Please Note: I originally wrote this in November of 2018

A migrant family, part of a caravan of thousands traveling from Central America to the United States, run away from tear gas in front of the border wall between the U.S. and Mexico in Tijuana, Mexico, on Nov. 25, 2018. Kim Kyung Hoon—Reuters
A migrant family, part of a caravan of thousands traveling from Central America to the United States, run away from tear gas in front of the border wall between the U.S. and Mexico in Tijuana, Mexico, November 25, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

As people bemoan the abhorrent views of the Trump administration towards refugees and migrants, liberal democracies have always had abhorrent contradictions within them when it comes to refugees (and immigrants).

On Sunday November 25th the United States— in an attempt to deny Central American migrants their legal right to claim asylum on its border—shut down the San Isidro port of entry for migrants, between San Diego and Tijuana. Migrants that still attempted to reach the U.S. border in order to lay their claims for asylum, were met with tear gas by heavily armed U.S. troops that were sent to act as an accompanying police force for U.S. border patrol. Not only was the tear gas fired into the sovereign nation of Mexico, but it was fired indiscriminately— hitting men, women, and children, who had just walked or hitched approximately 400-miles to reach the U.S. border.

The human rights violation displayed by the U.S. on Sunday and well into Monday, couldn’t have had more bitter timing. As many people in the U.S. had just celebrated Thanksgiving— a holiday that marks the colonization of the U.S. to the peril of the Natives which inhabited the land before the pilgrims arrived. To be clear, settler colonialism, which helped to form the modern U.S., is vastly different from those currently seeking their right to claim asylum—which is just to remind people about the harm of referring to earlier colonial settlers as “migrants.” However, what this history points to is a larger picture of contradictions which exist not just in the U.S., but throughout liberal democracies in the western world. That is, the political inability of western liberal democracies to accommodate for those that seek asylum based on displacement, persecution, political or economic strife.

This story of contradiction during the modern liberal era, first begins during the end of the Holocaust, when international asylum policies were created. The creation was a direct attempt at stating: “never again” would we allow people to suffer in their human rights tragedies, without giving them the option to not only flee, but also to be welcomed into the sovereign nations whose borders they made it to and laid their claim for refuge. This is because claims to asylum which were turned away, ended up having tragic consequences. In 1939 officials in the U.S turned away more than 900 German-Jewish refugees from its borders, a third of whom would later be killed in various fascist strong-holds throughout Europe. The message that was sent, was that no one would care, or did care, about what happened to these refugees; thus in 1948, the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights had a clear message “everyone has the right to seek and enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.”

Fast-forward to the refugee crises which is still heavily impacting the Middle East, and we see the same sort of limited action as we did in the 1930s throughout liberal democracies across Europe. For instance, with the Syrian refugee crisis, countries like Norway are more intent on throwing money at the problem in order to keep refugees out of their country, as opposed to letting them in. Norway tightened its borders—specifically against refugee migration— and in response to their heightened restrictions, closed and defunded asylum centers citing “lack of refugee applicants.”

Although less restrictive than Nordic liberal democracies regarding refugee intake, liberal democracies in the European Union are still debating “fair-share” models of refugee intake. Noticeably, some countries are taking in more refugees than others, spurring racist and xenophobic nationalisms at the societal level, that politicians have been slow at effectively addressing. The answer to this problem, contrary to Hillary Clinton’s statement in her recent interview— is twofold. First, it is obvious that western liberal democracies must provide refuge for refugees; and second, that they must educate their societies about the myths surrounding those fleeing persecution— and the myths surrounding immigrants and immigration in general. However, politicians in these societies are incapable of doing this, because of their own political fears.

Effectively addressing the refugee crises, would mean revealing the hand that western liberal democracies— with their guns and weapon sales in these regions, as well as their interventions and wars—have played in creating and deepening the reasons why people are fleeing their homelands. Thus, they are confronted with a political inability to appropriately and effectively address crises, ensuring that refugee crises will continue to worsen. Politicians in liberal democracies have settled with politicizing the refugee crisis happening around the world, to the point of inaction that has fueled right-wing populism. To say that we are witnessing an almost near reenactment of what happened to those denied the right to refuge in the 1930s, would be an understatement. What are we saying when we tell civilians seeking refuge to go back to Syria?

We know why the claims from the Middle East are being made– they are quite clear and obvious. However, it appears that for some in the U.S, the claims of asylum from the Central American migrants are “illegitimate” because they are thought of as being solely economic opportunity immigrants— not those seeking asylum. This oversimplification of the Central American crises and those seeking refuge from the crises, ignores U.S. intervention in them, and conflates immigration to the U.S.— which has been decreasing— with those claiming asylum. This mislabeling and misunderstanding of those seeking refuge from Central America, allow those attempting to justify their egregious rhetoric to skirt around the fact that the Trump administration is choosing to not hear their claims at all. Liberal estimates relay that they are currently processing less than 100 claims a day, as they try to re-write and circumvent both U.S. and international asylum laws, to allow the lowest number of asylum seekers in.

Are we now saying that asylum claims should not be heard in the U.S.? That those fleeing from their countries should be greeted with chemical agents instead? The thing about western liberal democracies— and the rise in racist xenophobic nationalisms that have been allowed to take over politics— is that once you start to justify the unjustifiable as moral, it becomes hard to undo. When citizens cheer on human rights violations, you are slowly justifying the use of force by right wing populists with a complicit society. That should concern us all.