Nationalism Turns Away People in Real Need

I moved back to Washington, D.C., this summer, after eight years in Jakarta.  I felt guilty saying goodbye to my refugee friends, knowing that my move was by choice and fueled by good things: a chance to be near my extended family, a new job for my husband, the pull of home.  I wasn’t forced to leave by events beyond my control. I wasn’t fleeing. I chose to go home.

Of course, this isn’t true for the millions of displaced people around the world.  Afghans, for instance, are fleeing violence, drought, and religious persecution. Just this past month, more than 25 villagers—civilians, not soldiers—were killed near Kabul.  One of them was a teacher. Four of them were children, aged between two and twelve years old. Forty-five percent of Afghans don’t have enough food to eat. Nearby, Yemen is facing a horrific famine, with only enough food for another two to three months.  In addition to the starvation problem, civilians are being killed there as well, with 349 civilian casualties of armed conflict occurring since June. Somalia, too, is plagued by drought, kidnappings, suicide bombings and chaos. The country is so dangerous that the U.S. State Department and most Western governments advise avoiding travel to that country at all costs.

Roshan Learning Center in Jakarta has children from all of these countries and others in our student body but such places of refuge are in increasingly short supply as demand surges.

Last week, American President Donald Trump made clear in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly that his priority is “America First” and confirmed that the U.S. will not participate in the new Global Compact on Migration.  The compact is an agreement between governments to support safe and orderly migration for displaced people. Almost every other country in the United Nations, 193 countries, agreed to this basic agreement. Only Hungary and the U.S. declined.  

The United Nations collectively rolled its eyes at President Trump’s rhetoric, but his administration is pressing forward with its unwelcoming agenda towards people displaced by turbulent homelands.  In September, the United States capped the number of refugees it will allow at 30,000 people per year starting in 2019. It may not reach even that level: In 2018, only about 20,000 people will be allowed into the country.  At the same time, Trump officials have floated the idea of denying immigrants already in the U.S. public benefits such as food aid.

Such closed thinking and the current mood of nationalism in the U.S. and around the world fails to  recognize the interconnectedness of societies, the causes of displacement, and basic humanitarian values.  The United States, for example has pulled out of international climate commitments to reduce global warming that is already leading to climate change-based migration.  Fighting in the Middle East from Syria to Yemen has been bolstered by governments using war to advance their own agendas.

This disconnect contributes to the ongoing global disruption and pushes millions into a no-man’s-land of stateless existence, but without giving them a place to go.  I was lucky this past summer. I had a place to go—a place with stability, security and shelter to enable me to begin to build my new life. Roshan aims to provide a small measure of these same things for those refugees in limbo in Jakarta.  But zooming out, for those turning away desperate people in a time of need, perhaps it is time to think harder about what is causing them to leave in the first place.