There are so many types of “refugees” and many ways to describe them. We have used terms like Displaced Persons (“DPs”), Victims of War, Illegal Immigrants, Asylum Seekers, Émigrés; each label is polysemic, encoding semantic and political trajectories backwards and forwards in time. Compare the representation of Elsa, the heroine of Casablanca, as she bends legal and moral rules in order to escape Morocco under Nazi control, with representation of contemporary Khurds or Syrians as they flee the war front which has taken over their doorsteps. Or compare the representation of heroic Rick, who condones Elsa’s and Victor’s attempts to escape and conives with the shady Signor Ferrari, with contemporary human traffickers.
However labelled and represented, refugees are the subject of much professional expertise, policy, surveillance and document-anxiety. The United Nations has an entire bureaucratic directorate, a High Commission -the UNHCR- devoted to the fact that refugees exist. People who are called refugees (or DPs or illegal immigrants, etc.) are characterized by their nation of origin, by their sex, gender, religion, age, education, medical needs, income-potential, work experience; sometimes we characterize refugees by their experience with violence and/or hunger; sometimes we recognize a refugee by how long they have been in limbo, that physical and psychological state of deterritorrialization also known as a ‘refugee camp’; a place which itself might actually be a town in everything but official municipal policy and potential for its residents to plan a future for themselves.
No matter how it is described, being a refugee sucks. As poet Warsan Shire says, no one flees home unless “home is the mouth of a shark”.
In Canada these days, we are saying “Refugees Welcome” and congratulating ourselves on having Canada back. We say “refugees welcome” in sympathy with the middle-class seeming people currently fleeing the Syrian conflict, but also in opposition to what we see and hear from the bombastic rhetoric of American presidential candidate-wannabes; and we feel very good about ourselves.
But our much-lauded new government, while aiming to put a dent in the current disaster of asylum-seekers’ deaths and bring some 20,000 refugees to Canada, and in simultaneously seeking to defray racist fear-mongering about ‘extremist Muslims’, is prioritizing ‘safe refugees’ – those vetted by the UNHCR. So those receiving Canadian welcomes are privately sponsored, or coming from long-term, well-provided camps in Lebanon & Turkey. We are delayed in meeting our national target partly because those acceptable to Canada are themselves sometimes reluctant to relocate so far from their home terrains. They are not the people we see being rescued from boats in the Mediterranean, pressed against yet another border fence in Hungary, or rushing trucks heading into the Chunnel.
I bet some of the 3000+ people sinking and freezing in the French winter-mud of the Dunkirk suburb/fenced refugee camp of Grande Synthe (AKA ‘The Jungle’) or squatting in a refugee hell on Lesvos would be happy to accept a Canadian welcome.
We could meet our goal of 20,000 and more if we actually welcomed #refugees.
*Photo credit @Msf_Sea http://bit.ly/1Dwhxjc
Follow suggestion: Mohammed Ghannam @MohGhn, https://www.facebook.com/MSF.VoicesFromTheRoad/ (Jan 10, 2016).