Attacks on refugee rights are an attack on universal human rights

Big Red of Liberty

Andrew Henderson

These next four years will allow me to discover the perfect balance between heart-wrenching despair and righteous, boiling anger.

Unfortunately, I have yet to strike that balance which is why President Donald Trump’s recent Executive Order barring refugees and citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries caught me off guard. This really should not have been the case. He’s been saying there was going to be a ban of some kind like this since the campaign.

The executive order suspends the entry of refugees into the United States for 120 days, stops the admission of refugees from Syria indefinitely and bars entry for 90 days into the U.S. for people who are citizens of Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen, according to the New York Times.

It also implemented a religious test for refugees from Muslim states, ordering “Christians and others from minority religions be granted priority over Muslims.”

All of this may be subject to change as the details surrounding the executive order are being legally challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union and others.

Since then, there have been protests at John F. Kennedy International Airport, there’s been confusion if the bans affect green card holders and a slew of stories of people who are being denied entry into the U.S.

The rights of refugees and the rights of those people who are stateless are issues of human rights. This ban is an assault on human rights, it is an assault on a specific religious group and does little to actually contribute to this ideal of protecting national security which is what this ban is being placed under the guise of.

Hanna Ardent, German political theorist and author of “Origins of Totalitarianism,” writes about the subjection of refugees to human rights abuses. In her book, she writes about her observations of deprivations of life, liberty, equality before the law and freedom of opinion for stateless people.

“Only in the last stage of a rather lengthy process is their right to live threatened; only if they remain perfectly “superfluous,” if nobody can be found to “claim” them, may their lives be in danger,” Ardent writes.

Article 14 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights makes very clear the rights of refugees: the right to seek asylum from persecution.

For the moment, the U.S. is still a member of the U.N. Although, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley signaled on Friday that under the Trump administration, the U.S. will “take names” of American allies “that don’t have our back,” according to Politico.

I can’t help but think of another person who also took names of those at the U.N., but for vastly different reasons. Raphael Lemkin, a Polish-Jewish jurist, could often be found “haunting the drafty halls” of the U.N. Lemkin escaped the grips of the Holocaust, leaving Europe after the German army invaded Poland. His family, unfortunately, met a different fate.

Lemkin is credited with coining the term “genocide,” which prior to his definition was a crime without a name, as described in Samantha Power’s book “A Problem From Hell.” Power is Haley’s predecessor as U.N. Ambassador.

Lemkin worked tirelessly for years to get his definition of genocide adopted by the United Nations General Assembly, which it eventually was.

Power describes Lemkin as a man who would hunt down anyone with a pulse, U.N. official, politician, journalist, to get them to listen about genocide and about his work to define this crime and the power it would have to codify genocide within the law.

“He was always there like a shadow, a presence, floating through the halls and constantly pulling scraps of paper out of his pockets,” Kathleen Teltsch, a reporter with the New York Times, as quoted in “A Problem from Hell.”

Lemkin took names for the betterment of humanity. Now we take names as veiled threats to allies.

The U.S. has turned its backs on refugees, on men, women and children fleeing a genocide in Syria, on immigrants wishing for a new start. If you were to read Power’s book you’d know this is not the first or last time the U.S. has turned our backs on those fleeing genocide.

Cambodia, Iraq, Bosnia, Rwanda, Srebrenica, Kosovo. History tells us there were multiple times the U.S. could have intervened to stop genocide, but didn’t. Our reasons have varied from political to economic and often just out of a lack of hope we could do anything.

If anything, this ban solidifies what has often been the policy for the U.S. in terms of genocide and providing asylum for refugees and that’s what should make it so infuriating. Not that Trump is doing it now, but that we have always done it.

But perhaps all of this is a bit too broad for us to really consider here at WKU and in Bowling Green as I’ve been writing from a larger human rights perspective.

Per the university, WKU has identified 22 students and three faculty members affected by the executive order. But at this time the university is not aware of any “WKU students or faculty members who are currently overseas or being prevented from re-entering the country.”

“My request to our campus community is that we remain focused on ensuring that our campus is a safe and welcoming place to all of our students, regardless of their nationality,” President Gary Ransdell said in an email to faculty and staff. “I would also ask that you be especially sensitive to those directly impacted by this order. We will work to ensure that they are able to continue on a successful path to graduation.”

A public statement is not enough for students whose livelihoods may be at stake, whose rights are in jeopardy. Yes, I applaud WKU for any statement, but, again using Power’s book as an example, public statements are too tepid and lacking in actual change.

What does it mean for WKU to be a safe and welcoming place for students when the most we ever do to combat racial tension, for instance, is to host panels and think tanks? Where’s the action, the demonstrations, the protest? And what if the ban goes farther? Will WKU comply with the law regardless of the human rights violations?

Furthermore, WBKO reported that the 40 Syrian refugees which were supposed to be coming to Bowling Green no longer are. Their lives will now be a mystery to us entirely.

WKU and Bowling Green should not remain silent in the face of this ban. Is this university not a community for international students, or is our tagline of international reach only shallow enough to mean reaching into pocketbooks?

Does Bowling Green not pride itself on our vibrant immigrant and refugee community? Or is the International Festival simply an appropriation of this culture for profit? Where is the protest and disgust from our city officials on this matter?

Words are nice and comforting but resistance and civil disobedience and bold action are also crucial. It’s time we move past this university’s days of public statements to public action.