Hesitation and dehumanization in the Syrian refugee crisis

Pope Francis, a beacon of what many from various quarters hope could be a new trend in religious leadership, today has taken three families who are refugees from the Syrian Civil War with him to the Vatican. The war, which rages on into its fifth year and finds thousands of people continuing to flee the conflict, often ending up in squalid conditions in refugee camps, under threat of renewed violence by receiving countries, or worse, has created an international dialogue about how to resolve the eternal question of how to care for our fellow human being while maintaining our own stability and security.

Or is it? I had a professor challenge me on a comment I made last year about immigration, in which I discussed the relationship between the Global North and the Global South, and how those of “us” in the former category owed a moral commitment to those in the latter. The division, as I read more, becomes clear as a discursively constructed dichotomy which, not surprisingly (considering the source, e.g., American and Western European intellectual types) positions people living in Africa, Latin America, and other parts of the world in the Southern Hemisphere as “lower” in value and stature while appearing to describe this distinction in political and socioeconomic terms. I’m becoming more aware of the fact that seeing someone as “lesser” in some way derives justification from one’s relative ability to dehumanize them, whose precedent precedes written history.

This quiet illumination notwithstanding, my professor’s challenge was a simple one which dredged up much confusion: “So are you saying we should just get rid of borders and have everyone move anywhere they want?” I hesitated, and, being a grad student, came up with a deft though ultimately noncommittal hedge: “Well, we’d need to build a lot more infrastructure and consider the economic and political, not to mention social, changes that such a decision would imply.”

Where does this hesitation come from? Certainly it is true that I am not an international relations specialist, or a political leader of any sort. I can plead a certain amount of ignorance about the matter. Still, I wonder how much “hesitation” is staying the hands of those who have, indeed, studied and been trained in the resolution of border-complicating questions like mass migrations due to war or natural disaster. And why is it that Pope Francis can respond with such a bold and non-bureaucratic act? Is this simply symbolic, meant to inspire and change minds, or is it substantive as a commentary on the inaction, the discursive reduction of the thousands of refugees being held in detention camps to animals in cages both by their treatment on the borders of Macedonia, Turkey, and other countries as well as by the international prattle?

Great reporting is offered by PBS Newshour, as it includes the voices of many participants rather than simply creating images for shock and consumption that are bandied around on Facebook and then forgotten like the most recent episode of GoT. It seems, too, particularly important to think about where we get our information from and how the truth is distilled from so many versions of the story. Our historical capacity to forget how to think critically — let alone engage ethically — is one against which we must struggle.

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