First rule of refugees – don’t be a Muslim if you want help

We now treat each refugee on the grounds of their race, religion or purpose of flight. We do not treat them as human beings

Robert Fisk
Monday 13 July 2015 10:13 BST
Refugees from Syria on the Turkish border
Refugees from Syria on the Turkish border (Getty)

Nineteenth-century Americans were on safe ground when they inscribed the words of Emma Lazarus on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

A comparatively new country, the United States needed the destitute of Europe – the Irish, the Jews of Russia – to expand their nation. There was no question of referring to the Irish “poor” as “economic migrants” or to those Jews “yearning to breathe free” as “asylum seekers” or “political refugees” from the Tsar’s pogroms.

In the decades to come, however, the world assumed that the “huddled masses” could be returned in safety to their land of origin. Thus US and other “Christian” nations decided that survivors of the 1915 Armenian genocide should go back to what had been their homes in “Western Armenia” (Ottoman Anatolia). And many hundreds of thousands of Armenians lingered on the edge of Turkey in the hope that the victors of the First World War would return them to lands no longer controlled by their Ottoman Turkish killers.

America’s Near East Relief was the first great humanitarian organisation of its kind, and the millions of dollars which it raised in the US saved the lives of countless Armenian refugees – especially orphans – scattered around the Arab world.

Now comes a deeply moving book by University of California human rights professor Keith Watenpaugh who has studied the history of humanitarianism in the Middle East from the files of the League of Nations, the UN’s poor old predecessor.

In the years after the 1914-18 war, the international community abandoned the Armenian “right of return”. Watenpaugh’s research takes in the work of the Aleppo Rescue Home, whose Danish director Karen Jeppe wrote in 1922 that “the Armenian is possessed of a wonderful gift ‘to create bread from stones’.” The quotation is based on Matthew 4: 3-4 and suggests that the Armenians have such resilience that they can perform miracles – and survive as a people.

Watenpaugh’s book, the author acknowledges, “was written at a time when the contemporary ‘Middle East’ descended into a humanitarian disaster that, in its degree of suffering and international indifference, resembles the one that occurred during and following the First World War.”

How right he is. Only of course, the world changed. The humanitarian Americans of the 19th century who welcomed the pogromed Jews of Russia were far less keen to give sanctuary to the Jewish victims of Hitler. Before the Second World War, like European nations, they turned them away. And after the Holocaust, they preferred that Jewish survivors should go to their “true” home in Palestine rather than settle in the US.

British power in Palestine collapsed and 750,000 Arab Palestinian refugees were created. Their existence today and that of their descendants remains a humanitarian scandal. But somewhere, the history of that “today” ended and another scandal began. In the break-up of the present-day Middle East to which Watenpaugh refers, Christian refugees from Iraq and Syria and Egypt – like those Armenians who headed for America and Europe in the 1920s – have generally been received by “Christian” countries. But most of the refugees today are Muslims fleeing Muslims and they are not receiving the same generosity.

I’ve walked around their refugee camps in Lebanon, amid squalor and disease, and talked to mothers who have already lost their children. Last week, I watched them by the hundred streaming towards the Macedonian border with Greece, sweltering in the heat, beaten by border guards in their attempts to enter central Europe. They are tough, resilient, not unlike those Armenians who could “create bread from stones”.

The Americans provided “safe haven” for the Kurds of Iraq in 1991 – after the Kurds had risen against Saddam at America’s bidding. But there are no more safe havens; the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre this weekend is proof enough. And while we now save these people from the waters of the Mediterranean, we do not want them.

Why? Because they are Muslims and not Christians – or “Westerners” as we prefer to call ourselves today? I fear so.

The UN relief organisations, MSF, the Red Cross, Oxfam and the rest cannot hope to protect or resettle the new exodus from the crumbling Middle East. International humanitarianism cannot overcome national sovereignties. If Greece eventually collapses, what will we do with millions of Greek refugees on the edge of our shrunken “Europe”? Treat them with contempt as EU ministers were doing this weekend? Or allow them to dribble north into “our” lands because they are Christian and not Arab Muslims?

Alas, we now treat each refugee on the grounds of their race, religion or purpose of flight (“migration”). We do not treat them as human beings. And thus we betray all our religions and all our cultures.

I have met no one with an answer to this great moral dilemma of our times. But here is the joint statement of a US-sponsored conference in 1927 which acknowledged that international aid was administered with a pro-Christian and anti-Muslim bias after the earlier Middle East catastrophe: “People [in] the field would rather have less money and a statesman-like programme than large sums for objects that are not carefully thought out…”

The key word is statesman-like. The Middle East refugees possessed such a man after the Great War, an individual who cared for the poor and the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. He inspired the creation of an international travel document for refugees recognised by 54 states in the case of former Russian citizens (Russians, Poles, Latvian Ukrainians, Turkic Muslims), and 38 in the case of Armenians. He was a polar explorer whose name is now almost forgotten: Fridtjof Nansen. He even won the Nobel Peace Prize. And that, too, has been forgotten.

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