The word “refugee” is one of those teetering and uncertain words in the language, sitting on the precipice of our politics, capable of falling to one side or the other. For some the word evokes pity and sadness and a desire to open your heart. That side sees human misery and attempts, in a staggered and incomplete way, to imagine what it would be like to be driven from one’s home, set adrift by violence in a violent world, and to plunge into the uncertainty of every day.
Then there is the other side, who sees refugees as some kind of inhuman horde, swarming across borders, straining the limitis of deceny. The word has nasally connotations, a certain smell to it, a whiff of something low and ragged, bloody and violent and fecal. Like a rat with babies clinging to her matted-fur sides.
The world is seeing a refugee crisis unlike any it has seen since at least WWII, and possibly in human history. According to the UNHCR, at the beginning of 2017 (the last year for total numbers), there are over 65 million displaced people in the world. Many of them of internally-displaced people, like the miserable Rohingya, but many more are spread out in countries not their own.
The Syrian refugee crisis is probably the most remarkable and devastating and impactful one in the world, as it is not only reshaping the Middle East, but the reverberating effects are changing European politics, yanking it to the right, and have had a measurable impact on US politics, despite the paltry number of Syrians we allow in our borders.
That’s the secondary impact of the refugee crisis: it allows the very worst, those who see refugees as inhuman, to gain power by stoking fears. It’s remaking the world. It has further empowered Viktor Orban in Hungary, even though very few Syrians or Iraqis have matriculated to Hungary, which should be enough to prove a level of intelligence. It’s boosted far-right parties in France and Italy and Germany, and of course was a key factor in Brexit. Right-wing politicians were able to exploit fears and xenophobia by rushing to borders and declaring them an inviolable line of defense against the mongrelizing hordes.
And, well…we weren’t exactly immune to it in America.