Reluctance to welcome new refugees can emanate from the least expected quarters

In Britain, tens of thousands of Arab and non-Arab immigrants voted in favour of Brexit because they felt tired of immigrants coming from their own countries of origin or from Europe.
Sunday 02/09/2018
Passports to nowhere. A Lebanese security officer stands as a Syrian bus driver carries the passports and departure cards of Syrian passengers who arrived at Lebanon’s northern Tripoli port. (Reuters)
Passports to nowhere. A Lebanese security officer stands as a Syrian bus driver carries the passports and departure cards of Syrian passengers who arrived at Lebanon’s northern Tripoli port. (Reuters)

A significant proportion of people around the world tend to display hostile attitudes towards refugees. This usually happens when individuals and parts of populations perceive refugees, especially when they come in large numbers and within a short period of time, as social, economic and security threats.

With the terms “refugees,” “displaced people” and “immigrants,” confusion is rife in the minds of many people, aided by images of different attire and unfamiliar customs. The refugee question becomes fertile ground for misunderstanding and animosity.

What is quite surprising however and even rather difficult to understand is why former refugees or immigrants become hostile to other refugees or immigrants. It is an intriguing phenomenon indeed.

Take, for example, the position of the Free Patriotic Movement in Lebanon. Its spiritual father, Michel Aoun, had been himself a refugee in France for 15 years. He was forced to leave Lebanon when the Syrian regime waged a war against him during the peak of Syria’s domination of Lebanon. Strangely enough, Aoun and his son-in-law, Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, feel today that they are close to that same regime.

In Lebanon today, we hear a constant stream of calls to deport Syrian refugees. It is true that in a country such as Lebanon where there is a heightened sensitivity to the relative distribution and balance between the various ethnic and confessional communities, the increasing number of Syrian refugees is a cause for concern.

But what is striking in the refugee debate in Lebanon is the absence of the human dimension and empathy particularly from individuals or groups who had themselves lived the experience of being forcibly displaced.

Another example besides that of Lebanon is South Korea. This rich and developed country is detaining 561 Yemeni refugees on an island. By all standards, this many refugees do not in any way or sense represent a threat of any kind.

In the land of Samsung, a company that aims at placing a smartphone in every hand in the world, hundreds of thousands of Koreans have signed petitions demanding the expulsion of these refugees. It is incredible that 52 million South Koreans would feel in danger of being squeezed out of their land by 500 Yemeni refugees.

Korean President Moon Jae-in is keeping a befuddling silence towards these calls. He is a respected president and a composed politician, but he has remained mum in the face of the anti-refugee tide in a country that was never known for its open-arms policies towards newcomers anyway.

Millions of South Koreans have forgotten that they were refugees and displaced across both sides of the border during and after the Korean War. The president himself is the son of a refugee from the north who was rescued by an American warship along with 14,000 other displaced persons and was embraced by a resettlement programme.

Moon Jae-in’s father died years later with the sadness of not being able to return to his homeland. Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon has called for compassion and admonished his countrymen by saying: “We, too, were once refugees.” A good reminder.

In the Lebanese and South Korean examples, government considerations and politics might have played a bigger role than just plain social trends. But negative reactions of well-settled former immigrants and refugees in countries with deep traditions of openness are difficult to fathom. In Britain for example, tens of thousands of Arab and non-Arab immigrants voted in favour of Brexit because they felt tired of immigrants coming from their own countries of origin or from Europe.

It is amazing how quickly we can forget what we once were. By identifying with the host society and not with the would-be migrants, even those who were “once refugees” are seeking confirmation they are fully integrated.

In times of economic difficulty or perceived economic difficulty, reluctance to welcome new refugees can emanate from the least expected quarters, including segments of the population composed of recent migrants. Conservative reflexes settle in when former refugees feel settled themselves.

 

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