I Only Knocked, and They Built a Wall.

The United States’ Government concluded the longest shutdown in US history (however, it’s worth noting that all US government shutdowns have occurred in the last 40 years). It may shut down again in just a few days. Why have US government shutdowns become so common? Does any other country have this problem? And is it really worth shutting down the government to build a wall? Strangely, modern walls between countries are far more common than you’d imagine, but shutting down the government? Well, not so much.

Government shutdowns are a uniquely American problem. No other country has anything quite as analogous to what occurs in the United States despite China pointing to the shutdown as indicative of the failure of western democracy. No other country faces budget crises because, well, other countries planned for it in their constitution. In America, when a budget isn’t passed by congress and the funding period elapses those departments cease to function. What’s particularly odd is this wasn’t the case until 1980.

Prior to 1980, if congress didn’t pass a budget, nothing shut down. Departments just continued doing what they were doing on the same budget. Not passing a budget was about as common then as it is now. A Mr. Benjamin Civiletti, Attorney General during the Carter administration, put a stop to this reasonable practice with a legal opinion he published in 1980. In his opinion, when no funding bill is passed, there’s no funding. This set the stage for every government shutdown since.

Why don’t other countries have this issue? In most cases, the failure to pass a budget will actually force an instant election to replace the government officials in charge of passing a budget. Sweden narrowly missed this sort of election in 2014. Other countries do have shutdowns, but still pay their workers in the interim. Belgium, for example, went 589 days without a government. However, a temporary government was installed to ensure the country didn’t fall apart in the meantime.

The shutdown today is over President Trump’s campaign promise to build a border wall. For this, he’s requested 5.8 billion dollars, roughly 0.1% of the 4.4 trillion dollar budget. While it is no small number, it is a small portion of the budget. It’s also far less than most estimates, including President Trump’s, to build the wall.

When I sat down to write this post, I really wanted to compare this border wall to the great historical walls such as The Great Wall of China or Hadrian’s Wall. They’re great stories, and there’s a lot to be learned from them, but unfortunately, they have little relevance to modern walls due to our increased means of travel (such as flight), and the fundamental difference in purpose. Ancient walls were built to propel invasions. Modern walls are built to stop immigration and refugees or control movement and passage between states. I set out in search of modern walls with a few in mind, and found several more walls than I anticipated. There are currently 20 border walls between countries, with at least 6 more planned or in construction.

Berliners Become Westerners

The Berlin wall is probably the most well known modern wall. In Post World War II Germany, Germany was divided into 4 distinct districts, each occupied by one of the major allied forces: France, USA, Britain, and the Soviet Union. The Soviets took most of the eastern half, while the remainder was split amongst the other three. However, the German capital of Berlin was located deep in Eastern Germany, so Berlin itself was also split into districts amongst the four as well. Thus, there was a small western enclave in the sea of Eastern Germany:

deutschland_besatzungszonen_8_jun_1947_-_22_apr_1949_jpg

 

Under this arrangement, travel was supposed to be free and unrestricted in Berlin. It didn’t end up working out that way though. The western allies poured money into repairing Europe while the Soviets extracted resources from Germany as war reparations. This rebuilding of Western Germany (and western Europe at large) was known as the Marshall plan. This caused far greater prosperity in the west, and as a result, defection from East Berlin to West Berlin was a huge problem for the Soviets. East Germans would simply ride a subway into west Berlin, and then ride a subway into Western Germany, which had coalesced into the Federal Republic of Germany. By 1961, an estimated 20% of the East German Population had defected.  The solution, as you probably guessed, was a wall. Its purpose was to stop people from leaving East Berlin and/or East Germany. They shut down several subway stops that became known as “ghost stations.” The wall was built, almost literally, overnight. On the morning of 8/13/61, East Germans found themselves cut off from the rest of Germany via 100 miles of barbed wire that would eventually become the Berlin Wall.

The wall would be constructed around the entirety of West Berlin (in addition to a separate barrier built between East and West Germany) making it an island. This wall would stand for about thirty years before being torn down in 1989. In the interim, land mines, attack dogs, bunkers, watch towers and a 100 meter strip of sand referred to as “the death strip” were laid down to prevent anyone from crossing. Even so, 5,000 people managed to flee, though thousands more were captured and nearly 200 were killed.  Some of those who escaped were simply working abroad and decided to not go home. However, many were ordinary citizens who swam across canals, dug tunnels, flew over the wall in a hot air balloon, or in one case, stole a tank and rammed it through the wall. And if those security measures weren’t enough, a secret service known as the Stasi was installed with the explicit mission of spying on East Germans hoping to uncover any planned escape attempts.

Of course, this didn’t go over well, and due to growing discontent, the Soviets relaxed visitation restrictions between the two sides on November 9, 1989, but this resulted in massive crowds at the wall. While the guards initially tried to restrain the crowds, it was too late. The crowd began tearing down the wall themselves.

There’s a lot of ways to look at this story. Using the metric of immigration, it did drastically reduce the number of crossings, but it did not eliminate them. It’s also worth noting that this wall’s purpose was to keep people from leaving rather than from entering. That difference is mostly semantic, but it is unique. The Berlin Wall stretched 93 miles and cost 16 million Marks (roughly 21 million dollars after accounting for inflation and currency change). Trump’s proposed wall would stretch about 2,000 miles.

The Wall That Wasn’t

As you may recall from last time, Japan defeated Russia in the Russo-Japanese War, and as a result, gained control of Korea. It retained control of Korea up until their World War II defeat in 1945. In an idea that will sound oddly familiar, in the war’s conclusion, it was decided that Japan’s territories should forfeited and Korea should be occupied by the allies and split among them.  The 38th Parallel was decided on as the split point. Russia took the northern half, and the US took the southern half. Both wanted to install governments that mimicked their respective countries, so Russia created the infamously inaptly named Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, while the United States installed the more simply named, Republic of Korea for South Korea.

Korea, feeling a bit nationalistic as one does when one people are divided into multiple states, were waiting for war. In 1950 North Korea invaded and set off the Korean war that would divide the peninsula until today. North Korea, backed by Russia, invaded South Korea. The United Nations backed South Korea and pushed back. China, just coming out of a civil war and needing to unite their people against a common enemy (and what better enemy than those capitalist pigs?) joined North Korea. This also gave the benefit of solidifying China’s new ideology as solidly communist, which would decrease the morale of any remaining domestic, anti-communist forces. It would also provide China a buffer zone, so it wouldn’t share a border with American forces.

In 1953, after three years of bloody war, the border between the two countries ended almost exactly where it started. An armistice was signed. As a result, the border is a 2 mile wide and 160 mile long zone ironically known as the demilitarized zone, or DMZ. It just so happens that the demilitarized zone is one of the most heavily militarized areas on the entire planet. Given that, it may not be a surprise that crossing the border is extremely dangerous. North Korean soldiers are ordered to kill anyone trying to cross. Weirdly, the DMZ is also the 5th highest rated tourist attraction in all of North Korea according to TripAdvisor. 

South Koreans, however, often take in any defecting person, even North Korean soldiers. While defection across the border does still happen, most immigration occurs through bordering China. North Koreans go to China, and then from China to South Korea. About 30,000 North Koreans have migrated using this method. Not long after the Berlin Wall fell, North Korea began claiming that the United States and South Korea had built a wall across the border to divide the Koreans in the late 70s. However, there was little proof other than distant photographs such as the one below:

 

the_korean_wall_in_the_dmz

However, in 2007 Reuters broke that the wall did not exist, and this wall was another odd ploy by the DPKR to rally their people and gain support against the oppressive west.

While there may not actually be a concrete barrier, the DMZ is so heavily militarized there may as well be. Similar to East Berlin, North Koreans are not allowed to leave their country. Anyone doing so risks execution. Even in the face of certain death, people defect every year, though North Korea will not release numbers regarding attempts or successes. We occasionally will get video footage of a lucky (or unlucky) person making an escape.  Even in absence of a full-fledged wall, the US-Mexico border is militarized,  and has become increasingly more militarized since 9/11 – only suffering a brief demilitarization when an 18 year old honor student, Esequiel Hernandez Jr., was shot while herding goats.

Lastly, I want to emphasize that DMZ is the only militarized border, which is what enables swaths of people to migrate through China.

 Gauze on the Gaza Strip

The following story can be a bit of a touchy subject, and it’s a subject rife with misconceptions. Because of that, I’m going to give a little more background than would otherwise be necessary to get to the Gaza Wall.

The Israel / Palestinian conflict is, contrary to popular belief, a conflict that has lasted not thousands of years, but about a hundred years. The Israelites and Palestinians have each separately been in several conflicts, but their current conflict, like all of our stories this time, has its roots in the aftermath of World War II. Maybe a little beforehand.

Prior to the first World War, Jews and Palestinians lived in relative peace within the Ottoman Empire. If you read my first post , you may recall that the Ottoman Empire actually welcomed the Jews in the aftermath of the Alhambra Decree. In the late 19th century, however, a belief known as Zionism began gaining traction amongst the Jewish people. Zionism, in short, is the belief that Judaism is not only a religion, but a national heritage. As such, Zionists wanted their own state where they can be free from the persecution they often faced in Europe. Similarly, the Palestinians were having their own surge of nationalism, which as we learned from last time is a source of conflict.

Jews began migrating into the Ottoman Empire, particularly near Jerusalem due to its significance in the Jewish religion. This was made worse by the fact that before World War I, the British had agreed to help migrate Jews into Jerusalem.

Once World War I did break out, Britain made promises to the French in what was known as the Sykes-Picot agreement. In this agreement, the Ottoman Empire would be divided into spheres of influence between France and Britain. It was carved up with little consideration given to either regional and cultural influences or the Arab desire to self govern. Jerusalem, however, was set to be an international zone. The decree also promised territory for the Jews. When the Ottoman Empire was dissolved in the aftermath of the first World War, Britain facilitated Jewish immigration into the region, and by the rise of the third Reich, the Jewish population in Palestine was 8 times what it was in the 1890s. This was viewed by the local Palestinians as another imperial colonization effort, which lead to wide spread protests and even riots. Of course the holocaust furthered emigration out of Europe and into Palestine, which further strained tensions in the region. In response, Britain put immigration restrictions on the Jews leaving Europe for Palestine, which led the Jews to revolt against the occupying British.

Deciding they were making things worse (and they certainly were), the British decided they should leave after the second World War had concluded. The United Nations declared that Israel would be a nation for the Jews and partitioned out land for the Arabs, but it was divided in a terrible way – because again, nobody knew anything about the demographics or regional considerations. The United States and Soviet Union both recognized Israel, but not every country did. Several countries, but not the United States, recognized Palestine as well. This was how the United Nations divvied up the country:

un_palestine_partition_versions_1947
Note that Jerusalem is still an international zone.

These borders were satisfactory to no one and sparked the Arab-Israeli War in 1948. The British-backed Israelites crushed the Arabs, and I mean crushed them. The Israelites took 60% of the land partitioned to the Palestinians in the above map and forced 750,000 native Palestinians to flee their homes. This exodus is known as The Nakba, or literally, The “Catastrophe.”

In 1964 The Palestinian Liberation Organization was formed becoming both the diplomatic face and the armed rifle for Palestine. It fought for Palestine through both conventional and terroristic means. The PLO was actually regarded a terrorist organization by the United States Government despite having observer status at the United Nations. The United States removed this categorization in the 1990s.

In 1967 the Six Day War was fought – named because of how quickly Israel defeated its enemies proving itself the dominant force in the region. Israel fought against Jordan, Egypt, Syria, and the local Palestinians and crushed each of them – due in part to the western ally backing. At the conclusion of this war, Israel seized territory from Jordan, Egypt and Palestine, some of which it still occupies today. The United States brokered a peace deal in 1978 known as the Camp David Accords. Israel agreed to return the land stolen from Egypt during the conflict. The Camp David Accords were mainly significant in that it fractured the previously united Arab position against the legitimacy of Israel as a nation. Egypt was seen as a traitor to the Arab people and was suspended from the Arab League.

Israel proceeded to prevent refugees from the Six Day War from returning home. In 1971 the United Nations accused Israel of “deliberately carrying out policies aimed at preventing the population of the occupied territories from returning to their homes and forcing those who are in their homes in the occupied territories to leave.”

Israel’s continued occupation of the Palestinian Gaza Strip led to the first Intifada (Arabic for “Uprising”) in the late 80s. The Intifada was a series of boycotts and protests that quickly escalated into riots. Palestinians demanded that the Jews stop occupying their territory. The Jews responded with overwhelming force. A few hundred Jews and over a thousand Palestinians were killed. Many of those casualties were civilians.

Around this time Hamas was formed. Hamas is an extremest organization that seeks nothing less than the elimination of Israel. In light of the Oslo accords (peace talks administered during the Clinton Administration), Hamas believed that the PLO was too secular and playing soft ball. As such, they tried to sabotage the process with suicide bombings and raids. They were ultimately successful – though it’s worth noting that far right Israelis also fought against the Oslo accords – going as far as to assassinate their prime minister in 1995.

Violence continues on both sides and results in a second Intifada in 2000, one far more violent than the first, resulting in thousands of deaths. This Intifada convinces Israel that peace is not possible. Israel decided that to protect its citizens from these increased bombings, it must build a wall.

That’s right; we finally made it to the wall.

However, they built this wall not around the borders that the UN provided oh so long ago, but into the Palestinian land they occupied. They claimed they were protecting newly settled citizens from the persistent Palestine attacks, but to the Palestinians, this was yet another land grab.

Israel maintains that the wall is not a land grab, and that they would happily negotiate borders. This wall’s intention, like the claimed intention of Trump’s wall, is to protect its people from those with violent intentions.

The wall is a powerful symbol, but unlike the DPRK’s imaginary wall and the Berlin Wall, this wall didn’t separate a people that should be united, but separated a people that wanted to be separate. This wall has been under construction since 2002 and is still not complete. The guarded border is 340 miles long with several gaps guarded by military personnel and has already cost roughly 3 billion dollars. That’s less than 1/5 of the US Mexico border and already over half the proposed cost of the US border wall. Further complicating matters is the terrain. Israel’s wall is mostly surrounded by desert, yet the US-Mexico border is mountainous, which will make it both harder to build and harder to guard.

Even with all the above downsides, it’s hard to argue that Israel’s wall hasn’t been successful.  There’s a lot of caveats to that statement.  However, it’s also worth noting that this isn’t the only wall Israel has built. Israel’s success with border walls has been a frequent talking point for wall supporters, but its walls are not the only factor in Israel’s success in decreasing terrorism.

In Conclusion

If decreasing immigration is your goal, a wall seems like an effective, if exorbitantly expensive, way to do it. However, that doesn’t dive into whether there’s good reason to deter immigration, especially noting that immigration at the Mexico border is at a 10 year low.  Whether or not you want to encourage immigration is a value discussion. A legislative solution may prove as effective, and cost less money and lives in the years to come.

Trump’s wall seems to have a lot in common with the walls above in terms of purpose, though the United States is a very different country than East Germany, the Korean Peninsula, and Israel, and the border Trump hopes to protect is about 8 times longer than the other three combined. Walls and the countries that build them are often disparaged by the international community, and as a world leader, the United States must consider the diplomatic effects of building a wall on a border with their ally.

Further Reading:

On Trump Comparing the US-Mexico border to Korea’s DMZ

On the Palestine-Israel Conflict

On the British Promise for the Jewish Nation

On 3 different walls and their comparison to Trump’s Proposed Wall

On the similarities between the Berlin Wall and Trump’s Wall

 

 

 

 

 

Pack Up What Rubble You Love, and Go.

Immigration is probably the world’s most heated topic right now. In the United States, we’re discussing building walls, detention facilities for illegal immigrants, and travel bans. Donald Trump went as far as to praise Mexico after pepper-spraying refugees from Honduras. In Germany, the AfD (an anti-immigration party) has been gaining support, and is now one of the country’s largest parties.  In Italy, the new government recently told illegal immigrants, comprising both refugees and economic migrants, to get ready to “pack their bags.”  The UK, while accepting refugees, has been very stringent about who may be granted asylum and often for only a short time. What’s going on? Why is immigration all of a sudden the most controversial topic around the world, and how has it been dealt with historically?

First, let’s understand what’s happening.

Context

Above I mentioned both South American and Middle Eastern refugees. To narrow the focus a bit, this post will pertain to the Syrian refugee crisis. (Though I highly encourage reading about the crisis in central America.)

The Syrian Refugee Crisis was precipitated by the Arab Spring of 2011.   This event may be the most important political event in the 21st century rivaling even 9/11 in terms of its impact on the world. In short, the Arab Spring was a wave of pro-Democracy protests in northern Africa and the Middle East. Some of these led to positive change, such as in Tunisia, but many more were met with civil war or resulted in autocratic regimes including Yemen, Egypt, Libya, and of course, Syria, who is suffering the worst fate of all. As of this writing, over 5.6 million Syrians have fled their homes. This background is incredibly important because, at least in the United States, a the rhetoric around refugees centers around Muslims, and while it’s true that Islam is the dominant religion in Syria, it is not Muslims who are fleeing the region but Syrians, who are not necessarily Muslim.

Why then, is all the rhetoric aimed at Muslims? Enter IS (more commonly known as ISIS – the Islamic State [of Iraq and Syria]). I hesitate to call IS a group of revolutionaries as that seems to conjure up a certain amount of sympathy, but IS seeks to overthrow the government in Iraq and Syria to establish a Caliphate, a Theocracy not completely unlike the government in Vatican City in that there would be one person who leads the nation at the orders of God. Although the similarities end there. What brings the attention of the world to IS is their brutality and cruelty, which has provoked criticism from Muslims worldwide, literally drawing condemnation from Al-Qaeda.

IS subscribes to a belief first put forward by a guy named Qutb that the West (read the United States and Western Europe) has been persecuting Muslims ever since they dissolved the Ottoman Empire following World War I. As a result, the only way for Muslims to redeem or even defend themselves is through aggression against the west, and anyone, even other Muslims, who disagree.

Part of the core ideology is aggression towards the west and nonbelievers, but IS lack the resources to declare a full scale war (not to mention the legitimacy and sovereignty). Because of this IS has instead engaged in guerrilla warfare tactics on civilian targets (or more generally, terrorism). IS members have entered various countries all around the world most likely as a refugee from one of the war torn countries. Exactly how often this has happened is a subject of intense debate and is difficult to track by its very nature – someone can’t be identified as a terrorist until after an act of terror. Trying to escape your crazy IS uncle means you have ties to IS, but it doesn’t mean a plot to bomb civilians. On the flipside, a Muslim who otherwise may not have bought into the idea that the Western world has been waging war on a way of life, might be persuaded otherwise by the US and Europe’s military presence there, and a subsequent loss of home.

I don’t want to spend too much time discussing how often the above happens, but it’s important to note that while asylum seekers have committed terrorist attacks, so have natives inspired by IS ideology. One study suggests that while foot soldiers have used refugee routes for the purpose of terrorism, IS likely isn’t coordinating an effort to do so.

In short, many refugees are hoping to escape a violent civil war between violent factions hoping to hold onto or change the government. Among these refugees are self-proclaimed members of IS who hope to instill fear, promote terrorism and gain legitimacy through aggression against their perceived enemies.

Has it happened before?

Refugees are a fairly modern concept. While it’s fairly easy to apply the concept retroactively, it’s worth noting that the term wasn’t a legal concept until after World War II. In this definition, the United Nations declared (or perhaps recognized) that all humans have the fundamental right to seek asylum in other countries to escape persecution. This is not to be confused with the terms “migrant” or “asylum seeker.”

An asylum seeker is someone who has applied for refugee status in a foreign country. Refugee status is internationally recognized and protected by international law. All refugees were at one point asylum seekers, but all asylum seekers may not become refugees if their application is denied. Contrasting these two terms is migrant.

A migrant is someone who is leaving their country to better their lives – not necessarily because it’s dangerous to return home.

I found several similar scenarios dotted throughout history. I did quite a bit of reading and briefly outline what occurred and analyze how applicable they might be to our current situation.

The Goths in the Eastern Roman Empire

One of the earliest examples of refugees I could find was in Roman history.

The Huns were a relatively unorganized nomadic people of war that would eventually cause the Fall of Rome. Their origins aren’t particularly clear, but some believed they originate from modern day Kazakhstan. In their ruthless expansion westward, they took a liking to the resource rich lands in modern day Romania, occupied by the Visigoths in 374 CE.

The Goths, a group of Germanic tribes co-led by Fritigern and Alavivus asked the Emperor of Rome, Valens, for sanctuary from the invading Huns. Valens agreed promising both protection and farmland. Some Goths who arrived later were turned away by Valens though by this time their number may have reached as high as 200,000, though that’s likely an exaggeration.

These refugees were admitted with the intention of taxing them, using their labor on farms, and most importantly as auxiliaries in a campaign in Persia, which the Goths agreed to. However, things immediately got out of hand. The refugees were not provided food, and in fact, the food that was supposed to go to them was hijacked by the governor of the area who then sold the refugees dog meat in exchange for their children, who would become slaves.

The Goths and Romans had a somewhat turbulent history having been at war only six years before.  That’s important context to consider, but  it doesn’t change the fact that  refugees were mistreated and their leaders assassinated. This led the Goths to revolt, which is now known as the battle of Adrianople. This battle ended up being Rome’s most crushing defeat since the days of Hannibal.

How similar is it to our current crisis?

It’s hard to say as a lot of the finer details were lost to history. Cultural norms were certainly different. Slavery and military conscription were the norm. However, it is telling that people have asked for asylum in neighboring countries for 1600 years. One might also draw a parallel between the persecution of the Goths and subsequent rebellion to the perceived persecution of Islam in dismantling the Ottoman Empire and the subsequent violence carried out today by IS. Both the Goths and Romans had also been at war in years prior as well. The rationale behind whether to allow immigration however, was not based on whether these immigrants may harm civilians, as it is today, but rather whether the immigrants could work and serve in the military.

The Alhambra Decree

The Alhambra Decree was simply a decree by the government of Spain in 1492 that said Jews could no longer live in Spain. Convert or move.

This was a bit of an extension of a 1480 decree that segregated Jews and Christians. In 1492 it was decided that because “there were some wicked Christians who Judaized,”  Jews and Christians could no longer coexist. The Jews must go. The whole text is worth reading if you feel so inclined.

Many countries had a very different reaction to where these Jews fled to. Perhaps surprisingly, Muslim majority countries such as the Ottoman Empire welcomed them. Other Christian majority countries – in particular Portugal – were less kind. In fact, only 4 years after receiving refugees, the King of Portugal declared his intent to marry the heir to the Spanish throne, Isabella. As a condition of the marriage, Spain mandated that Portugal expel all Jews. In the end, most were tortured into converting to Christianity.

What happened to the Ottoman Empire and Portugal after this? Was there any tangible difference to their economy, safety, livelihood or any other metric based on their treatment of religious refugees?

The Ottoman Empire actually flourished. Jews brought new technologies, culture, and more to the Ottoman Empire and the first printing press was established there by Jews in 1493. The leader of the Ottomans, Beyazit the Just, purportedly proclaimed, “You venture to call Ferdinand a wise ruler, he who has impoverished his own country and enriched mine!” It very well could be that because the Muslims and Jews had a shared history of persecution from Europe that they were more willing to coexist.

In Portugal, after declaring all Jews must leave, the decision was changed a year later by King Manuel that instead of evacuating, Jews must convert. This decision would lead to the Lisbon massacre, where Catholics beat and burned hundreds of families of recent converts to Catholicism. Not even infants were spared.

Interestingly, after forced conversion, the massacre, and the subsequent forced emigration, many Jews still felt loyalty to the Portuguese Monarch. 

In this case, we do have immigrants who are discriminated against based on their religion, and these immigrants were refugees. These Jews, however, were seen as a legitimate threat to the way of life of Spanish Catholics – hence the aforementioned segregation. A religion threatening your way of life might sound familiar. Donald Trump mentioned Islamic Immigration threatening our way of life during his campaign, so did the leader of the Dutch Party for Freedom, which gained 5 seats in their most recent election. So did a prominent ally of Italy’s former prime minister. And this is all only in the west, where values of freedom of religion are supposed to reign free. Things are even worse in the east where China has admitted to “reeducation camps” for Muslims. 

There are a lot parallels between the plight of the Jews in the 15th century and Muslims today between relegating a person to one aspect of their identity, and leaving one country only to be persecuted in another. There are significant differences, however, in the role of religion in day to day life. Separation of church and state was still very far off. The Catholic church was intertwined with the government and corruption ran rampant. This corruption would lead to Martin Luther’s 95 theses in following years.

FDR’s Beware of Refugees Speech

The above examples of history fall short in one important aspect, it was a different time. While people often react the same in similar circumstances, it’s not fair to compare conscription in Rome to conscription during the Vietnam war because military service was viewed very differently. Likewise, it may not be fair to compare refugees of the past to refugees of today. However, there are a few modern examples that are strikingly similar to the suspicion held against immigrants from the middle east today. Perhaps most relevant, is Jewish migrants during World War II. Jews during this time were met with equal skepticism. FDR turned away Jewish Refugees by the boatload, fearful of spies entering the country under the guise of being a refugee.

In a speech, he even said:

Today’s threat to our national security is not a matter of military weapons alone. We know of new methods of attack. The Trojan Horse. The Fifth Column that betrays a nation unprepared for treachery. Spies, saboteurs and traitors are the actors in this new strategy. With all of these we must and will deal vigorously.

It would hard to find a more relevant passage from history with regards to the current refugee crisis. It matches the distrust of persecuted religious migrants for fear of harming the nation in which we live.

We’ve all heard about the holocaust, but it’s an important reminder that, like today, no country wanted to accept refugees.

Bosnian War

The Bosnian War was the biggest war I’d never heard of. Whether it’s a product of an America-centric education system when it comes to teaching history, or me sleeping through that lesson is anyone’s guess, but here’s some background in case anyone doesn’t know. Because it’s such a modern example, I think it’s a great fit for a comparison to our modern crisis.

The Bosnian War broke up Yugoslavia, killed well over 100,000 people, involved the first genocide in Europe since World War II, and displaced over 2 million people.  I think that this video does a nice job of summarizing the situation and conflict. While it’s truly much more complicated, in summary, Croatia declared independence. Serbia used what was left of the Yugoslavic army to prevent them from doing so. War crimes, including genocide, were committed. So many people died and were lost in rubble that as of 2017, bodies and remains were still being identified and sent to their respective families.

Whether the Bosnian War was a Civil War or International War is up for debate, and I’m not qualified enough to make an assertion one way or the other.

While refugees from this war weren’t viewed as potential spies,  it’s relevance lies in its recency. The politicians of today were watching the news when these events occurred. In addition, the violence and brutality these refugees encountered is on par with that of IS. Serbian forces specifically targeted homes for destruction to prevent Bosniaks from ever being able to return home.

In addition many of the persecuted were also Muslims. Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) were specifically targeted for genocide by the Serbian forces. Trials for these cases ended less than a year ago.

Germany is a focal point then and now, and their response to both crises were quite different. During the Bosnian War, Germany acted much like Portugal after the Alhambra decree in that it accepted refugees, and then shortly after told them to leave despite getting jobs, learning German and attending school. Germany in both cases seemed to be very open to refugees on the onset, and then changed its tone after they began to arrive.

While the level of coordinated genocide isn’t occurring in Syria as it was in Yugoslavia, it might not be fair to say it’s not occurring at all. The brutality, religious persecution, civil war are all the same. The only arguable difference might be the skepticism of the intent of the refugees.

The Effects of Refugees

It’s certainly easy to write a blog about how countries exercise poor ethics for denying refugees. However, the flip side of this coin, and the one that’s often trumpeted by conservative politicians, is the effect and strain that refugees have on the accepting country. In truth, the effect is little understood. One study actually found that the local economy benefited. Essentially, the refugees produced more value than they received in aid.

While the hosting cost certainly impacts the hosting country, it’s worth noting there are several international aid organizations that help offset the cost. Even so, one of the bigger impacts is that on infrastructure and the local ecosystem. A large influx in population means land, fuel, water, food and shelter materials are in higher demand than normal. Sometimes, this can lead to higher development in a given area. Other times, people live in squalid conditions for years afterwards – as Angelina Jolie found on a recent trip to Bosnia where people are still living in near homelessness.

Interestingly, I found that the refugees in Europe and America count for a tiny portion of the total number of Syrian refugees. The vast majority, about 90%, are displaced internally within Syria or neighboring Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, or Egypt. Only about 7.6% are in Europe – mostly in Germany, and less than 1% have come to the United States. The United States hosts more refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo than any other nation.

Skepticism of refugees is widespread and eternal. However, the danger they pose has historically been minimal and vastly overstated. It is far more common for the host country to exploit people at their most vulnerable. The effects of hosting refugees are not well understood, and that should inform our dialogue when discussing refugees. However, we should also note when other countries are pulling more than their fair share, and more importantly resist the historical precedent to make the lives of refugees more difficult than they already are. A person whose home was reduced to rubble and fled for their life need not be persecuted in the country they fled to for protection.

Further Reading

On the Arab Spring

On the US definition of terrorism

On the World War II Refugee Crisis

On the current Central American Refugee Crisis

On the 1992 Bosnian Concentration Camps