Spring 2013

Writing in the Cairo Review of Global Affairs, António Guterres, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), raises an urgent alarm. The plight of some 5.3 million refugees displaced in the Syrian conflict, he declares, “is extremely precarious, and without unrestricted humanitarian access to those in need, it is getting worse every day.” He is poignant in addressing the children among the refugees. “Hundreds of thousands of young lives have already been shattered by this conflict,” Guterres writes, “leaving the future generation of an entire country marked by violence and trauma for many years to come.”

This important and timely essay is the centerpiece of our Special Report: Humanity on the Move. It stems from our collaboration with the Center for Migration and Refugee Studies here at the American University in Cairo; we’re especially grateful for the support of Director Ibrahim Awad, a former director of the International Migration Programme at the International Labor Organization, and lecturer Shaden Khallaf, a former advisor on Middle East humanitarian and political affairs at UNHCR. In the Middle East, the Special Report examines anew the tragedy of the Palestine refugees in an essay by Karen Koning AbuZayd, a former commissioner-general for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. Looking at the more recent case of Iraqis displaced by conflict is Dawn Chatty, director of the Refugee Studies Centre at the University of Oxford. Among migration topics further afield, Andrew Lam and Tatiana Wah offer insightful reports, respectively, on the Vietnamese and Haitian diasporas. To explore the topical and controversial issue of immigration reform in the United States, The Cairo Review Interview is with Julián Castro, the mayor of San Antonio, Texas, one of America’s leading Hispanic politicians.

Finally, we are honored to publish “Fight Against Polio,” an essay by Bill Gates, chairman of the Microsoft Corporation and co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Gates worked with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan, and United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, to host the Global Vaccine Summit in Abu Dhabi in April. Explaining what drives him and his wife to campaign for global health, Gates says: “We’re both optimists. We believe by doing these things—focusing on a few big goals and working with our partners on innovative solutions—we can help every person get the chance to live a healthy, productive life.”

Scott MacLeod
Managing Editor

Fight Against Polio

Although no one knows exactly how long polio has been around, malformed bones of Egyptian mummies and stone carvings from around 1400 BCE suggest the disease has dwelled among human populations for thousands of years.

The great irony about polio is that, while it was probably more prevalent in Pharaonic times, it only became a terrifying epidemic in ours. One reason offered by scientists is that in ancient times, infants were protected by maternal antibodies and likely developed lifelong immunity. But as hygiene improved in a rapidly modernizing world, people weren’t exposed to the virus until later in life, when they were no longer protected by their mother’s immune system. Although the introduction of polio vaccines in the mid-twentieth century quickly stalled major polio outbreaks in wealthier countries, it remained endemic in many parts of the world as late as 1988. That year, the World Health Assembly (WHA), the decision-making body of the World Health Organization (WHO), passed a resolution supporting the global eradication of polio. At the time, the virus was still circulating in 125 countries, where it paralyzed 1,000 people a day—filling parents with terror and hospital wards with children who, in many cases, would never walk again.

Within eight years of the WHA declaration, polio cases worldwide dropped almost 90 percent. In 2006, Egypt and Niger were declared polio-free. Last year, India was declared polio-free as well, demonstrating success is possible even in the most difficult circumstances. These accomplishments are part of a steep decline in remaining cases worldwide; there were fewer than 250 new cases reported in 2012. Today, we are seeing the fewest number of polio cases in the fewest countries ever. We have almost succeeded at wiping the virus off the face of the earth.

But “almost” is not good enough. Polio is a stubborn, highly-contagious disease that is easily transmitted as people move across borders, as they do frequently today. In 2006, people living in thirteen countries that had already achieved polio-free status became infected by travelers from the handful of countries where the disease remains endemic. These importations led to large polio outbreaks in several countries, including Indonesia, Somalia, and Yemen.

The latest evidence of polio’s propensity for travel turned up in sewage samples collected last December at two different sites in Cairo. Polioviruses detected in these samples were found to be closely related to the poliovirus circulating in Pakistan.

Although no new cases of polio have been reported in Egypt since 2004, the Ministry of Health and Population quickly geared up to conduct mass polio vaccination campaigns to ensure high immunity levels. Within four months after the virus samples were confirmed, fifteen million children under age five will be protected.

This recent discovery of the poliovirus samples in Cairo underscores the difficulty—and the urgency—of the global effort to eradicate polio. Until the poliovirus is completely eradicated everywhere, no country is safe from reinfection. It also reminds us of the incredible power of vaccines to solve some of the world’s biggest health problems.

The smallpox vaccine is one of the most impressive examples of what the world can achieve with life-saving vaccines when backed by political commitment and public will. As recently as 1967, the WHO estimated that ten to fifteen million people a year were contracting the disease, two million died, and millions more who survived were left disfigured or blind. After thirteen years of dedicated vaccine campaigns, smallpox was completely eradicated—the first successful global vaccination effort.

Vaccines have reduced the number of children dying from diphtheria by 93 percent, cut child deaths from tetanus by 85 percent, and lowered measles deaths by 74 percent. In Sub-Saharan Africa, more than 100 million young people have received the new MenAfriVac vaccine. It is the first vaccine created specifically to address a disease in the developing world, and it is putting a fast end to the dreaded Meningitis A epidemics that have, for more than a century, left death and devastation in their wake.

Vaccines are an especially important tool in reducing the burden of disease, which takes such a disproportionately heavy toll on developing countries. The problem of global health inequity became visible to me about fifteen years ago, when my wife, Melinda, and I saw a chart in the newspaper breaking down the major causes of death among children. One of the largest sources was something called rotavirus. It was killing 500,000 children a year, yet neither Melinda nor I had ever heard of it. As I quickly learned, rotavirus is the leading cause of diarrhea and it’s preventable with a vaccine that only children in rich countries were getting.

This realization is what prompted both of us to decide to focus on global health and to do everything we could to get the rotavirus vaccine out to every child who needs it. Now, twelve of the world’s poorest countries are giving the rotavirus vaccine to children. By 2015, the number is scheduled to climb to forty countries.

The simple fact is, vaccines work wonders. They prevent disease from striking, which is more efficient and effective than treatment after the fact. They are also relatively cheap and easy to deliver. Yet millions and millions of children—more often in poor countries—don’t get them.

Innovative Collaboration

Before we started the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, we assumed that all the obvious steps were already being taken to protect children from vaccine-preventable diseases. But in fact, our first big health initiative was devoted to delivering basic vaccines, because even that is not a simple matter. It’s extraordinarily difficult. Nevertheless, universal coverage with today’s vaccines is achievable. And it is possible that new vaccines will be developed in the future for diseases such as malaria.

To achieve both of these goals would save millions of lives, and they are a major focus of our foundation and the work we are doing with partners such as the Islamic Development Bank (IDB) and His Highness General Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, crown prince of Abu Dhabi, as well as leaders in other Middle Eastern and Islamic countries.

In 2011, Sheikh Mohamed committed $50 million to polio eradication and vaccine delivery. Last fall, the IDB, a new donor to the polio eradication effort, announced an innovative $227 million financing package to Pakistan that will cover the majority of the country’s polio vaccination campaign costs. It also announced a $3 million grant for polio eradication activities in Afghanistan.

This kind of innovative collaboration between traditional donors, rapidly-developing countries, and emerging economies can take us closer to ending polio and reaching all children, no matter where they live, with the vaccines they need. Another is the Global Vaccine Summit that is taking place in Abu Dhabi in April this year. Under the patronage of Sheikh Mohamed, the summit will unite the world in reaffirming support for the Decade of Vaccines, a commitment endorsed at the World Health Assembly in May 2012 to save more than twenty million lives by 2020. The Global Vaccine Summit also will underscore the importance of building and maintaining effective routine immunization systems to keep all children healthy, no matter where they live.

One of the most incredible examples of the power of vaccines is how close we are to declaring the world polio-free. Fully funding the Global Polio Eradication Initiative’s strategic plan is a critical step in achieving this historic goal, and will help us reach mothers and children with other life-saving vaccines and important health services. Vaccines can protect children for a lifetime, but reaching all children will take a sustained effort. It is this tension, between how much the world has achieved and how much is left to achieve, that causes me to be both optimistic and impatient—an impatient optimist. And polio is the subject about which I am most impatient—and the most optimistic.

Because we have successfully eradicated polio from most countries, many people believe it is a disease of the past, and no longer a risk. As a result, it is sometimes difficult for donors in developed countries to understand why their continued support is so important.

But in fact, polio still strikes and paralyzes children today. Until it’s eradicated everywhere, it remains a risk everywhere. And getting to that remaining 1 percent is much harder than anyone ever imagined. The best way to illustrate the challenge we still face with polio is to compare it to what it took to stamp out smallpox worldwide.

With smallpox, every individual infected with the virus got an unmistakable rash on the skin. As soon as someone saw a new case, vaccinators moved aggressively into nearby towns to “ringfence” and contain the virus. Once immunized, people never needed another smallpox vaccination.

Polio, on the other hand, is transmitted silently and just 1 percent of infected people show symptoms. The other 99 percent are contagious without knowing it. When symptoms do appear, they may not be definitive. Symptoms often start with a fever and headache. A few days later, ordinary muscle aches may get increasingly severe and the patient’s reflexes can start to slow down. Only then does paralysis sets in. But, even when a health worker sees a child with paralysis, it takes another two weeks to collect and analyze stool samples. By the time a diagnosis is confirmed, the poliovirus may have traveled hundreds of miles in any direction.

To create an effective “population immunity,” polio vaccinators must reach at least 80 percent of the population, sometimes as much as 95 percent, depending on a number of factors. Achieving 95 percent coverage is very difficult, even in wealthy countries. It is far more challenging in the developing world.

Take the example of India, the most recent country to eliminate polio. India started with the same approach as the United Kingdom: vaccinating children when they came into the clinic for routine visits. But too many Indian children never see the inside of a clinic, so the Indian government added a supply-side approach to the demand-side approach. That is they started going out into communities, finding children, and vaccinating them house by house.

Think about what this requires. India has more than a billion people. Geographically, it is three times larger than Egypt. It also features some of the most severe terrain and weather in the world. During a flood in 2007, for instance, health workers in Bihar state had to walk for miles in water up to their waists to vaccinate children living in a remote area along the Kosi River. Not only did they have to carry the vaccines in a box on their head to keep it out of the water, they also had to keep the vaccines cold the whole time. Similar efforts of courage and commitment happened over and over, since every child has to be vaccinated three or more times to ensure full immunity.

India’s polio program employed two million people and was almost entirely paid for by the Indian government, which speaks volumes about the political commitment that went into the program. Its accomplishment of wiping polio out of the country is the most impressive global health success I’ve ever seen.

A Moral Quest

The challenges in the remaining three endemic countries—Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria—are just as daunting, though for different reasons.

In Nigeria, a decade ago, some leaders in the northern part of the country started the rumor that the polio vaccine reduced fertility in the children who received it. Campaigns were suspended for a year while officials disproved the allegations. A large epidemic sliced through Northern Nigeria, and polio spread back into about twenty nearby countries where it had been eliminated. All those countries had to ramp up again to win the fight for the second time. The rumors persisted even after the campaigns were restarted, and to this day some parents refuse to let their children be vaccinated.

In Afghanistan and Pakistan, militants in some areas won’t give vaccinators access to local children. Even in the places where vaccinators can go, there is no guarantee that they will be safe.

Not surprisingly, when I lay out these facts, people usually ask me two questions. First, given all the challenges, is complete eradication of polio really possible? And secondly, should we bother putting in the work it’s going to take?

My answer to both is yes. We can eradicate polio, and we should. Why? In a word, because of innovation.

Consider the long history of the disease. Though it’s been around for thousands of years, we only figured out that it is contagious 200 years ago. It was just one hundred years ago that we learned it is a virus. Fifty years ago, we developed the vaccine to prevent it. Twenty-five years ago, the world resolved to eradicate it. At each step along the way, a breakthrough—in medical knowledge, diagnosis and treatment technology, global collaboration, and delivery—changed how we think about the problem.

New innovations are continuing to help us overcome remaining obstacles to eradication. In the past year, Nigeria started using a new technology to solve an old problem: How do you vaccinate every child when you don’t know how many there are?

The polio program uses what they call “microplans” to assign routes to vaccinators, with the goal of covering every part of the country. Previously, the maps weren’t accurate or detailed enough to drive universal coverage. Thousands of settlements were simply overlooked. Distances could be off by many miles, meaning that what the microplan said was a twenty-mile trip and a day’s worth of work might end up being a forty-mile trip and two days-worth.

Recent innovations in mapping technology have enabled polio teams to identify areas that vaccinators previously missed. The question is no longer, “How many children are there and where might we find them?” It is now, “How do we most efficiently vaccinate every child?”

Innovations like this are the inspiration for my optimism. But to make sure innovation in technology transforms our world in positive ways, human beings need to point it in the right direction. That takes public will, as seen in people, organizations, and their governments coming together to drive polio into extinction.

Many organizations helped push the eradication resolution through the World Health Assembly, but the one you wouldn’t expect is Rotary International. Rotary is a service organization with 1.2 million members who live in almost every country in the world.

While Rotarians pledge to put service above self, they have no specific global health mandate. They are neither polio experts, nor policy leaders. But they are regular people who go to work and spend time with their families. For three decades, they have also spent time advocating for polio eradication, raising money to support vaccination, and giving kids all over the world polio drops.

Other partners include the Centers for Disease Control, UNICEF, and the WHO. We rely on them to advance polio eradication, but that is still not enough. We also need people whose jobs have nothing to do with the health of poor people to act. That is public will in the face of global health inequity.

I see strong commitment from leaders in all three endemic countries. When I went to Nigeria for the first time four years ago, I met with two groups of leaders: the religious leaders in the north, who are in the best position to encourage anxious parents to vaccinate their children, and the state governors, who have the power to hold the health system accountable for results. At the end of our two-hour meeting, the governors signed a document committing them to the goal of eradication and spelling out their personal obligations.

Last September, I went to New York to attend a United Nations polio meeting. Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai, and Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari all came to talk about their commitment to eradication. Their presence, as much as the content of their remarks, showed that the initiative has unprecedented momentum.

It’s important for wealthier country governments to be involved and generous with their aid as well. The proof of great leadership is the ability to be long-sighted and keep the big picture in mind. A number of donor governments have decided to prioritize foreign aid, even in the face of great financial challenges, which is exactly the kind of commitment I’m speaking of.

That leaves the second question to answer: Why is it worth it? Polio doesn’t kill anywhere near as many people as AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, or rotavirus, so why should the world focus on eradicating it?

First, there is no such thing as keeping polio at its current, low levels. We have gotten to this point because of our shared commitment to work together until the job is done. Vaccinators are wading through flooded rivers, developing-country governments are investing scarce resources, and the global health community is on high alert. These are not sustainable approaches, but they are what is required if we are to be successful. If we don’t keep investing, cases will shoot back up to the tens of thousands annually in dozens of countries—precisely at a moment when we are at the brink of seeing polio go into extinction.

Secondly, successfully eradicating polio will generate lessons that benefit all of global health. We are on the verge of doing something we’ve never been able to do before—reaching the vast majority of children in the remotest places in the world to help secure their health and future. We are building systems, developing technology, and training workers that make it possible to help people who have never received any help. When polio is gone, we can use the same systems, technology, and people to deliver other lifesaving solutions, especially routine vaccinations for diseases like rotavirus and measles.

These are practical arguments, and I believe they are convincing. However, the argument that really moves me is more idealistic. By facing together what at times seems like an insurmountable challenge, we will demonstrate what is best about humanity. Ending a disease that affects people disproportionately just because of the region they live in will inspire us to be more ambitious about what is possible to achieve in our world and in our lifetime.

In recent months, vaccinators and other health workers have been targeted and killed by militants in Nigeria and Pakistan. To me, the nihilism behind these coordinated attacks—seeking out goodness to destroy it—is the opposite of what the eradication fight is about. The vaccinators were trying to stop disease and ease suffering so that even people they would never meet could have a better life.

They are heroes, and there are two ways to honor their memory: do our best to ensure the safety of those who continue the campaigns; and finish the task they gave their lives for.

I am committed to doing whatever it takes to win this fight. Ending polio is my top personal priority and the top priority of our foundation. But even the generous resources of our foundation are nowhere near enough.

The global polio community has a detailed plan for getting from here to eradication. The plan is based on a careful analysis of what countries have accomplished in the past, and what still needs to be accomplished in endemic countries in the future. This plan says that, if the world supplies the necessary funds, political commitment, and resolve, we will certify the eradication of polio by 2018.

Funds, commitment, and resolve. These are the key variables for success. If the world delivers, then we will eradicate polio within five years. It will be a remarkable success that can be added to the growing list of improvements to the human condition. We’ve cut the child mortality rate by 75 percent in the past five decades. We’ve cut the poverty rate by 50 percent in the past two decades. We’ve eradicated smallpox. These are mind-boggling successes. Adding the end of polio to the list will be one of the great moral and practical achievements of our age.

Bill Gates is the chairman of Microsoft Corporation, the world’s largest computer software maker, which he founded in 1975. He launched the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in 2000 to support philanthropic initiatives in the areas of global health and learning. The Foundation has since dispersed $26.1 billion in more than one hundred countries focusing on endeavors such as expanding childhood immunization, providing microfinance for small farmers, and supporting college education. In developing countries, it concentrates on improving people’s health and giving them the chance to lift themselves out of hunger and extreme poverty. In the United States, it seeks to ensure that all people—especially those with the fewest resources—have access to the opportunities they need to succeed in school and life. On Twitter: @BillGates.

America’s New Face

What to do about the Hispanic migrants who crossed the border illegally to live and work in the United States has been a hotly contested issue in American politics for decades. As Democrats and Republicans continue to debate options from granting citizenship to deportation, San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro is a leading voice for the humane treatment of the estimated eleven million undocumented migrants in the United States along with a sensible overhaul of the U.S. immigration system.

Castro is a rising star in Texas politics. At 38, he is the youngest mayor of a “Top 50” American city. He was re-elected to a second term in 2011, with a stunning 82 percent of the vote. (His identical twin brother, Joaquín, captured a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in the 2012 election.) Due to the Lone Star State’s political weight as the second most populous in the country, as well as the growing clout of Hispanic voters, some observers see Castro gaining national influence. Last September, he became the first Hispanic to deliver the keynote address at a Democratic National Convention. A former advisor to fellow Texan George W. Bush has been quoted saying “Julián Castro has a very good chance of becoming the first Hispanic president of the United States.”

Castro’s case for giving undocumented migrants a pathway to citizenship is rooted in a belief in the “land of opportunity” that flows from personal experience. The grandsons of a Mexican orphan, and sons of a Mexican American political activist, Julián and Joaquín went on to graduate from both Stanford University and Harvard Law School. “The dream of raising a family in a place where hard work is rewarded is not unique to Americans,” Castro said at the Democratic convention. “But America makes it possible. And our investment in opportunity makes it a reality.” Cairo Review Managing Editor Scott MacLeod interviewed Castro in San Antonio on April 6, 2013.

CAIRO REVIEW: Your grandmother came from Mexico. Your mother became a political activist in the Hispanic empowerment movement in San Antonio. How do you see the immigration issue in the contexts of American society and your own personal story?

JULIÁN CASTRO: I consider my family story an American dream story that has been so common throughout the United States history, whether the immigrant came from Mexico or Ireland or Germany or Italy or wherever. The story of my family has been the same story of progress. My grandmother came as a six-year-old orphan from Mexico, dropped out of elementary school. She worked as a cook, a maid, and a babysitter. But my mother was able to finish high school and get a college education. And my brother and I have been able to get a good education and reach our own dreams. So when I think of immigrants, I think of them as replenishing the values and the work ethic that make America great. That certainly was true with my grandmother. And I believe that’s true today with the immigrants who are at the center of concern in Congress right now.

CAIRO REVIEW: Your grandmother somehow made it to San Antonio?

JULIÁN CASTRO: Both of her parents, as I understand it, passed away during the time of the Mexican Revolution. They had relatives, extended family, who lived in San Antonio, and who went down to Mexico, the state of Coahuila, and brought her and her sister through Eagle Pass, Texas, to San Antonio, in 1922. A couple of days before the Democratic National Convention, a genealogist posted on the Internet images of the documents from when she had been stamped through. We had never seen those. We had never done the research. In fact, before then, I didn’t even know whether she had come through documented or undocumented. That was the first time that I saw that. I can only imagine for her as a young child what that must have been like.

CAIRO REVIEW: When we read stories about the immigration of Mexicans, Hispanics generally, into the United States, the stories often seem to have a negative connotation. How do Mexican Americans see their story as immigrants?

JULIÁN CASTRO: Too oftentimes folks have a two-dimensional view of Mexican immigrants into the United States, both historically and in the present day. A few years ago, Arthur Schlesinger wrote a book titled The Disuniting of America, articulating a fear of Balkanization as immigrant groups grew in the United States, and a concern over whether they could learn the language and integrate into the culture. The truth is that Mexican Americans have been part of the United States for generations. Especially in California, the southwest, Colorado. They have had high rates of military service, very hard work ethic. It’s a faith-based community. So they have the same values and same work ethic, and tendency to serve the country that have been part and parcel of the American experience. Too oftentimes they are thought of as a threat to the success of the nation when in fact historically they have helped build the nation successfully. Same thing today. There are so many industries in the United States that rely on their hard work. There are later generations, like me, who are fully participating in the opportunities that America has to offer, and making our own contributions to it.

CAIRO REVIEW: One rarely sees in the immigration debate the fact that San Antonio, for example, was a Spanish and Mexican settlement before Texas was even part of the United States. Or stories about the Bracero Program, in which the U.S. brought Mexicans into the United States to fill jobs that were needed to build the country, especially during World War II.

JULIÁN CASTRO: Too oftentimes, the popular perception is the [former California Republican governor] Pete Wilson perception, of folks coming across the border. It’s much more nuanced than that. Many Mexican American families trace their roots to the time when this was Spanish territory, or then Mexican territory. And then in Texas, when Texas was an independent nation, and then finally part of the United States. I have no doubt—and I am glad to have been born in the United States—I have no doubt that my life is better because I was born in the United States than it would have have been if I had been born in Mexico. More opportunities in the United States, more upward mobility. However, there is a nuanced history there that ought to be understood and appreciated, and that perspective hasn’t often been told in the mainstream press. 

CAIRO REVIEW: Would the debate be different if the history was better understood?

JULIÁN CASTRO: I believe that a better understanding of that history is part of the reason the southwest part of United States has generally not been as ravaged in recent times by this debate. Places like Texas, like New Mexico, and of late, California—well, Arizona would be an exception—have begun to take the longer view on this, and understand that we’ve made more progress over these last 150 years, and a lot of those battles are battles that were fought a long time ago. And that people as human beings have been living, coexisting, with each other, and contributing to the forward progress of the nation. And so this spike of antipathy that you saw a couple of years ago, with SB1070 [in Arizona], with laws in Georgia, Alabama, and so forth—we can weather those out, all of us can weather those out, take a longer view, based on that history. 

CAIRO REVIEW: In February, you testified in the U.S. House Judiciary Committee on immigration reform, and said the immigration system is “broken.” What’s the problem?

JULIÁN CASTRO: The immigration system is broken in several ways. First, it’s broken for folks who are legally applying through the front door for citizenship. Today it takes far too long for most applicants to actually become United States citizens. It’s broken and needs to be fixed for everyday applicants for citizenship, by expanding the number of folks who are allowed to become citizens, and clearing up the backlog, putting in place better protocols to shorten that time. It’s also broken because on the one hand, immigrants in Mexico, for instance, are being sent a signal by industry that they are truly needed in the United States—because they are—and on the other hand, being told by a lot of political leaders, “Don’t you dare get anywhere near the United States.” There is a push-pull that they experience. We are not being honest with ourselves. Several industries in the United States, principally agriculture, rely on the work of undocumented immigrants, and so many folks pretend like they don’t. The industry acknowledges it. But so many folks—I should say so many public policy makers—pretend as though that’s not true, and they demagogue the issue. Part of fixing the system is finding a way to bring some order to that reality, through work visa programs, and through an earned pathway to citizenship for the folks who are already here, making it possible for industry to thrive and do it in a way that is humane to the people involved. 

CAIRO REVIEW: How serious is the problem?

JULIÁN CASTRO: It is estimated that there are eleven to twelve million undocumented immigrants in the United States. About 50-60 percent of them were folks who crossed the United States border, and 40 percent are people who overstayed their visas, so they could have come from anywhere. On the industry side, industries like agriculture and construction and others have acknowledged that 40-50 percent of their employees may be undocumented immigrants. That’s a huge swath of their work force. That’s what makes it so urgent to fix this problem. Because you have industries, for instance, in the south—I believe in Alabama, after it passed a very strict anti-immigration law—that literally cannot survive without that labor. The United States agricultural industry cannot afford for the Congress to continue to delay fixing that system. The other part of this is that the United States traditionally has been a nation of growth. Today, we have three hundred and some odd million people. But the birthrate is declining, just like the birthrate in Japan and in most Westernized, top economy nations. We’re hardly at the rate of replenishing the future work force, or the present work force. It’s this immigration of younger people and folks who enhance that reproduction rate that will help ensure there is a strong replenishable work force in the future. The thing is, even in Mexico you’ve seen that reproduction rate plummet over the last fifteen to twenty years. So the question is, what happens if the United States is not taking in as many immigrants as it did before, the birth rate is declining, and in Mexico more folks are staying there, and their rate is declining? What does that mean for the continent in the future? I don’t think that’s a positive outlook for North America. 

CAIRO REVIEW: Do your recommendations represent the Obama administration’s perspective, or do you disagree with the President on any of the points?

JULIÁN CASTRO: I have my own perspective on a couple of the finer points of the legislation. Generally, the Obama framework and the “Gang of Eight” Senate bipartisan framework are not too far apart. And I generally agree with the framework that they have proposed. The framework essentially is to first continue to ensure there is strong border security. I believe that should be accomplished through using technology. We’ve doubled the number of border patrol agents at the southwestern border since 2004. There are over 21,000 of them now. Secondly, there is a need to ensure that when an employer hires someone, that employer can be assured that person is legally in the United States. Employers who intentionally flout the law will be punished accordingly. Third, there is a need to improve the legal immigration system. Clear up the backlog, and increase the number of people who are able to get in here legally. And then finally, do something about the eleven to twelve million who came in undocumented. Specifically the components of dealing with that eleven to twelve million are to have them identify themselves, for them to pay a fine, pay back taxes, learn English, to be put behind the legal applicants in terms of when their applications for citizenship would be considered, and they would become first permanent legal residents and eventually, after five, six, seven years, have the opportunity to become citizens, as long as they don’t have a felony criminal record. Those are the components of the reform. 

CAIRO REVIEW: Your quibbles?

JULIÁN CASTRO: A couple of things. The bipartisan framework, and particularly the Republicans, have suggested that we should hold up allowing a path to citizenship until we have, quote unquote, border security. I believe that we’ll never get there by their definition of border security. You are always going to have some people that sneak across the border. You can’t keep 100 percent of the people in jail. You have jailbreaks. You’re never going to be at zero. The fact is that today the borders are more secure than they ever have been. The number of apprehensions on the border is at a forty-year low. Net migration between Mexico and the United States is estimated to be near zero today, because the Mexican economy is doing fairly well and the American economy over the last couple of years has not been doing as well. People are staying for the opportunities that they have in their home country, which they ought to. I’m not willing to wait until some politicians say that everything is OK, when they won’t have much motivation in the future to say that it’s OK. That’s not the politics of this issue. So I disagree there. 

CAIRO REVIEW: Is that a deliberate, cynical tactic? They’ll allow a pathway to citizenship, and then they put a condition that invalidates the opportunity?

JULIÁN CASTRO: One would hope not. Perhaps we should give folks the benefit of the doubt because they are close to a compromise. But I disagree with that component of any kind of compromise. Secondly, there is the issue of the time frame. At least the numbers I’ve heard suggest that it would be eight to ten years that it would take someone to earn citizenship. I believe that that time frame should be condensed perhaps to five to seven years. There’s no science to that. But if you have folks who have not broken the law while they’ve been here, who are working hard, who pay their back taxes, pay a fine, they learn English, they love the country, and you’ve cleared the backlog of legal applications first, then I believe they should be allowed sooner than a decade to become citizens. I’m confident that anybody who jumps through all of the hoops to become a citizen under the plan that is laid out is someone who loves the country, and who will be a net positive to the country as a citizen. Why not allow that in a shorter time period than taking a decade or so? 

CAIRO REVIEW: There are other options. You have the path to citizenship, but there is also the proposal to limit the opportunity to permanent residency while blocking the path to citizenship, and there is the deportation option.

JULIÁN CASTRO: The United States has been a brilliant country, but its lowest moments have come when it tried to segregate some folks into second-class status. Of course, slavery was the best example of that. The internment of Japanese during World War II. In this context, it doesn’t compare in degree of intensity to those incidents. However, I do believe that not allowing folks who are already here, who are for all intents and purposes functioning as Americans, prohibiting them from becoming citizens, and only legal residents, would create a group of second-class non-citizens that would not be healthy for the United States. You want people to swear allegiance to your flag. You want people to have their full stake in the advancement of the nation, not for them to have half a stake in it. 

CAIRO REVIEW: So there are two imperatives for reform, a moral imperative and an economic imperative?

JULIÁN CASTRO: A moral imperative, an economic imperative, and a civic imperative. It is better to have people fully signed up with America, than have them out there in the shadows without a full stake in the forward progress of our country. 

CAIRO REVIEW: Is there an international discussion to have on this, or is this purely an American domestic issue? That Mexico will just have to take it or leave it, whatever American politicians decide to do?

JULIÁN CASTRO: I’ve been encouraged by the conversation that President Obama struck up with President [Felipe] Calderón and now President [Enrique] Peña Nieto. They met in December and are going to meet again in the next couple of months. Both nations, Mexico and the United States, have an important role to play in helping to fix the broken system. Mexico, because its economy is growing at a good clip right now, is helping to reduce the number of undocumented immigrants coming into the United States. The United States, of course, has the primary role to play on this issue. But it has reached out to Mexico to see how they can collaborate, which I think it should do. 

CAIRO REVIEW: Is there a difference in Obama’s approach?

JULIÁN CASTRO: I believe that President Obama has been a bridge builder. I give President [George W.] Bush credit for trying as well. You haven’t seen at the presidential level in the last two presidents as much of a difference on this issue as you’ve seen in other issues, to their credit. There’s only so much that each country can do on the other side of the border without damaging political prospects for success. That’s touchy on both sides. You can’t have, in all honesty, a Mexican public official advocating much in the United States because that raises the ire of too many folks here. And on many issues you can’t have an American president campaigning in Mexico because of the complicated history between the two nations for instance on the drug war. But in concrete productive policy terms, [former Mexican President Vicente] Fox and Bush and Calderón and Obama have worked well together, without the bluster, to make progress on the issue. 

CAIRO REVIEW: President Bill Clinton’s administration dealt with immigration reform. President Bush’s proposals were similar to what is being discussed this time. Why is this issue coming to a head now?

JULIÁN CASTRO: There will be compromise now because the Republican Party has finally gotten the religion of demographic reality. Just two years ago, I had the opportunity to debate [former Colorado congressman] Tom Tancredo and [Kansas Secretary of State] Kris Kobach at a forum for Intelligence Squared in New York along with Tamar Jacoby [president and chief executive officer of ImmigrationWorksUSA] as my debate partner. These folks were talking about essentially how lazy this group of immigrants is compared to the previous groups, more reliance on welfare, a higher pregnancy rate. You had Herman Cain in the presidential race talking about electrified fences. [Congressman] Steve King from Iowa and others making inhuman comparisons about these immigrants to animals. That’s all changed because of the November 2012 election. They are not doing it because they suddenly had a massive change of heart. They had a change of political imperative. Frankly, I’m not much concerned at this point whether they had a true change of heart or it’s just their politics. The most important thing is to get to that legislation that will make a great difference in the lives of hardworking people. 

CAIRO REVIEW: What happened in the election?

JULIÁN CASTRO: Well, the fact that the Hispanic community came out at a much greater rate than it ever has. That, in important battleground states, the Hispanic community is a significant factor, and that that’s just growing in the future. This immigration issue became a kind of litmus test. It wasn’t always the most important issue. It wasn’t the most important issue to Hispanic voters. The economy was the most important issue, like it was for everyone. But this was a way of sorting out who was OK with Hispanics, and who wasn’t OK with Hispanics. And Republicans have realized that, and they fear it. They fear the political consequences and that’s why they suddenly changed their tune. 

CAIRO REVIEW: Did Mitt Romney lose the election to President Obama because of the Hispanic vote? The figures show that Obama won 71 percent of the Hispanic vote, compared to only 27 percent for Romney.

JULIÁN CASTRO: It was one component. Certainly the Hispanic vote was not the only reason that Romney lost. But it was an important component of it. And also among Asian Americans. For Asian Americans, I believe, the strong connection to immigrant communities also matters. I’m convinced that played a role in President Obama getting 75 percent of the Asian American vote. It is not just an issue for Hispanics. It has also been an issue for others.

CAIRO REVIEW: You mentioned Arizona Senate Bill 1070, the Arizona law passed in 2010 that cracks down on illegal immigration. Can you unpack that controversy?

JULIÁN CASTRO: SB1070 was part of a cycle that we see in the United States of anti-immigrant fervor, whether it was against the Germans a long time ago, or against the Japanese, or others throughout history. It’s not surprising that anti-immigrant fervor heated up in 2010 because we were in the middle of one of the worst recessions we’ve seen in a while. When you add up economic anxiety with fear of a growing ethnic population, it makes sense that you would see laws like SB1070. For Arizona, it’s unfortunate because in many ways that state represents the future. A city like Phoenix that is booming, part of the southwest sunbelt of the United States, a diverse community, a great state. But it shot itself in the foot on this one. The image that the state has is more negative than it was before. It lost tourism dollars. I’m sure it lost conferences that would have gone there. It’s lost a lot of good will, in the Hispanic community especially, and other parts of the United States. When you say Arizona, it has a meaning these days that’s not great. And so it has a lot of work to do to rehabilitate itself. 

CAIRO REVIEW: What is the objection to the legislation?

JULIÁN CASTRO: At two levels what they did was bad. The rhetoric around immigration was terrible. Whether it was [former Arizona State Senator] Russell Pearce, or [Maricopa County Sheriff] Joe Arpaio, using the term wetback. Talking about immigrants like they are animals. Making a kind of sport out of it, the way that Joe Arpaio has done in Maricopa County. Also going after ethnic studies programs in Tucson schools. Trying to impact by legislation whether folks who speak with an accent can teach English in the schools. There is a constellation of policies that have been pursued that have sought to limit the ability of both immigrants and Latinos to fully participate in America. And they have done it with a rhetoric that is red hot and plays to a nativist sensibility and that is not lost on people throughout the United States. So with SB1070, in terms of the mechanics of it, what’s so offensive is that it’s with a wink and nod they create a law that will allow folks to stop people they suspect of being there illegally. Everyone can understand who in the world they’re gonna be stopping—that’s not hard to understand—and ask them whether or not they are here legally, and so forth. That doesn’t seem American. That seems less than American. And the fact that they would target it essentially at brown people made it completely unacceptable. And harkened back to things that have happened in the United States that generally as a nation we are not proud of. 

CAIRO REVIEW: You said in your Congressional testimony that it is a “defining moment.” What did you mean by that?

JULIÁN CASTRO: It’s a defining moment for Congress because people believe that Congress is broken, that they can’t get anything done. And this is the one issue where there seems to be a light of hope that they can come together as two parties and get something good done. So there is an opportunity there. It is also a moment because of this awakening that many have had in the Republican Party about the need to update their perspective because of demographics. I don’t believe it is going to turn back any time soon. If they are smart, they will recognize that they need to be more inclusive than they have been. This is the defining way that they can begin that transition to a more inclusive party. 

CAIRO REVIEW: Underneath it all, this seems to be a debate about who is an American.

JULIÁN CASTRO: I agree. There has always been a question about who is an American. Throughout our history, our leaders have argued about who we are as Americans, and what makes someone an American. But generally, over time, we’ve settled on the idea that America is not a skin color, or a type of accent. It’s a perspective, and a willingness to work together to make our country stronger, whether you’re from Ireland or from Mexico, or from Italy or from China. And that remains true today. So sometimes if you have the last name González, people don’t think of you first as an American. They think of you as being from Latin America. But the fact is that people with the last name González have been Americans for generations now. So this idea that there is one type of American, that wasn’t true 150 years ago, and is even less true today. 

CAIRO REVIEW: As you noted, there’s actually net zero immigration at the moment. Is some of this debate being driven by a backlash among non-Hispanic whites who see the demographics changing? In the next fifty years, whites will no longer be in the majority.

JULIÁN CASTRO: I believe that there is anxiety out there. But the anxiety is not just around a changing demographic, it’s about a changing economic reality. The fact that a factory that used to employ two thousand people in the Midwest is down in Mexico, or it’s in China now. That employers generally need less employees to accomplish the same amount of work than they used to. The fear of whether the old model of working for a company and collecting your gold watch thirty-five years later, whether that model even exists any more. So all of the economic changes in our global economy have intimately impacted the anxiety that people feel. And that, combined with demographic changes and technological changes, adds up to a quicker lashing out—or I should say, adds up to an occasional lashing out—at groups. And immigrants—particularly if they tried to come in through the back door and not the front door—are a very convenient target for that anxiety. I believe that as our economic picture brightens, you are going to see a subsidence of a lot of that lashing out. And we already see that now. The fervor is not as heated as it was in 2010 and 2011. Part of that is because the economy has gotten stronger and stronger—it still has a long way to go. But it’s all of those things: technological changes, the global economy, and demographic changes, create this ‘perfect storm’ of anxiety. 

CAIRO REVIEW: Is the concept of America as a country of immigrants becoming lost as a prized American ideal? In his book, Who Are We?, Samuel Huntington called Mexican immigration “a unique, disturbing, and looming challenge to our cultural integrity.”

JULIÁN CASTRO: I would point to Texas. Texas was once part of Spain, and part of Mexico, and today has a population that’s 38 percent Hispanic, as of the last census, and 46 percent white non-Hispanic. It’s been the most successful state economically over the last several years. There’s no way one can say that it’s not infused with a lot of both cultures. Over time, the people attracted to America have been people who share the ideals that it was founded on. That’s what attracted them here. They have been the dreamers, the hard workers, folks willing to get their hands dirty in order to prosper. So, the filter has been that the people attracted to this county have been folks who wanted to be in the America that those ideals represent. There is not a big difference between the United States of yesteryear and the United States of now, in terms of those ideals. 

CAIRO REVIEW: Huntington argued that the problem with Mexican immigration is that it is extraordinarily high, and that Mexicans don’t assimilate enough into American society.

JULIÁN CASTRO: I believe that the Mexican experience will be like the Italian or the Irish experience, in terms of acculturation, language usage. It’s ironic that the fastest growing market for the Spanish TV networks in 2013 is English-dominant Hispanics. Univision and others have started these networks that are in English aimed at the Hispanic community. Fusion is one of them. They are going to completely turn on its head the perception of what Spanish language TV networks are. So that’s one development that demonstrates that progression of integration into society. I would also say that we are in a different place in the twenty-first century. Today in business, you’re rewarded if you speak more than one language. There are students all over the United States who speak English but are also learning a second language, and students around the world who routinely learn English and their home language. English is our dominant language, but there is room for communities that also are strong in another language. The way we evaluate that is different than the way we did fifty or a hundred or two hundred years ago. 

CAIRO REVIEW: Samuel Huntington again—one of his arguments is that this high rate of Mexican immigration into the southwest United States threatens to create two Americas.

JULIÁN CASTRO: That argument just hasn’t borne itself out over the hundreds of years that the Hispanic community has been strong in the southwest United States. A few years ago, for instance, the New York Times ran an article at the height of the Iraq War about the difficulty that military recruiters were having finding people. The story was about the city that was completely bucking the trend and that story was about San Antonio. That young people in this city were signing up at a much higher rate than the rest of the nation. This is a city that is 63.2 percent Hispanic, and over 90 percent of those Hispanics are Mexican. You see there that there is an ethos of service and a pride in the country, so much so that they are willing to go and die for the country. That should give confidence to folks that the growth of the Hispanic community is a replenishment of the ideals and the work ethic and service to country, not a subtraction from it. [On the threat to cultural integrity] the same thing was said historically about Germans and Chinese and others. I’m convinced we are never going to be completely rid of paranoia, but the more success that communities like San Antonio have, that are diverse communities—or like Los Angeles or San Francisco or New York—the more success that they have, the more they teach us about the strength of diversity in America versus the negative. 

CAIRO REVIEW: What’s your prediction about the passage of the immigration reform legislation this year? Is it a done deal?

JULIÁN CASTRO: It doesn’t look like a done deal yet, but I do believe it will happen in 2013. 

CAIRO REVIEW: Is there a civil war inside the Republican Party on this issue?

JULIÁN CASTRO: There’s no question that there is a splinter in the Republican Party between business Republicans and social conservatives. However even many of the social conservatives have come to recognize the importance of compromising on this issue. For that reason, I am confident that 2013 will be the year that legislation passes both houses of Congress. 

CAIRO REVIEW: What will be the impact on America, and specifically on the Hispanic community?

JULIÁN CASTRO: I believe that if this legislation passes, first it is going to make a positive impact on the lives of several industries and millions of immigrants. It will also send a positive signal to the Hispanic community that hopefully this time period of the blame game and ostracizing Hispanics in places like Arizona is over. In its own way, it will be a sort of offering of a handshake to the Hispanic community, that we recognize the important contribution that it is making to the United States, and that new immigrants will make to the United States. We can no longer separate the destiny of the United States from the destiny of Hispanics in this twenty-first century. As goes the Hispanic community, so will go the United States, in education, in work force development, in the ability to achieve the American dream. 

CAIRO REVIEW: In your Congressional testimony, you mentioned the interesting story of Benita Veliz.

JULIÁN CASTRO: She was brought to the United States when she was child by her parents. She went to Thomas Jefferson High School, which I know because that was my alma mater as well. She graduated valedictorian, and went to college as a National Merit Scholar, and graduated from St. Mary’s University at the age of 20, and has been a leading voice for changing our laws. Benita and over a million Dreamers [young illegal aliens who would be eligible for permanent residency under the DREAM Act first proposed in Congress in 2001] hopefully will benefit from the legislation that Congress passes this year. She has the opportunity, if there is a pathway to citizenship, to earn citizenship, so she doesn’t have to live in the shadows anymore. She would be able to live in the United States without fear of being deported. Many folks have been deported over these last few years. However, there has been more sensitivity to the situation of people like Benita over the last year or so.

Refugees and Researchers

A full five months earlier, Egyptian government officials had already put the number at 150,000. What accounted for this discrepancy, the researchers wanted to know. Thus began CMRS’s latest endeavor: a comprehensive study to get a picture of the Syrian refugee crisis, and provide a better guide to addressing it for international, regional, and local policy makers.

CMRS grew out of the Forced Migration and Refugee Studies program, one of only six in the world, established at AUC in 2000. Besides conducting research, the center offers a master’s degree as well as training programs for civil servants and non-governmental organization staff. The approach is strongly interdisciplinary, providing specialized instruction and training in areas such as sociology, law, psychology, mental health, politics, and economics. The center runs the Cairo Community Interpreters Program, which trains interpreters serving different refugee communities in Egypt.

CMRS Director Ibrahim Awad says that migration and refugee topics are vastly understudied. He adds that a particularly neglected area is labor migration, considering the waves of people leaving, coming to, and moving within the region in search of work. CMRS is working on two studies in this area; one on whether young Egyptians are interested in migrating for jobs elsewhere, and the second on attitudes toward economic migration and policies affecting it in Egypt and Tunisia in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. “Migrants are no less deserving than the exiled,” says Awad, formerly director of the International Migration Programme at the International Labor Organization. “They don’t have a universally adhered to international legal instrument for their protection.”

CMRS’s Syrian refugee study, which the center will carry out for the UNHCR, follows up a similar one conducted on Iraqi refugees in Egypt in the aftermath of the 2003 war in Iraq. The first question is why so many of the Syrian refugees have failed to register with the UNHCR, the international body mandated to provide legal protection and humanitarian assistance. Another important goal of the study is to determine how the refugees are coping amid political instability and economic decline in their host country. Other critical questions include how the refugee conditions have made women vulnerable, and whether young girls are being forced into early marriages due to economic hardship. With the Syrian war and the refugee flow showing no signs of ending, CMRS’s work on the crisis has only just begun.

Diary of a BDS Activist

Such is the unsentimental wallop of Noura Erakat, 32, a lawyer who has emerged as a leading voice in the United States for Palestinian rights. She has debated conservative Fox television host Bill O’Reilly on “The O’Reilly Factor,” appeared on the liberal “Up with Chris Hayes” program on MSNBC, and spoken in countless university halls and protest gatherings across the country.

The boycott Israel movement is what first put Erakat in the limelight. In 2001, as an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley, she helped launch a divestment in Israel campaign by Students for Justice in Palestine. That led to an active part in building Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions, or BDS, the global movement launched in 2005 that aims to isolate Israel by cutting economic, cultural and academic ties.

In an interview following her talk at AUC, Erakat recounted how growing up in a household where her immigrant parents granted her fewer privileges than her three brothers first fired her understanding of injustice. “It was that same lens that lent itself very well for me to analyze what was happening in Palestine and Israel,” she says. She happened to be doing a semester abroad at Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 2000 during the Second Intifada. “I became much more vocal and confrontational,” she recalls. Her Israeli classmates, as Erakat saw it, “lived in a bubble.”

That launched her involvement in trying to build a mass movement that would aid Palestinians by applying international pressure on Israel. Besides her work with the BDS movement, she worked on the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation. A stint working on Capitol Hill reinforced Erakat’s instinct that change will ultimately come from people, not governments. A main focus now is to help balance the narrative about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “The goal is to crack open a space in the American discourse to discuss an otherwise un-discussed topic,” says Erakat, who teaches law at Georgetown University and Temple University. “We can’t be polite about this. Israel’s not polite in its violence in order to forcibly displace Palestinians on a daily basis.”

Oriental Hall, etc.

William B. Quandt, who served on the National Security Council in the Nixon and Carter administrations, noted that in his first term Obama focused on major domestic issues like the economy and health care, and after grappling with Iraq and Afghanistan became more skeptical about re-making the world. Nonetheless, Quandt observed, the Middle East—first, the crisis over Iran’s nuclear program, and second, what to do about the bloodshed in Syria—will inevitably be on Obama’s second-term agenda. His advice to the White House: “Anyone who has watched the previous administrations must notice that if you are to have a successful second term, you cannot wait to the last year to make your moves.”

In addressing the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, Obama faces two sides that are internally divided and have not made a “definitive conclusion” that they want a peaceful two-state solution, according toDaniel C. Kurtzer, former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Israel. “Yet,” he said, “each time the Israelis and Palestinians have sat down for negotiations, they’ve made substantial progress.” If the parties can be persuaded to reach mutually agreeable concessions rather than perpetuate conflict, Kurtzer added, “they might need help in establishing a vision of what the outcome might be like. In this, the U.S. can help.” Kurtzer and Quandt are co-authors of  a new book, The Peace Puzzle: America’s Quest for Arab-Israeli Peace, 1989-2011.

Does Obama have an overall philosophy that can be used to predict future actions? “That is hard to pin down, because he is pragmatic rather than dogmatic,” said William A. Rugh, former American ambassador to the United Arab Emirates and Yemen. But Rugh said Obama clearly favors the use of diplomacy over force, direct engagement over confrontation, and multilateralism over unilateralism. In Obama’s responses to the uprisings in Bahrain and Yemen, Rugh argued, U.S. strategic interests—such as a military base in the former, and the fight against Al-Qaeda in the latter—trumped democracy promotion.

Land of Immigration

As one of the four cradles of human civilization, the Nile valley and environs have witnessed a long succession of migrations that have forged and re-forged the population of the area.

In the context of the Arab Spring, international migration will matter increasingly in Egyptian domestic politics and in its relations with other countries. Egypt will have a particularly high stake in regional developments because those events are likely to affect Egypt directly as witnessed by influxes of refugees and other migrants from Eritrea and the Sudan, the rest of North Africa and, most recently, Syria. Egyptians need to be mindful that most of future population growth worldwide is expected to occur in sub-Saharan Africa and countries like nearby Yemen.

Egypt is a less significant migration transition country than Turkey or Morocco but appears to share their destiny. They are becoming lands of immigration and increasingly need public policies to regulate international migration ranging from refugee inflows to non-nationals employed in the informal economy. Migrations viewed as temporary often result in settlement. So careful thought will need to be given to naturalization policies and perhaps legalization.

Democratization increasingly implies enabling diasporic populations to participate from abroad. Modalities available include absentee voting and consular voting although some democracies require emigrants to return home to vote. One of the more interesting questions for future research is to inquire into the role played by diasporic populations in the Arab Spring.

Another interesting question for future research involves Islamic values and ethics as they pertain to the formulation of public policies to regulate international migration in mainly Islamic societies. Perhaps predominantly Islamic states will regulate international migration in a distinctive way that is quite unlike those approaches witnessed in Europe or North America.

While we are unaccustomed to thinking about Egypt as a land of immigration, it has an immigration history second to none. The Egypt we know today is a product of that history and is fated to continue to be enriched by a new wave of international migrants in the future. It is fully part of what colleagues and I term the “Age of Migration,” the period roughly coincident with the onset of the most recent wave of globalization circa 1970. Can Egypt become one of those states that succeed in harnessing the potential inherent in inter-state human mobility in the interests of not only Egyptians, but the migrants as well? The answer to this question will increasingly affect the future evolution of Egyptian society and politics.

Mark J. Miller is the Emma Smith Morris Professor of Political Science and International Relations at the University of Delaware. He is the co-author of The Age of Migration.

Struggle of the Middle East Refugees

Throughout history, the Middle East has been one of the major crossroads of humanity, where continents, cultures, and ideas intersect. People have always been on the move in this corner of the world, though not always voluntarily so. Like other troubled regions, the Middle East has produced, and hosted, millions of refugees over the past decades. Two years since the beginning of the Arab Spring, a long and difficult transition period now lies ahead for the region. Its old and new refugee crises form part of the various challenges it must grapple with during this process. The Middle East’s strong tradition of hospitality and generosity towards neighbors in need will continue to be one of its most powerful assets in this effort. In order to uphold this tradition in the face of fundamental and delicate political and social change, the region will require robust support from the international community.

Exodus from Syria

Ravaged by the most complex and devastating of the world’s current crises, Syria has itself a long and generous history of providing refuge to people in need of sanctuary, including Palestinian and Iraqi refugees. This makes the current suffering the Syrians have to endure all the more heartbreaking. The horrendous bloodshed that is now entering its third year has displaced over four million Syrians internally, many of them uprooted again and again as the fighting spreads and the entire country is engulfed in violence and chaos. Their situation is extremely precarious, and without unrestricted humanitarian access to those in need, it is getting worse every day. For more and more people, becoming refugees is the only way to survive; over 1.3 million people have already fled across borders to seek safety abroad. Since the beginning of 2013, nearly 50,000 people have been fleeing Syria every week to Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq. Growing numbers go even farther, to North Africa and Europe. But too many do not make it to safety, and end up trapped in war zones or dying during the perilous journey to the border.

Most refugees who do manage to cross the borders do so during the dead of night, often with nothing but the clothes on their backs, and tell gruesome stories of the hell they left behind. Once they cross into safety, they find shelter with relatives and friends, in public buildings, or rapidly growing camps. In one of the worst winters in the region in many years, humanitarian agencies race against the clock to register new arrivals and provide them with shelter, blankets and mattresses, heaters and cooking sets, food, medicines, and clean water.

Children suffer the most, and more than half of Syria’s refugees are under age eighteen. Many of them have lost parents, siblings, or friends, seen their houses and communities bombarded, and their schools destroyed. The level of trauma and psychological distress, especially among the youngest, is appalling, and despite their best efforts, humanitarian agencies do not have the capacity to respond adequately to these needs and help heal the wounds the war has left on these children’s psyches. Hundreds of thousands of young lives have already been shattered by this conflict, leaving the future generation of an entire country marked by violence and trauma for many years to come.

This conflict must stop, and a political solution must be found so as to bring peace back to Syria and its people, although in the current scenario there is little reason to hope that day is near. In the meantime, all we can do as humanitarians is to continue our appeals for civilians to be spared, and for the help we can provide to be allowed to reach those in need. Humanitarian access to the displaced, regardless of their location, continues to be the biggest challenge in the response inside Syria, along with that of finding adequate financial resources. Delivering assistance in some areas of the country is highly challenging, and the majority of humanitarian agencies were for a long time unable to access people displaced in northern Syria and other contested regions. Only in late January, was the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) able to start delivering emergency winter relief to areas north of Aleppo. Getting there requires constant close consultations with all parties to the conflict and strict adherence to humanitarian principles. The risks involved are high, but the price of not trying is even higher.

Plight of Iraqi Refugees

But Syria is far from being the only refugee situation needing attention in the Middle East. There are still hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees hosted in the region after a massive displacement wave was sparked by sectarian violence that started after the first Al-Askari mosque bombing in February 2006. At the height of the crisis, an estimated 2 million people had become internally displaced, and nearly as many had fled abroad, most notably to Jordan and Syria, but also to Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey, and the Gulf states. Most refugees were of an urban background and chose the region’s large cities as their place of exile.

Syria and Jordan still host the largest Iraqi refugee populations in the region. Nearly 64,000 Iraqi refugees are registered with UNHCR in Syria, and some 30,000 in Jordan. The governments of both countries estimate that there are hundreds of thousands more living in Syria and Jordan. Over the years, this added urban population has increased the pressure on the resources of both countries, with prices for oil, electricity, and water having risen by as much as 20 percent, and rents skyrocketing. Iraqi refugees cannot work legally in either country, and after having lived on their savings for as long as they could, more and more of them have grown impoverished over the years. Requesting assistance is seen by many as dishonorable and demeaning to their family’s name, and many only register with UNHCR when they become so vulnerable that they are no longer able to fend for themselves. Host countries continue to shoulder much of the burden of assisting Iraqi refugees, to provide them with access to national health and education infrastructures.

Iraqis were, and still remain, one of the largest urban refugee populations in the world. Urbanization is a dynamic process, and when Middle Eastern capitals began receiving large numbers of Iraqi refugees, the humanitarian community had not yet adjusted to this new reality, having worked mainly on the basis of traditional, camp-based responses to mass displacement. Operating in cities is challenging, as refugees are intermingled with other urban residents and the activities of humanitarian agencies must be supportive of—rather than separate from—those of national authorities.

As a result of this, humanitarians have had to review and adapt their response mechanisms. In the case of UNHCR, the Iraqi refugee operation triggered a number of innovative changes in the way the agency assists urban refugees. More efficient registration and reception systems helped reduce waiting times; community outreach mechanisms became more proactive, for example through the use of SMS messages; and cash assistance using ATM cards replaced earlier in-kind schemes. Many of these new approaches are now being employed to address the needs of Syrian refugees, especially in Jordan and Lebanon where the overwhelming majority of the refugees is once again being accommodated in urban areas.

Although there has been some improvement in the security situation inside Iraq over the past years, the country remains deeply fractured and struggles to gain stability. Returns have been taking place—UNHCR has recorded some 215,000 returned refugees since 2009—but over one million Iraqis remain internally displaced. UNHCR has been running a large resettlement operation from the Middle East to help Iraqi refugees restart their lives in third countries, with more than 80,000 having been accepted by countries such as the United States, Canada, and Australia since the operation began in 2007. However, this solution is only open to a small fraction of the refugee population due to a limited number of places in receiving countries. There are no real prospects of local integration for Iraqi refugees within the region, leaving thousands who may never be able to return facing an uncertain future.

The Case of Yemen

Despite the fact that it is the poorest country in the Middle East, and deeply riddled with instability itself, Yemen has for many years had the region’s most generous refugee policy and provides prima facie refugee status to all Somalis arriving on its territory. The country currently hosts some 230,000 refugees, almost all of them Somalis, and almost all of them facing a bleak prospect of achieving any durable solutions in the near future. In addition, more than 100,000 people arrive every year on Yemen’s shores from the Horn of Africa, having crossed the Gulf of Aden in crowded and often unseaworthy boats, with the hope of finding safety in Yemen or economic opportunity in countries further to the north.

The means they use to travel, often through human smuggling rings, are highly dangerous, and hundreds have died during the perilous journey. Many others are beaten and abused by smugglers during the trip and arrive traumatized and ill on the Yemeni coast. UNHCR supports several NGOs who run reception centers along the 2,000-kilometer coastline, rescuing people from the sea and providing emergency care—or burial assistance—after passengers are pushed off boats by smugglers eager to return to international waters. This mixed flow of refugee, asylum-seeker, and migrant arrivals is an added challenge for Yemen, compounding its own fragile economy, very limited public health and education services, and highly volatile security environment.

Nearly 400,000 Yemenis themselves remain internally displaced as a result of fighting between government forces and Houthi rebels in the North, and a separate conflict in the southern Abyan governorate which started in May 2011. Some 100,000 have returned to Abyan since mid-2012, with UNHCR providing transport, basic relief, and shelter items as well as legal assistance. However, the displacement situation in the North remains unresolved. This year sees the country entering a crucial transition phase, with the government expected to introduce reforms that will facilitate more inclusive political processes and help stabilize the country. The future of Yemen’s displaced populations will depend on the government’s ability to ensure lasting success for this process.

With its own transition in a critical phase, and the added pressure of displacement challenges, Yemen needs strong support from regional and global actors to allow the country to move forward toward increased stability. Media attention is focused elsewhere, and support for economic development is scarce as long as the country continues to be as fragile as it is. This is a dangerous cycle that must be broken in order to ensure Yemen can overcome its internal crisis—and enable it to maintain the enormous contribution to regional stability it has been making, quietly, for many years by taking in so many refugees.

Libya, Two Years Later

The Libyan displacement crisis has long disappeared from the media spotlight, although not all of its components have yet been resolved. The Libya case was one of the largest mixed migration crises in the history of the region. More than 800,000 people crossed Libya’s borders, mainly to Tunisia and Egypt, in the space of a few months in early 2011. At the height of the conflict, daily arrival rates peaked at around 14,000 at the Tunisian border. Those fleeing included migrant workers, refugees from other countries, and Libyans themselves—all in all, more than 120 nationalities were represented. This tremendous diversity of national origin, profile, and protection needs made the Libya operation extremely challenging.

The substantial population outflows from Libya occurred at a time when the two main receiving countries—Tunisia and Egypt—were themselves experiencing fundamental political change and fragility. Nonetheless, both of these countries kept their borders open to the massive number of arrivals, and thousands found shelter with local communities. Together with the International Organization for Migration (IOM), UNHCR started a humanitarian evacuation by air and sea that eventually helped some 300,000 people to return to their home countries. Those who remained were mainly refugees and asylum-seekers from other countries who had been living in Libya, and who now had nowhere to go. UNHCR appealed to the international community for additional resettlement spaces for this group, to help them find a durable solution to their situation while at the same time easing the pressure on host countries. Some 3,700 have been accepted for resettlement, but several hundred still remain with no prospect for durable solutions.

Libya’s delicate post-conflict transition now offers both opportunities and challenges. Confrontations between armed militias, increasing instability in the east of the country, and the escalation of inter-ethnic and tribal conflicts pose significant challenges for the new government. In addition, of the more than half a million Libyans who were estimated to be internally displaced during the most intense period of fighting, nearly 60,000 remain displaced or have been uprooted again by fresh fighting. Many of the displaced belong to minority groups who are either unable or unwilling to return—thousands remain barred from going back by militias who control many of Libya’s rural areas.

The country’s location on one of the major mixed-migration routes towards Europe poses another serious challenge. Refugees and asylum-seekers from countries such as Somalia, Sudan, or Eritrea, are often comprised in these mixed movements. Travelling by the same means as economic migrants—often using smugglers—they risk being treated as illegal migrants without regard to their specific need for protection as people fleeing violence and persecution. Like most countries in the Middle East, Libya has no functioning national asylum system, and much of UNHCR’s work in the country is focused on helping the new Libyan authorities develop protection-sensitive migration policies. This is just one among many challenges facing the country in the tough period ahead, and while Libya may not need the same economic support as many of its neighbors, international political support for its efforts to build a modern and democratic institutional system are vital.

The Palestinian Tragedy

One must not forget that by far the largest and most protracted of all refugee problems today, not only in the Middle East region but in the world, is that of the Palestinian refugees, whose ordeal dates back nearly 65 years. Today, more than five million Palestinian refugees are dispersed across the Middle East, with hundreds of thousands more scattered throughout the world. The vast majority of them—those residing in Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, as well as the West Bank and the Gaza Strip—fall under the mandate of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNWRA). With a broad humanitarian mandate focusing mainly on education, health, social services, and microfinance, the overwhelming majority of UNRWA’s more than 30,000 employees are refugees themselves. UNRWA has been faced with serious funding shortages in recent years, rendering one of the world’s most vulnerable refugee populations even more at risk. While the humanitarian aid and assistance UNRWA provides to the Palestinians can never be enough, it will be required as long as the issues of statelessness, prolonged military occupation, economic marginalization, and vulnerability characteristic of the Palestinian refugee crisis are not addressed.

The Palestinians’ continued refugee status leaves them fundamentally at risk, and each of the crises afflicting their host countries in recent years has further aggravated the difficult situation of Palestinian refugees in the region. After the fall of Saddam Hussein, many Palestinians in Iraq were subjected to harassment, torture, and targeted attacks. Thousands who tried to escape were trapped, many of them in the no-man’s land near the borders with Syria and Jordan where they lived for years in extremely harsh desert conditions. UNHCR tried to identify alternative solutions to bring them to safety, and some 3,000 particularly vulnerable persons were eventually resettled to more than a dozen different countries. However, the situation of many of Iraq’s Palestinians continues to be fragile.

In Syria, the more than half a million Palestinians registered with UNRWA had been well integrated into society; they were allowed to work and were given access to social services. The Syrian internal conflict has given a new dimension to their plight, with nearly 80 percent of refugees registered with UNRWA in Syria now requiring special assistance due to the conflict, and thousands having been further displaced by the violence. Some 30,000 have fled to Lebanon, where they have found shelter in existing and overcrowded camps, often in very difficult conditions. Humanitarians continue to appeal to all parties involved in the conflict to respect and protect the Palestinians, but these calls far too often go unheeded and they find themselves trapped again and again in violent incidents, such as the attacks on Yarmouk Camp outside Damascus. The international community needs to provide stronger support to UNRWA’s efforts inside Syria and to help prevent another massive displacement of Palestinian refugees which would have devastating consequences on regional stability and efforts to preserve asylum space.

Helping the Hosts

The story of refugees cannot be told without also telling the story of those who shelter them, often at enormous cost to themselves. The Middle East is home to both the world’s oldest and its most recent refugee crisis, and although few states in the region have signed the 1951 Refugee Convention, providing shelter and protection to those seeking safety at their borders is a deeply engrained commitment in most Middle Eastern countries. In fact, Islam’s 1,400-year-old tradition of generosity toward people fleeing persecution has had more influence on modern-day international refugee law than any other historical source.

As a study published in 2009 by UNHCR in cooperation with Naif Arab University and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation sets out, hospitality towards the needy stranger is deeply rooted in one of the key tenets of Islam. The Holy Qur’an calls for the protection of the asylum-seeker (al-mustamin), whose safety is irrevocably guaranteed under the institution of aman. This generous treatment is the same for Muslims and non-Muslims, as set out in the Surat Al-Tawbah: “And if anyone of the disbelievers seeks your protection then grant him protection so that he may hear the word of Allah, and then escort him to where he will be secure. That is because they are a people who do not know.” (Surah 9:6) One measure of a community’s moral duty and ethical behavior is how it responds to calls for asylum. The extradition of al-mustamin is explicitly prohibited. This same principle, known as non-refoulement, is one of the cornerstones of modern refugee law, banning the forceful return of refugees to a place where their lives and freedom may be in danger.

But the traditional generosity of Middle Eastern countries towards refugees from the region comes at a high cost. The capacities of host countries today are dangerously overstretched. The acute pressure on water resources in Jordan is but one example. In Lebanon, the influx of Syrian refugees has increased the population of this tiny country by nearly 10 percent. At a time when nearly all of the countries hosting large numbers of refugees in the region are themselves subject to varying degrees of political instability, social tensions, economic challenges, and security concerns, they need all the support they can get to help maintain the delicate balance of attending to their own societies’ needs while sheltering hundreds of thousands of refugees.

International donor support to refugees in the Middle East has been stronger than in many other regions of the world, but direct support to the victims is not enough. The world’s solidarity must translate into real burden-sharing and responsibility-sharing, supporting governments and communities in refugee-hosting countries. Countries that have borne the brunt of the refugee crisis must be given the means to manage this additional pressure. This is true both in the emergency response phase and during the collective pursuit of durable solutions which—as many of the situations described above illustrate only all too well—can take years. Solidarity can take many forms: during exile, it means providing development assistance to refugee-hosting areas, or making additional resettlement opportunities for refugees available. Once conditions are ready for voluntary return, solidarity programs must focus on the provision of essential services and job opportunities in the countries of origin to ensure reintegration is sustainable.

In this context, the donor support which countries from the region are providing through their own channels to refugees and their hosts, both in the Middle East and beyond, is encouraging. Take the example of Syria: a month after the United Nations launched one of the biggest humanitarian aid appeals in its history, asking for $1.5 billion over six months to assist those affected by the conflict in Syria as well as refugees in the surrounding countries, an international donor conference hosted by Emir Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jabir Al-Sabah of Kuwait in January brought in promises of $1.5 billion to support humanitarian assistance. Some two-thirds of the forthcoming funds were announced by Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. While these pledges are yet to be realized, the amount indicates strong international financial support for the people of Syria.

Gulf donors are also becoming increasingly active in international humanitarian fora, with the UAE quickly evolving into the industry’s most important emergency logistics hub. In addition, governments and charities are contributing actively to current humanitarian debates and to innovation, via initiatives such as the Dubai International Humanitarian Aid and Development. As they further expand their role as international donors, the Gulf countries’ efforts could stand to gain in traction and effectiveness if they were better integrated with multilateral frameworks in the future. Better coordination on the ground would help improve the efficiency, flexibility, and sustainability that are needed when trying to stretch generous but on the whole insufficient funding to meet ever-growing humanitarian needs.

Beyond Humanitarianism

The Middle East today is not the world’s only trouble spot, but it is by far its most visible one. While this visibility may to some extent facilitate the humanitarian response to its crises—thanks to the additional funding and space for advocacy that often accompanies media attention—it has done nothing so far to help bring about actual solutions to the region’s current conflicts. These solutions cannot be humanitarian. They will not be military. They must be political.

The world we live in has become more dangerous than it was two decades ago. Unpredictability has become the name of the game. Crises are multiplying. Conflicts are becoming more complex and intractable, and are exacerbated by rapid demographic change, urbanization, and dwindling natural resources including food, water, and energy. At the same time, the world lacks the governance capacity to deal with these challenges. There is no effective multilateral approach to any of them.

Large refugee populations are the visible result of many of these crises, but they often stay on long after the conflict in question has ceased to be in the spotlight of media attention. In the Middle East, this is the case for almost all of the large displacement situations, which keep millions of people languishing in exile and with uncertain prospects for the future. At the moment, all eyes are focused on the plight of Syria, its people, and its refugees. Given the current gloomy outlook for Syria’s future, there is a real risk that this newest refugee crisis could be added to the list of protracted situations of exile that plague the region. The international community must do whatever it can on the political level to prevent this from happening.

The Middle East’s refugee crises are symptomatic of many of the region’s political and security challenges. Large-scale displacement is also a source of concern for the stability of the region in general, and receiving countries need robust international support to help stabilize their economies and enable governments to maintain their generous open-border policies that are at the basis of refugee protection. In a region that has become the world’s biggest producer of forced displacement and where peace and stability remain elusive for many, much will have to change in the coming years to help governments and communities cope with these challenges. Politically inclusive arrangements are needed, which extend to displaced populations, to bring sustainable solutions to those who have been uprooted from their homes. For this to happen, the many emerging civil society actors in countries across the region have an important part to play, and should be strongly supported. The international community must go beyond offering humanitarian assistance to the human fallout of war, it must provide real political and economic support throughout the long and extremely difficult transition period that lies ahead.

António Guterres has served as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees since 2005. He oversees 7,685 staff members working in 126 countries, and an annual budget of $3.6 billion. He was prime minister of Portugal from 1995 to 2002, during which time he was heavily involved in the international effort to resolve the crisis in East Timor. As president of the European Council in early 2000, he led the adoption of the Lisbon Agenda and co-chaired the first European Union-Africa summit.

“To Live, Not to Die”

Ali Hamouda has a game he likes to play at the petrol station in northern Jordan where he now works pumping gas.

“That car that just came in belongs to my wife’s cousin,” Hamouda says, indicating a small red Fiat. “He is so fat that the car leans to one side when he drives it and the wheel always turns to one side.”

The blue Honda is owned by a neighbor who is so frugal that he used his children’s paints to cover rust stains on his car rather then spring for new bodywork. The white SUV belongs to a rich man in town that everyone knows has crooked business dealings in Lebanon. And the rattling grey Buick, that belongs to the mayor’s nosy wife.

Each car is a memory of the life Hamouda has lost. In Daraa, his hometown, the southern city where the uprising against the Bashar Al-Assad regime began in March 2011, he had a black Cadillac that he says he kept in pristine condition. When he drove it through Daraa’s streets, he would roll down the windows and chat with his neighbors. In the spring, he would park the car under the blooming jasmine bush in his front yard so when he drove to work in the morning, the sweet scent lingered.

“I remember these things about our lives in Daraa,” he says. “I remember my peaceful drive in the morning, before the streets were crowded with traffic. I remember my city when it smelled of jasmine, still and beautiful.”

A year ago, when Hamouda fled Daraa with his wife and four children, he took care to cover the Cadillac and ask a neighbor to keep an eye on it until he returned. The street outside his home had become a war zone. “I like to think it is there, waiting for me,” he says. “One day my family will go back, and it will be there.”

Hamouda is relatively fortunate. He is one of thousands of urban refugees in Jordan who left the sprawling refugee camps for a cramped, one bedroom apartment he shares with his wife and three daughters. In the villages along Jordan’s northern border with Syria, entire neighborhoods are now inhabited by refugees like the Hamouda family, who eke out a living at the gas stations and produce stalls, biding time and trying to create a sense of a home away from home.


“Hope Has Really Been Broken”

Even as thousands more Syrian refugees arrive in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey each day, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has warned that it will soon be out of money to cope for the vast needs of the community. In June, the money will run dry for the camps in Jordan, and United Nations officials estimate that a few months later, Turkey and Lebanon will follow.

Part of the problem is that UNHCR has only received 29 percent of the money it was promised by donor nations, with many countries across the Arab world failing to fulfill the amounts they had originally pledged. But UN officials said a larger problem is that with fighting in Syria still raging, no one can say how long the refugees will need assistance. “The needs are rising exponentially and we are broke,” said Marixie Mercado, a UNICEF spokeswoman in an interview with Al Jazeera in April.

Marin Kajdomca, the UN official in charge of the Zaatari refugee camp in northern Jordan, says that during one peak of the crisis some ten thousand refugees poured into the camp in one week. “There was discontent among people,” he recalls. “There was a situation where it was difficult to provide distribution, it was difficult to provide services for them.” At one stage a punishing winter storm hit the region, sending temperatures to freezing lows and dumping a blanket of snow on the Zaatari camp.

“It is trauma on top of trauma,” says Waheeba Walid, whose four-month-old grandson died during the storm. She explains that the baby had a pre-existing lung condition that was aggravated by the cold and dampness in the camp. “We ran away, out of Syria, to live, not to die,” she said.

To date, UNHCR has registered 1.3 million Syrian refugees in neighboring countries, a rise of one million people since this same time last year, when the UN said that there were 300,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.

“We want to ring the alarm bell. We are at a breaking point,” said Panos Moumtzis, the Regional Refugee Coordinator for the Syria at UNHCR. He said that even as projects see the number of refugees continuing to rise, aid money has nearly run out. He said that despite appeals for $1 billion the UN has only received $300 million.

Now, human rights workers and activists helping the refugees are being forced to make impossible choices. Do they cut immunization programs for the children or distribute less foodstuffs to adults? With anywhere between 7,000 to 8,000 new refugees arriving each day, the decisions they make have critical ramifications.

Human rights groups have already warned that the sexual exploitation of women and child labor has begun. Fathers, unable to care for their children, have pushed daughters as young as twelve and thirteen into marriages with wealthy Jordanian or Egyptian husbands that they hope will provide them with the basic staples of life—food and shelter.

Last month, one human rights activist, who shuttles between Lebanon and Jordan, said that she had seen a “change in mood” among the refugees.

“There is the beginning of this feeling of desperation,” she said, asking to be quoted anonymously because the international organization she works for had not given her permission to be interviewed. “Families are beginning to consider things they would never consider before—like selling their daughters or even moving the family back to Syria. You see that people’s hope has really been broken.” The numbers, she said, swell by the day. “When it hit one million a lot of people were shocked. Then the next day 14,000 people became refugees in one day. That should have been more shocking, but nobody took notice,” she said.

“The Clothes on Our Backs”

“Visit nearly any petrol station in Jordan or southern Turkey, and you will find a Syrian refugee,” says Yasmin Khaled. The 26-year-old comes from a wealthy family in Damascus, and has relatives in Beirut. She sits at a trendy café in downtown Amman and sips a green tea chai. “I know I’m one of the lucky ones,” she says. “I don’t really think of myself as a refugee.”

Khaled’s family has enough money stashed in bank accounts outside Syria that they can afford to rent an apartment in Amman, in addition to the home they purchased years ago in Lebanon. Khaled says she felt guilt when she saw photos of Syrian children playing in frozen mud in the Zaatari camp.

“I guess most Syrians didn’t save for a rainy day,” she says. “Nobody really thought that a Syrian person would be forced to beg for charity. It’s not our national character.” Khaled dreamily described the Syria of her youth as “a rock” and a “safe haven.”

Khaled’s father, Ibrahim, recalls days long ago that were also troubling for Syrians—the armed conflicts with Israel in 1967 and 1973, the civil war in Lebanon, and the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq for example. “She’s too young to remember the wars, but I remember them a bit and I heard the stories from my father and my grandfather,” he says. “It made me appreciate that I was raising my children in a time of peace.”

Syrians watched the wars raging around them with pity, Ibrahim Khaled says. He remembers desperate Lebanese refugees crossing the border into Syria, and Iraqis who arrived clasping plastic bags full of foodstuffs and clothes. “I thought to myself, ‘poor them,’ and helped some of them find jobs in a factory owned by my brother-in-law,” he says. “I would see them sometimes and they looked so empty, so shocked, and I thought to myself, ‘Well it is silly they did not prepare.’”

So when the day came that the protests turned violent, Ibrahim Khaled transferred money into foreign bank accounts and kept a close eye on the news. “I was always a pessimist,” he recalls. “Everyone thought I was crazy, they said the war would never come to Damascus.” In July 2012, after a car bomb in Syria’s capital killed four top security officials, including Al-Assad’s own brother-in-law, Ibrahim Khaled decided it was time to move his family abroad.

“I didn’t want to wait for the day when we would be bombed out of our homes and would leave with just the clothes on our backs,” he says. “I’ve already seen what that looks like.”

“We Don’t Know What to Believe”

Other Syrian refugees left only when they had no other choice, driven by the near certainty of violence and the prospect of death at home. Some say they can’t even remember the moment they became refugees, that it just happened step by step. Salma Fayouk had just finished her university studies and was facing pressure to marry her long-time boyfriend when fighting broke out in her hometown of Aleppo in northern Syria. First her family escaped their apartment on the northern outskirts of the city for a safer neighborhood toward the center. But, after a nearby building was bombed, they decided that the city, too, was unsafe and moved to a relative’s home in the countryside.

One day, Fayouk’s brother went missing. A few weeks later, the family was told that he had been killed by regime forces. Food became scarce and Fayouk and her sisters started to hear stories of rape and abduction. So the family moved a third time, crossing the border and settling in a refugee camp near the Turkish city of Hatay. Fayouk says that it was only there that she finally understood what had happened to her.

“I became a refugee without even realizing it, and sometimes it is hard to think of myself this way,” she says, speaking in a park near the camp. “Just a few years ago, I had a very secure life.”

Her parents talk of returning to Syria, but Fayouk and her sisters say they are trying to forge new lives for themselves. One sister is studying Turkish and another is considering an arranged marriage with a wealthy Jordanian relative. The family’s oldest son has started doing menial labor on farms around Hatay, but they are afraid he will be caught by Turkish authorities and punished. “We are running out of money but we aren’t allowed to work,” says Farouk. “It’s not fair and we really thought we would be back home by now.”

When she thinks back to her friends from university, she suddenly realizes how much has changed in two short years. Some are dead, and many more, she says, are missing. Men she once saw as nerdy engineering students have joined katibas, or fighting units, and have posted photos of themselves brandishing AK-47s on Facebook. She knows of families who have sought refuge in countries as far away as Libya and Britain, and others who are internally displaced in Syria, living with distant family in the countryside in villages too small to be of strategic importance to the war being fought around them.

“We are always waiting, watching the news and reading in the newspaper, to find out what is happening back home,” she says. “Some women here, their husbands are fighting in Syria and they bring back news that soon Al-Assad will be dead. But it’s been a long time that they’ve been saying this and we don’t know what to believe.”

“What Syria?”

Along Turkey’s border with Syria, not far from the Hatay camp, Syrian men in the makeshift uniforms of various rebel groups can be seen making their way to and from the border. It’s a constant reminder of the ongoing fighting, in a war that has already gone on far longer than anyone here expected.

Abu Mohammed used to be a history professor at a university in Aleppo. He asks to be identified by a pseudonym because much of his family remains in Syria, and one of his sons is fighting on the side of the rebels. Most days, Abu Mohammed sits at a small café in Hatay, and sips tea in front of a television tuned to Al Jazeera. “Everyone talks about going back to Syria when the war is over and Al-Assad is dead,” he says. “I want to ask them, ‘What Syria?’ There is no Syria left.”

Abu Mohammed explains that because of his reading of history, he knows what a civil war can do to a country. And because he is a Syrian, he knows how truly fragile his country is now. “Maybe we did, for a while, ignore divisions and exist as one country,” he says. “But those days are over. Today everyone wants to know: Are you Sunni? Are you Alawite? Are you pro-regime? Or against?”

Recently, he read an article that predicted the Balkanization of Syria, arguing that the country would be divided into warring factions for decades to come. “There is no word for someone who is a refugee but who has no country to go back to,” Abu Mohammed says. “Or at least, I don’t know that word. If there is, we should start using it for Syrians.”

Sheera Frenkel reports from Jerusalem for McClatchy Newspapers, the Times of London, and National Public Radio. In 2010 she won the British Press Award for Young Journalist of the Year. On Twitter: @sheeraf.

The Never-Ending Palestine Tragedy

As a consequence of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict, 750,000 Palestinians were forced to flee Mandate Palestine, leaving behind their homes, their property, and their land. Many expected to return within weeks. The events and the exodus came to be known among Palestinians as the Nakba or Catastrophe. Today, sixty-five years later, five and a half million Palestine refugees (1) remain in the neighboring countries of Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon and the occupied State of Palestine.(2) They are assisted by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), whose 30,000 refugee staff run its primary education, primary health care, social services, and micro-enterprise programs.(3) Another estimated five million refugees reside in the wider diaspora. None accept that that they are not entitled to the “right of return and/or compensation,” as guaranteed to them by United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194 adopted on December 11, 1948.(4)

Refugee law and practice, which applies to refugees all around the world, sets forth three ‘durable solutions’: repatriation (the first choice of refugees and usually of both the asylum country and the country of origin); integration in the country of asylum (offered by only a few host countries); or resettlement to a third country (available to a small number of refugees each year). Each refugee must make a voluntary choice among these three solutions. The first two solutions become viable only when the root cause of the original flight is resolved in a manner acceptable to the refugees, the host country, and the country of origin. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) frequently facilitates this agreement process.

Applying these practices to Palestine refugees reveals an obvious dilemma. For more than six decades, Palestinians have watched Israel whittle away the land which was once home. Israel enjoys the support of major powers that tolerate and sometimes promote the takeover of Palestinian territory, itself already reduced by 78 percent in the aftermath of the Nakba. The influx of a population believing that they have a biblical right to what had been Palestine meant that the ‘country of origin,’ to which the refugees demand the right to return, had no interest in, and in fact was strongly averse to, allowing that return. The durable solution of choice is unavailable to Palestine refugees, given that more and more of their former homeland is being taken over by Israelis. Their ‘country of origin’ is no longer ‘theirs,’ since it is populated by a people and run by a government who see them as a threat and are firmly—and actively—opposed to their ‘right of return.’

The shrinking of Mandate Palestine over time was accelerated after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, when the territory of the West Bank and Gaza Strip became occupied by Israel. The pace accelerated further still following the (infamous) 1993 Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements, and the 1995 Interim Agreement on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, more commonly known as the Oslo accords. This divided the West Bank territory of the occupied Palestinian lands into three parts: Area A, under Palestinian control, would cover 3 percent of the territory, subsequently increased to 18 percent; Area B, under joint Palestinian and Israeli control originally 21 percent, later 25 percent; and Area C, under full Israeli control, originally 72 percent, reduced to 61 percent.(5) Jerusalem was relegated to further negotiations (along with refugees, settlements, agreed borders, security, and other contentious “final status” issues). Today, there are 300,000 Israeli settlers among 2.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank,(6) mainly in Area C,(7) and another 200,000 in East Jerusalem.(8) Settler-only roads, security zones and restricted military zones protect the Israelis, leaving the Palestinians living in a series of enclaves disconnected by onerous, and unfriendly checkpoints, fences, and walls controlled by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

Twenty years after the first Oslo agreement proposed a step-by-step handover of the West Bank to the Palestinians, only 21 percent of the territory is under any semblance of Palestinian sovereignty. It remains closely monitored and often violated by the misleadingly titled Israeli Civil Administration, under the IDF’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories.

What are the prospects for Palestinians, and more specifically, for Palestine refugees? What of the 1.2 million refugees among the 1.6 million Gazans, the two million in Jordan, the 450,000 in Lebanon, and the 500,000 who have not yet fled war-torn Syria?(9) The majority of refugees are self-reliant. Only one-third live in the fifty-eight UNRWA ‘camps’ (usually urban neighborhoods in existing towns) and only 6 percent are considered vulnerable and benefit from social services.(10) Still, the dream of returning ‘home’ and the related wish to control their own destinies in a genuinely independent Palestinian state are ever present in the minds and hearts of refugees of all ages. While subscribing to this common determination, however, Palestine refugees get on with their lives, in many ways influenced by the different locations in which they are hosted.

Refugee Geography

The 1948 refugees in Jordan enjoy most of the benefits of citizenship—passports, employment in all but some sensitive security jobs, property ownership, health, education, and other state services. Refugees from the 1967 war (and thereafter, including the thousands of recent arrivals from Syria, now twice displaced) are not accorded the same privileges and are known as the Gazan or Jerash refugees (the latter term associated with the Jordanian camp where 24,000 Palestinians from Gaza live.) This group depends heavily on UNRWA services.

Refugees in Lebanon fare less well, given the sectarian nature and political organization of the country and the contribution, either actual or feared, Palestinians may make (or have made) to demographic and other conflicts, past and present. Unlike in the other host nations, some of the camps in Lebanon are tightly controlled by the Lebanese army. Palestinians cannot own land, property, or businesses and cannot get work permits for other than manual labor. Students find difficulty continuing their education beyond UNRWA’s elementary schools.

In many ways, Syria has been the ‘best’ place to be hosted as a Palestine refugee. Refugees were treated as ‘brothers and sisters’. Although not given nationality (or passports), they enjoyed most other privileges of citizens. They were not discriminated against in employment, education, or property ownership and often participated fully in the social and political life of the country.

For the first eighteen months of the current internal conflict in Syria, they managed to maintain neutrality that left them mostly unaffected by the violence, especially those in the large Yarmouk camp that houses 150,000 refugees on the periphery of Damascus. Eventually, what has become a non-international armed conflict (or civil war) began to intrude on the camp by the warring parties, as fighters and others took refuge in the camp, which then became a target for shelling and air strikes.(11)Statements supporting the Syrian opposition by Palestinian officials (representing the main Fatah and Hamas parties) were not well received by the government and some refugees themselves began to take sides in the struggle. Thousands of Palestine refugees affected by attacks on the camps or the towns and villages where they lived have now sought refuge in Jordan and Lebanon along with tens of thousands of Syrian refugees in each country. These numbers continue to grow, creating a humanitarian emergency and prompting worries about destabilizing the neighborhood more generally. In such an atmosphere, the Palestinians from Syria face additional difficulties in crossing these borders.

Difficulties for Palestine refugees in the occupied Palestinian territory (the West Bank and Gaza) are compounded by the Israeli occupation, including an exercise of complete control in and out of the territory as well as wherever settlements, military installations and security roads are present inside the West Bank.(12) The West Bank, although highly aid dependent, has managed at least to establish a growing economy and to function under a Palestinian National Authority.(13) The Authority’s efforts at legitimization were arguably rewarded in November 2012 when Palestine achieved United Nations recognition as a non-member observer state, since December known officially as the State of Palestine.

Gaza’s suffering as a result of seven years of blockade is well known. Movement of both people and goods is minutely presided over by the Israeli Civil Administration. The refugees in the West Bank and Gaza are full participants in the Palestinian polity, but suffer along with all others from living under occupation—the stifling and humiliating characteristics of which are difficult to convey unless experienced firsthand.

Adding to the vagaries of living and growing apart for more than six decades there is more recently the serious rift between the West Bank and Gaza in terms of the party politics of Fatah and Hamas, with each controlling a separate government although trying repeatedly to reconcile and unify. Bringing the leaders and supporters of the two groups together is a necessary condition for holding national elections and being able to resume negotiations on the long dormant ‘peace process.’ Internal strife is driven by opposing approaches to basic issues such as a secular state versus one based on Shari’a law and the methods for confronting or relating to the occupying power, as well as by plain old power politics. Such serious differences have been one of the excuses for external parties to retreat, at best, into a benign neglect of the Palestinian struggle for independence and justice. The divisions also allow, even justify, the unchallenged power of those, as in all conflicts, who benefit from the status quo. ‘Muddling on’ suits some stakeholders who fear losing power, position, or resources should there be a significant move toward resolving the conflict.

A Complimentary Narrative

Is there a way for Palestine refugees to escape their plight? Can new, different, better directions be devised or leaders found to engage in serious talks instead of endless, pointless, one-sided, make-believe ‘negotiations’? When will discussions begin that offer justice to Palestinians, including an economically and politically viable state with its capital in Jerusalem; fair, secure, and contiguous borders; and a solution to refugee exile acceptable to Palestinians and their hosts alike? Why is international law not referenced and not brought to bear on vital issues such as the illegal settlements and human rights violations that are condemned when they occur in other parts of the world?

There are few grounds for optimism and many reasons for frustration and fury at the persistent injustice. These emotions are also felt by many non-Palestinians who live and work among Palestine refugees with UNRWA and other organizations, especially those based in Gaza. My own presence there from 2000−10 and during the past three years of observing the region from both near and far, however, prompt me to share an additional, contrasting narrative.

My dry and depressing sketch of the Palestine refugee condition (and that of Palestinians more generally) is a political description of what Palestinians have endured over the past sixty-five years. It is intended as a partial summary of some of the ‘facts on the ground’ that are widely covered by analysts, academics, and journalists, some appreciative of the grievances borne by the Palestinians, others nuanced or skeptical about who is to blame. In any case, this rendering reflects what I observed myself, and heard repeatedly from Palestinian interlocutors.

It was there and then, while watching conditions deteriorate day by day, that I learned to appreciate the character, capabilities, and achievements of the Palestinians, refugee and non-refugee alike. While dealing with the setbacks of their recent history, Palestinians continue to believe in the future they have so long desired and deserved, and they are determined to carry on the struggle to achieve their rights. Those who believe in, and advocate adhering to international law, and who are, therefore, on the side of justice, freedom, and equality (as well as the thirty rights listed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, none of which is enjoyed by Palestine refugees), should also be willing and ready to support and help them work toward that future.(14)

Despite the grim rendition of obstacles and prospects that might discourage the hardiest of human beings, Palestine refugees, like so many other refugees facing oppression and deprivation, refuse to give up on their attempts to improve their immediate circumstances. And in this, they excel.

Steadfastness and resilience, two adjectives often used to describe Palestine refugees, are qualities that serve them well in their environment. While never losing sight of their political goals, they make every effort to live their lives as normally as possible. From the blockaded Gazans to the threatened population in Syria, five million Palestine refugees face their surroundings with strength, creativity, adaptability—and good nature. They are quite capable of voicing their complaints—and they do so often and vociferously—yet at the same time they get on with what life offers them.

Rarely is such widespread and fulsome generosity, hospitality, and sharing of available resources, however meager, on offer to strangers elsewhere, or the willingness to exchange thoughts and feelings to help outsiders understand their longings, their hopes, and their predicaments.

Also exceptional is the constant pushing back against impediments that appear in a new and more burdensome form each time the last one is overcome. When there is no vehicle fuel, sesame oil will do. When entry is blocked for everyday essentials, tunnels are dug. When year after year UN resolutions are blocked in the Security Council, move on to the General Assembly. If property ownership is denied, establish a partnership with a local citizen. Unfairly imprisoned by the occupying power? Go on hunger strike. Movement of goods complicated by rules, roadblocks, fences, and walls? Create your own internal self-sufficiency. Your land taken over by settlers and used for exports? Start a peaceful boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement. Too little land left for the two-state solution? Advocate living together in one, pluralistic, democratic state. Bombing of your tiny, fourteen-by-twenty-six kilometer strip of undefended land by the neighbor’s well-armed, sophisticated army? Show the world the devastation, show that you have survived and become stronger, shake your fist, and rebuild.(15)

Prizes and Pride

Examples are many of Palestinian ingenuity in addressing a gamut of issues from small inconveniences to the most consequential political proposals. It is enlightening to cite the non-violent means Palestinians have chosen to confront the constant undermining of their everyday lives. Quite simply, the majority of refugees use peaceful resistance to fight the denial of their rights in contrast to what captures the headlines, namely, the periodic eruptions of violent resistance when provocations become too much to bear. There are many more illustrations on the ‘human’ side of how Palestinians interact within their families, with their neighbors, and with the wider world.

One of their main preoccupations is to ensure a brighter future for their children. Therefore, crucial attention is given to education. Parents and children alike thirst for learning and opportunities to advance their knowledge and abilities. Proof abounds of refugee children excelling in nationwide exams in each of the countries hosting them, despite a comparative lack of resources and poorer living conditions. Last January, a fourteen-year-old student, Areej El Madhoun, from Jabalia camp in Gaza, won first prize among 2,500 contestants from ten countries in the Intelligent Mental-Arithmetic Competition, held in Malaysia every two years. Four other young Palestinians received awards in the competition.(16) Three Gaza female students participating in an UNRWA after-school program, Yara, 14, Nadeen, 13, and Rahaf, 11, gained places on the Palestine National and Olympic chess team. Yara was the youngest participant in the 2012 World Chess Olympiad in Turkey, and Rahaf won first prize in an Arab World Chess Competition in Yemen, also in 2012.(17)

One of my early experiences in Gaza was accepting an invitation to attend the ‘virtual’ graduation of Gaza engineering students from the West Bank’s Birzeit University in 2001. Virtual, as there were no travel permissions granted for families to witness the graduation in person.(18) The viewing auditorium was packed with whole families, from grandparents to infants. All the graduates and their family members were given a chance to take the microphone to speak. The room was awash in tears as, in that pre-Skype and Facetime era, none had seen each other for at least a year. Every person, young and old, in Gaza not only congratulated the graduate, but also wished that she or he would go on to get a master’s degree and a doctorate.(19)

In Syria today, displaced refugee medical staff are doing their utmost to keep twenty-three UNRWA clinics working, serving not only refugees, but also many other displaced persons in need of care. Two displaced nurses are caring for 1,500 displaced Syrians who have taken refuge in UNRWA’s Damascus Training Centre. A Palestinian midwife from the Khan Eshieh refugee camp received a midnight call in January this year to help deliver the baby of a Syrian woman who had taken refuge from fighting in Daraya (a strategic suburb of Damascus) in a camp shelter housing fifteen people. Fadia, the midwife, managed to deliver a healthy baby boy by candlelight—the electricity had gone out, and kerosene for the only lamp ran out as well.(20)

In 2011, engineering students from UNRWA’s Khan Younis Training Centre overcame enormous odds and obstacles imposed by the Israeli Civil Administration to enter a European technical universities’ competition to build a single-seat race car to be judged at the Silverstone Circuit in the United Kingdom. Their business plan won third prize and their financial report took ninth prize. And this despite the fact the blockade on Gaza prevented specialty parts arriving from Italy, meaning they lost points on their design and specification report. Their car had to be built using old-fashioned tools from parts salvaged from old cars and machinery. Those running the competition called the work of the Gaza students ‘remarkable’ and ‘inspirational.’(21)

These are but a few anecdotes to demonstrate achievements based on the values, abilities, creativity, generosity, and bravery of the Palestinian people and the refugees among them. They are examples of the strength of Palestinian determination and resilience. These traits move them to overcome past and present hurdles to excel in extraordinary ways.

Possibilities appear less bleak when one takes account of how innovative both young and old Palestinians are, how much they crave learning about the outside world, how they yearn for freedom—of movement and of thought, and for a future that does not circumscribe them physically or mentally. One of the most hopeful signs today is the current (though long planned) campaign for inclusive elections to the Palestinian National Council.(22) Palestinian refugee communities all over the world are demanding to participate in the national elections now being planned—with the aim of realizing their dreams of return, liberation, and national independence, and a viable, unified, and independent state.

If the international community or individual states and groups garner the political will to begin or continue to engage with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict by addressing the root cause, they must acknowledge and respond to the much battered but still healthy humanity of the Palestinians and their just demands. There is a pressing need to restore a long-lost balance by giving equal credit and respect to the positions of both parties to this conflict.

Equally essential is for those who presume to address the Middle East ‘peace process,’ both internally and externally, to consult the largest Palestinian constituency—the refugees. Only if the refugees are involved in planning for the future will there be a chance to move beyond claims and counter claims, recriminations and blame, and references to competing histories and definitions, to resolve this too-long, too-noxious conflict in a way that will be accepted by all sides. The welcome consequence will be to eliminate perhaps the key factor affecting stability in the region, and beyond.

Karen Koning AbuZayd served as commissioner-general for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) from 2005 to 2010. Based in Gaza, she oversaw education, health, social services, and microenterprise programs for four million Palestinian refugees. From 2000 to 2005, she was deputy commissioner-general of UNRWA. Previously, she worked for nineteen years in the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Since 2011, she has been a commissioner of the UN Human Rights Council’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry for Syria.

1 ‘Palestine’ is the designation for refugees from the 1948 exodus, as there were ‘nationalities’ other than Palestinian who also fled.
2 The United Nations General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to declare Palestine a ‘Non-member Observer State’ in November 2012. In response to a request from President Abbas, the UN recognized the ‘State of Palestine’ in December. Still, the state lacks many of the usual components attributed to an independent state, inter alia, sovereignty over a defined territory with secure borders, an economy where foreign and domestic trade is regulated, and a single national government.
3 As a ‘works’ agency, UNRWA implements its programs through its own 30,000 refugee teachers, health workers, administrators, and other experts, with a minimum complement of around 150 international staff.
4 Article 11 of Resolution 194 reads in part, ‘Resolves that the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible; Instructs the Conciliation Commission to facilitate the repatriation, resettlement and economic and social rehabilitation of the refugees and the payment of compensation…’
5 ‘Territory’ in the singular is the official/UN designation for West Bank and Gaza.
6 730,000 of these 2.5 million are refugees; 212,000 are in camps.
7 There are 150,000 Palestinian Bedouin facing constant harassment from the settlers.
8 Among 225,000 Palestinians, 50,000 of them refugees.
9 By mid-February, approximately 20,000 Palestine refugees had fled Syria to Lebanon with another 4,000 to Jordan.
10 The camp population in Jordan is 360,000 (10 camps); in Lebanon 234,000 (12 camps); in Syria 486,000 (9 camps); in the West Bank 212,000 (19 camps) and in Gaza 530,000 (8 camps). UNRWA statistics, 2012.
11 Thirty Palestine refugees were killed in the first week of February alone.
12 Despite the newly acquired State designation, since 1967 the territory of the West Bank and Gaza has been continually ‘occupied’ (not ‘disputed’ as some would have it), since movement through land, air, and sea borders is controlled by a ‘hostile’ army, which also asserts precedence in security matters. Additionally, many normal state functions, such as the collection of import duties, are carried out by the Israeli government ‘on behalf of’ the Palestinian entity.
13 Termed the Palestinian Authority by the UN.
14 Promulgated on December 10, 1948, the day before UNGA Resolution 194 was passed.
15 Rebuilding houses, factories, farms, and government buildings damaged or destroyed during the 2008 to 2009 and the 2010 Israeli military operations in Gaza has barely begun, given the restrictions placed on the entry of building materials.
16 See http://www.unrwa.org/etemplate.php?id=1592 (January 14, 2013).
17 United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East Press Releases, Lebanese minister tours refugee camp, discusses cooperation with UNRWA,http://www.unrwa.org/etemplate.php?id=1229 (January 24, 2012).
18 It is difficult (usually impossible) for most Gaza students to get permission from the Israeli authorities to leave Gaza to take up places in West Bank institutions—or any other universities outside Gaza.
19 Since university graduates in Gaza often cannot find employment, many do go on to get advanced degrees (after which they still may find no jobs). The number of PhD holders per capita in Gaza surpasses that of most countries.
20 See http://www.unrwa.org/etemplate.php?id=1599  (January 18, 2013);http://www.unrwa.org/etemplate.php?id=1610 (January 31, 2013).
21 Stuart Littlewood, Bring Gaza Race-car Students in from the Cold, The Palestine Chronicle,http://palestinechronicle.com/bring-gaza-race-car-students-in-from-the-cold/#.UWwD-cpvKis (June 5, 2012).
22 Success in this campaign would contribute to Palestinian unity and the reform and revival of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).

Engaging the Haitian Diaspora

Over the last five decades, Haiti has lost to the developed and developing world a significant amount of its already meager manpower resources, largely in the form of international migration. This has led to a significant pool of skilled human capital residing mostly in the Dominican Republic, the United States, and Canada as diaspora communities. Some estimates show that as much as 70 percent of Haiti’s skilled human resources are in the diaspora. Meanwhile, it is increasingly argued that unless developing nations such as Haiti improve their skilled and scientific infrastructures and nurture the appropriate brainpower for the various aspects of the development process, they may never advance beyond their current low socio-economic status. Faced with persistent underdevelopment problems and with language and cultural barriers, international aid agencies, development scholars, and practitioners are increasingly and loudly calling for diaspora engagement programs.

The processes required to construct successful diaspora engagement strategies for Haiti’s development, however, are not well understood and consequently merit serious attention. Programs make implicit and explicit assumptions about diaspora members that do not apply to the general understanding of how émigrés build or rebuild their worlds. Programs fail to place strategies within the larger framework of any national spatial-economic development plan or its implementation. Current engagement strategies treat nationalistic appeals and diaspora consciousness as sufficient to entice members of the diaspora to return or at least to make indirect contributions to their homeland. Improving diaspora engagement strategies for Haiti’s development should begin with a better understanding of the Haitian diaspora population—why they left in the first place, the activities they undertake, their competencies and resources, and how they can effectively contribute to their homeland.

Why They Left

The Haitian population had been largely stationary before the 1960s, save for labor migration to neighboring Caribbean islands. Haitian mass migration to the more developed countries, and especially to the United States, remained insignificant, primarily because of racial tensions and segregation. Less than 2,000 Haitians legally immigrated to the United States from 1900 to 1950. By the late 1950s to early 1960s, however, many from the upper and middle classes began to flee the dictatorial regime of François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, thus constituting the first wave of Haitian mass migration. This first wave brought Haitians to the United States, to Europe (mostly France), to French-speaking Canada, and to Francophone Africa.

Massacres, confiscation of property, and persecution of members of the educated and professional class propelled their outflow. Those who were believed to be communists were also targeted. My half-Chinese father was jailed more than a dozen times because the Duvalier regime believed that he would agitate the proletariat and peasant farmers. The dictator’s goal of building a new black aristocracy in Haitian society under the noiriste ideology (the black power or ‘black is beautiful’ movement) called for the extinction of the existing upper and educated classes, and the nationalization of their property and enterprises. The noiriste ideology was also the basis for Duvalier’s promotion of the emigration of Haitian professionals and technicians to the newly independent countries of Francophone Africa in the 1960s. By so doing, Duvalier did effectively reduce potential political opposition, but this period also marked the beginning of Haiti’s brain and capacity drain.

Changes in U.S. immigration law and civil rights laws in the 1960s facilitated this first wave of Haitian mass migration. United States support for the Duvalier regime, largely because of Washington’s preoccupation with Fidel Castro’s communist regime in Cuba (Haiti’s neighbor), further facilitated both legal and illegal immigration of Haitians to the U.S. during this period. The outflow of Haitian immigrants to the United States tripled by 1970—from about 3,000 per year in the mid-1950s to 10,000 per year by 1967, and then to 25,000 in 1970. Little effort was made by the U.S. government to contain the illegal flow from Haiti until the 1980s; The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) did not go after temporary visitors with non-immigrant visas, who remained in the U.S. from that time.

The second and heavier wave of Haitian migration to the U.S. came during the 1980s. In fact, over three-quarters of all Haitians now residing in the U.S. arrived after 1980. The largest recorded number (44,570) of legal Haitian immigrants to arrive within a one-year period occurred in 1980−81. The largest number of refugees to arrive on the shores of southern Florida in makeshift boats occurred in the same time period—25,000 arrived in 1980 and 8,000 in 1981. This outflow of boat people from Haiti to Florida persisted until the end of the Duvalier regime in 1986, but at a lower rate; averaging about 500 refugees a year.

The outflow of both legal and illegal immigrants rose sharply again at the beginning of the 1990s. This period is considered the third wave of Haitian outflow overseas. An estimated 38,000 Haitians fled the country in the first eight months of 1991, following the coup d’état against the democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. In addition, over 10,000 boat people seeking asylum were detained at American facilities in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba the same year. About 30 percent of those were paroled into the U.S. and were later joined by their families under the family reunification provision of U.S. immigration law. During the same time frame (1991−94), refugees were also landing on the shores of the Bahamas, and many more crossed the border to the Dominican Republic.

By 1995, the U.S. Immigration Act called for more stringent requirements for family reunification and thus made legal migration more difficult for Haitians. The U.S. Coast Guard practice of intercepting Haitian boats in Haitian waters also contributed to diminishing the illegal entry of Haitians via south Florida beaches. Yet, according to INS, Haitians have continued to arrive legally at a rate of about 15,000 per year since 1990. This persistent flow into the U.S. is due to the great backlog in the numbers of Haitians who are in the process of changing their status or that of their relatives from Haiti. It is also due to the political instability of the country. Since 1990, Haiti has had over nineteen governments—with prime ministers averaging only about sixteen months in office.

The 1990 U.S. Census reported 306,000 persons in the U.S. who identified their primary ancestry as Haitian. By 2000, the recorded number nearly doubled, and had reached 548,000. In 2010, the U.S. Census reported 907,790 Haitians (foreign and native-born) in the United States. Soon after the devastating 2010 earthquake, the U.S. granted temporary protected status (TPS) to about 200,000 Haitians who had been living continuously in the U.S. without proper documents that now permitted them to work. Moreover, the earthquake forced the return to the U.S. of many Haitian Americans (U.S. citizens of Haitian descent) who had been residing in Haiti, mainly students and retirees.

Haitian American organizations estimate that there are well over one million persons of Haitian descent in the U.S., which constitutes roughly 15 percent of the current population of Haiti. (They contend there are major problems of undercounting in the U.S. Census.) Roughly 43 percent of the Haitian diaspora reside in the United States, leaving the largest proportion of the Haitian diaspora in neighboring Caribbean countries, mostly in the Dominican Republic.

Haitian migration, like most migration to the U.S. from less developed countries, is characterized by a chain migration pattern whereby one or two people obtain legal status, establish a household, and begin recruiting a series of relatives and friends. The chain migration of my own family began with the ousting of my great uncle from political office upon the installation of Duvalier in 1957—he had served the previous Paul Magloire administration. The continuation of a devastating political, environmental, social, and economic situation (including a 40 percent unemployment rate) in Haiti guarantees an unbroken chain migration, particularly to the United States and Canada; and when combined with already heavy backlogs in processing resident status changes, a large and growing flow of Haitians will persist.

“Diasporic Consciousness”

Members of the Haitian diaspora in the U.S. and Canada are better off economically and have higher levels of educational and occupational attainment than those residing in neighboring Caribbean islands. As a group, they are seen to be able to contribute significantly to Haiti’s development. The higher level of accomplishment among those living in the U.S. and Canada is itself due to many factors, including legal status, the range of economic activities and educational facilities available to immigrants, and their level of education upon arrival. Haitians in the Bahamas, the Dominican Republic, and other Caribbean islands, for example, are limited to employment as casual labor—whether in the agricultural, service, tourism, or construction sectors or in petty commerce. Members of the Haitian diaspora residing in neighboring Caribbean islands are further limited in that most who migrate there have had the lowest level of schooling and have limited experience in economic activities other than peasant farming and petty commerce. They also live precariously on these islands due to their illegal status, and are often subjected to mass deportations. There are, however, a growing number of Haitian skilled workers—particularly in construction, agriculture, and agro-processing industries—as well as a growing university student and graduate population and former political elites in the Dominican Republic.

One important factor that must be highlighted in terms of its significance in shaping the characteristics of Haitian diaspora communities—wherever they may reside—is that they suffer from prejudice and discrimination. This could be said to propel them to hold onto a “diasporic consciousness,” to use the sociologist Robin Cohen’s term. This fact is well recognized by all authors who write on the Haitian diaspora and refugees and their experiences, leading to Haitian diaspora communities being dubbed “migrants in isolation” —that is, isolated from other groups.

In the U.S., adverse publicity during the 1980s tarnished the image of Haitians for the general public. This focused on three elements: the vast numbers of boat people arriving on Florida’s shores; the rumor that tuberculosis (TB) was endemic among Haitians in southern Florida; and the wholesale labeling of all Haitians as an at-risk group for AIDS by the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC). Both the TB rumor and AIDS labeling were unjustified—Haitians were subsequently removed from the CDC’s at-risk list after much protest by the Haitian expatriate communities—but the group was left wrongly stigmatized. The preferential treatment given to Cuban boat people over Haitian boat people arriving on Florida’s shores also exacerbated the rift and distrust between the Haitian diaspora in the U.S. and mainstream Americans. Haitians were considered by Washington to be economic rather than political refugees in the 1980s despite the dictatorship in Haiti, and were treated differently than the Cubans fleeing Castro’s regime. The overwhelming majority of arrivals was therefore denied political asylum and jailed in disproportionate numbers compared to undocumented people from other immigrant groups.


The Hometown Factor

Family and friends remain the central organizing institution of Haitian expatriates. Remaining loyal to their heritage (cultural taste in music, food, and language) and community (towns from which they came) mean Haitian diaspora members throughout the U.S. frequent restaurants, clubs, clinics, and stores that cater primarily to a Haitian clientele. Haitians register hundreds of associations in the U.S., spanning from student and professional organizations, to charitable causes for Haiti, to cultural and artistic groups and political cliques. For the most part, these associations orient their constituencies toward matters in Haiti and not that of the U.S. And, although there is a growing number of organizations that focus on issues relating to their own Haitian constituencies in America, tragic circumstances in Haiti—frequent natural disasters for instance—seem to always reorient diaspora activities back to Haiti.

The bulk of Haitian voluntary organizations in the U.S. center around regional associations that are named for the specific region, town, or village in Haiti within which they conduct their charitable work. Haitian institutions in the U.S. largely mirror those in Haiti in that they are weak or barely functioning, are plagued with capacity and financial resource deficiencies, are inappropriate due to parallel purposes, and are extremely informal. The unstructured nature of how these regional ‘hometown’ organizations operate limits their resources and their influence both in Haitian communities and in the American mainstream.

Haitian diaspora business enterprises tend to be micro or small in scale, and many operate as informal activities, relying mostly on personal relationships. Most Haitian-owned businesses either conduct transnational business with Haiti or serve the Haitian community in their U.S. neighborhoods. The market for both formal and informal micro-enterprises is almost solely Haitian-based. These businesses tend to have little potential for growth or to create any significant wealth since they cater to a limited market and very few employ more than the owner; the latter is often fully and formally employed outside of the business too. Haitian enterprises concentrate in fields such as money transfers, travel agencies, and food preparation, and include the following services: bakeries, shipping, restaurants, translation services, music shops, and small grocery stores. The informality and small size of Haitian expatriate enterprises stem not only from their own lack of sophisticated entrepreneurial skills, but also from low production, low standards, and the low diversity of goods to be had from Haiti. Unlike the Chinese, Lebanese, or Iranian trade or merchant diasporas, the Haitian diaspora has not developed into large manufacturers, retailers or wholesalers, and distributors. The Haitian diaspora in the U.S. and elsewhere is largely a community of wage earners, focusing more on climbing professional occupational ladders and increasing incomes from their jobs. In 2000, only 4.42 percent of the employed sixteen years and over population in the Haitian diaspora in the U.S. were self-employed in their own business; in 2010, the U.S. Census reports a mere 3.5 percent of Haitians remain in this category.

Education as an Equalizer

The primary significance of the U.S. Haitian diaspora for Haiti lies in their human capital—their entrepreneurial ventures and sources of capital are essentially negligible relative to Haiti’s economic development requirements. While 93 percent of the Haitian diaspora in the United States over 25 years of age have had schooling, only about 40 percent of Haiti’s population of a comparable age has had schooling. And while close to 32 percent of the U.S. Haitian diaspora has at least attended college or hold associate degrees and 18 percent hold a bachelor’s and higher degree, only about 3.5 percent of Haitian nationals have attended college and only about 1.4 percent hold university degrees. In terms of sheer numbers, the gap in educational attainment is striking. In the U.S. alone, the Haitian diaspora count close to 65,900 holders of university degrees in 2010 census, which is quadruple the number that the entire nation possesses. According to a 2006 Inter-American Development Bank report, Haiti has a university enrollment rate of less than 1 percent, and 84 percent of university graduates subsequently leave Haiti. The country has the highest illiteracy rate in the Western Hemisphere, estimated to be over 75 percent by the U.S. State Department, though other estimates vary between 50−60 percent.

This means that Haiti has no choice in the short and medium term but to utilize its skilled expatriates in its development efforts, unless the country wants to largely import foreign skilled workers across all fields. For it will take Haiti seventy-four years to produce an equal number of university graduates to that which already exists in the U.S. and Canadian Haitian diaspora communities. Further complicating the nation’s skilled human capital production troubles is its high population growth; one of the highest in the Latin American/Caribbean region. In just ten years, Haiti will have over 4.5 million children under the age of fifteen to educate, 3.8 million of whom will remain illiterate if current rates of primary school participation and completion are to persist.

Though trailing behind the general population, the U.S. Haitian diaspora has made great strides in terms of educational attainment as well as in occupational structure. Between 1990 and 2010, Haitians in the United States became much more highly educated, and are, therefore, now in a better position to contribute to Haiti’s development. The Haitian work ethic and belief in the equalizing force of education remains the diaspora community’s major asset. Based on the 2000 U.S. Census, over 10 percent of the U.S. Haitian population holds a bachelor’s degree and another 5 percent hold a graduate degree (a master’s, a professional degree, or a doctorate). Nearly 41 percent of the U.S. Haitian diaspora has at least some college education; capturing the many who have attended vocational programs, such as nurse-aide or home health aide certifications, auto mechanics, and equipment and appliance repairs. The 2010 U.S. Census shows an increase in educational attainment, with close to 13 percent of Haitians holding a bachelor’s degree and close to 6 percent with graduate or professional degrees.

The Haitian diaspora in the United States has moved into the more highly paid managerial and professional occupations—business managers, lawyers, scientists, social scientists, teachers, and doctors—with these numbers increasing from 14 percent in 1990 to more than 24 percent in 2010. Close to 40 percent are in service occupations—with a concentration (36 percent) in health care and education-related jobs, 19 percent are in sales and office occupations, and close to 13 percent are in production, transportation, and material-moving occupations (2010 census). About 4 percent are in the natural resource, construction, and maintenance occupations. The portion of the U.S. Haitian population working in farming, fishing, and forestry occupations is 0.3 percent. The 2010 U.S. Census also shows a large increase in unemployment of Haitian population, which now stands at 12 percent.

Giving Back to the Homeland

The 2010 average household income for U.S. Haitians was $55,459, and the median individual income is $32,223. There had been an increase in household incomes from 1990 to 2000 but the U.S. economic crisis has negatively affected the Haitian diaspora community. The strides that had been made in the preceding decades are now waning, a fact illustrated by a higher poverty rate for families, which stood at close to 20 percent in 2010. Yet, 44 percent of Haitian diaspora households live in owner-occupied housing. Savings, however, continue to be drained in money remittances back to Haiti, which curtails investment into their own future in the U.S.

Remittances are most often hailed as the greatest contribution that members of the Haitian diaspora make to their homeland. Haitians in the U.S. remit about $2 billion a year—more than triple actual international aid disbursements. Haiti is among the highest remittance-receiver countries of fragile states relative to its population size, after countries such as Nigeria and Nepal. Remittance values are considered so high that several development think tanks in Washington are encouraging the U.S. to open its doors to more Haitian emigration, arguing that migration is not only a short-term recovery tool for Haiti, but is vital for its long-term development. Writing in Foreign Policy, Charles Kenny has noted that an estimate by World Bank economist Dilip Ratha suggests that the temporary protected status granted to Haitians post-earthquake might be worth as much as $360 million in additional remittances to Haiti in 2010 alone, which is more than the total U.S. aid disbursement to Haiti in the two-year period of 2010 and 2011.

Remittances do make up a large share of Haiti’s Gross National Product (GNP). Even before the earthquake, World Bank estimates in 2007 show that remittances from the Haitian diaspora accounted for about 20 percent of Haiti’s GNP, close to double its total export earnings, and higher than Haiti’s total foreign aid receipts. In 1998, Haiti derived $167.7 million in total exports and $106 million from the U.S. in foreign aid, while remittances received from Haitian workers abroad amounted to $293 million and helped the balance of payment problems. Remittances curtail the nation’s foreign currency difficulties, help stabilize the exchange rate, and contribute to the increase of net reserves of foreign currency in the banking system.

The U.S. Haitian diaspora also contributes tremendously to particular sectors of the Haitian economy. The tourism sector, for example, earns Haiti millions of dollars; besides the missionaries and the growing number of international NGOs and their visitors, most tourism earnings derive from the Haitian diaspora who come to Haiti for tourist and family visits. The latest figures are from a 1999 Banque de la République d’Haiti report, showing that Haiti earned $124 million in 1998 from Haitian diaspora tourism. In the construction sector, the Haitian diaspora has contributed to growth—through remittances—by starting building construction, adding to existing construction, or completing their family/relatives’ homes or small businesses (often a guest house or small hotel, or hardware stores). These homes and buildings usually take years to complete, as the sums of money sent are not large and are remitted on an annual basis (thereby often adding only a room a year). These homes are changing the Haitian landscape from the traditional thatched homes to new cement foundations, half-built homes, and new architectural structures spread across the Haitian territory. In the telecommunications sector, Haitian expatriates contribute to the bulk of that sector’s revenues via incoming and outgoing phone call fees from the Haitian diaspora.

To boot, the Haitian diaspora consumes the bulk of Haitian indigenous products exported to the U.S., which comprise mostly food and goods such as mangos, avocados and plantains, and arts and crafts. These products account for 15-42 percent of total Haitian exports over the course of the 1990s and early 2000s. No one really knows the correct figure as the Haitian diaspora also exports primary goods from Haiti via personal suitcases and shipping containers that are not accounted for by Haitian authorities.

Goodwill Ambassadors?

Various diaspora engagement programs have been devised to tap into areas of diaspora significance in remittances, skill transfers, charitable contributions, tourism, and capital market investments so as to effectuate growth and development in their respective homelands. One rationale for undertaking diaspora engagement programs is that they facilitate the low cost transfer of skills due to shared language and customs; traditional international experts would cost more than double the diaspora. Another justification is that the diaspora, having acquired the technological knowledge abroad and having become proficient in the latest technologies, are better aware of the constraints of their home country’s environment and are more motivated to contribute toward their homeland’s development. Moreover, the utilization of the diaspora or those from similar cultures avoids social problems that could arise with the wholesale importation of foreign skilled workers. This helps to safeguard national identity.

The United Nation’s TOKTEN program (Transfer of Knowledge Through Expatriate Nationals), which began in 1977, is among the oldest of the diaspora engagement programs. It seeks to recruit potential sources of high-skilled professionals, those with the technical know-how necessary for the development of their countries of origin that suffer from a major brain drain. TOKTEN did not become operational in Haiti until after 1988, upon the fall of the dictatorial regime. TOKTEN seeks to utilize diaspora skills on a short term, voluntary basis—members of the diaspora are requested to take time off from their jobs and volunteer that time to go back to their homeland for short-term consultancies (two to twelve weeks maximum) to the government.

Similarly, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is also increasingly calling for diaspora engagement programs on a short-term, voluntary basis. Several of its Haiti programs seek to engage the Haitian diaspora in the agency’s own agricultural and watershed management projects, (Développement Economique pour un Environnement Durable, or DEED Projects). While the USAID-DEED project calls for diaspora members to volunteer in commercial agriculture development and environmental recovery over short, multiple-week timespans, USAID has most recently sought out the diaspora for post-earthquake rebuilding efforts through the agency’s Washington contractors in Haiti. The latter project aims to support the government’s post-building efforts via a couple of months of paid work. USAID also solicits the Haitian diaspora to channel remittances into a diaspora fund that would ultimately be used to support enterprises and projects in the targeted watersheds. Both TOKTEN and USAID-DEED programs pay for travel and accommodation for the duration of the short stay. Yet, neither TOKTEN nor USAID have been successful in attracting skilled diaspora members into their programs in Haiti. And when USAID has managed to get a few members of the diaspora on short paid contracts to work with the Haitian government, they have not engaged them effectively.

It is incomprehensible to think that a two-to three-week consultancy period (or even a three month stint), which usually amounts to no more than a paid vacation to visit relatives, could be considered an effective way to engage highly-skilled professionals in the development of a country. Development work, conventional wisdom makes known, is a full-time occupation not to mention preoccupation. It seems to me that engagement programs are effectively engaging the diaspora not so much as development experts but as ambassadors of goodwill.

Moreover, programs such as the DEED project have not sought to match the occupational profiles of the U.S. Haitian diaspora to agricultural-environmental recovery goals in Haiti. USAID would have more chance at getting the needed agricultural skills from the Haitian diaspora in the Dominican Republic than in New York, Boston, or Miami. Gainfully employed as they are in American corporate or government offices—as teachers, school principals, nurses, doctors, lawyers, and policemen—it is difficult to see how diaspora professionals could leave their career work for a three-month contract that neither exceeds or even matches their pay, nor offers basic amenities. Even when diaspora members take such positions, they often are left sitting around for the government to get its act together. Their short time in-country is often idly wasted and accomplishes very little.

Members of diaspora hometown associations and professional organizations already take their vacation time with family and friends to go back to their respective hometowns to do volunteer work on philanthropic projects that they themselves conceive with the local community, based on their competencies and needs. Funneling the diaspora into projects conceived in Washington or elsewhere for Haitian towns or regional areas unfamiliar to them, and without local community input, does not make for effective engagement programs. Plenty of evidence shows that donor government diaspora programs are most successful when they build on existing diaspora initiatives. Current programs fail to comprehend that the diaspora are more attracted to their own local birthplace than to their homeland per se. Haitians want to give back to their own community, to that within which family and friends remain, for personal and emotional reasons. To the extent that their hometown-based activities often evolve into small public works projects and micro-entrepreneurial ventures, the major benefits for the diaspora are social and cultural gratification, and frequently, social prestige, self-satisfaction, and self-promotion (not to mention self-aggrandizement) within the village or town.

While Haitian diaspora remittances are large and are increasing—making it tempting to channel them into a diaspora fund for development—they usually do not amount to the large capital sums required for necessary development infrastructure such as the building of dams, railroads, roadways, and sanitation and water systems. Remittances go to an individual’s family, friends, and relatives who most often use these funds for the consumption of imported goods. Some economists show that as much as 80 percent of remittance funds are spent on everyday consumption and very little goes into savings or on productive investments. They also note that remittances create a dependency ethic among poor recipients, are a short-term monetary solution to a long-term development and foreign exchange problem, and may also decrease the likelihood of an improved economy. Promoting increases in diaspora remittances encourages the continued migration of the working age population and decreases the likelihood of investment by the government or foreign investors because what is left behind is an unreliable, remittance-dependent workforce. These financial resources also do not compensate for the continuing loss of skilled human capital.

Grassroots activities and remittances from regional hometown associations do fund a few small-scale projects such as schools, clinics, and rural electrification, but they have not had many positive sustainable development results. This is partly because local officials fail to define public work projects and do not coordinate their efforts with those of international NGOs, and also because of the lack of a skilled work-force to manage, maintain, and repair completed structures.

A great number of the Haitian diaspora do cling to some diasporic allegiance and are poised to serve Haiti, but are not enticed to leave their work in developed countries by short-term, possibly-paid contracts that offer squalid conditions, political instability, few amenities, and limited prospects for real progress in homeland development and self-growth. Many Haitian-born diaspora members lament that living conditions in Haiti have gotten worse in the last decades in all spheres. One can hardly breathe in the capital city of Port-au-Prince thanks to burning trash (there being no sanitation system), heavy dust clouds caused by unpaved streets, earthquake debris removal, and drying fecal matter particles, and carbon dioxide emissions caused by heavy traffic congestion. One prays that one will have no need to go to a hospital, for none is good or equipped for emergencies and good schools and housing cost as much as in Haiti as they do in the United States. Although it could be argued that the new comforts of developed countries—access to cultural events, efficient organization, modern instruments and appliances, good roads for their cars, electricity and safe running water, as well as freedom of expression and liberal institutions—may have well provided a simple reshuffling of priorities. Of the over 500 members on both sides of my extended family who reside permanently in the United States—most are U.S. citizens—none but me wishes to return home to work full-time.

The Road to Development

There is no denying that the activities of the Haitian diaspora in Haiti do make a great contribution and produce change in the homeland. Donor government-funded Haitian diaspora engagement programs, like that of the United States, are to be commended for highlighting the significance and growth of the Haitian diaspora. These programs, however, do not begin to address mechanisms for effective diaspora engagement in the development of Haiti. They have failed, for the most part, to build any approaches based on country conditions or the mutual needs of the diaspora and of the government, or to place any approach within a proper development plan and policy framework within a broader national development strategy. They have not pointed to where diaspora skills and resources would be most useful in the development process or at what stages. Nor do they focus on areas (physical and sectoral) where diaspora functions or competencies can best maximize each other’s energies and activities for growth and development to occur.

The national plan must spell out the roles and functions that the diaspora will play in implementing sectoral or spatial development plans; it must specify how emigrants will be recruited, to what sector, where and how they are to be involved, and how they would benefit. Policies must outline the package of incentives for full return to Haiti and for limited engagement. The existence of such an operational, implementable national economic and spatial development plan in Haiti reflects a national will to try to achieve set economic and social priorities and targets that can be supported by donors and the diaspora community. Such plans delineate the most important tasks to be implemented in stages for growth and the location of development. Within this broader plan, the type and amount of resource needs, assets, constraints, and potentials—including those of the diaspora—are made known, and so are the policies designed to deal with them. Improving diaspora engagement programs will require institutional development investments and coordination from donors, the diaspora, and the Haitian government, and will require planning and strategizing.

Actualizing an effective diaspora engagement strategy for the development of the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere is totally unlike launching a mere program or project. It is rather a process-oriented strategy with a collection of actions, well-conceived plans, appropriate conditions, prosperous activities, and analyses that assist in arriving at the predetermined goal of economic growth and development. The process involves the formation and solidification of relevant institutional structures, the improvement of capacities, and the promotion of activities wherein the diaspora’s engagement becomes a full-time economic growth and development preoccupation, rather than just a part-time, social, charitable or technical one.

The Haitian diaspora can be effectively engaged if mutual needs and interests—economic and extra-economic—of both parties are met in the growth and development process. This is made by means of a planned and systematic process through which the diaspora is made an integral dimension of the socio-economic and political life of Haiti, and that is congruous with the ways in which Haitian diaspora communities build their worlds and improve their standard of living. In considering the interests and needs of the diaspora, its economic rationality must be taken into account so as to entice Haitians abroad to go back to work or invest on a full-time basis in a country lacking the most basic of services and amenities. Instruments such as preferential treatment in joint ventures or contracts/sub-contracts with public and private sectors, and licensing and access to loans/guarantees can offer such economic-size benefits, and should not be seen as different to attracting foreign investors.

The long road to development requires a critical mass of full-time, highly skilled human capital—as the preferred in-country agents of growth and development. In search of global positioning based on comparative and competitive advantages in the new flexible world, what seems to matter most is that knowledge and a variety of skills are involved in the creation of capacity for homeland growth and development. Developing and keeping skilled manpower in Haiti is the best way to assure leadership for sustainable socio-spatial-economic and institutional development. For Haiti’s development sake, international migration would be best used as a low-skilled labor absorption and training mechanism through well-targeted international labor agreements.

Tatiana Wah is director of the Haiti Research and Policy Program at the Earth Institute, Columbia University. She is also an adjunct associate professor at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs. From 2009 to 2012, she served as the Millennium Development Goals and development policy advisor to the government of Haiti. She is the author of Haiti’s Development through Expatriate Reconnection: Conditions and Challenges.

The Sinai Connection

“When the police asked what was in the car, the driver said potatoes and tomatoes,” recounts Effrant, a young Eritrean man, describing how he’d been covered with a blanket in the pickup truck along with some twenty other refugees crossing from Egypt’s Eastern Desert to the Sinai Peninsula. He remembers shivering as he overheard the exchange, fearing his fate if the police discovered the pickup’s true cargo—human beings being smuggled en route to Israel. Today, he can sit back and tell the story of the most harrowing of experiences: making desperate, illegal border crossings in hopes of a better life in a distant land, only to be kidnapped and held ransom for a year by human traffickers. Listening to Effrant, I recalled a conversation I had with some Bedouin friends in the Sinai last year. Lamenting the government’s response to the boom in human trafficking, they pointed out a conspicuous anomaly: young Egyptians actually smuggling potatoes and tomatoes into the bordering Gaza Strip are arrested everyday, yet the lords of the trade in humans seem to be left alone.

The stories of Effrant and other African migrants are triumphs of the art of telling, spoken in a time and place where they savor their freedom as rarely before. Their stories also unfold a tale of a desert border region’s isolation and neglect, and a resulting descent into lawlessness that allows a trade in human trafficking to flourish.

By the count of Human Rights Watch, thousands of sub-Saharan asylum seekers and migrants have fallen victim to abusive traffickers and other criminals in the Sinai. The organization has called on the Egyptian government to use its increased law enforcement operations in the area to rescue victims of trafficking and end the abuses. The Israeli government says some 58,000 sub-Saharan African nationals have crossed into Israel via the Sinai. Rights advocates say Eritrean migrants interviewed in Israel report having been subjected to serious abuses in the Sinai, including beating, whipping, branding, electric shock, being buried, exposed to the sun, sexual abuse, threat of execution, shooting, and threats of organ removal.

“A Good Type of Smuggling”

Illegality is a condition common to border regions everywhere. But the Sinai is unique for two reasons. Politically and socially, the Egyptian state has long viewed the inhabitants of the Sinai as outcasts. They are mainly Bedouin tribesmen who harbor grievances for discrimination and marginalization at the hands of the central government. They even fell under suspicion of holding dual loyalties during the fifteen years they lived under Israeli military occupation of the Sinai. The other reason is that the Sinai remains the frontier of an international conflict, thus allowing smugglers and traffickers to perform their criminal acts under the guise of political struggles. To the northeast of the peninsula, Gaza has been under a tight Israeli-enforced blockade since 2007, when the militant Hamas group took over the territory. In response, for many Egyptians as well as Palestinians the smuggling of food commodities, energy goods, humans, and arms into this open-air prison became a normalized act of illegality.

The irregular movement of humans across the 148-mile stretch of land between Egypt and Israel dates back to at least the 1990s. In an early manifestation of the problem, young women primarily from Eastern Europe were trafficked through the Sinai, having been lured to Israel with promises of jobs and then forced to become sex workers. The crossings of African migrants into Israel became a trend in 2005, after the Egyptian police killed twenty-eight Sudanese refugees during a protest outside the Cairo office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). African migrants began departing Egypt in waves, discovering the Sinai as a possible point of departure to Israel. A network of young smugglers began thriving in the Sinai, earning as much as $300 per individual passage; serious money in a region with few job prospects for locals. Accordingly, no stigma became attached to the activities of these smugglers, who included children in their ranks, seen merely as guides using age-old Bedouin tracking skills to perform a service to people in need. “This is a good type of smuggling,” a smuggler once told me.

But it didn’t take long before those more benign passages inspired a nefarious network of human trafficking that funnels migrants and asylum seekers from various African nations across Egypt’s southern border and across the Eastern Desert to the Sinai. Here, in the Sinai connection of this transnational trade, the trafficking has spiraled into a trade of horror: migrants being flipped like commodities among traffickers, held to ransom, tortured, and even killed. The ‘luckier’ ones are merely arrested and deported.

The Trafficked

In a lavish villa set along the peach fields in the village of Mahdeya, a few minutes’ drive from the Israeli border, twenty Eritrean migrants are silently gathered around a tray of rice, which they proceed to eat until the last grain. Hours earlier, they had been rescued from their traffickers after a year of captivity. Among them is a lone girl, now wearing a Bedouin dress, nervously avoiding eye contact with anyone.

Back at home, Zarai, 27, was a soldier, responsible for caring for his mother and three sisters. He decided to leave his hometown last year, and crossed the border into Sudan in search for a better life. On the way, he and other migrants were stopped by a group of Bedouin who belong to the Rashaida, the Arab tribe scattered across both Sudan and Eritrea. The Rashaida, he explains, started off by speaking to them nicely on the road and told them that for $3,000 they would help them go to Israel. “When we said no, they took us by force,” he says. “They had guns.” He recounts how he was abducted, stuffed into a car with ten others, and driven for days in suffocating heat.

In the Sinai there began a cycle of extortion under torture. Zarai says: “They asked us for $33,000. Our parents are very poor. We say we have no money. Then they tie our legs and hands and hit us with stones. Then they tell us if you pay the money we will let you go. They only gave us some oranges to eat and allowed us to wash our bodies three times in the whole year.”

Effrant, who was transported in the same pickup, tells how he once dared respond to his traffickers. “We told them we didn’t come voluntarily. They told us ‘If you don’t pay, you die. Choose between paying or dying.’” Both Zarai and Effrant began to imagine their ends. They witnessed the deaths of ten of the twenty others who shared their makeshift prison in a warehouse. They speak of torture that included being electrocuted, burned, and stoned. Eventually, after phone calls back to their parents pleading for money to be transferred to their kidnappers, Effrant and Zarai thought they had bought their way to freedom. But they were wrong.

Seeing no other way out, Zarai and Effrant plotted with the others. Says Effrant: “One evening there was heavy rain and no electricity. So one man broke the chain holding us and we ran away. Some stayed behind and some continued.”

Effrant and Zarai were among those who continued to run. They encountered somebody who asked if they wanted to be taken to a police station, or to a Muslim sheikh. “We said we don’t want the police, we want the sheikh,” says Effrant. “And they brought us here.”

Despite his ordeal, Zarai doesn’t foresee returning to Eritrea. Assuming he manages to elude problems with Egyptian authorities and can exit the country with the assistance of UNHCR, he prefers to try his luck in Europe, and explains that this is a shared sentiment among all those who were rescued from the traffickers. Effrant too will be looking for opportunities to travel to Europe or America for there is nothing for him back home, where he worked as a midwife nurse for meager pay. “No life, no marriage, no future,” he explains.

The Traffickers

One of the former traffickers in the Sinai, who calls himself Mohammed in our conversation, confirms that the “business of African migrants” started after the Sudanese massacre in Cairo in 2005. He believes that back then, he was a service provider and the service in question was that of smuggling, with no deception involved. “We coordinated with our agents in Cairo or Sudan,” he explains. “They send us a number of migrants and ask us to guide them to Israel. We earned $500 per migrant.” Then the network started actively recruiting migrants from villages, coffeehouses, and other places, and the price increased. Mohammed’s voice hardens as he speaks, concealing more than he reveals. As his work as a human trafficker deepened, he felt as if there was a point of no return; no other economic activity in the Sinai could earn him as much money, not even his former work as a smuggler of ordinary goods into Gaza.

Mohammed is understandably uneasy about providing details of his trade, and particularly about the use of torture. He speaks more confidently about his eventual decision to quit the business. “I used to have six phone lines to coordinate with my agents in different places,” he tells me. “One day I decided to break all these SIM cards and to stop this work completely. I put it behind my back and moved on.”

It wasn’t because of pressure from the authorities, but rather a fear of the growing influence of hardline Islamists in the area. A couple of miles away from where we were sitting in his village of Muqataa is “the mosque of the mujahedeen,” as the locals call it. Salafis and jihadis have been gathering there since the revolution in 2011. Anyone passing by avoids looking at the mosque in fear of attracting unwanted attention from the worshippers.

According to Mohammed, social rejection—or “tribal pressure”—also played a part in his decision. “We used to be shunned by society,” he explains. “If you are a trafficker and you go to buy a pack of cigarettes from a kiosk, the vendor pretends they don’t have any and asks you to leave.”

The State

Sheikh Mohammed, who safeguarded Effrant, Zarai, and the other Eritreans after their escape, is exploiting tribal pressure in his work to combat human trafficking—a responsibility the Egyptian government should assume but has not. A thin Muslim preacher in his late twenties, Sheikh Mohammed is renowned in Egypt and beyond in the circles of migrants and international organizations that support them. His villa in Mahdeya has become a well-known destination for migrants who manage to escape from their traffickers, or those migrants voluntarily released by their abductors. He provides them with protection until UNHCR can intervene in the cases. Seated in hismiqaad, the courtyard of a traditional Bedouin house, and surrounded by other Bedouin sheikhs, he explains: “This is all new to us and we all got shaken by it. We had to do something.”

For Sheikh Mohammed, doing “something” means preaching into a microphone at the mosque about the sins of trafficking. He says that as a result, some traffickers have voluntarily stepped forward and repented, and quit their lucrative trade.

Asking the sheikh whether he coordinates with the Egyptian police turns out to be a faux pas. “This is a tribal society,” he says. “You cannot threaten members of your tribe or another tribe using the security. We only use social pressure.” Although Sheikh Mohammed reveals little if anything of his past, many of his religious colleagues consider the state security apparatus to be a force of oppression rather than a protector of citizens. The persistence of arbitrary arrests—especially after a string of terrorist attacks in South Sinai in recent years—underpins this local perception. Hence, Sheikh Mohammed’s work is done outside the scope of the state until UNHCR arrives to handle the migrants’ cases. Nor does the government seem inclined to step in. As Sheikh Mohammed says: “The state’s reaction? Zero. The security? Zero. They know everything. They have the traffickers’ names. But the issue doesn’t matter to them, especially that there is no harm for Egypt.”

Others in the miqaad explain how the police have no incentive to confront the traffickers, who are heavily armed. “If a lower ranking policeman dies in combat with the traffickers, his family would receive a couple of thousand pounds in compensation,” says one man. “It’s not worth it.”

The posture of North Sinai security officials ranges from “total denial that anything is happening to a reluctant admittance that things were happening,” says Gerry Simpson, senior refugee researcher and advocate for the refugee program at Human Rights Watch. “There’s a huge amount of information on torture and Egyptians are not doing anything about it.” A security advisor to the North Sinai Governorate I interviewed last year said brashly that the government’s policy is to deport migrants and refugees. He did not seem familiar with non-refoulement, an international law concept that forbids the rendering of a victim of persecution to a state that persecutes them.

According to Human Rights Watch, sub-Saharan nationals are detained for lengthy periods in police stations across the Sinai. It says the Egyptian authorities prevent them from seeking asylum through UNHCR. Human Rights Watch has, since 2008, documented cases where Egypt has forcibly returned Eritrean refugees, registered asylum seekers, and would-be asylum seekers to Eritrea. Eritrea’s repressive regime requires citizens up to the age of fifty to serve perpetual military service, so asylum seekers sent back to the country face desertion charges. Little wonder then that Effrant worried about being discovered by the police, even as he was being forcibly smuggled under blankets by his kidnappers.

Lina Attalah is the chief editor of  Mada Masr. Previously, she served as editor-in-chief of Egypt Independent and reported for Reuters, the Cairo Times, Daily Star, and Christian Science Monitor, among others.  On Twitter: @Linaattalah.    .

Guests and Hosts

Movements of people in humanitarian crises in the Middle East have not been well understood in the West. Consider the flight from Iraq in the wake of the 2003 American-led invasion of the country. Iraqis did not leave when many in the West expected them to, and then when they did set out into exile, they refused to enter internationally organized holding camps and chose instead to settle on their own in urban centers. Today, as one of their host countries, Syria, is engulfed by a bloody civil war, the international community is racing to create new holding centers beyond its borders. Yet only a few thousand Iraqis have moved out of Syria, and fewer have returned to Iraq. History and culture help explain this behavior, which to an Orientalist mind is perplexing. To understand it, we should consider the historical context of Iraqi migrations not only in the past decade but also in the past century, through to the late Ottoman period. The Iraqi experience helps provide a better understanding of forced migration, asylum, refuge, and hospitality in this region.

The United States, supported by the United Kingdom and other countries, launched an invasion of Iraq in 2003 to topple the regime of Saddam Hussein. During the six-month build up to Operation Iraqi Freedom, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and numerous non-governmental organizations (NGOs) had estimated that a Western attack would trigger the displacement of more than one million people within Iraq and across its borders. They made preparations to receive this wave of humanity in Jordan, Syria, and Iran. In Syria, UNHCR negotiated an upgrade for the El-Hol camp site in eastern Syria as well as for two additional camp sites near Iraqi border crossings. In Jordan, UNHCR worked closely with the Hashemite Charitable Society to set up a refugee holding site near Ruwaished in eastern Jordan. In addition, UNHCR stockpiled relief items at the southern port of Aqaba for immediate dispatch should that prove necessary. In Iran, the government prepared ten camp sites with the help of UNHCR. Four of these sites could initially host some 60,000 refugees.

Despite the dire predictions, few Iraqis actually fled Iraq in 2003. No Iraqi refugees crossed the border into Iran. Although approximately 30,000 Iraqis gathered near the Iranian border and requested help from Iran, Iranian authorities responded by sending food, water, and medicine to the border thus allowing Iraqi elders to take charge of distributing the relief items in Iraq itself. In Syria, a little more than 200 Iraqis crossed the border and took refuge at the El-Hol camp. In Jordan, more than 1,200 refugees arrived at the Al-Karma border crossing and found themselves trapped, unable to cross into Jordan and unwilling to go back into Iraq. These were mainly third country nationals such as Iranians, Palestinians, and other Arabs. By mid-2003, some 550 Palestinians and a few hundred other Arab refugees were allowed entry into the Jordanian refugee camp at Ruwaished.

Orientalist Assumptions

Curiously, in hindsight, when the refugee crisis largely failed to materialize in 2003, the U.S. and its allies quickly focused on funding returnees who had left Iraq in the decades before and who the U.S. now expected to pour back into Iraq from their places of exile in Jordan, Syria, Turkey, and Iran. So confident was UNHCR of that scenario that it appointed a special envoy for Iraq, Dennis McNamara, who was charged with supervising refugee return and reintegration. The U.S. estimated that a quarter of a million Iraqis would seek repatriation; the State Department funded NGOs to provide relief support in Iraq that prioritized the needs of returnees. Blind to other scenarios, the allies convinced themselves that Iraqis would be returning to build a new neo-liberal democratic state in the Arab world. Paul Bremer, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority governing Iraq after the invasion, seemed to view the country as a tabula rasa that could be fashioned as the allies wished.

As late as the spring of 2007 when the international aid agencies finally realized they had a major refugee crisis and millions of refugees on their hands, the U.S. government continued to claim that any refugee problems outside of Iraq predated the current conflict. But between 2006 and 2010, more than one million and as many as two million Iraqis fled the explosion of sectarian violence and general insecurity that engulfed Iraq in the years after the invasion. These forced migrants sought refuge but not refugee status in Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, and Turkey. They were largely middle-class professionals who found their way to the large cities. Syria hosted the largest number of displaced Iraqis as temporary guests, so by 2012, with Syria imploding amid a rebellion, many in the humanitarian aid regime expected Iraqis to either return to Iraq or to attempt a crossing into Lebanon or Jordan. This did not happen, however, and only several thousand Iraqis returned to Iraq. Most chose to remain hunkered down in the Syrian urban and suburban neighborhoods that had given them refuge.

Many questions arose from this unexpected situation; why did the international humanitarian aid community get it so wrong? How was the estimate of one million refugees in 2003 calculated? And why was this figure so readily accepted by aid agencies?

The errors were rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of Arab history and culture. Western military strategists drawing up a post-invasion plan assumed that the Iraqi people would welcome the invasion and behave as any Westerner might: flee from areas of armed conflict, and then return when security had been restored. This judgment drew on flawed intelligence as well as an assumption that Iraqis would regard Operation Iraqi Freedom as a liberation campaign by Western powers. What was not recognized was the extent to which Iraqis regarded the campaign as a neo-colonial assault on their homeland. Most Iraqis preferred to stand their ground, shelter among familiar neighbors and kin, safeguard their holdings, and affirm their Iraqi-ness. The Western assumption that Iraqis might flee and later return to recover their property and possessions—as guaranteed by international law—was not one that many Iraqis, or Arabs for that matter, would make. The experience of Palestinian refugees—the catastrophe of the 1948 war and the decades of displacement that followed—has been deeply engrained in the Arab psyche: if you flee war in your homeland, you may not be allowed to return when the fighting ends.

The Iraqi cultural response to dispossession and displacement is at odds with Western expectations of the behavior of the model refugee—who seeks out and succumbs to the ministrations of international humanitarian aid as manifested in prefabricated and rigidly-administered holding camps. Internationally sanctioned and operated refugee camps can fairly be described as places where self-sufficiency and agency are stripped away, where a forced migrant enters a liminal status between citizen and outcast. Iraqis and Arabs in general have a very different mental map of social capital and networks of assistance, imbued as they are with moral and religious obligations to provide refuge. These cultural imperatives, as well as the tradition of hospitality toward the stranger, call into question the widely accepted Western notions of humanitarianism in the Middle East.

Ottoman Legacy

The end of World War I saw the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and its dismemberment along lines proposed in several secret agreements undertaken by the French, British, and Russians. The Sykes-Picot Agreement and the Balfour Declaration set out the neo-colonial borders of the southern region of the Ottoman Empire. However, even prior to its final collapse, the Ottoman state had been pushed to accommodate the dispossession and forced migration of millions of its subjects within the empire amid the Tsarist-supported movement for independence in Bulgaria, Serbia, and Romania. In the process, the Russians dispossessed and ejected the native populations of Circassia and Abkhazia in the Caucasus, forcing the Ottomans to take in more than 800,000 Caucasians. A further 900,000 Turks were also forced by the Russians into the Ottoman Empire.

By 1857, the Sublime Porte in Istanbul had set out the Refugee Code, and created a specialized agency to welcome refugees and migrants into the empire. A Refugee Commission, established in 1869, then facilitated refugee settlement initially in Ottoman Europe (the Balkans) and then, toward the end of the nineteenth century, in the southern provinces of the empire—Anatolia and Greater Syria. The commission was a direct response to the waves of forced migrants who had arrived from the Crimea as well as from the Caucasus, Hungary, Bohemia, and Poland. The commission oversaw the management of international (mainly missionary) aid. But more importantly it set a precedent for how to receive refugees, exiles, and migrants alike. It coordinated in-country aid and the feeding, clothing, and shelter for the millions of refugees progressing through the various cities and their environs to the eventual sites where they were finally encouraged to settle. There were no internment or holding camps; rather than trying to provide basic emergency aid in a fixed location, the Ottoman state encouraged local communities to assist this flow of humanity and to provide hospitality to the largely Muslim ‘brothers.’

In addition, the state set out incentives for self-settlement. Forced migrants who turned into settlers were provided with up to seventeen acres of land to start farming. They were provided with seeds, draft animals, and money to buy farm equipment. They were expected to build their own houses—which they did often in the style of their original homeland—or to get local people to build for them. They were prohibited from selling their new land holdings for fifteen years in an effort to ensure that local investors and entrepreneurs did not take advantage of these new settlers as well as to allow the newcomers time to adapt and acclimatize. Until 1878, forced migrants were largely settled in rural areas. Only later did the Ottomans commence the construction of new migrant districts in the neighborhoods of towns and cities—the Muhajirin district of Damascus, for example, was first established to house forced migrant settlers from Crete in the late 1890s.

The work of resettling refugees in the Ottoman Empire followed certain guidelines: create a frontier, resettle in environmentally similar areas, and prevent any one group of forced migrants from becoming a majority in any one area.

What was remarkable was the way that the empire’s organizing ethos was not based on ideas of ethnic superiority of one community over another, but rather on religion. The concept of belonging was tied to social places rather than physical spaces. In other words, the Ottoman subjects recognized the superiority of Islam in the empire, but were also cognizant of Islam’s tolerance toward the Ahl-il-Kitab—its Jewish and Christian communities. This acceptance was based on religious tenets as well as economic and political realism. In the nineteenth century, European mercantile interests within Christian and Jewish communities in the Middle East, in conjunction with Ottoman principles of self-governance for ethno-religious groups, resulted in the establishment of protected millets, communities whose religious and social affairs were organized through the mechanisms of the church or synagogue. It was the legacy of these millets that shaped the way in which the great forced migrations of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were absorbed into the fabric of the societies and cultures of the Middle East.

The term millet (which comes from the Arabic milla, meaning religious community or denomination) originally meant both a religion and a religious community. The Ottomans regulated and institutionalized the millet system in the nineteenth century. Thus, Muslim millets, for example, might ethnically and linguistically include Turks, Arabs, Kurds, Albanians, Bosnians, Circassians, and others. Jews, especially in the northern provinces, were mainly Sephardic—the descendants of those who had been given refuge after being expelled from Spain and Portugal—and Ashkenazi Jews fleeing from the Pale of Eastern Europe; but there were also many Mizrahi, or Oriental Jews. Christianmillets were mainly Orthodox and comprised Greeks, Serbs, and Bulgarians in the Balkans, and Arabs in Palestine and Syria. In some areas, ethnic groups were fairly homogenous. In others they were widely dispersed. Most of west and central Anatolia was Turkish; the southeast was Kurdish, while the Levant and Arabia were mainly Arab. Yet these regions also had significant Muslim, Christian, and Jewish adherents.

The millet system was, in effect, an extension of Ottoman general administrative practice. It was a system that allowed for the centralization of government while also devolving authority to self-governing millets. These were directed and managed by the community’s leadership. Except for taxation and security, the Ottoman government adopted a laissez-faire posture toward the internal affairs of the minority communities. These communities had considerable judicial autonomy; they had their own courts to adjudicate family and civil matters, such as marriage, divorce, inheritance, and financial transactions. Intercommunity relations gave rise to a broad range of social networks (and multilingualism) far beyond the specific geographical territory of a residential community, especially among the professional and commercial classes.

The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries left a profoundly negative mark on the history of human settlement and political engineering. The Ottoman Empire, which had developed a largely successful multicultural and religious pluralism, was gradually dismantled by pressures from within as much as those from without. This demise came quickly although it was preceded by a nearly century-long reweaving of the peoples of the Balkans, the eviction of Muslim peoples from the Caucasus, and the remixing of the largely Muslim peoples in Anatolia after the departure of the Orthodox Greeks and Armenian Christians. This complex upheaval saw an entire empire on the move. The de-territorialized aspects of belonging in the Ottoman ethno-religious millets laid the foundations for later elaborations of migrations—between relations, co-religionists, colleagues, customers, and creditors—in the modern Arab successor states of the Ottoman Empire.

With the end of the Ottoman Empire came the demise of a society based on a multiplicity of ethnic groups and religions over a vast territory where movement and migration was commonplace. In its wake, millions of dispossessed people set out to find new spaces in which to live. They took with them the memory of a multi-ethnic and multi-religious empire as well as their singularly remembered and partially imagined homelands.

At the Paris Peace Conference at the close of World War I, Armenian and Kurdish nationalists attempted to negotiate states of their own in the western rump of Anatolia. In 1920 however, the British prevailed in these complex negotiations, trade-offs, and barters, and gained the League of Nations Mandate over the Kingdom of Iraq—the former Ottoman regions of Basra, Baghdad, and Mosul. In 1921, the British held a plebiscite and arranged for Faisal, the deposed Hashemite monarch of the short-lived Kingdom of Syria, to become ruler of Iraq. Local uprisings, rebellions, and armed conflict greatly marred the British authority in Iraq. Even the newly created British Royal Air Force could not quell the fury of some opposition groups, including Kurdish nationalists who saw their ancestral homeland annexed by the Mandate. The British turned to minorities to help police this unruly state, relying heavily on Assyrian Christians to form the country’s gendarmerie. Although part of the indigenous population of northern Iraq, their numbers were expanded by about 20,000 as Assyrians resettled by the British arrived from Anatolia. Neutral throughout most of World War I, the Assyrians later took Britain’s side and constituted the Iraqi Levies, a force under British command separate from the regular Iraqi army. When the British withdrew from Iraq in 1932, the Assyrians were left vulnerable and a massive wave fled for Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, and the West. Those who remained tended to gravitate to the north of the state, a region roughly coterminous with the ancient state of Assyria.

The newly independent Kingdom of Iraq also continued the practice of moving individuals and groups. It imposed its will upon the population by either sending individual politicians into exile, or moving entire communities from one part of the country to another. Dispossessing and relocating communities mainly to the less densely populated northern regions was fairly common throughout the twentieth century. The 1958 military coup that brought down the Iraqi monarchy sent royalists fleeing the country, mostly to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. The new republican leaders in Iraq continued the practice of dispossession and eviction on a larger and wider scale. Under harsh Baath Party rule, the authorities could punish an entire clan or tribe with exile due to the alleged misconduct of an individual politician.

The trickle of movement out of the country throughout most of the twentieth century gathered pace during the Iran-Iraq War between 1980−88. Then, in the aftermath of the first Gulf War and the sanctions imposed by the West in 1991, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis—notably of the political, intellectual, and business elites—left the country to escape increasingly desperate economic conditions. Many found refuge in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, and in the West. By 2003, there were more than 300,000 Iraqis settled in Jordan. The presence of nearly 500,000 Iraqi refugees in the region was felt in business, the arts, and other professions. The exiles in turn formed solidarity networks for subsequent waves, and helped re-anchor new arrivals without resorting to international aid. The refugees were largely invisible to humanitarian assistance regimes, as they did not seek formal recognition, but rather relied on Arab notions of hospitality and traditions of giving asylum to settle and create new lives for themselves—and all the while reinforcing pre-existing social, political, and economic networks across the borders of the Arab states.

Arab Hospitality

Karam, an Arabic word for hospitality or generosity, is also ultimately about security, protection, and respect. Correct behavior toward a stranger/guest is inextricably bound with a family’s honor and reputation; inappropriate behavior might lead to disrespect, danger, and insecurity. Thus, a cultural sphere based on family, lineage, and ethno-religious millets constitutes a horizontal network of support and solidarity; here, the movement of people does not result in decoupling, or deracination.

Notions of hospitality, generosity, and the worthiness of the guest in augmenting individual and family honor are fundamental to many societies and cultures. But they are particularly redolent in the Arab world, where notions of modernity are mixed with those of custom and customary principles of behavior and action. Contrary to the dominant discourse in the West—where a typical response to forced migration is to place asylum seekers in centers that represent a middle ground between mere biological life and full social existence—notions of hospitality and generosity are so important in Arab culture as to make it nearly impossible for the state to adopt bureaucratic indifference to human needs and suffering.

Countries of the region tend to avoid enactment of asylum laws largely because asylum is deeply rooted in notions of individual, family, and group reputation. In societies where providing hospitality enhances reputations for generosity, humanitarian internment camps are unnecessary if not repugnant. The refusal of most Arab states to sign the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees is not a reflection of a lack of concern regarding forced migration. Rather, it is an unwillingness to move against the norms and customs of hospitality that grant the stranger, exile, and refugee nearly the same rights of the citizen. The nation is regarded as the home and the head of the family is sovereign of the state. National legislation is not required in order to treat the stranger as a guest. This is underscored by the wide acceptance of the Protocol for the Treatment of Palestinians in Arab States, the Casablanca Protocol, adopted in 1965.

The Arab ideal is that the state is the host, and hospitality is a matter for the local community and the private individual. The refugee camp is not part of the mindset. The forced migrant is welcomed or tolerated as a guest, generally temporarily but sometimes for a long duration. The ideal of an Arab nation persists in the rhetoric and the practices of some states. Syria, for example, has practiced near unconditional hospitality in allowing all Arabs into the country without visas. In other Arab states, it is easier for Arabs to enter than other foreign nationals. In any case, the host is thus someone that has the power to give something (karam) to the stranger, but ultimately remains in control. Karam not only enhances the reputation of the host, the act of hosting also creates greater security by enlarging the network (wasta) of the host. One day the host may become a stranger himself. The cycle of hospitality and refuge among members of different millets is the antecedent to the modern Arab state.

A Better Approach to Humanitarianism

Iraqi exiles and other forced migrants have regularly confounded Western concepts of humanitarianism. The Iraqi rejection of refugee camps as a response to asylum seeking caught the international community off-guard. The exiles as well as their hosts largely spurned the Western notion of separating the asylum seeker from the rest of society. These acts are clearly rooted in the late Ottoman era and its system of millets spread far and wide over the Arab provinces. Subsequent forced as well as voluntary migration in the region created widespread networks of families, lineages, and tribes. These considerations of social capital, networks, and alliances became significant factors when Iraqis came to deciding the time, place, and route of their exile. Because notions of hospitality and refuge operate at the community and individual level—and not by government decree—public consciousness was conducive to positive responses to the need for asylum and security. These social and ethical norms underpin the success of self-settlement and local community hosting.

The Iraqi experience has prompted a rethink by UNHCR and other refugee agencies. Only a few years ago, refugees who evaded camps were criminalized for such acts. However in 2007, largely as a result of the Iraqi crisis, UNHCR issued new guidelines for effectively protecting the self-settled refugee. This effort by Western organizations to understand local history, context, and custom augers well for future humanitarianism and refugee reception in the Arab World.

Dawn Chatty is director of the Refugee Studies Centre at the University of Oxford, where she isprofessor of Anthropology and Forced Migration and chair of the Commission on Nomadic Peoples of the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences. She is the author ofDisplacement and Dispossession in the Modern Middle East and has contributed to theInternational Journal of Migration, Health and Social Care, Middle East Journal, Refugee, andRefugee Survey Quarterly, among others.

Congo Stories

Anyone paying attention to the Democratic Republic of the Congo must have a high tolerance for paradox. At times the conflict is portrayed as impossibly complex, with deep moral ambiguity; alternately, one reads simple explanations of good guys versus bad guys—innocent civilians and aid workers suffering at the hands of blood-thirsty fighters, corporate exploiters, and sexual predators. The root causes of the crises are alternately given as European colonialism, international intervention, bad governance, abundant natural resources, or tribal hatreds. Suggested policy responses also vary widely. Is it possible for an observer to untangle these stories and develop a more coherent narrative of the violence and forced population displacement?

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), known as Zaire during the thirty-two-year reign Mobutu Sese Seko, has been the setting for one of the most violent conflicts in African history. In 1994, the Rwandan genocide erupted, during which ethnic Hutu extremists masterminded the massacre of up to 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutu. The conflict spilled over into Zaire when tens of thousands of Rwandan Hutu militants and former soldiers—génocidaires—infiltrated the massive refugee exodus. The Hutu militants proceeded to engage in cross-border violence against the new Tutsi-led Rwandan government. They also stoked ethnic conflict with local Congolese Tutsis as enmities from Rwanda spread across the border. Then, in 1996, Rwandan troops allied with anti-Mobutu rebels invaded Zaire and toppled the Mobutu dictatorship. Over the last decade and a half, the country has been convulsed by cycles of conflict involving DRC government forces, various rebel groups and foreign armies.

Forced displacement in the DRC has thus become one of the world’s most severe refugee crises. Related serious problems have multiplied, such as child soldier recruitment, sexual violence, and forced labor. As people leave their homes, they lose the protection of their families and their means of making a living. Violence and instability not only cause displacement but impede counting and assisting the refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs).

Figures from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) provide a snapshot of the crisis. As of September 30, 2012, there were more than 2.2 million IDPs in the DRC, mostly in South Kivu and North Kivu in Eastern Congo. (Fighting in late 2012 led to the displacement of an additional 589,000 people in these regions.) More than 450,000 Congolese live as refugees outside the country, primarily in the Republic of Congo, Uganda, Tanzania, and Rwanda. The DRC, meanwhile, hosts about 140,000 refugees largely from Rwanda and Angola.

The most significant refugee influx occurred when more than 1.2 million Rwandan Hutu refugees fled to Zaire amid the genocide. The subsequent related military conflicts resulted in additional displacement. The United Nations as well as human rights groups have alleged that Rwandan troops pursued and murdered unknown thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of Rwandan Hutu refugees following the 1996 invasion. However, most of the Hutu refugees in the DRC returned to Rwanda after this period.

Underlying the debate about the conflict and forced displacement in the DRC are storylines that describe the progression of events leading to the present. These storylines interpret history, assign blame for previous violence, identify the “deserving” displaced people, and diagnose various ills affecting political culture. Such stories are not merely propaganda, political rhetoric, or media inventions. Narratives matter because they simplify the situation in terms of positing causes and in recommending solutions. As political scientists Molly Patterson and Kristen Renwick Monroe have explained, “insofar as narratives affect our perceptions of political reality, which in turn affect our actions in response to or in anticipation of political events, narrative plays a critical role in the construction of political behavior.” In particular, narrative simplification affects international publics and even governments who lack deep context about the situation, yet who feel the desire, or pressure, to act.

There are four different narratives relevant to forced displacement issues in the DRC, most of which offer competing storylines which, in turn, prompt differing policy responses: the Rwandan security narrative; the western atrocity victim narrative; the displaced population’s agency narrative; and the DRC government regional security narrative.

It is important to note that the dominant narratives—those most readily heard and accepted by the international community—are the ones presented by outsiders: the Rwandan and Western narratives. By contrast, the DRC government has been effectively silenced, as have the actual victims of the violence. Power and narrative are closely related, which explains why the groups holding political, economic, and military advantages—Western states and neighboring Rwanda—have been able to shape the story of the conflict. For the United States, this continues a pattern established during the Cold War, when the U.S. imposed the narrative of the global struggle against Communism on domestic Zairian politics (with disastrous consequences for Zairians).

These competing narratives alternately obfuscate and clarify. Some contain outright lies; some are rife with significant omissions. They all hold some truth. Each narrative draws on different aspects and interpretations of historical memory, which often exclude or contradict the memories of other groups. Untangling those storylines in the context of forced displacement in Congo and the region is a challenging task considering the many interactions and overlaps in narratives.

Rwandan Security Narrative

Propagated by the administration of Rwandan President Paul Kagame, this narrative stresses the threat posed by the anti-Tutsi Rwandan rebels based across the border in the DRC. The 1994 genocide and resulting refugee crisis underpins Kagame’s discourse: “Our problem in Congo for eighteen years has been a security problem,” Kagame said in a TIME magazine interview published in September 2012. Kagame elaborated on his version of historical memory: “Our story starts with 1990 when our struggle started, and then in 1994, when we had the genocide and refugees running to Congo… And then you have the history of the international community and how they messed up and meddled and did all kinds of things. They were feeding génocidaires, giving them help and food in camps that were militarized. They were calling them refugee camps and you would find anti-aircraft guns and APCs and all kinds of weaponry in the refugee camps. And the world wants to tell you these are refugees.” In Kagame’s recitation, the fomenting of ethnic Hutu and Tutsi divisions by Belgian colonizers forms the historical backdrop for the 1990s genocide.

Kagame categorically rejects the DRC government narrative, which includes accusations that the Rwandan government provided support for an attack on the Congolese city of Goma last November by the Congolese rebel group known as the March 23 Movement (M23). The attack forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee the fighting, further exacerbating Congo’s refugee crisis. In a speech at the Rwanda Defence Force Command and Staff College in July 2012, Kagame declared: “Actually the problem of Congo came from outside… It was created by the international community—our partners—because they don’t listen, they are so arrogant.” The Rwandan daily New Times quoted Kagame denying any support to the M23, although he has called the group’s political grievances legitimate. “We are not supplying even one bullet, we have not and we will not,” he said.

Kagame realizes the strategic advantage gained by establishing a dominant narrative. He assured his audience at the military academy: “I am not dramatizing anything here, I am telling the real story.” In the TIME interview, Kagame used the terms “story” and “narrative” six times. Responding again to allegations of M23 support, he erupted, “I’ve never seen such a stupid story.”

Kagame’s representation of the historical memory of the 1990s is not so much inaccurate as incomplete. The Rwandan narrative does not mention (and in fact criminalizes any discussion of) violence perpetrated by forces of Rwanda’s ruling party, the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), against Hutu civilians, or the mass displacement that preceded the Hutu genocide of the Tutsis. The Rwandan narrative also omits the mass killing by RPF forces and Congolese rebels of Rwandan Hutu refugees in the DRC following the 1996 mass repatriation. The Rwandan foreign minister castigated a United Nations report detailing more than six hundred specific instances of war crimes as a “moral and intellectual failure as well as an insult to history.”  The Rwandan narrative avoids discussing the history of Rwandan plundering of Congolese mineral resources.

The Rwandan version clashes with many aspects of all three competing narratives. It rejects the Western narrative that discusses the humanitarian disaster and human rights abuses of displaced people (as well as other residents) as that narrative includes criticism of Rwanda’s role in Congo. The RPF government accuses aid workers of bias and ignorance, particularly in connection with Western humanitarian aid to the militarized Rwandan Hutu refugee population in the DRC. As Kagame toldTIME: “And the problem of Rwanda, which for many years has been one of security, these murderers who live in Congo, this problem never features.” The Rwandan narrative stresses the role of other actors, such as Congolese forces and various rebel groups, in causing displacement and mistreating civilians.

Western Atrocity Victim Narrative

Western aid and advocacy groups, politicians, the media, and researchers often tell the story of a long, unbroken history of violence, poverty, poor-governance, and civilian suffering. It is a story that draws on a global atrocity narrative that homogenizes distant suffering and disasters. The plotline strings together the rapacious King Leopold and the Belgian colonizers, Mobutu’s kleptocracy, and state collapse since the 1990s. (The story tends to skip over the role of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency in the assassination of independence leader and popularly elected Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba in 1961.) This narrative highlights monstrous abuses, inflicted primarily on women and children. Refugees and IDPs figure prominently as victims due to the vulnerability inherent in displacement. They are uprooted from their homes, support networks, and livelihoods, and depend on others to meet their basic needs.

Typically the story contains accounts of unadulterated evil preying on helpless, defiled innocence. Reporting from the war zone in eastern DRC in 2010, for example, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof challenged readers with excruciating tales of human suffering, such as this woman’s experience: “‘First, they tied up my uncle’ Jeanne said. ‘They cut off his hands, gouged out his eyes, cut off his feet, cut off his sex organs, and left him like that. He was still alive.’” The woman then chokes out her story of repeated sexual assaults, which “tore apart her insides and left her dribbling wastes constantly…delirious and almost dead.”

The M23 attack on Goma prompted another flurry of media accounts that reinforced the Western atrocity victim narrative. A New York Times article by reporter Jeffrey Gettleman described “a group of Tutsi-led rebels, widely believed to be backed by Rwanda, eviscerating a feckless, alcoholic government army that didn’t even bother to scoop up its dead.” The article was peppered with language such as: “Never-ending nightmare,” “a doomed sense of déjà vu,” “ambient chaos,” “blood-soaked.” It described the cannibalism, witchcraft, and primitive superstitions practiced by the various combatants. That story of the Congo is so discouraging as to leave the reader horrified and paralyzed.

An earlier story by the same journalist presented a more nuanced view of the conflict by including local perspectives. He interviewed residents who had experienced multiple displacements and did not just relate stomach-churning incidences of sexual assaults. The article also quoted a Congolese researcher on the complexity of the conflict, including the importance of local land disputes.

Perhaps portraying graphic horror is the only way to capture the increasingly fickle and short-lived attention span of international audiences. Donors and activists seem prompted to act against unambiguously wicked atrocities. Thus, humanitarian campaigns gain steam amid accounts of amputation, rape, honor killing, and forced induction of child soldiers.

Such depictions by Western journalists, humanitarian organizations and human rights groups are hardly unique to Congo.  Stories of other African crises, such as Somalia and Darfur, also present a picture of misery and hopelessness. This emphasis captures part of the situation—the human suffering—but fails to explain the fuller reality as experienced by local people.

The problem is that ignoring local voices can distort Western advocacy efforts, even if the story is told with the laudable intention of rallying support for suffering victims. Political scientist Séverine Autesserre critiques the standard narratives of Congolese politics in her book The Trouble with the Congo: Local Violence and the Failure of International Peacebuilding. She finds that local explanations for and responses to conflict are more accurate than what she terms “top-down” narratives. Her recommendation to pay attention to local knowledge and bottom-up solutions will be useful for resolving the displacement crisis. If people are actually being forced off their land due to local disputes, rather than by wider conflicts between governments and rebel groups, solely the defeat of the rebels will not provide the necessary conditions for their return. A similar case can be made in addressing the problem of rape. The American Journal of Public Health has reported that rape is much more widespread in the population than has been implied in stories about “systematic rape” perpetrated by combatants. That information indicates that preventing rape will require a much broader effort than simply targeting armed groups.

Historical memory affects how humanitarian organizations approach displacement. The fact that aid workers did indeed feed and care for genocidal killers among the displaced civilians during the Rwandan refugee crisis between 1994-96 has led to much conspicuous soul-searching among humanitarians. Perhaps this helps explain a new emphasis on identifying recipients as innocent and pure. Highlighting women, children, the sick, and the elderly in publicity material will reassure wary donors who want to make sure they are not once again providing succor to genocidal killers. The risk is that the victim advocacy narrative is so successful that it convinces sympathetic, but despairing, outsiders that their efforts could achieve better results in another, less hopeless, crisis.

Displaced Population Agency Narrative

This narrative emerges from first-person accounts of displacement. Here, displaced individuals are agents who have widely varying experiences and perceptions of the crisis. Common themes in the narrative are repeated displacement, exploitation, government corruption, and abuse from nearly all parties to the conflict. In light of the condemnation of the government by locals, their concerns are largely absent from the story told by the DRC government. In other words, their voices are often drowned when they contradict more powerful actors. Alternately, the displaced may find their stories co-opted for publicity or propaganda purposes. Some organizations search for these local stories to enhance the dominant narrative.

Most Congolese IDPs are “situational refugees,” to use a term developed in my research on refugees and the spread of conflict published in Dangerous Sanctuaries: Refugee Crises, Civil War, and the Dilemmas of Humanitarian Aid. Situational refugees fled from generalized violence and threats; they have little political organization or allegiance to any of the combatant groups. The primary goal of situational refugees (as with IDPs generally) is to return home in peace and regain their means of livelihood.

The other categories of refugees based on the cause of flight are “state-in-exile refugees” and “persecuted refugees.” State-in-exile refugees are highly militarized and usually left their country as a strategy of war. The Rwandan Hutu refugees from the 1990s constituted a state-in-exile in Zaire (although many of the civilians did not participate in violence and later returned home). Persecuted refugees flee due to targeted violence or threats based on a group characteristic such as ethnicity or religion. They tend to have greater group cohesiveness than situational refugees, but have less chance of military organization than state-in-exile groups. This typology applies to internally displaced populations as well as refugees, although state-in-exile groups are more likely to cross an international border as a way to regroup for continued fighting.

The displaced population’s agency narrative spends little time on statistics and categories, however. Humanitarians, researchers, and policy makers create, and fill, categories of IDPs; newly displaced, secondary displacement, vulnerable groups, unaccompanied minors, returnees, locally integrated. They count, and dispute, the numbers overall and the numbers in each category. These statistics (100,000 newly displaced, 200,000 returned, etc.) do not capture the many multiple displacements, insecurities, and adjustments made by the war-affected civilians. A widowed Congolese mother displaced from her farm is not fixated on determining the appropriate category for her situation; her concerns are more fundamental.

Indeed, the situation fluctuates so rapidly, and people shift in and out of categories so regularly, that the international and governmental statistical focus is constantly inaccurate or outdated. In many cases, there is not a clear divide between the displaced and the non-displaced. There are many alternatives to living in camps such as crowding in with family or finding shelter without external assistance. Attackers also do not recognize a clear divide when abusing civilians. Nonetheless, the categories have an impact when aid distribution is contingent on the category to which one is assigned.

DRC Government Regional Stability Narrative

The DRC government cites two major causes of the violence: malfeasance of the former Zairean governments, and interference from external states and groups. The “bad guys” include Rwanda, international non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the M23 rebels, Rwandan Hutu rebels, and the past Zairean leaders. In the Congolese government narrative, these factors, most of which exculpate the current government, account for the country’s failures and the state’s fragility. The government narrative downplays the need for democratization in the DRC, instead emphasizing the government’s responsibility in providing stability. Certainly, Congo has suffered from rapacious interveners and rebel groups. Yet, considering the almost universal reports of government corruption, cruelty, and incompetence, this narrative fails to convince most observers.

The narrative was on display when the DRC ambassador to the United Kingdom blasted the recent decision of the International Monetary Fund to suspend loans to the DRC. The ambassador explained that the debt dated back to the “corrupt Mobutu regime” and the “years of decay and civil wars.” He praised President Joseph Kabila, “who has restored democracy to DRC after years of misrule.” In common with the Rwandan narrative, the DRC government view of NGOs borders on paranoia; it blames them for spreading innuendo about corruption and other misdeeds. The ambassador accused “individuals and groups with political agendas against the government of President Kabila” of influencing the IMF’s decision.

Who is listening?

Clearly, the Congo narratives are told with the intention of engaging and persuading listeners. The implied audience is the ‘international community.’ The urgency with which the various narrators communicate indicates the perceived significance of narratives in shaping policy outcomes.

Acceptance of the Rwandan narrative would encourage negotiations with M23 and tolerance of Rwanda’s military involvement in eastern DRC. It would also validate suspicion toward returning Rwandan refugees, suggesting that they have ties to the Hutu rebel groups based in the DRC. The Western atrocity victim narrative emphasizes aid to Congo and the vast human needs in the country. Proponents of this narrative risk exaggerating hopelessness in a way that leaves the intended audience in despair. However, integration of the victim narrative with the agency narrative can enrich the humanitarian account and help improve the lives of the Congolese people. Acceptance of the DRC government narrative would endorse its accusations of Rwandan interference and downplay the need for democracy and good governance. Such acceptance would likely ignore the bottom-up suggestions of the local displaced population. In practical terms, the choice of dominant narrative will affect the policies of external actors on whether to promote negotiations with the M23 rebels, the level and type of outside aid, and whether approaches to resolving the crisis will focus solely on high politics or will take into account local disputes and problems as well.

Sole reliance on only one of these narratives will skew policy responses in ways that will likely impede resolution of the many forced migration crises in the DRC. For policy makers and journalists alike, the general tendency is to pick one narrative and stick with it. The media may go with the most dramatic plot and policy makers may opt for the narrative with least political risk.

As Séverine Autesserre points out in a 2012 essay in African Affairs, international actors prefer an “uncomplicated story line, which builds on elements already familiar to the general public, and a straightforward solution.” But the more challenging task is to assemble an inclusive narrative. Interpretation of history is contested, and always will be. Yet it is possible to appreciate multiple views. This requires listening carefully and critically to the narratives of security, victimhood, agency, and stability. And questioning dominant narratives when they silence less powerful ones. Listening can untangle the paradoxes and clear the way to constructive solutions.

Sarah Kenyon Lischer is associate professor of political science at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.  She is the author of Dangerous Sanctuaries: Refugee Camps, Civil War, and the Dilemmas of Humanitarian Aid. She has published in International Security, Global Governance, Conflict, Security, and Development, the American Scholar, and the Los Angeles Times. She is currently writing a book on atrocity narratives and reconciliation after genocide.

Driven Out By Drought

Global average temperatures are rising, and the weather is becoming wilder. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports that climate change is a factor in certain disasters such as storms, floods and droughts. Population growth and density, poverty and armed conflicts are also contributing to a changing pattern in disasters. According to a study by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, 14.9 million people were displaced by sudden-onset natural disasters in 2011; the majority by climate-related disasters such as storms and floods. Hundreds of thousands of others have fled slow-onset disasters, such as the drought that developed into a famine in the Horn of Africa. Among them are Somalis displaced to Kenya and Egypt.

Those who flee persecution qualify for refugee status, according to the refugee definition of the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol. There are wider regional refugee definitions such as the Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems adopted by the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in 1969. This classified generalized violence and events seriously disturbing public order in the definition. For many of those displaced to another country in the context of disasters, however, there is no international legislation providing a clear and secure basis for their rights and protection. The Kenyan and Egyptian contexts offer an opportunity to understand what this means for people on the ground.

Between Conflict and Drought in Somalia

Somalia comprises Somaliland, which has declared itself independent, Puntland, which has declared itself an autonomous state, and South Central Somalia. In South Central Somalia armed opposition groups, government, and African Union (AU) troops are all fighting for control. And there are many, sometimes conflicting, foreign interests. Somalia is one of the poorest and most violent countries in the world. The majority of the approximately nine million inhabitants are nomadic pastoralists and seasonal farmers. The rain-dependent livelihoods, poverty, and conflict make people very vulnerable to climate change and disasters. Droughts have become routine in the last decades. When rain does come, it often comes in sudden and massive proportions so the soil cannot absorb it. These droughts and floods come on top of the ongoing armed conflict.

While most East African countries were badly affected by drought in 2011, the situation was almost beyond imagination in Somalia with famine being declared in several regions. It was the most severe humanitarian crisis in the world in 2011, and Africa’s worst food security crisis since the Somali famine between 1991−92. Experts see two primary causes for the famine. First, the total failure of the October to December Deyr rains in 2010 and the poor performance of the April to June Gu rains in 2011 resulted in the worst annual crop production for seventeen years, high animal mortality, and soaring food prices. Second, humanitarian assistance was extremely limited until September 2011 due to inadequate funding and intervention by the international community—and armed groups severely restricting humanitarian access.

“During previous droughts, we could live off livestock or even sell some livestock to survive,” says a man named Yussuf before describing the 2011 drought. “Now all the livestock is dying, even the donkeys. It is the worst drought I have experienced.” He is an older Somali gentleman with a characteristic henna-dyed beard. He has been a pastoralist and seasonal farmer his whole life. He describes how his family lost the majority of their animals to the drought then sold the rest to survive, because nothing grew on the farm. The drought was so severe that normal coping mechanisms were not sufficient. “Before family and clan members used to help each other, but now nobody has anything,” he explains.

Yussuf, who believes the drought and famine were God’s will, says that armed groups played a role by not allowing international organizations access to people in need for a very long time. Eventually, he decided to leave together with his family. However, the armed group controlling the area where they were living would not even allow them to leave. They wanted to hold on to people and power. “We had to sneak out at night,” he says.

Can one speak of displacement in a pastoralist context? The Somali pastoralists have always been on the move. It is their way of life. According to Yussuf, last year was different, though. “I was forced to leave by the circumstances,” he says. It was not like previous droughts when they could still go to the traditional areas of pasture and let the animals graze. The pastoralist has now been forced to settle.

Conventions and Protocols

In July 2011, Yussuf and his family arrived in search of basic assistance at the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, the largest such settlement in the world with some half a million mostly Somali inhabitants. By September 2011, more than 140,000 new refugees had entered Dadaab. The Kenyan response to Somalis fleeing drought, conflict, and famine in 2011 and 2012 is a mixed picture.

Kenya is party to the UN convention and protocol as well as to the 1969 OAU convention. There is also domestic legislation such as the 2006 Refugees Act. While Kenyan authorities have delegated most issues concerning refugees to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), including refugee status determination, it is increasingly assuming responsibilities. Due to the generalized violence, the government of Kenya and UNHCR officials in Kenya consider that all people coming from South Central Somalia are refugees according to the OAU definition.

While Kenya insists that refugees are welcomed and not rejected, the Kenyan-Somali border has been officially closed since 2007. According to the Refugee Consortium of Kenya, the continued refusal to open the border and the lack of access to nutrition, health, water, transport, and other essentials at the border amounts to an extraordinary protection failure, contributing for several months to excess mortality in the first days of arrival in the camps. The Kenyans do not patrol the whole length of the border, however, and it is highly permeable, but the closure forces many Somalis to take more dangerous routes to enter the country. Yussuf and his family spent fifteen days travelling, much of the time on foot. They were not stopped by police or soldiers, but they were attacked by bandits operating along the border.

In October 2011, the Kenyan government stopped registering new refugees. Those who are not registered only qualify for the most basic assistance. The Refugee Consortium of Kenya believes that the increase in people coming mainly due to drought and livelihood insecurity can undermine theprima facie refugee status in the long run.

“It is better here than in Somalia,” Yussuf says and pauses for a moment. “But we solely depend on food rations here. I would have preferred to have livestock and a small farm, or trade in animals, since this is what I am used to.” Formally, Somalis in Kenya have very limited freedom of movement and right to work. They are confined to the camps where they receive assistance from humanitarian and development organizations. Schooling and new training offers hope to some. While agro-pastoralism has been an adaptation to the climate of Somalia, Yussuf is glad that his children are going to school and can perhaps have other livelihoods in the future. “I would like one of them to become a doctor because health is important,” he says. “Another could be a driver so we can move around more easily. The third one could learn about the world and different cultures because that too is important.”

Pros and Cons for Kenyans

The location of the refugee camp in Dadaab is important. The North Eastern Province is ethnically Somali. It is an arid to semi-arid region, and has historically been marginalized. The displaced Somalis and members of the local Kenyan community emphasize that the relationship between the two groups is good. “They are Somalis and our brothers and sisters,” says a man named Abdirashid, a teacher at the primary school in the town of Dadaab. “There is only a line that the colonial government drew between us. We have a very good interaction. We intermarry, work for them, they work for us, we work together. They are like us.” Abdirashid, who is also the secretary for a local environment committee, has invited us into his office where a group of local women and youth representatives are waiting.

The Kenyans in Dadaab admit that there are many benefits to the refugee camps. “The Somalis are very enterprising people and there is more business here now,” says Abdirashid. A socio-economic survey in 2010 suggested that, while there are some negative environmental impacts in the immediate vicinity, the camp brings in approximately $14 million  annually, equating to around 25 percent of the region’s per capita income.

Local Kenyans have their complaints, however. “The first effect of the refugees was that our grazing area is now a refugee camp,” Abdirashid explains. “In addition, they go and cut trees. This is already a fragile ecosystem. Any drought becomes more severe here.” The 2011 drought had a strong impact on Dadaab and Kenya in general as well as Somalia. “I just think it is sad that we have not been compensated,” he says. “There is all that hype about the refugees. We have waited. They had serious problems, but now some refugees even have a higher standard of living than us.”

When asked what they expect from the government and what they expect from the international agencies, the answer is first a smile. “We don’t expect anything from the government,” he says. “There is too much corruption. Kenya has neglected this area since colonial times. We are second-class Kenyans. Now all the money goes to security. No money for development. Hopefully, we will soon get a new government which will help.”

The Egyptian Context

Egypt is a refugee-receiving as well as transit country. According to a UNHCR official, there was a slight increase in Somali asylum seekers in Egypt during 2011, and part of this might be attributed to the drought and famine. Another reason may be that people wanted to have their status regularized and be protected by the agency or be resettled, due to uncertain times after Egypt’s January 25 revolution.

“I was on the verge of a mental breakdown,” Ahmed says. We are sitting around a table with a group of young Somali men in Cairo. Ahmed pauses and adjusts his glasses. He has just told us how his family lost their livestock, he lost his transport job, his uncle died of hunger. Together with his family he went to a camp for internally displaced people in Mogadishu in search of basic assistance. But for a long time armed groups did not give international organizations access to the people in need. “Drought and civil war are twins that have come together to plague my country,” Ahmed says. Eventually, he saved up enough money and made contacts to leave the country. He had a long journey from Somalia to Egypt. “I started in Ethiopia where I met some Oromo people. I went with them through Ethiopia and to Sudan. We traveled through Sudan for three months. I crossed the desert. I suffered.”

Egypt is one of the few countries in the Middle East and North Africa region that is party to the UN and OAU conventions. In addition, there is another regional draft convention, the Arab Convention on Regulating Status of Refugees in the Arab Countries. Article 1 of the convention explicitly recognizes as refugees those who flee “because of natural disasters or grave events resulting in major disruption of public order in the whole country or any part thereof.” The convention must be ratified by the Arab League before it is presented to each Arab state for ratification.

In Egypt today, there is individual refugee status determination, which means that each individual must show that he or she meets all criteria in one of the currently binding refugee definitions. As in Kenya, UNHCR assists the government in status determination. “People would not come to the office and say that they came due to drought,” says a UNHCR official. Those displaced would emphasize the conflict element. Due to the multi-causality of their movement, some are recognized as refugees. Others adapt their narratives and are also recognized. Many others, however, are rejected. “In Egypt the Oromo helped me and took me to the UNHCR office in Cairo,” Ahmed says. “I told them how I lost family in the drought and fighting. I have now got the yellow card [the UNHCR identity document for asylum seekers] and am waiting.”

Dreams and Nightmares

We talk about life in Egypt and hopes for the future. “I do anything, I clean, I do anything to survive,” Ahmed says. “It is tough since foreigners are not really allowed to work here.” Egypt has limited the rights of refugees to work, education, health services, and permanent residency. The young Somali men see little future in Egypt. “One of the main challenges is that all of us are very depressed,” Ahmed continues. “We are in the middle. A friend of mine tried crossing from Libya over to Italy and died in the Mediterranean. If we try to go to Europe, we die in the Mediterranean. In Somalia we die of conflict and drought. The solution is in the hands of Allah.”

According to UNHCR, more than 1,500 irregular migrants or asylum seekers drowned or went missing in 2011 while attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea. A series of factors influence developed countries’ will to accept refugees, and at the moment the will is little. Several European countries have elaborate legislation protecting refugees. In practice, however, many of them try—through visa regulations, interceptions, and other measures—to make sure that as few asylum seekers as possible ever arrive in their countries to be able to enjoy this protection. Some people in search of better lives elsewhere persevere in their journey and struggle regardless.

When someone in the group says that everyone wants resettlement to Europe or North America, Ahmed exclaims, “Not me! I need to return back home. As long as I am not home, I am losing time. If there was security and I had a ticket in my hand, I would return home today!” We talk about what he could do if only there was peace and prosperity in Somalia. “I would like to open a garage. If there was peace, people would support and trust me.” Someone else in the group wants to open a restaurant and a hotel on the beach in Kismayu, “tourists can come and sunbathe, swim in the sea, eat, and sleep well.” The young men drift off into dreams about a future Somalia. In the second half of 2012, there were signs of optimism in parts of the country following a presidential election, and people, including returning diaspora Somalis, are seeking to establish new lives and businesses.

Refugees from Disasters

For Somalis displaced to Kenya and Egypt, the lack of livelihood options was one of the main reasons for leaving home. The armed conflict and lack of humanitarian access played an important role in escalating the drought and famine. In terms of preventing displacement, this implies that livelihood interventions are necessary, and that we have to somehow address the complex, on-going armed conflict. The movement out of Somalia was experienced as forced displacement. This creates a particular humanitarian imperative to act. Addressing root causes of displacement is also related to the facilitation of return. For return to even be an option, peace and better livelihood opportunities are necessary.

The Kenyan and Egyptian responses to the Somali displacement illustrate how the gap in legal protections plays out on the ground. In Kenya, the most pressing challenges seemed to be less related to the formal recognition of refugee status. Somalis experienced difficulties in crossing the border and challenges such as lack of training and livelihood opportunities. These challenges are probably similar to those of many other refugees in Dadaab and elsewhere in large camps. In Egypt, the Somalis were subjected to individual refugee status determination and had to show a clearer link to persecution or conflict. In these cases, narratives were sometimes adjusted, and many risked not being recognized as refugees and getting formal legal protection. Challenges included those related to work and mental health.

This illustrates the importance of initiatives to address the challenges of applying the traditional refugee concept in drought and disasters. Developing regional instruments such as the Arab convention, which explicitly recognizes such disasters, might be one way forward. While developing new formal legislation remains important, other contextual factors are crucial in determining whether rights protection is effective or not. This applies both to the Kenyan and Egyptian cases as well as to Europe and developed countries.

This essay is adapted from Somali Voices From Displacement in Kenya and Egypt, published by the Norwegian Refugee Council in December 2012.

Vikram Kolmannskog is a human rights lawyer and has served as an independent advisor and consultant to the Norwegian Refugee Council since 2007. He has contributed to the Journal of International Development, International Review of the Red Cross, and Forced Migration Review, among others.

Our Vietnamese Hearts

M Vit Nam ơi, Chúng Con Vn Còn đây (Oh Mother Vietnam, We Are Still Here)

The lyrics from this sentimental song come back to me once in a while, especially when I think of the Vietnamese Diaspora and its complicated relationship with its homeland. One bitter evening on April 30, 1976, in an auditorium in downtown San Francisco, my family and I sang it to mark our first anniversary in exile. The first of a handful of Vietnamese songs penned abroad after the end of a war that spurred an unprecedented exodus, Oh Mother Vietnam was sung the way a people who had just lost a country would sing it; that is, with tears in our eyes and a cry in our voices. Some in the audience, I remember, even wore white headbands, the kind worn at some funerals to mourn the dead.

Nearly four decades have passed since then. If I were to sing it now, not that I remember the lyrics entirely, I would sing it with a tone full of irony. So removed from that emotional juncture, I wonder to what extent is the song’s declaration still true? Vietnam is accessible now to the Diaspora, but to what extent are we still here for her? Who, in fact, are we?

In his book Tribes: How Race, Religion and Identity Determine Success in the New Global Economy, Joel Kotkin describes a quintessentially cosmopolitan global tribe as an international community that combines a strong sense of a common origin with “two critical factors for success in the modern world: geographic dispersion and a belief in scientific progress.” Kotkin’s primary examples include the British, Jews, Chinese, Japanese, and Indians. These groups, relying on mutual dependence and trust, created global networks that allow them “to function collectively beyond the confines of national or regional borders.” In subsequent writings, Kotkin has added Vietnamese to his list.

The Trip to Orange County

More than four million Vietnamese have fled or migrated abroad since the end of the Fall of Saigon in 1975. They have re-established themselves elsewhere, scattered on five continents. These days you can find restaurants selling pho, banh mi, and other Vietnamese favorites in South Africa, Brazil, Dubai, and beyond. I myself have relatives living in six different countries on three continents. But the largest numbers of the Diaspora ended up in North America, and the largest portion of thatpopulation resettled in California, where my family and I, and most of my relatives, now live.

Ours is an epic filled with irony: traumatized by wars and bound by old ways of life where land and ancestors are worshipped, where babies’ umbilical cords are traditionally buried in the earth as a way to bind them to the ancient land, we relocated to a country known for its fabulous fantasies, high-tech wizardry, and individualistic ambition.

Take, for example, this bus trip I am on. A comfortable bus going south, with the nostalgic music of Trinh Cong Son, sung by the smoky-voiced Khanh Ly, echoing from the overhead speaker. Son was the most famous Vietnamese composer during the Vietnam War, the master of love and antiwar songs, and Khanh Ly the most famous singer. The two old Vietnamese ladies next to me are bragging about their children and their grandchildren, and how well they’re doing, and so on. Behind me, a couple of middle-aged men are humming along with this song of their youth. And up front two kids are playing handheld computer games while their mother talks endlessly on her cell to someone about her restaurant business.

Vietnamese voices rise and fall; I close my eyes and listen. I swear I could be in Hue heading south to Saigon or Dalat.

Except, I am not. I am on the other side of the Pacific, on my way from San José to Orange County, going down Interstate 5 in a Vietnamese-owned bus. It is owned by one of three competing Vietnamese companies, which speaks to the infrastructure of our ethnic community in America.

One of the two old ladies comments that she cannot get over the fact that her son and grandchildren live in a big house on a hill in Freemont, California. “To think my son back home wore shorts and played in the rice field, and all my kids studied by lamplight. Now, he’s a big shot engineer. It’s so different, our lives, all these machines,” she says and looks out to the verdant knolls that blur past us. Then, instead of being relieved, she sighs and says in a voice full of nostalgia, “We’ve come so far from home.”

When I think of the Vietnamese narrative in America, I think of my mother’s ancestral altar. In her suburban home on the outskirts of San José with a pool shimmering in the backyard, my mother prays. Every morning she climbs a chair and piously lights a few joss sticks for the ancestral altar on top of the living room bookcase and mumbles her solemn prayers to the dead. Black and white photos of grandpa and grandma and uncles stare out benevolently to the world of the living from the top shelf. On the shelves below, by contrast, stand my father’s MBA diploma, my older siblings’ engineering and business degrees, my own degree in biochemistry, our combined sports trophies, and, last but not least, the latest installments of my own unending quest for self-reinvention— plaques and obelisk crystals and framed certificates, my literary and journalism awards.

What mother’s altar and the shelves tell is the story of the Vietnamese American conversion, one where Old World Fatalism meets New World Optimism, the American Dream. After all, praying to the dead is a cyclical, Confucian habit—one looks to the past for guidance, and one yearns toward that “common origin” to keep him connected to his community, his sense of continuity. Getting awards and trophies, on the other hand, is an American tendency, a proposition of ascendancy, where one looks toward the future and deems it optimistic and bright.

So Mother Vietnam, we have survived but we have irrevocably changed. To be Vietnamese American, one learns to lurk between these two opposite ideas, negotiating, that is, between night and day.

Under California’s cerulean sky the newcomers undergo a marvelous transformation. In the Golden State where half a million Vietnamese resettled, dreams do have a penchant of coming true. The newcomer grows ambitious. He sees, for instance, his own restaurant in the “For Rent” sign on a dilapidated store in a run-down neighborhood. He sees his kids graduating from top colleges. He imagines his own home with a pool in the back five years down the line—things that were impossible back home.

Day and night, indeed. The traumas of the initial expulsion and the subsequent exodus—re-education camps under communist rules, thirst and starvation on the high seas, years languishing in refugee camps, the horror of Thai pirates and unforgiving storms—are over the years replaced by the jubilation of a new-found status and, for some, enormous wealth. A community that initially saw itself as living in exile, as survivors of some historical blight, has gradually changed its self-assessment. It began to see itself as an immigrant community, as a thriving Little Saigon, with all sorts of make-it-rich narratives.

Sister, did you know the man who created the famous Sriracha chili sauce was a boat person? He arrived in America in January of 1980 and by February already started making his famous green-capped bottles of hot sauce. Now his company rolls out ten million bottles plus a year. It’s the next Ketchup. He’s a very rich man.

Aunty, do you know that the man who started Lee’s sandwiches started out with just a food truck? He parked outside electronics assembly plants in San José selling sandwiches to mostly Vietnamese workers, but he parlayed his business into a multi-million dollar chain. There are now Lee’s sandwiches shops in California, Arizona, and Texas, not to mention China, Korea, and Vietnam itself. It’s an international corporation.

Brother, have you heard about the assistant to the attorney general in the George W. Bush administration? He was a boat person and left Vietnam at age fifteen but graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law School and was editor of Harvard Law Review. He was the chief architect of the USA Patriot Act. Can you believe it?

Soon enough houses are bought, jobs are had, children are born, old folks are buried, businesses and malls are opened, community newspapers are printed, and economic and political organizations are formed. That is to say, ours is a community whose roots are burrowing, slowly but deeply, into the American loam.

The pangs of longing and loss are thus dulled by the necessities of living and by the glory of newfound status and wealth. And the refugee-turned-immigrant (a psychological transition) becomes a naturalized U.S. citizen (more or less a transition of convenience) and finds that the insistence of memories insists a little less as he zooms down the freeway toward a glorious chimerical cityscape to work each morning.

To be a Viet Kieu

We fled abroad and changed, and we in turn developed extraordinary influence back home. The rich, well-fed Vietnamese abroad sent gifts and letters home, kept impoverished relatives fed. They sent pictures of themselves. “See, Tree Hang and Hien? They’re Helen and Henry now. Aren’t they so tall? It’s the American milk and peanut butter, you know. They make your bones large and strong. Henry has a PhD. And Brother, look… ”

The relatives devoured the photographs with their eyes. Beyond those handsome, smiling young adults who pose with such ease next to their sports cars is, inevitably, that two-story house with its two-car garage, as if in mockery. During the Cold War, like sirens, such images were the final tug that lured some Vietnamese from their shantytown toward the open sea.

So much yearning for America changes the character of Vietnam itself. Vuot bien—to cross the border—became a household verb in Vietnam in the 80s. Viet Kieu—literally “overseas Vietnamese,” people of Vietnamese origin now living abroad—became a powerful symbol in the 80s and 90s for all Vietnamese of their potential, the future. And it is universally understood that the Viet Kieu, with their wealth and influence, can change the fortune of their poor cousins.

Until a decade or so ago, Vietnam’s narrative of herself was that she’s four thousand years old. Her milk is dry, her hair gray, she suffers from astigmatism. She has little to offer her numerous children. America, on the other hand, is young, rich, and optimistic: everything that Vietnam cannot be. Vietnamese, increasingly a younger population and full of yearning, inevitably dream of America, a place they imagine of peace, freedom, and wealth, and of little suffering.

For let it be noted that, despite the horror and bloodshed of the war, the Vietnamese missed the Americans after they abandoned the country. Stepping over broken wings of warplanes and moss-covered fragments of rusty old tanks, young Vietnamese search for America. The American relics offer wondrous possibilities. Assemble the broken parts and you might end up with a car, a bridge, or even a homemade factory. Dig up some missing bones and crown the assemblage with an MIA’s dog tags and, who knows, you might turn it into a coveted treasure, an American GI’s bones, to be sold to Americans for a lot of money.

A few years ago, I went back to Vietnam to participate in a PBS documentary, and I did the touristy thing: I went to the Cu Chi Tunnel in Tay Ninh Province, bordering Cambodia, the underground labyrinth where the Viet Cong hid during the war.

There were a handful of American vets in their sixties. They were back for the first time. They were very emotional. One wept and said that, during the war, “I spent a long time looking for this place and lost friends doing the same.”

But the young tour guide told me that it was tourism that forced the Vietnamese to dig up the old hideouts. She, however, did not see the past. She crawled through the same tunnel with foreigners routinely but she emerged with different ideas. Her head is filled with the Golden Gate Bridge and cable cars and two-tiered freeways and Hollywood and Universal Studios. “I have many friends over there now,” she said, her eyes dreamy, reflecting the collective desire of Vietnamese youth. “They invite me to come. I’m saving money for this amazing trip.” If she could, she told me, she would go and study in America.

Here’s a young woman who looks at a tunnel that was the headquarters of the Viet Cong and the target of massive bombings years ago and what does she see? The Magic Kingdom. The Cu Chi Tunnel leads some to the past surely, but for the young tour guide it may very well lead to the future.

After the Cold War ended, Vietnamese refugees were no longer welcome in the West, and, as forced repatriation became more or less a new international policy, boat people stopped coming. But the migration did not stop. In fact, it continues to this day, albeit in a more orderly fashion. Relatives sponsor relatives, Vietnamese marry Vietnamese Americans, political and religious prisoners and Vietnamese Amerasians come under the U.S. special programs, and, the latest wave, well-to-do and bright Vietnamese foreign students apply to study in the U.S., and children of the ruling class of Hanoi and Saigon (now called Ho Chi Minh City)—all are hopeful for a new beginning in America.

A Bar on Truong Han Sieu Street

It sometimes seems almost inevitable in the twenty-first century that the refugee becomes an immigrant and the immigrant, if he fares well, becomes cosmopolitan, with multiple languages and cultural-geographical affiliations.

And it’s inevitable, too, for many a Vietnamese abroad that at some point he takes the journey home.

Consider this National Public Radio story two years ago that began thus: “Many Vietnamese who fled the communist takeover have returned as visitors since, but none of them as commander of a U.S. guided missile destroyer, one making port in the same city where U.S. combat troops first came ashore in Vietnam in 1965. The symbolism wasn’t lost on Commander H.B. Le of the USS Lassen as he spoke to reporters pier side.”

Commander Le was five years old when he fled Vietnam in a crowded boat. Returning in his U.S. Navy uniform, he stood a foot taller than the old admirals who saluted him, a former boat person, someone they would have readily arrested three decades earlier if he were caught escaping.

Diep Vuong, a cum laude graduate of Harvard University with a degree in economics, left Vietnam as a boat person in 1979, but came back seven years ago to help fight human trafficking in An Giang, her home province in the Mekong Delta. “I always remember once we came to America my mother saying to my sisters and I that we were born Vietnamese for a reason, and it is up to us to figure out what that reason is,” she said. Hers is that she can protect at-risk young women being sold into slavery.

As the rich-poor gap in Vietnam has widened with the growth of the economy, human trafficking has become a scourge. Vuong’s programs are part of the Pacific Links Foundation’s effort to empower young women by providing education, skills training, scholarships, and shelter to those at risk. “Increasingly, Vietnamese Americans are playing central roles in the philanthropy sector,” she said. “As for me, I can’t just sit and do nothing. Any of those girls being sold to Cambodia or China could be a cousin or a child of an old friend.”

Nguyen Qui Duc, a Vietnamese refugee who became an American radio host and the author of the memoir Where the Ashes Are: The Odyssey of a Vietnamese Family, has found yet another incarnation in his late-fifties: as a bar owner and art curator in Hanoi. Why would he come back to the country from which he once fled as a refugee? “Home is where there’s a sense of connection, of family, of community,” he said after struggling to find a single answer. “And I found it here.”

Duc is one of at least 200,000 Viet Kieu who return to Vietnam yearly, many only to visit relatives and for tourism, but a small portion increasingly to work, invest, and retire. The majority of the people who return are from the United States, where the largest Vietnamese population overseas resides. Indeed, thirty-eight years after the Vietnam War ended, the Vietnamese Diaspora is now falling slowly but surely back into Vietnam’s orbit.

Not long ago, a Vietnamese overseas had little more than nostalgic memories to keep cultural ties alive. During the Cold War, letters sent from the United States could take half a year to reach their recipients in Vietnam. Today, however, eighteen years after the United States re-established diplomatic ties with Vietnam, and six years after Vietnam joined the World Trade Organization, Hanoi is but a direct flight from Los Angeles, and Vietnamese at home and overseas chat online, text message one another, and video call on Skype. Vietnamese tourists visiting the United States is also increasingly the norm.

Overseas Vietnamese play an important role in Vietnam’s economic life. According to Vietnam’s Chamber of Commerce, in 2008, despite the slowdown in the world economy, Vietnam received overseas aid of more than $7.4 billion. The Vietnamese government said that the Diaspora is reducing poverty and spurring economic development. Official development assistance pledged to Vietnam in 2008 by international donors was $5 billion, whereas the overseas Vietnamese contributed $2.4 billion more.

In 2010, the total amount of remittances plus investment funds from the Diaspora, according to the Vietnamese government, had reached $20 billion, or 8 percent of Vietnam’s GDP. Hanoi, seeing the Diaspora as a tremendous resource, is even considering granting dual citizenship to Viet Kieus to spur further repatriation.

There’s another form of Viet Kieu contribution that is not so tangible, but arguably just as important: themselves.

Nguyen Qui Duc’s bar, Tadioto, an elegant place on Truong Han Sieu Street in Hanoi, has become a gathering place for artists and writers and intellectuals—expatriates and locals alike. Avant-garde art pieces hang on the wall or stand alone in the middle of rooms. “Public space is not yet what it should be in Vietnam,” Duc explained. “I’m aiming to change that—to bring real dialogue between different people.”
Each week at Tadioto, Vietnamese-American poets and writers share their experiences with their Vietnamese counterparts.

Vietnam has reached an ideological dead end—but, in the private sphere, new political thoughts are being formed. If Vietnam still wears the hammer and sickle on her sleeve, her heart throbs now with commerce and capitalism.

There is, along with a fledgling civil society, a growing middle class, and a slow erosion of the political barricade as the pressure rises for political reform, transparency, and pluralism. The return of the Diaspora to the homeland is thus a double-edged sword: Many bring back financial investment and technological know-how. Yet with the presence of so many vocal Viet Kieus in Vietnam, a complex narrative is being formed, one in which knowledge and ideas of the outside world permeate the local culture and society. In this private sphere, and on the Internet, and despite continual arrest of dissident bloggers, the din of political debate and exchange can loudly be heard.

In the wake of that bitter civil war and the subsequent exodus is an irony: those persecuted by Uncle Ho’s followers for being affiliated with the United States and as “collaborators” and forced to flee abroad during the Cold War are now being actively solicited to return to Vietnam to help invest in and rebuild the government that once spurned them. For having international connections in the post-Cold War aftermath is now seen as a good thing.

Having been victims of the war, these people with multiple affiliations have emerged as victors of the peace. They’ve managed to remake themselves and go on with their lives, and more important, by refusing to let rage and thirst for vengeance dominate their hearts, some have become active agents in changing the destiny of Vietnam itself.

Traditions and Ambitions

The reason I am on this bus is this: to see for myself the Vietnam War Memorial in Orange County that I’ve heard so much about from my parents. My father, once a high-ranking South Vietnamese officer, was on the advisory committee of this memorial-building endeavor. On one evening a decade or so ago, the Vietnamese in Orange County raised more than $200,000 for the memorial. Well-known Vietnamese singers sang for free and ticket receipts all went into the memorial fund. The result was two larger-than-life statues, one depicting a South Vietnamese, the other an American GI, standing side by side in combat fatigues adjacent to the city hall in Westminster, the heart of Orange County’s Little Saigon.

Standing in front of it, I am of two minds. I feel something akin to patriotism for my long lost homeland stir in my blood as well as a deep sadness for the men who fought and died—and for those who survived but were broken by the experience; I feel, at the same time, a dire need for distance. While I stand there on a Saturday evening, a couple of older women light incense and pray and several older Vietnamese men in army uniforms stand guard nearby. Something somber and heavy in their stance suggests a collective sorrow that causes me to shudder; their eyes—eyes that no doubt saw the worst of the old war—convey anger, hatred, and bitterness. Their faces remind me of my father’s.

It occurred to me then that while one strand of history still defines those men in army uniforms and, of course, my father, another strand of history was redefining me. My father considers himself an exile living in America, part of an increasingly small population; I see myself as an American journalist who happens to make many journeys to Vietnam without much emotional fanfare. For me, Vietnam, my country of birth, and its tumultuous history have become a point of departure, a concern, but no longer home.

The irony is that because he holds Vietnam so dear to his heart, my father cannot return to the country to which he owes allegiance, so long as the current regime remains in power. His is a rage left over from the Cold War that has no end in sight. History, for my father and for those men who still wear their army uniforms at every communal event, has a tendency to run backward, to memories of the war, to a bitter and bloody struggle whose end spelled their defeat and exile. And it holds them static in a lonely nationalist stance. They live in America but their souls are still fighting an unfinished war in Vietnam.

The old passion lives on, but it must now contend with the new integration: the Vietnamese Diaspora, no longer in exile, is steadily finding itself in Vietnam’s orbit. Lan Nguyen, writing for Nguoi Viet, the largest Vietnamese paper in Orange County, noted that “While the younger generation of Vietnamese Americans shares with elders a general concern regarding human rights, democracy, and freedom in Vietnam, they are not as invested in the cause.” Nguyen, who lives in San José, cites language barriers and lack of experience under communism as the factors that help widen the generation gap. “The Vietnamese American youth…often are disillusioned as it seems their every effort to help Vietnam is met with criticism by those older than them. The elders in turn are horrified to see young people organize philanthropic missions to Vietnam.”

The question remains whether the Vietnamese Diaspora can be an effective agent of change and find new ways to influence the future of the country. To do so, it needs to ask tough questions. Is there real freedom for those who give in to their hatred and are ruled by it? Is democracy for Vietnam possible when those who live in America often fail to understand and practice it with their own communities, and the majority of those in Vietnam barely show any interest? And what does it take to move beyond anger and lust for revenge, and create space for constructive discussion and dialogue and spur new political thoughts?

It is true: once the hate is gone, in its place is pain. Those who cling so strongly to hatred, I suspect, are often those who fear what comes after it. But it is true also that many of us have moved on beyond the old rancor, beyond that us-versus-them mentality. We have learned to absorb our pain and grief and are negotiating our positions between East and West, memories and modernity, traditions and individual ambitions, old loyalties and new alliances, such that we are in the process of recreating a whole notion of what it means to be Vietnamese, a definition that is both open-ended and inclusive.

So, Mother Vietnam, in a sense we are still here, but we aren’t who we used to be. The new generations born abroad may still behold that sense of common origin, may still take pride in their heritage, but they are not bound by the idea that Vietnam is their destiny. Rather, it’s one of their many destinations.

A new song is needed, one that describes an individual with multiple affiliations, with additional homelands, someone who shares a sense of common origin but is not bound by collective nationalism. The old umbilical cord, unearthed at last, is transmuted into a new trans-pacific verse, and is an epic in the making.

Andrew Lam is editor and cofounder of New America Media, an association of more than three thousand ethnic media outlets in the United States. He is the author of Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora, East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres, and most recently, a collection of short stories, Birds of Paradise Lost. On Twitter: @andrewqlam.

Iranians in Texas

Iranians in Texas: Migration, Politics, and Ethnic Identity. By Mohsen Mobasher. University of Texas Press, Austin, 2012. 211 pp.

Mohsen Mobasher tells an overlooked story, not just about the large Iranian population that moved to the United States (and to Texas, in particular) during and following the Iran’s 1979 revolution, but a broader story about the contentious politics of migration in the U.S. and the way a group of migrants from the Middle East have negotiated place, identity, and discriminatory politics. Mobasher, who migrated from Iran to the U.S. in 1978 as a teenager, begins this book by telling his own story, of the difficulties he and his family faced with integration and acculturation. He concludes: “Although I have spent two-thirds of my life in this country, developed strong friendship ties with many Americans, and gained a deep appreciation for American culture, I still feel like a foreigner, an outsider on the margins of American society.”

The feeling of marginalization, he says, is shared by many Iranian immigrants. He argues that it is largely caused by the contentious political relationship between the U.S. and Iran, distorted media images and stereotypes of Iranians (and, more generally, people from the Middle East), and the profiling and discriminatory policies that were put in to effect first during the Iran hostage crisis from 1979 to 1981 and later, after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

Mobasher focuses on a single group of migrants that came to the U.S. shortly after the Islamic Revolution in Iran, but by no means is this group homogenous. To describe and interpret the stories of first and second generation Iranian immigrants, he spent ten years conducting research including formal and informal interviews, two surveys, and close observation. Iranians in exile in Texas (and more broadly across the United States) are diverse not only concerning ethnic and religious identities, but they are divided as well in terms of national, political, and cultural identity in this country. As Mobasher points out, many Iranian immigrants were (and continue to be) forced to manage the stigma of being Iranian—and some go to great lengths to do so. Drawing on interviews with Iranian immigrants in Dallas, Houston, and Austin, Mobasher provides examples of how Iranians deal with this stigma, such as avoiding speaking Persian in public places, keeping hidden the fact that they are from Iran, or by simply calling themselves “Persian” rather than Iranian. His examples are common to the integration experiences of Iranians on a community, local, national, and transnational scale. He characterizes the struggle of the Iranian immigrant in the U.S. as a kind of “double exile,” in which one is neither comfortable nor feels wanted in the U.S. or in Iran.

Mobasher analyzes identity and integration from a theoretical perspective that takes into account the migrant-sending and migrant-receiving societies equally. More specifically, he highlights the political nature of immigration, and the importance of the context of political relations between sending and receiving countries, rather than focusing primarily on issues of human capital and cultural practices of migrants within their host societies. To do this, he draws largely on two important events that shaped the migration and integration experiences of many first and second generation Iranians in America: the hostage crisis and 9/11. After each of these events, he argues, discriminatory and exclusionary policies and practices were put into place that exacerbated the feelings of marginalization of many Iranians in the country. For example, he says, thousands of students of Iranian nationality were suddenly forced to report their location and visa status to the closest Immigration and Naturalization Service office. Also, he points out, the Carter administration then barred Iranians from entering the U.S., and such difficulties continued even after the end of the hostage crisis. Ironically, many Iranians began feeling like hostages themselves, as they were unable for years to return home to see family (an experience Mobasher shared). Mobasher lays out similar examples of policy in the post-9/11 era, when President George W. Bush labeled Iran part of the “axis of evil.” During this time, many Iranians felt the same sense of fear, shame, and self-loathing as they did during the hostage crisis, Mobasher says.

Iranians in Texas argues that U.S. immigration policies combined with the negative media images of Iranians and Muslims have hindered Iranian ethnic and political identity formation in the U.S., and negatively affected the attitudes of many Iranians toward the U.S. government and Americans in general. Mobasher says that the discriminatory policies and distorted images have “damaged Iranians’ confidence in the American government and people and pushed many naturalized Iranians to be less interested in social issues of U.S. society and less involved in its politics.” His research divides Iranians among those that are critical of the U.S. government, those that praise it, and those who are ambivalent about it.

This is a valuable addition to the literature on Middle Eastern migration to the U.S. and Mobasher’s study contains some useful insights for policy makers about the paths to integration among immigrants of all types and backgrounds. Interestingly, for example, he tells of how Iranians in the U.S. became more active on a community and local level after 9/11, creating nonprofit, grassroots, civil liberties, and educational organizations such as the National Iranian American Council. They also became more active in voting, lobbying, and running for public office. This community, organizational, and political participation, Mobasher argues, helps Iranians not only to overcome the stereotype of being a part of the “axis of evil” but also to increase their visibility at various levels of American society. And such activities will ultimately assist Iranians in making the transition from feeling like Iranians in America to Iranian Americans.

Chris Ulack is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Geography and the Environment at the University of Texas at Austin. His focus is on migration and refugee issues in the Middle East and the United States. In 2011, he received a Hogg Foundation for Mental Health fellowship to research the resettlement of Iraqi refugees in Austin, Texas. He previously worked as a resettlement program supervisor for Refugee Services of Texas.

The Scramble for Citizens

The Scramble for Citizens: Dual Nationality and State Competition for Immigrants. By David Cook-Martin. Stanford University Press, 2013. 216 pp

Carrying dual citizenship is a widely accepted practice. But despite common perceptions, it is not merely a function of an increasingly globalized world, or of facilitating systems and technologies. InThe Scramble for Citizens, David Cook-Martin explores how the concept of dual citizenship has evolved in legal and policy decisions made by state builders over the past two centuries.

Cook-Martin offers a case study of a migratory system linking Italy, Spain, and Argentina. He shows how in the late nineteenth century, Italy and Spain adapted their citizenship and immigration policies in response to Argentine state-making strategies. During the period between the first and second world wars, a consensus emerged in international law that people should be affiliated with only one state, and that states themselves should avoid tolerating dual nationality, as well as statelessness. But fearing potential demographic crises from then-shrinking populations, Spain and Italy sought to retain some control and influence over citizens immigrating to Argentina by adopting policies that permitted dual citizenship. After the Second World War and into the 1990s, the situation became reversed: with the rise of the Italian and Spanish economies and the decline of Argentina’s, Argentines increasingly sought opportunities by immigrating to Italy and Spain. And these host counties had inadvertently facilitated access to citizenship for would-be Argentine immigrants due to their own earlier policies permitting dual citizenship.

Cook-Martin is ultimately concerned with a question at the center of an enduring debate among citizenship scholars: In our modern age, has citizenship become more, or less, valuable? The ‘nationalists’ argue that since naturalized citizens make up merely 3 percent of the global population, the nationality one is born with matters a great deal. ‘Post-nationalists’ counter that the value of citizenship has declined considering the spread of dual citizenship and the granting of permanent residence status that effectively provides people with citizenship rights in practice if not in name. Cook-Martin asserts that part of the problem with this debate is that citizenship is rarely studied from the vantage point of the key actors—the migrants themselves.

In an ethnographic approach to understand the status and opportunities gained by holding a second nationality, he traces the complex process of obtaining dual citizenship through the voices of individual migrants as they interact with various state and private actors, as well as interactions with what Cook-Martin deems the “paper industry”—the network of people who profit from obtaining the documents required by official procedures. Following an initial fact-finding foray through centuries-old government and private archives, migrants can wait years to find out whether their claims for dual citizenship have been accepted. The ability and willingness of would-be migrants to navigate this complex system in creative and entrepreneurial ways speaks to their ambition and perseverance. Hence, Cook-Martin concludes, the sagas of Argentines seeking dual nationality underscore the value of citizenship.

Cook-Martin’s “international political field framework” approach reveals weaknesses in both the nationalist and post-nationalist theories. Nationalists focus on the exclusive relationship between the state and citizen, but Cook-Martin demonstrates that citizenship in a nation-state need not be dependent on geography. To the post-nationalists who proclaim the demise of the nation-state, he counters that the nation-state’s bestowal of citizenship is as crucial as ever for would-be migrants. For Cook-Martin, citizenship is thus less valuable in some contexts, more valuable in others.

Kelsey Norman is a fellow at the Center for Migration and Refugee Studies at the American University in Cairo. She has worked as a researcher in Canada, the United States, Egypt, and Croatia. She is pursuing a doctorate in political science at the University of California, Irvine, where she is studying the impact of migration on understandings of citizenship.

Palestine Refugees

1882: First Aliyah, a mass immigration of Jews from Europe, begins.

1896: Theodor Herzl, a Budapest-born Jew, publishes Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State), a pamphlet calling for Jews to escape anti-Semitism and persecution by achieving “the restoration of the Jewish state” in “a portion of the globe large enough to satisfy the rightful requirements of a nation.”

1897: First Zionist congress adopts the Basel Program, stating “Zionism seeks to secure for the Jewish people a publicly recognized, legally secured home in Palestine for the Jewish people” and calling for “the programmatic encouragement of the settlement of Palestine with Jewish agricultural workers, laborers and those pursuing other trades.”

1909: Jewish city of Tel Aviv is founded.

1915: Amid World War I, British High Commissioner in Egypt Sir Henry McMahon promises Hussein Bin Ali, sharif of Mecca, Britain’s backing for “independence of the Arabs” in return for a revolt against the “Turkish yoke” of the Ottoman Empire.

1916: Secret Sykes-Picot Agreement aims to divide parts of the Middle East into British and French protectorates preceding Arab independence.

1917: British forces capture Jerusalem from the Ottomans, beginning British control of Palestine that will continue until 1948; the Balfour Declaration announces Britain’s support for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people” while assuring that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.”

1919: First Palestinian congress rejects Balfour Declaration and demands independence; King-Crane Commission appointed by President Woodrow Wilson recommends a Mandatory administration for former Ottoman Arab territories in preparation for Arab independence; the commission recommends “serious modification of the extreme Zionist program for Palestine of unlimited immigration of Jews, looking finally to making Palestine a distinctly Jewish State;” the commission adds that “the [Paris] Peace Conference should not shut its eyes to the fact that the anti-Zionist feeling in Palestine and Syria is intense and should not be lightly flouted. No British officer, consulted by the Commissioners, believed that the Zionist program could be carried out except by force of arms;” the commission concludes that “Jewish immigration should definitely be limited, and that the project for making Palestine a distinctly Jewish commonwealth should be given up.”

1920: Palestinian Muslim festival of Nabi Musa evolves into three days of anti-Zionist rioting, with six Jews killed; British authorities dismiss Jerusalem Mayor Musa Kazem Al-Husseini for opposing pro-Zionist policies; San Remo Conference confers on Britain a League of Nations Mandate for Palestine; the Mandate text (approved in 1923) expressly calls for “putting into effect” the Balfour Declaration, stipulating that the Mandate administration “shall facilitate Jewish immigration [and] close settlement by Jews on the land;” British administration is established, with Sir Herbert Samuel as the first high commissioner for Palestine; first Immigration Ordinance enacted for 16,500 immigrant Jews; third Palestinian congress elects executive and demands national Palestinian government.

1921: Arab-Jewish tensions erupt into rioting in Jaffa, resulting in the deaths of forty-seven Jews and forty-eight Arabs; Haycraft Commission attributes conflict to Arab fears of Zionist mass immigration.

1922: Churchill White Paper, addressing Arab-Jewish tensions, states that the Balfour Declaration did “not contemplate that Palestine as a whole should be converted into a Jewish National Home, but that such a Home should be founded in Palestine;” the White Paper further states that “the Jewish community in Palestine should be able to increase its numbers by immigration. This immigration cannot be so great in volume as to exceed whatever may be the economic capacity of the country;” British census in Palestine shows a population of 757,182; 78 percent Muslim, 11 percent Jewish, and 10 percent Christian.

1929: Dispute over Jewish access to the Western Wall (Wailing Wall) in Jerusalem escalates into Jewish and Arab protests and widespread Arab rioting; 249 people are killed.

1930: Shaw Commission calls 1929 disturbances “from the beginning an attack by Arabs on Jews;” fundamental cause was that “the Arabs have come to see in the Jewish immigrant not only a menace to their livelihood but a possible overlord of the future;” Hope Simpson Report says no further land is available for Zionist agricultural settlement, and criticizes Zionist policy of excluding Arab labor in Zionist enterprises; Passfield White Paper restricts Jewish immigration and land transfers.

1931: Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald reaffirms Britain’s “obligation to facilitate Jewish immigration and to encourage close settlement by Jews on the land;” British census in Palestine shows a population of 1,035,821; 73 percent Muslim, 17 percent Jewish, and 9 percent Christian.

1935: Sheikh Izzeddin Al-Qassam is killed in a battle with British forces after launching the first Palestinian guerrilla campaign against Zionism and the British Mandate; his death inspires popular Arab resistance; Palestinian parties petition British high commissioner demanding democratic government and end to Jewish immigration and land transfers; Britain rejects demands, proposes a limited legislative council.

1936: Strikes and protests led by Palestinian political parties spiral into the Great Revolt against Britain’s Mandate; Arab Higher Committee is formed under chairmanship of Hajj Amin Al-Husseini, mufti of Jerusalem; Fawzi Al-Qawukji of Lebanon leads guerrilla band against British; Mandate authorities deport Palestinian leaders to Seychelles; Amin Al-Husseini flees to Lebanon; death toll in three years of violence includes an estimated 5,000 Arabs, and 300 Jews; Britain increases the number of troops in Palestine to 20,000.

1937: Britain’s Lord Peel conducts a fact-finding mission into the causes of unrest; Peel Commission report proposes the partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states; representatives from Arab states meeting in Bloudan reject partition proposal, call for a halt to Jewish immigration and end of Palestine Mandate.

1939: Britain quells the Great Revolt with the MacDonald White Paper, which reverses the Peel Commission recommendation for partition; calls for an independent Palestinian state within ten years, adding that the British authorities “now declare unequivocally that it is not part of their policy that Palestine should become a Jewish state.”

1942: Zionist congress meeting in New York adopts the Biltmore Program, urging establishment of a Jewish commonwealth in Palestine and calling for the Jewish Agency to be given control of immigration; the congress rejects the White Paper of 1939 as “cruel and indefensible in its denial of sanctuary to Jews feeling from Nazi persecution.”

1944: Radical Zionists launch a violent campaign against Britain’s Mandate; Lehi (Fighters for the Freedom of Israel), also known as the Stern Gang, assassinates Lord Moyne, British minister of state for the Middle East, in Cairo.

1945: President Franklin Roosevelt tells Saudi Arabian King Abdul Aziz (Ibn Saud) that he would “never do anything which might prove hostile to the Arabs;” defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II reveals extent of genocide of Jews; an estimated six million Jews perished in the Holocaust; President Harry Truman asks Britain to allow 100,000 European Jews to immigrate into Palestine.

1946: Radical Zionist group, Irgun Zvai Leumi (National Military Organization), bombs the King David Hotel, the British administrative headquarters, in Jerusalem, killing ninety-one people; Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry recommends a United Nations trusteeship leading to a bi-national state, and calls for the immediate admission of 100,000 Europeans Jews.

February 1947: Britain declares the Palestine Mandate “unworkable” and asks the United Nations to determine Palestine’s future.

August 31, 1947: Eleven-nation United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) recommends the partition of Palestine into Arab and Jewish states with economic union, with Jerusalem under international trusteeship; a minority report recommends establishment of a bi-national federal state.

September 29, 1947: Arab Higher Committee rejects partition proposal.

October 2, 1947: Jewish Agency announces acceptance of partition proposal.

November 29, 1947: United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) adopts Resolution 181 (Partition Plan) calling for Arab and Jewish states with economic union, with Jerusalem under international trusteeship.

December 1947: Arab-Jewish violence erupts, with armed clashes, indiscriminate bombings, attacks on population centers, and ambushes; Arab Higher Committee leads general strike; Arabs riot in Jerusalem, attacking Jewish properties; two Irgun bombings in Old City of Jerusalem kill thirty-seven; Irgun attack at Haifa refinery kills six; Arabs massacre thirty-nine Jewish workers in retaliation; Haganah (The Defense), the military arm of the Jewish Agency, launches Plan May (also known as Plan C, or Plan Gimel) for an offensive campaign of violence; Haganah attacks villages of Balad Al-Sheikh and Hawassa near Haifa, killing seventy-six; Arab League declares UN partition of Palestine illegal.

January 1948: Haganah, Irgun, and Lehi attacks fuel Arab exodus from Haifa, Jaffa, and Jerusalem; Haganah bombs Semiramis hotel in Jerusalem, killing twenty-six; Irgun bombs Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem, killing twenty-five; Irgun bombs government center in Jaffa, killing twenty-six; Arab Liberation Army (ALA), organized by Arab League, led by Fawzi Al-Qawukji and comprised of 5,000 volunteers from Arab states, arrives to defend Palestinians.

February 1948: Arabs bomb Palestine Post newspaper in Jerusalem, killing twenty Jewish civilians; Ben Yehuda Street bombings in Jerusalem result in deaths of fifty-seven Jewish civilians.

March 1948: Jewish attacks on villages speed Arab flight from countryside.

March 10, 1948: British House of Commons votes to terminate Palestine Mandate as of May 15, 1948; Haganah adopts Plan Dalet (or Plan D) for systematic conquest and permanent occupation of Arab areas—including the destruction and depopulation of villages—within the future State of Israel.

March 11, 1948: Arabs bomb Jewish Agency headquarters in Jerusalem, killing twelve.

March 27, 1948: ALA ambushes Haganah forces, in Galilee and near Hebron, killing 115.

April 1, 1948: United Nations Security Council (UNSC) adopts U.S.-proposed resolution calling for truce.

April 2, 1948: Haganah launches Plan Dalet; Operation Nachshon results in the capture of strategic Arab villages, including Castel, west of Jerusalem.

April 9, 1948: Irgun and Lehi massacre between 100-350 Arabs in the Arab village of Deir Yassin, spreading wide terror among Palestinian Arabs; leading Palestinian commander Abdul Qader Al-Husseini of the Army of Holy War is killed in Castel counterattack.

April 13, 1948: Palestinian militants attack a convoy of Jewish medical workers near Jerusalem, killing seventy-seven people.

April 18, 1948: Haganah captures Tiberias; most of 5,000 Arab inhabitants become refugees.

April 23, 1948: Haganah captures Haifa; an estimated 95 percent of 70,000 Arab inhabitants become refugees.

May 9, 1948: Haganah launches Operation Barak to occupy Arab villages in the gateway to the Negev desert and Gulf of Aqaba.

May 10, 1948: Haganah captures Jaffa; an estimated 94 percent of 80,000 Arab inhabitants become refugees.

May 11, 1948: Haganah captures Safad; most of the 12,000 Arab inhabitants become refugees.

May 13, 1948: Haganah launches Operation Ben Ami to occupy Arab towns in western Galilee.

May 14, 1948: State of Israel is proclaimed in Jerusalem by Jewish Agency Chairman David Ben-Gurion; United States is the first nation to grant recognition to the State of Israel; United Nations appoints Count Folke Bernadotte of Sweden as the mediator for the Palestine conflict.

May 15, 1948: Britain’s Palestine Mandate ends; troops from Iraq, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon invade Israel, beginning the first Arab-Israeli War.

May 16, 1948: Haganah captures Acre; 60 percent of 15,000 Arab inhabitants become refugees.

June 8, 1948: First Arab-Israeli truce takes effect.

September 17, 1948: Lehi assassinates Bernadotte in Jerusalem.

December 11, 1948: UNGA adopts Resolution 194, stating, “refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so” and “compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return.”

1949: Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon sign armistices with Israel; United Nations Economic Survey Mission for the Middle East estimates the maximum number of Palestinian refugees at 774,000; including 200,000 in Gaza, 350,000 in West Bank and Jordan, 97,000 in Lebanon, and 75,000 in Syria; Israel tells United Nations Conciliation Commission that it will accept 100,000 returning refugees if Arab states resettle the remainder and conclude a peace agreement; Jordanian forces remain in control of the West Bank; Egyptian forces occupy Gaza, which is run by an Egyptian military governor until 1967.

December 1949: UNGA adopts Resolution 302 establishing the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA); as of 2013, UNRWA provides assistance, protection and advocacy for some five million registered Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and the occupied Palestinian territory; more than 1.4 million refugees live in fifty-eight recognized camps.

1950: Israeli Knesset adopts Law of Return, stating: “Every Jew has the right to come to this country as an oleh [immigrant into Israel]”; Jordan annexes the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and grants citizenship to the population.

1951: Palestinian militants assassinate King Abdullah of Jordan in Jerusalem.

1952: Israeli Nationality Law grants citizenship to Arabs living within Israel but denies naturalization to those who have “ceased to be an inhabitant of Israel.”

1956: Israel, France, and Britain invade Egypt after President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalizes the Suez Canal; pressure from the U.S. and Soviet Union is followed by a withdrawal of foreign forces; “Suez Crisis” signals the decline of Britain’s influence.

1959: Meeting in Kuwait, young Palestinian refugees who fled to Gaza secretly establish the Palestinian National Liberation Movement, known as Fatah, for a guerrilla war against Israel; Fatah anonymously begins publication of monthly magazine Our Palestine–the Call to Life in Beirut.

1964: Arab League initiates creation of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO); PLO Chairman Ahmad Shukeiry proclaims the establishment of the group “to wage the battle of liberation.”

January 1, 1965: Fatah launches its first publicly announced guerrilla operation; attack on Israeli national water carrier is unsuccessful.

June 1967: In the Six-Day War, Israel seizes Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria; some 300,000 Palestinians flee West Bank and Gaza.

July 1967: Yigal Allon, head of the Israeli Committee on Settlements, develops a policy for creation of secure borders by establishing Israeli settlements in the West Bank; as of 2010, 512,761 settlers reside in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, according to Foundation for Middle East Peace.

November 22, 1967: UNSC unanimously adopts Resolution 242 calling for “withdrawal of Israel armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict;” “termination of all claims or states of belligerency and respect for and acknowledgment of the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of every State in the area and their right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force;” and a “just settlement of the refugee problem.”

1968: Fatah guerrillas repulse an Israeli military assault near the Jordanian town of Karameh, boosting the group’s prestige in refugee camps and throughout the Arab world; rival Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine hijacks an Israeli airliner; amended Palestine National Charter is adopted by the fourth Palestinian National Council (PNC); it states: “Palestine is the homeland of the Palestinian Arab people;” “the Zionist occupation and the dispersal of the Palestinian Arab people, through the disasters which befell them, do not make them lose their Palestinian identity and their membership in the Palestinian community, nor do they negate them;” “Armed struggle is the only way to liberate Palestine.”

1969: Fatah leader Yasser Arafat is elected chairman of the PLO; Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir says in an interview with the Sunday Times (London): “It was not as though there was a Palestinian people considering itself as a Palestinian people and we came and threw them out and took their country away from them. They did not exist.”

1970: PFLP hijacks five passenger airliners and lands three of them in Jordan; Jordanian forces loyal to King Hussein crush Palestinian fighters in what becomes known to Palestinians as “Black September.”

1971: Secret Palestinian group with links to Fatah calling itself Black September assassinates Jordanian Prime Minister Wasfi Tal.

1972: PFLP-allied Japanese Red Army group massacres 24 people at Israel’s Lod (later Ben-Gurion) Airport; Black September abducts Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, resulting in the deaths of eleven Israeli hostages; Israel bombs PLO bases in Lebanon, where Palestinian guerrillas regrouped after their expulsion from Jordan.

1973: In the October War (Yom Kippur War), Egypt and Syria launch a surprise attack on Israel, temporarily recapturing parts of territories lost in the 1967 conflict; UNSC adopts Resolution 338, calling for a ceasefire and for negotiations between the parties “aimed at establishing a just and durable peace in the Middle East;” U.S. and Soviet Union sponsor Geneva peace conference, attended by Egypt, Jordan, and Israel; U.S. rejects participation by PLO.

1974: Arab League designates the PLO as the “sole, legitimate representative of the Palestinian people;” UNGA adopts Resolution 3236 “recognizing that the Palestinian people is entitled to self-determination” and reaffirming “the inalienable right of the Palestinians to return to their homes and property from which they have been displaced and uprooted;” Arafat addresses the UNGA, calling for a democratic, secular state in Palestine.

1975: Muslim-Christian tensions, exacerbated by presence of armed Palestinian factions, erupt into Lebanese Civil War (1975-1991).

1976: Lebanese Maronite forces besiege Tal Al-Zaatar refugee camp in Beirut, killing an estimated 2,000 Palestinians; Syrian forces enter Lebanon, beginning an occupation that will last until 2005.

1977: Menachem Begin of the Likud party (and former Irgun leader) is elected prime minister of Israel; begins expansion of Jewish settlements in occupied territories on basis of election platform that declared “the entire historic Land of Israel is the inalienable heritage of the Jewish people, and that no part of Judea and Samaria [West Bank] should be handed over to foreign rule;” Egyptian President Anwar Sadat makes historic trip to Jerusalem, addressing the Knesset “with an open mind and an open heart, and with a conscious determination, so that we might establish permanent peace based on justice;” PLO condemns Sadat’s “treacherous visit to the Zionist entity.”

1978: Fatah attacks a bus near Haifa, killing thirty-eight Israelis; Israel invades Lebanon in Operation Litani; United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) establishes a security zone on the Israel-Lebanon border; Israel and Egypt sign Camp David Accords, including a Framework for Peace in the Middle East aimed at ending the Arab-Israeli conflict and providing for “full autonomy” in the West Bank and Gaza.

1979: Egypt and Israel sign a peace agreement leading to the withdrawal of Israeli troops and settlers from the Sinai Peninsula.

October 6, 1981: Islamic militants assassinate Sadat during military parade in Cairo on the anniversary of the October War.

June 1982: Israeli forces invade Lebanon and besiege Beirut in a military campaign to expel the PLO from the country; 17,825 (combatants and civilians) are killed, according to Lebanese newspaper An-Nahar; Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon lasts until 2000.

September 1982: President Ronald Reagan, as U.S. Marines complete supervision of the PLO evacuation from Lebanon, proposes new American peace initiative; declares that “self-government by the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza in association with Jordan offers the best chance for a durable, just and lasting peace;” says the U.S. will not support annexation or permanent control by Israel, and “will not support the establishment of an independent Palestinian state;” Lebanese Marontite militants enter the Israeli-controlled Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps and massacre as many as 3,500 civilians.

1983: Syria, maneuvering to control the PLO, launches a military assault and drives remaining Arafat loyalists out of Lebanon; PLO establishes new headquarters in Tunis.

1985: In the War of the Camps, the Syrian-backed Shiite Amal militia in Lebanon fights PLO remnants; thousands of Palestinians are killed.

1987: Palestinian youths in Gaza clash with Israeli troops, beginning a popular uprising, known as the First Intifada (1987–1990).

1988: Jordan severs legal and administrative ties to the West Bank; PLO adopts the Palestinian Declaration of Independence, and accepts UN Resolution 181 calling for two states in Palestine; PLO issues Stockholm Declaration acknowledging Israel’s right to exist and renouncing terrorism; Arafat announces the PLO’s acceptance of Resolutions 242 and 338; U.S. ends diplomatic boycott of the PLO.

1990: Iraq invades Kuwait.

February 1991: U.S.-led coalition including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, and Gulf states expel Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait; Saudi Arabia and Kuwait halt aid to the PLO due to the group’s support for Iraq; 350,000 Palestinians are expelled from Kuwait.

October 1991: United States and Soviet Union co-sponsor the Madrid Peace Conference aimed at resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict; PLO is excluded, but Palestinians are represented in a joint delegation with Jordan.

1993: Arafat and Labor party Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of Israel sign the Oslo Accord, providing for mutual recognition, Palestinian self-rule in the West Bank and Gaza, and a framework of negotiations toward a final comprehensive agreement including borders, refugees, settlements and status of Jerusalem to be reached within five years.

1994: Arafat arrives in Gaza and convenes the Palestinian National Authority (PNA); Israel and Jordan sign a peace agreement.

1995: Attacks by Hamas (Islamic Resistance Movement) and Islamic Jihad factions opposed to peace with Israel kill dozens of Israelis; Rabin is assassinated by a Jewish militant.

1996: Hamas carries out a wave of suicide bombings in Israel in run-up to Israeli elections, killing more than fifty; PNC votes to annul sections of Palestine National Charter that contradict PLO peace undertakings in Oslo agreements including recognition of Israel; Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud party is elected prime minister of Israel with an implicit mandate to expand settlements and slow implementation of the Oslo agreements.

1999: Ehud Barak of the Labor party is elected prime minister of Israel, reviving hope in negotiations.

2000: President Bill Clinton convenes talks at Camp David aimed at reaching a final settlement; Clinton and Barak blame Arafat for failure of negotiations; Palestinians begin Second Intifada (2000-2005).

December 23, 2000: Clinton issues Parameters for a peace settlement to Israeli and Palestinian negotiators; calls for implementation of UN Resolution 194 with refugees returning to “historic Palestine” or “their homeland” but no specific right of return to Israel; five “possible homes” include State of Palestine, areas in Israel being transferred to Palestine in land swap, rehabilitation in host country, resettlement in third country, and admission to Israel for “some of the refugees.”

September 11, 2001: Al-Qaeda group led by Islamic militant Osama bin Laden of Saudi Arabia destroys World Trade Center in New York and part of the Pentagon near Washington, DC, killing nearly 3,000.

November 10, 2001: In speech to UNGA calling on nations to defeat terrorism, President George W. Bush affirms that U.S. policy seeks the establishment of a Palestinian state.

March 2002: Arab League adopts Saudi initiative calling for peace between all Arab countries and Israel in exchange for Israeli withdrawal from Arab lands; after a suicide bombing in Netanya kills thirty Israelis, Israel launches Operation Defensive Shield and besieges Arafat in his headquarters in Ramallah.

June 2002: Israel begins construction of a “security fence” to extend more than 400 miles separating Israel from the West Bank.

2003: United States leads invasion of Iraq and topples Saddam Hussein regime; 34,000 Palestinian refugees in Iraq flee conflict; U.S., Russia, UN, European Union (the Quartet on the Middle East) propose a Road Map to Peace that would establish a Palestinian state by 2005.

March 2004: Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin is assassinated by Israeli forces.

November 2004: Arafat dies; Mahmoud Abbas becomes chairman of the PLO; in 2005, Abbas is elected president of the PNA.

2005: Israeli forces unilaterally withdraw from Gaza, ending a thirty-eight-year occupation.

2006: Hamas upsets Fatah in Palestinian legislative elections.

2007: Hamas seizes Gaza from Fatah; Egypt and Israel close land borders with Gaza.

2008: Israeli forces launch assault on Gaza, Operation Cast Lead, in response to Hamas attacks on Israel; 1,400 Palestinians are killed.

2009: In a Cairo address, President Barack Obama calls on Israelis and Palestinians to reach a peace agreement on two states; says “the Palestinian people—Muslims and Christians—have suffered in pursuit of a homeland… Many wait in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and neighboring lands for a life of peace and security. …America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.

2011: Arab Spring uprisings topple authoritarian rulers in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, and in Yemen in 2012.

2012: Anti-regime uprising in Syria spills into the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus; Syrian forces attack the camp, killing dozens and forcing thousands to flee; UNGA recognizes Palestine as a non-member state by a vote of 138–9.