Refugees, Human Rights and the Destruction of Citizenship

Wednesday, 07 October 2015

Nick Cater writes in the October edition of Quadrant 

The tide of humanity rolling north across Europe evokes pity and dread in equal measures. On television the pity prevailed. Images of anxious faces, children being passed over the heads of adults on railway platforms, and of course that body, invited only one response: for mercy’s sake, let them in.

Discordant evidence was left on the cutting room floor. As downtrodden masses go, this one was relatively well heeled. It was also somewhat picky about the safe havens for which it would settle. Daniel Hannan articulated the paradox: “A refugee is someone who wants to get out of a particular country, not get into a particular country.”

The exiles were prone to be discourteous to their benefactors. The angry young men chanting on train platforms could have been Millwall fans on their way to Crystal Palace. In one sequence screened on YouTube, bottled water and food distributed by officials was churlishly hurled on the rail tracks. These were people who seemed to be starting a war, not fleeing from one.

If there were savages among them, however, they were noble savages, according to the BBC narrative at any rate, the authorised version from which few journalists are prepared to deviate. In this episode of the global battle between the oppressor and the oppressed, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was cast as a latter-day Emma Lazarus:

Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

A more dreadful interpretation of the European calamity—the spectre of sophisticated nation-states losing control of their own borders—was hardly mentioned in the earnest television live crosses to Greece, Hungary, Germany and beyond. Europe’s supranational project was crumbling before their eyes, yet no one was so impolite as to mention it. The summer exodus may not have been written into the Schengen agreement but it was its inevitable consequence.

It is what happens when no one is left in charge of European border posts. No one appears to be in charge in its parliaments either. A Martian landing in Brussels, Bonn or Paris demanding “Take me to your leader” would be met with a blank stare. No one, it seems, has the will or the wit to articulate the virtues of sovereignty, as John Howard did in 2001. “We will be compassionate, we will save lives, we will care for people,” he promised. “But we will decide, and nobody else, who comes to this country.”

Western nations have struggled to adapt to the age of mass migration that began with the Second World War. America has more than 40 million immigrants, Europe some 50 million and Canada 7 million. Australia has 6.6 million, which is more than a quarter of the population, a peak not seen since the gold rushes of the nineteenth century.

The deracinated romantics who set the terms of much of the debate are enthralled with diversity. They consider it a virtue to declare oneself a citizen of the world. The influx of the supposed dispossessed amounts to the cleansing of the colonial soul, the overturning of tyranny and the revenge of the oppressed.

In practical terms, however, the clash of languages, cultures and peoples strains the social fabric. Shared values once taken for granted, and therefore rarely articulated, are contested. A multicultural nation is by definition one which lacks a shared historical core.

Governments’ attempts to strengthen the social fabric have only made matters worse. The state-funded multicultural industry encourages the formation of ethnic fiefdoms with vested interests in favour of sectarianism. Human rights bodies harvest grievances and reinforce the state of victimhood. Institutional bias quickly develops; the emphasis is on difference rather than the ties that bind.

“There are no clear-cut winners and losers,” write Richard Alba and Nancy Foner in their recent comparative study of migration, Strangers No More. “Each society fails and succeeds in different ways.”

Paradoxically, however, nations constructed more recently have managed better than the old. The United States, despite its slave inheritance, somehow preserves a strong sense of Americanism. If John Steinbeck were to retrace his 1960 road trip of national discovery captured in Travels with Charley, he would, one suspects, find the American spirit in abundance.

In Australia and New Zealand, the fundamental operating principles of everyday life—the fair go and the obligation to have a go—remain largely intact, despite the challenge of the welfare state and the anti-egalitarian ambitions of a presumptive ruling class. 

New migrants, by and large, embrace Australian manners with enthusiasm, and understandably so. Parity of opportunity and the obligation to live and let live puts all Australians on an equal footing. They are, in contemporary parlance, inclusive values. Perhaps it is because we take them as granted that we rarely articulate them.

While the circumstances that permit the withdrawal of citizenship are being debated, there has been little discussion about the meaning of citizenship itself.

Citizenship, like marriage, is more than just a legal contract. It expresses more than simply the right to reside or the right to carry a passport, or at least it should. Citizenship is worth more than a flag of convenience hoisted at the stern of a Liberian-registered tanker. If that was all there was to it, the act of removing it would be relatively straightforward. But it is not. 

The relative success of the Anglo-speaking New World in preserving national common ground suggests that retaining national identity is not a question of numbers. Proportionately, Australia’s overseas-born population—26 per cent—is more than twice as large as Germany’s (12.9 per cent) and Great Britain’s (12.4 per cent), and three times as large as France’s (8.5 per cent). 

In Britain those nervous about immigration fret about the size of the intake, 330,000 last year. Yet again in per capita terms, it is less than half the size of the immigration quota in Australia, where the overall number of new arrivals is seldom a matter of concern. 

Despite the rise in short-term vacation and business travel, there are more empty seats on flights out of Australia than on those coming in. In 2014 there were 17 million inbound border crossings and 16.9 million outgoing border crossings.

What matters about immigration is not the quantum of migrants but their quality. To misappropriate the words of Martin Luther King, it is not the colour of their skin but the content of their character.

Australia’s orderly, points-based system has operated as a de facto character test for decades. Those who arrived in Australia were those who wanted to work. The length, complexity and cost of the process weeded out those who were only mildly interested in the place from those who were driven to be part of it. It favoured those who had experienced the values of liberty in Britain and parts of its empire and those from illiberal nations who were inspired to join it.

The humanitarian immigration program that took shape under Malcolm Fraser is, in part, a projection of the enlightened liberal values that are the foundations of our nation.  It is an outpouring of the spirit of mateship and the obligation to help honest people down on their luck that resonates strongly in the poetry and stories of Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson.

As with so much in the post-war world, honourable human instincts have been corrupted by the tyranny of treaties and the subjugation of national virtue beneath international principles. Once the rights of the citizen had been overtaken by universal rights, the course was set; the border bedlam of 2015 was inevitable.

In the contract between the citizen and the state, the state’s duty to preserve its sovereign borders is paramount. It was a principle that John Howard understood in 2001 and Tony Abbott renewed when he was elected in 2013. 

In the historical codification of rights, rights pertaining to the individual were closely aligned with the contract of citizenship. Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man was a citizen’s charter entailing rights and obligations. Man’s independence did not release him from the bonds of “that great chain of connection” that held society together.

In 1879 the French Congress approved a charter expressly titled the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. Article three:  “Le principe de toute Souveraineté réside essentiellement dans la Nation”—“The principle of all sovereignty resides essentially in the nation.”

The irrevocable ties of citizenship were not contested by the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Martin Luther King’s charge against the US government was not its failure to honour universal rights but that it had “defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as [its] citizens of color are concerned”. King’s mission was to perfect the Union, not to usurp it. 

It was only in the 1970s that that rhetoric of human rights began to change, and unalienable rights—rights conferred by the state that cannot be withdrawn—morphed into universal rights, rights that exist independent of the state.

This intellectual transformation is purposely overlooked by today’s human rights activists, who see themselves in the vanguard of a centuries-long campaign against oppression. Yet as Philip Roth once wrote, “People think of history in the long term but history, in fact, is a very sudden thing.”

The nature and consequences of the transformation are chronicled in Samuel Moyn’s 2010 book, The Last Utopia. “Rights have long existed, but they were from the beginning part of the authority of the state, not invoked to transcend it,” Moyn wrote. “Human rights as a powerful transnational ideal and movement have distinctive origins of a much more recent date.”

The consequences for immigration have been profound. Asylum seekers no longer plead meekly for mercy, they throw themselves on the railway tracks, screaming abuse in Arabic at civil authorities in a country they have entered illegally. They demand by right a share of sovereign wealth to which neither they nor their ancestors have contributed, and insist on being indulged by taxes to which they have never contributed.

They reserve their right to spit upon their host nation’s flag, to dishonour its traditions and even go to war against it if they must. They demand residency without patriotism and citizenship free of civic duty.

To be fair, the ungrateful wretches who ham it up for the television cameras are almost certainly a small minority. No one disputes the torrid, even unbearable, existence from which many have fled. We have seen the brutalism and the barbarism on television and YouTube. We feel sick in the stomach at the ransacking of Palmyra; at the thought of the headless body of an eighty-one-year-old archaeologist hung by his feet in the town’s main square; at the bombing of Homs, the destruction of the souk in Aleppo; and countless other crimes of barbarism.

It should not be forgotten, however, that it is not the failure of our states that has caused the Syrian people’s misery; it is the failure of theirs. It is their state, not ours, that must be held to account. For some, opening our borders seems to be the only just response. Yet to do so provides cover for a great injustice; an injustice that results from the failure of the Syrian state to protect its people against Islamist incursions. Worse still, it excuses Syria of the unpardonable crime of deploying the instruments of war to kill its own civilians.

Comparisons have been made with the international effort in 1999 to provide safe haven for Kosovars driven from their homes by Slobodan Milosevic’s Serb forces. There is, however, a crucial difference. The insistence by Australia and other nations, under the guidance of Nato, that the exiles should receive only temporary protection was a message to the Milosevic regime that it would not be excused from its sovereign duty to protect its citizens. Dictators cannot be allowed to cleanse a population with impunity.

Today’s open-ended, no-strings-attached offers of permanent asylum are doubly disturbing, weakening the bonds of citizenship in the troubled world and the free world. It suggests the West has little faith in the chances of restoring civic order to Syria and Iraq in the near future. It validates the decision made by refugees to effectively renounce their local citizenship and go elsewhere.

It has further served to weaken the bonds of the nation-state, transferring responsibility for the control of borders into unreliable hands: to the international treaty-mongers and their ilk.






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