The issue of protecting and providing asylum to refugees is something I know intimately, on both a personal level and on the level of international politics. In 1975, at age 25, I was allowed into the United States to plead the case of my country, Timor-Leste, before the United Nations Security Council. The US and New York became my home base while I traveled the world for 24 years, knocking at doors and peoples’ consciences, pleading for help to halt the mass atrocities and occupation being committed against the Timorese population by the Indonesian military.
My younger sister and two brothers were killed by Indonesian military; my sister by shrapnel from a US-supplied OV-10 Bronco counterinsurgency aircraft. While many of my extended family became a part of the resistance to the occupation from the mountains of Timor island, others managed to reach Australia's shores and were granted refuge in Australia. So today the faces of Syrian children and the faces of the mothers trying to protect them affect me deeply.
A video by the late Chris Cornell, which I recently received an advance copy of, reflects much of my personal experience during many dark days, living and working in New York while praying for the survival of my family. It echoes what I continue to try and speak to on the global platforms: our responsibility as world citizens to provide shelter and refuge to the victims of war, particularly the Syrians today.
When some in US speak of putting “America First” and slamming the door on women and children fleeing the war in Syria, they ignore their country’s own role in creating those refugees. We cannot pretend that the nonchalance with which they manufacture and export weapons of mass destruction, and the pocketing of massive profits from the wars they fuel, is not playing a significant role in the human suffering and carnage taking place in Africa and the Middle East. And while it should be noted that they are joined by their fellow Permanent Members of the UN Security Council, Russia, China, the UK and France in massive international arms exports, the US is far and away the world’s largest profiteer from our global conflicts. It was not surprising to those in other corners of the world that the one industry that did not suffer the effects of the 2008-2009 economic and financial crisis was the American weapons industry.
We see these weapons being indiscriminately used by States and non-States entities in the wars in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Mali, Central African Republic, Congo (DRC), South Sudan, Sudan, Afghanistan, and more. Those who would turn their backs on parents holding the bodies of their children who have died by American weapons should clarify their slogan; instead of “America First” it should be “American profits before the lives of children in Africa and the Middle East.”
Certainly, the Middle East has centuries old sectarian conflicts. But events in Syria are also a direct result of actions on the part of the US and Europe; it is a sequence of errors on the part of virtually all players that has resulted in the massive wave of refugees from the country today.
The Assad regime erred in not making real efforts in reaching out to those wanting more freedom; the opposition erred in overestimating their own power, refused to negotiate with the regime, demanding instead its resignation. All parties, including the US and Europe, underestimated the staying power of the Assad regime and failed to understand the fears of the Alawite minority in power that inspire its actions. Europeans and Americans misread the complexities of the so-called “Arab Spring”, and euphoric with their pyrrhic air campaign against Muhamar Ghadafi of Libya, believed they could arrange another regime change. All miscalculated. We all know the consequences of this miscalculation; hundreds of thousands of Syrians pleading with you to shelter them.
This is not a phenomenon that is new to our world. It has consistently been war and poverty that have created mass movement of people. The US, Canada, the Latin American States, Australia and New Zealand are very much a product of the religious wars and extreme poverty in Europe that prompted the greatest migration of the last centuries. Today the Syrians are continuing or repeating virtually the same circumstances that prompted millions of Europeans to flee to the Americas.
Most Europeans, led by the exceptional Chancellor Angela Merkel, have shown great heart in welcoming their fellow human beings fleeing wars and deprivation. Other European and American leaders and communities have been less generous, reacting often out of ignorance and fear. This is to be expected; without condoning the xenophobic mindset of many, I still understand that in any given society different people act or react differently in similar circumstances. And there will always be leaders who prey on the fear of the foreign to acquire or consolidate their own power.
No matter how high and thick the walls, there will be no fortress that can stem the tide of people fleeing wars and poverty. The demographic transformation of the West from a predominately ageing Judeo-Christian region to a vibrant and younger multiethnic, multi-religious and multi-culture one has been underway for decades and is unstoppable. These changes are not always entirely peaceful and sadly many will suffer. But with wisdom, determination and compassion Europe will emerge rejuvenated and stronger in the long run. The US will make a choice. It will embrace the age of change, take responsibility for its part in the bloodshed taking place in these regions, and open its hands and their hearts to those whose countries they have profited from. Or it will continue trying to close its door and turn its back, weakening its position on the world stage and opening the doors to being overtaken as an economic power.
Having been a refugee, a diplomat, and the President of a new democracy, I know well that decisions about human lives cannot be made in conference rooms alone, or decided with military maps. They can only honestly be made by looking into the faces of a mother and child who have lost brothers and sisters, possibly a father, to falling bombs, who are today seeking shelter and refuge. They are made by reminding oneself that one’s own family members have suffered similarly in the past, and that a refugee is a fellow human being who is trying to keep his or her children and family members alive to see, and to love, another day.