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On Refugees and Migrants

My parents entered Canada after their refugee claim was approved by the Canadian embassy in Paris -where they had also been granted political asylum following the events in Romania during December '89. When we (the kids) followed, a little over a year later, we got winter jackets and new bunk beds courtesy of the federal government. As a Romanian I'll always be grateful to Canada for the warm welcome. As a Canadian I'm proud to share in Canada's (arguably pre-2000) reputation of peacemaker and global good guy.

That preamble is to say that it's difficult for me to remain impartial to the current refugee crisis. It hits close to home both figuratively and literally. I've got to where I am today because a then-foreign government opened its borders to our family. As a result, I got an upbringing that allowed me the opportunity to fulfill my yet unknown potential (that's because the best is yet to come).

There's no missing the irony in the fact I've returned to Romania. But it's safe to say that the moving to Canada was better for all of us than remaining in a still-communist Romania.

So how could I, from my ivory tower, suggest that other people shouldn't be privy to the same kind of opportunity I had? Especially if they're refugees -but even if they're not.

Matei Visniec, a French-Romanian playwright and correspondent for RFI (the French BBC), has written a very good analysis on the subject (in Romanian). In, "Immigration: The issue that's rousing Europe's dozing conscience",Visniec presents the three prevalent views in the crisis so far. This is my paraphrased transcript:

The first approach to the issue, he says, is naive and even cheaply populist, summed up by those who say, "Europe is an inclusive space to all cultures, open wide the doors and let them all come in." Indeed, this rhetoric costs nothing and its proponents assume no risks, but instead they bask in the glow of their humanism and the plaudits that come their way.

The second point of view is espoused by politicians and intellectuals who agree that Europe must continue to provide shelter from persecution and to welcome refugees, but also to remain mindful that this 'European Ship' is itself fragile and subject to capsize under the weight of too much generosity.  Moreover, these "prudent humanists" warn that a well-defined European framework on the status of refugees is not a long-term solution, and we should instead think about solutions that will stabilize the countries from where the refugees originate. He points out that while French troops are already fighting Islamist factions in the Sahel, Germany is happy to simply receive refugees. Shouldn't there be collaboration on that front as well?

Finally, there's the anti-refugee stance. Embraced by nationalists, and embodied by the Hungarian PM, Viktor Orban, who claims that democracy in Europe is based on Christian values and that the number of Muslim refugees threaten Europe's Christian identity. Visniec quotes Jacques Attali's rebuttal in L'Express where he rightly points out that Hungarians themselves are descendants of invading Fino-Ungric tribes  from Asia, and that the rest of the world, especially Europe, opened their doors to the couple hundred thousand Hungarian refugees who fled their country during the Russian invasion of 1956.

Visniec's commentary is spot on. A radical approach, on either side cannot be a good solution. I like Slavoj Zizek's outlook though.

"Which solution is better? To paraphrase Stalin, they are both worse. Those who advocate open borders are the greater hypocrites: Secretly, they know very well this will never happen, since it would trigger an instant populist revolt in Europe. They play the Beautiful Soul which feels superior to the corrupted world while secretly participating in it.

The anti-immigrant populist also know very well that, left to themselves, Africans will not succeed in changing their societies. Why not? Because we, North Americans and Western Europeans, are preventing them. It was the European intervention in Libya which threw the country in chaos. It was the U.S. attack on Iraq which created the conditions for the rise of ISIS. The ongoing civil war in the Central African Republic is not just an explosion of ethnic hatred; France and China are fighting for the control of oil resources through their proxies."

He's just as spot on as Visniec, and maybe more so, because he sees the big picture in this refugee crisis, calling it, "a price for the global economy" and a result of "the dynamic of global capitalism." These are points that are glossed over and mostly overlooked by others. I also like how he points to the sad irony in the fact that commodities circulate the globe freely but that people can't. Of course, this is not a comparison between people and commodities. But the reality remains that free trade agreements proliferate while national borders are as strict as ever. It's also utopian to dream that it's going to be any different any time soon -or even that blurring borders is actually good for humanity in its current state. But Zizek gets into that too, a little bit, and I recommend the entire article (except for the last two or three sentences, because I, too, remember Communism).

What does this mean for Romania?

I can't say for sure. Enforced refugee quotas or not, I don't see many choosing to settle here (and therefore disrupting our "Romanian way of life"). Romania is far from the dream that these people are chasing in Germany or Scandinavia. My parents mentioned that they had job offers on arrival to Canada provided they move to the Northwest Territories. "No thanks!" they said (and I thank them for it). It's not fair to compare Romania to NT, but same difference as far as these people are concerned.

Furthermore, the distinction between refugees and economic migrants is somewhat of a moot point. Perhaps not all economic migrants are refugees, but refugees who don't plan on an eventual return to their homeland are certainly economic migrants. Most of them fit the bill. And who can blame them? Peace in Syria tomorrow wouldn't get rid of the rubble, rebuild businesses, infrastructure, and homes. It's easy to say, "well, they should go back anyway" But look at all the Romanians who've left the country to enjoy the material benefits of the more developed Western economies. If Romanians don't stay, neither will they.

Finally, a few more points I wanted to add in addition to those made by Visniec and Zizek:

1. Yes, Europe ought to take in refugees, provided their identity and claims are verifiable. This will also serve as a fine introduction to European bureaucracy - part of the continent's traditional values. If it means waiting in a refugee camp for a year, so be it. This needs to be a strict prerequisite. And of course, access should be granted to refugees only. If refugees don't like the camps set up where they first enter the EU, they can stay home -or in a Turkish refugee camp.

2. There are Islamic radicals in the waves of refugees who've come ashore to Europe. Maybe some are Muslim/European ISIS fighters who got sick of killing civilians and getting bombed. Maybe there are tens of them, maybe there are thousands. Maybe they'll fall in love with Europe and turn into bearded hipsters, I don't know. But they certainly exist. It is delusional to think otherwise. Only the strictest measures can keep them out, and out they must remain.

3.  A long term refugee-oriented solution is absolutely the wrong approach. Whether it means more military intervention in the Middle East (only against ISIS, I'd stay out of the established government intervention racket), or major changes to exploitative Western policies that help create the volatile conditions in these areas, any viable long-term solution lies outside of Europe's borders.

4. Let's be realistic about "integration". Some people want it, and some people don't. Those who do are not necessarily all angels, and those who don't are not all terrorists. Romania's situation with gypsies is a good example. There needs to be serious effort from all sides otherwise parallel cultures/societies are created. These will inevitably clash. Whether this clash (of civilizations) occurs often or not is irrelevant. The potential for it is what creates the underlying tension that one feels in the very crowded, very multicultural, urban areas of the West where heavy-handed policing and extreme political correctness are the mechanisms that keep it from spilling over into overt animosity.

5. I don't think anybody loves moving. Let alone to a strange country with nothing but the clothes on their backs. All that people want is a better life. Sometimes they go West, sometimes North, and very rarely they move back home. It's nice to hope they'll fit in perfectly in the already existing social order, but this is also not always the case.

We have to be human, but let's be humans with brains, and with realistic expectations.

I also recommend reading this AMA (Ask Me Anything) thread on reddit, posted by a Syrian immigrant to Germany.


  1. So in other words: fuck what you want Romanian PEOPLE, here are the ORDERS for the day.

    Must be nice and cozy in Canada. Maybe you should stay there if we're so backwards for your taste.

    1. This comment is an embarrassment to all of us Romanians. Not sure why I published it...oh well.


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