Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Human Cost of the Refugee Backlash

It is a particularly interesting time to be an American living in Sweden.  Along with the rest of the world, Americans on this side of the Atlantic share the horror at last weekend's senseless and tragic events in Paris.  At the same time, it's clear that there is a deeper public understanding here of the difference between the many refugees seeking humanitarian assistance in Europe and the terrorists who perpetrated the attacks in Paris.  Over the past few months, there has been concern about the resources needed to handle the influx, certainly, particularly since Sweden has taken more refugees per capita than any other European country.  But even now, many leaders are working here to make sure that strain is not, after Paris, transformed into attacks on the refugees themselves.

The morning's US papers report that now twenty-seven US Governors (and counting) have said that they will not accept Syrian refugees in their state.  A few, notably the governors of Colorado and Washington state, have bucked that tide, indicating that their state borders are still open to those seeking humanitarian aid.  One looming question is whether state governors can even assert a right to exclude refugees when the issue is clearly a matter of federal law, impinging on foreign relations, and within the Executive's authority.  But, vying for political popularity and riding a wave of fear, many governors have cynically chosen to ignore the legal constraints on their state policies and to publicly equate refugees with terrorists.

Of course, there is grave concern in Sweden, too, about more terrorism, and about the possibility of criminal actors using the refugee influx as a vehicle for embedding their operations in new nations.  But so many people and communities here have seen refugees before, and understand the overwhelming needs that motivate their movement across borders.  At  a bus stop in Lund a few weeks ago, an older woman overheard me explaining the definition of "refugee" to my children, and she joined in.  "Go to the cemetery," she said, "and you'll see the graves of people who arrived here in the 1940s but were so sick and weak that they died before they could resettle.  They were not identified, and they have no names."

"People my age," she continued, "remember that time.  And it motivates us to do better now."   


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