Living Like a Refugee

It is a story of the deserving and the undeserving. Or, that’s how many politicians across the globe want it portrayed. The refugee crisis in Europe — triggered by war, economic dysfunction and environmental degradation, and exacerbated by a virulent xenophobia — has the continent’s leaders at cross purposes. German President Angela Merkel has been calling for a humanitarian response, having opened her country’s borders to tens of thousands of refugees and asking Europe to follow the Germans’ lead and take in as many refugees as possible. Hungary on the other hand, is building a wall and has described the influx of men, women and children fleeing war and deprivation as a threat to the unique (i.e., Christian) character of Europe.

Language has been at the center of much of this debate, with even Germany’s commitment limited to resettling only those from war zones and “sending home people who have come from poor but safe countries,” as the New York Times reports.

The distinction here is between the legal definition of refugee and its practical application in a world divided into rich and poor. The United Nations, based on the 1951 Refugee Convention, defines a refugee as someone who flees his or her home “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion” and “is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”

It is a definition designed to protect people from war and political repression, but it is outdated and leaves far too many of the most vulnerable of us at the mercy of political, economic and environmental dysfunction.

That’s a central point made by Pope Francis in his address to the United Nations in September, when he decried “the phenomenon of social and economic exclusion, with its baneful consequences” and called on member nations — and the world — to recognize the linkages among the various assaults on humanity, whether they be the “misuse and destruction of the environment” that is “accompanied by a relentless process of exclusion,” extreme materialism, or war.

“Economic and social exclusion is a complete denial of human fraternity and a grave offense against human rights and the environment,” he said. “The poorest are those who suffer most from such offenses, for three serious reasons: they are cast off by society, forced to live off what is discarded and suffer unjustly from the abuse of the environment. They are part of today’s widespread and quietly growing ‘culture of waste.’”

And while those fleeing hot war zones may face the more immediate existential threat, these cast-offs live under a cloud of uncertainty and fear.

The pope’s comments echoed something the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said repeatedly, that these threats — militaristic, economic, racist — are linked, that poverty, violence and hate are endemic to our economic and political systems.

“I’m convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values,” King said in 1967 in a speech opposing the war in Vietnam. “We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, militarism and economic exploitation are incapable of being conquered.”

King doesn’t include environmental waste and destruction on his list of evils — this was before the birth of the modern environmental movement — but his critique of the system implies that the “triplets” will lead to destruction of our most needed resources and the further exploitation of humanity.

The point is this: Our actions have damaged the living conditions for tens of millions of people around the world, who are then forced to flee their homelands to find work, to feed their families, to escape polluted air and water, landslides and drought, war and political oppression. These so-called migrants are not leaving safe places because rich countries offer better jobs. They are fleeing dysfunctional political states and damaged geographies seeking subsistence, they are fleeing exploitation and economic violence, as well as war.

They are fleeing a situation that we, in the capitalist west, have helped create. The least we can do is recognize our complicity and try to help.

Hank Kalet is a poet and journalist in New Jersey. Email,; blog,; Twitter, @newspoet41 and @kaletjournalism; Facebook,

From The Progressive Populist, November 1, 2015

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