Scholar narrates the historical refugee crisis
Today’s traditions of sanctuary and asylum date back millennia, said Linda Rabben on Wednesday, speaking not only on the world’s history of sanctuary and asylum but also on what can be done today amid the current tide of mass migration.
An anthropology professor at the University of Maryland, Rabben talked about the contents of her most recent book, “Sanctuary and Asylum: A Social and Political History.”
“If I had written this book only about government policies, I wouldn’t have finished it, because I would have found it so depressing to write about,” said Rabben. “But what gives me hope are the many social movements which just explode when there are repressive measures that governments take.”
In the United States, some of the most famous acts of sanctuary have operated outside the legal system, said Rabben, citing the 19th-century Underground Railroad and the 1980s Sanctuary movement.
In the latter movement, Rabben explained, over 400 religious congregations sheltered people fleeing violent U.S.-backed regimes in Central America. At the time, Rabben said, it was nearly impossible for those people to apply for, not to mention receive, federal asylum. Religious activists in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and California did everything out in the open, knowing that they would be prosecuted for violating U.S. immigration law. Given the choice between going to jail or ceasing and desisting, the congregants and clergy chose the former, arguing that they were answering to a higher power.
Rabben brought up the current movement to make university campuses into sanctuaries for refugees and undocumented immigrants. Some cities and campuses have declared a “non-cooperation policy” given the increasing fraughtness of the term “sanctuary city” and any variants. Though certain universities fear being defunded by the current administration, Rabben said, it is “very difficult” to take funds away from them.
She then showed a picture of a fence along the southern U.S. border.
“All walls and fences do eventually come to an end, including this one,” she said, noting that there is far more to crossing the border than jumping a fence. On the U.S. side, there are sensors in the ground to detect movement, along with frequent border patrols.
“Anybody that says that we have open borders and that people can come in without anybody stopping them is not telling you the truth,” said Rabben. Even so, she added, walls and fences are not foolproof: “Desperate people will find ways to get around any barrier.”
Rabben recited Emma Lazarus’ poem “The New Colossus,” best known for its place at the base of the Statue of Liberty.
“‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore,’” she read. “‘Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door!’”
At times, she said, that golden door has “slammed shut.” From 1924 to 1965, for example, restrictive immigration laws were in place, implemented again in the 1980s.
“It’s hard for me to predict what’s going to happen because so many doors are slamming shut right now,” said Rabben.
In Europe, she explained, countries like Sweden and Greece have been overwhelmed by the ongoing wave of migrants.
Rabben said that some countries have a rule that if you enter a Eurozone country, you can only apply for asylum in the first country you arrive in.
“Let’s say you’re coming from Syria, you go to Turkey, then you go to Greece,” said Rabben. “You’re trying to make your way to Germany where you have family. You’re supposed to apply for asylum in Greece. Greece is completely and totally overwhelmed and unable to take care of all the people who are coming into Greece, so Greece has essentially allowed people to just keep going.”
Even when people make it to Germany, France or Sweden, integration remains a serious concern.
“The integration of refugees and asylum seekers and immigrants in general is a multigenerational process,” Rabben explained. “It doesn’t happen quickly. It’s not easy.”
When asked how people can help out at the local level, Rabben explained that apart from the sanctuary option, there are many simple, legal, good-Samaritan things to do. The U.S. refugee program, for example, has not been funded enough to keep up with the number of people coming in. Americans can donate to families, help with childcare and tutor English- language learners.
Moreover, Rabben said, there must be “political will on the international level” to “do justice in those countries” from which people have fled.
“How do you [do that] in a situation like Syria?” she asked. That “various governments” are currently taking advantage of the civil war for political gains complicates the matter further, she said. Through “sustained public pressure,” though, people can change governments’ minds.
“People keep saying to me now, ‘this is a marathon, not a sprint’ — this is something we’ll be dealing with for a long time to come,” she said, later adding, “We have an obligation to try and defend not only our own human rights but the human rights of others, in whatever way we can.”