What would Martin Luther King do? Act with humanity for refugees.

Erin C. McGrathKarsten Donnay, and Kelsey P. Norman

Governments must support citizen-led efforts to provide a welcoming face to refugees. Without this policy, the West risks letting xenophobia and racism escalate into fascism.

In 2015, the world has witnessed a crisis of displaced persons larger than anytime since World War II. The refugee crisis that has now left over 60 million people displaced by conflict worldwide has drawn considerable international attention. At the same time, the attacks of Daesh and its ideological followers are threatening our relationships with Muslim refugees and strengthening the political far-right in Europe and the U.S. Some countries have already tightened borders, built wallsheightened screening, and toughened criteria for the reunification of refugee families.

As an international community we must now urgently decide: Will we hide behind our borders desperately defending our way of life, or will we act upon our humanity and help those in need? The forcibly displaced need our aid. More importantly, they need our governments’ vocal support to sway public opinion from fear toward acceptance.

“The time is always right to do what is right.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Oberlin College, October 22, 1964

A Global Crisis

While the Syrian crisis is unique by proportions, there are 65 other major displacement crises occurring worldwide. The numbers from Syria are staggering. As of late December 2015, 4,390,439 refugees from Syria had registered with UNHCR.

The surge in refugees arriving in Europe in the second half of 2015 propelled the refugee issue to the forefront of the global debate. Yet Western countries have not been hosting the vast majority of Syrian refugees since the outbreak of the civil war four years ago. Turkey and much poorer countries in the Middle East and North Africa host approximately four times the number of refugees than the West. From Syria alone, there are 2.1 million in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon, and 1.9 million in Turkey. Turkey became the country with the most registered refugees in the world in 2015.

The forcibly displaced – those who do not formally qualify as refugees – in these countries do not have rights under the UN Convention on the Status of Refugees. They end up trapped with no right to work and no right to move. “Warehousing,” according to experts like Christine Mahoney, leaves the forcibly displaced without a future, vulnerable to drug addiction, sexual exploitation, recruitment by militia, and dependent on aid. Regardless of the dangers on the road ahead, warehousing drives refugees to continue moving, with the promise of a better, safer life somewhere else.

While they no longer face life-threatening conflict, the status of refugees in Turkey does not allow them a real future or give the possibility of integration into society. Many then risk their lives on the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean. Refugees are also subject to violence or human rights abuses along their journey, both in the Middle East and North Africa, but also in Eastern and Southern Europe.

Stricter and sometimes violent border securityoff-shore processing of refugees, and migrant deterrence strategies by Western countries, only make matters worse. Short-term solutions to keep refugees out will only create a longer-term problem: a vicious cycle of more refugees, more resentment, and more violence.

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love Sermons, 1963

Shifting Public Opinion in Europe

Public opinion on the refugee problem has already begun to shift in Europe. Public support has moved toward right-wing political parties, like the Alternative for Germany (AFD), Poland’s Law and Justice party, Greece’s Golden Dawn, Hungary’s Fidesz party, and France’s National Front. Europe’s largest democracy, Germany, has experienced the largest inflow of refugees and worrisome changes in its political climate.

The influential Spiegel columnist Jakob Augstein recently warned of a new völkische revolution, a term referring to the nationalistic, anti-Semitic movement in the late 19th and early 20th century that swept across Austria and Germany and brought the Nazis to power. Today’s right wing parties may refrain from anti-Semitic statements, but as Augstein notes, ethnic categories are becoming salient again, and one in two Germans now fears the impact of immigration.

Augstein’s stern warning rings terrifyingly true: in the end we may find that fascism is not a problem of the past. Already, the composition of political party support in Germany is changing. Chancellor Angela Merkel and the Christian Democratic Union initially saw a significant loss of public support because of refugee-friendly policies. CDU has now only recovered slightly in opinion polls. Even within her own party, Chancellor Merkel is facing increased resistance to her policies along with new, significant challenges from the right. One weekly poll of German citizens showed the AFD, a far-right party that is only two years old, reaching 10% popularity in the last 3 months.

A rising tide of politically motivated crime against refugees is sweeping across the region. This is the most visible and troublesome shift in Europe’s political climate. In Germany, multiple attempts of arson in refugee shelters, crowd violence and mass protests have accompanied the immigration surge. Arson attacks have increased ten-fold in the past year. Right wing grassroots movements hardly more than a year old, for example the Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident (PEGIDA), are radicalizing with calls for more restrictive immigration rules—and they are targeting Muslims.

While we have a much smaller number of refugees in the U.S., similar incidents are on the rise. We’ve witnessed arson at mosques and threats against the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which temporarily had to cease operations.

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Letters from a Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963

A Beacon of Hope: Civil Society

The main effort to deal with the refugee crisis has and continues to be shouldered by the scores of volunteers who help refugees to register and settle in, provide medical assistance, and offer other aid. Community-level, citizen-driven initiatives by and for refugees often fulfill the duties of states that lack local capacity. An abundance of creative, innovative policy solutions for employment and integration have also emerged. In Germany these include apps like Waslchiraa, a service that links donations to refugees, the Workeer job portal designed for refugees, and other online services that provide refugees access to higher education without formal documentation. German universities are even trying to find new ways to admit refugees as students without bureaucratic hurdles.

Western societies are in danger of polarizing, with humanitarian initiatives to accommodate refugees on the community-level on one side, and a rise of ethnocentric nationalism on the other. Citizen initiatives create pathways to improving refugees’ lives, and this is part of the answer. But for these efforts to be sustainable, governments must support these actions and in doing so, they must address the concerns of their citizens. Excluded and marginalized in the decision process, they could otherwise turn to those who offer simple answers like exclusion. Incidents such as those in Cologne, Germany, on New Year’s Eve only further escalate existing tensions, especially if we are judging all refugees by the despicable actions of a few.

In 2016 we face a crisis of historic dimensions in which we will be presented with a choice. Chancellor Merkel of Germany equated it with defining moments of recent world history, like the fall of the Berlin wall. This remarkable comparison is as daring as it is fitting: how we face this challenge will shape all of our futures in the years to come. We are at a critical juncture in which public opinion in the West could swing either way with fundamentally different outcomes in the years to come: isolationism or pluralism. Accepting refugees will change host nations and new identities will have to be forged. But change as such is not the problem as long as we all – refugees, citizens and the state – are able to shape that change together.

“We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Saint Louis, March 22, 1964

There is a serious danger that the foundations of political discourse on confronting this crisis are becoming unsound, and rhetoric has turned in a perilous direction: whether or not we help those in need should never be a question, it is our most basic humanitarian responsibility. It is certainly legitimate though to openly discuss the process, to challenge existing practices, and find a way forward that is acceptable for all.

It remains our responsibility as individual citizens to actively decide for humanity and against fear. In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the time is always ripe to do right.


This blog post was originally published at http://www.erincmcgrath.com/blog/what-would-martin-luther-king-do-act-with-humanity-for-refugees. It expresses the authors’ views only and not the institutions they are affiliated with.