. This problem is not unique to the Arab World. The vast majority of Muslims do not follow extreme ideologies. That said a disaffected minority have adopted the apocalyptic ideology promoted by ISIS. Alternative expressions of faith exist that engender a sense of belonging. One such ideology is that known in the Middle East as al-tasalluh al-akhlaqi or الأخلاقي التسلح, based on the same principles as Initiatives of Change – absolute love, honesty, unselfishness, and purity and the practice of listening for God’s guidance. “Sufi” doctrines of this kind should be considered in the search for ideological responses to violent extremism. As an example of this alternative approach see https://www.facebook.com/khawatirmovement/

We also commend the international community to regard refugees, whatever their circumstance, with compassion and mercy. It is our duty to our fellow men and women to treat those in distress with compassion. Compassion is love in action. Although we are not legally obliged to accept refugees, we do have a moral duty to significantly help ameliorate their situation so that they can take temporary refuge in countries neighbouring their own. That duty is a duty to humanity that transcends any obligation we may have to accept economic migrants and / or the free movement of labour and should not be confused with any such obligation – and we are not yet doing enough.
Endorsed and signed by the following members and friends of
Initiatives of Change and
The Next Century Foundation

Amit Mukherjee, Initiatives of Change India
Chris Evans, Initiatives of Change UK
Dan Parry, Filmmaker
Dr Peter Shambrook, Historian
George Butler, War artist
Jaafar El-Ahmar, senior journalist
John Bond, Initiatives of Change UK
Professor Dawn Chatty, The Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford
Reverend Larry Wright, The Religious Affairs Advisory Council
Sabiha Malik, Founder, Sanghata Global
Siwar al Assad, The Aramea Foundation
Suleiman Fortia, Former Member of the National Transitional Council, Libya
The Lord Stone of Blackheath
William Morris, Secretary General, The Next Century Foundation