‘ All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood,’ declares Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Today, in the early 21st century, we live in a world in which that principle is being routinely violated in the most savage and inhuman fashion by the global response of governments to the new challenges of contemporary migration.
In Europe and the United States, democratic governments that claim to represent the noblest political principles have contrived to create a situation in which men, women and children who seek to cross their borders ‘without permission’ run the risk of rape, sexual exploitation, death and injury. In Europe, there have been cases in which migrants have been abandoned at sea by passing ships and boats and died as a result.
Even by these grim standards, the awful tragedy of the Rohingya/ Bengali ‘boatpeople’ is a new low. The lamentable response of the ASEAN countries to the Rohingya exodus is the first time in which national governments have overtly refused entry to people who are already starving and abandoned them at sea even though they run the risk of dying.
The governments that have done this use the same kind of language that European politicians use. The Malaysian Deputy Home Minister Wan Junaidi Jafaar insists that ‘We have been very nice to the people who broke into our border. We have treated them humanely, but they cannot be flooding our shores like this.’
Thai generals warn that the Rohingya will ‘steal Thai jobs.’ Thailand’s Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha says his country can’t afford to host the refugees, and warns that ‘If we take them all in, then anyone who wants to come will come freely. Where will the budget come from?’ Asked where they should go, Chan-ocha offered no suggestions, saying: ‘No one wants them.’
The Rohingya crisis is primarily a crisis that affects South East Asia, but it’s also symptomatic of the wider moral failure of the ‘international community’ in its response to 21st century migration, and a disturbing expression of political forces that are likely to render the notion of international brotherhood and the ‘international community’ effectively bankrupt unless they can be reversed.
One of the fundamental tenets of the notion of human rights as a global ideal is the right to leave your own country and cross the borders of another in order to escape from war or persecution. It’s a right enshrined in various treaties and conventions that were drafted in the aftermath of World War II, such as Article 14 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states that ‘ Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution’.
This right was then a relatively recent innovation that emerged from the political calamities of the first half of the twentieth century. Faced with unprecedented refugee crises generated by World War I, the Russian Revolution and the Third Reich, European governments began to develop the notion of a refugee as a political anomaly in twentieth century politics – a stateless and therefore rightless category of humanity that still exercised some kind of moral obligation over national governments and the nascent ‘international community’ because of the circumstances that obliged to them to leave their own countries.
Whereas ‘economic’ migrants were depicted as contemptible and possibly criminal intruders who crossed state borders without permission in order to ‘steal’ jobs or gain access to national resources that did not belong to them, refugees had a moral case that at least in theory, had precedence over the generally-accepted principle of the rights of states to decide who crossed their borders. This recognition was a significant step towards the creation of a global human rights ‘architecture’, but even when it was being developed it was always more conditional and contingent than it seemed.
Russian refugees from the Soviet Union generally found a far more hospitable welcome than Jews fleeing Nazi persecution, for example. During the 1930s, states across the world introduced very low quotas on the numbers of Jews they were prepared to accept, on the not unfamiliar grounds that there were ‘too many’ Jewish refugees, that they would take away ‘national’ jobs or become a source of racial conflict and facilitating the growth of anti-semitism.
Governments that accepted the moral obligation of protection in principle essentially ignored it in practice, and prioritised the rights of the state to control its borders according to criteria that they decided upon themselves. Few people have written more powerfully and compelling about this tension between universal human rights and state rights than the German-Jewish political scientist Hannah Arendt, herself a refugee. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt argued that:
‘The conception of human rights, based upon the assumed existence of a human being as such, broke down the very moment when those who professed to believe in it were for the first time confronted with people who had indeed lost all other qualities and specific relationships—except that they were still human.’
For Arendt, stateless people were ‘the most symptomatic group in contemporary politics’ because, in a world in which ‘rights’ were essentially dependent on membership of a particular state, refugees who lost their national citizenship had lost ‘even the right to have rights.’
Since 1982, when the Burmese government refused to accept that the Rohingya were Burmese citizens, the Rohingya have had no rights to lose, but only persecution to escape from. Few people – except the rulers of Myanmar – would deny that most of the Rohingya fit the famous definition of a refugee in Article 1 of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, as a person who has fled his or her country ‘owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.’
According to one researcher who has spent months in the Rohingya home state of Rakhine:
‘The Rohingya are faced with two options: stay and face annihilation, or flee. If we understand genocide to be a process, that is what this is. Those who remain suffer destitution, malnutrition and starvation; severe physical and mental illness; restrictions on movement, education, marriage, childbirth, livelihood, land ownership; and the ever-present threat of violence and corruption.’
The governments that are refusing entry to the Rohingya are perfectly aware of this situation, but they have chose to uphold the ‘universal’ rights of the state to permit or deny entry over the equally ‘universal’ moral obligation to provide safe haven to persecuted people. In doing so, they are not that different from the European governments which claim to uphold the principle of refugee protection while doing everything they can to evade its responsibilities in practice, and which until recently, regarded search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean as a ‘pull factor’ in generating migration.
But the ASEAN governments are now poised to go one step further, and become passive accomplices in a process in which the genocide of the Rohingya is becoming the most likely option. For the Myanmar government all this works out very well. In the 1930s the Soviet and Nazi governments stripped their unwanted peoples of citizenship and forced them to become stateless in a world in which stateless people were always more at risk than those with borders and passports.
Myanmar is behaving in a very similar fashion. In stripping the Rohingya of their national rights and driving them into a heartless world that doesn’t want to receive them, it has transformed its unwanted ‘surplus people’ into a problem for someone else to solve, and the fact that no one seems able to solve it is likely to have dire consequences not just for the Rohingya.
For all the worthy attempts to construct a new moral order in the aftermath of World War II, the increasingly pitiless, callous and selfish response of so many governments to the crises of the new century threatens to produce a similar outcome. The result is a seemingly endless catalogue of horrors such as the one that is now unfolding in the Andaman Sea, in which something like genocide can be carried out in plain sight, and no governments seems willing to lift a finger to stop it.
‘The comity of European peoples went to pieces, when, and because, it allowed its weakest member to be excluded and persecuted,’ wrote Arendt in her 1943 essay We Refugees.
ASEAN, and the ‘international community’ face a similar moral disintegration if they allow people to die because they had the temerity to seek refuge from persecution. It’s up to all of us who think differently to oppose this barbaric drift, and embrace and uphold the human while we still have the chance to.