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Culture

Winners and Losers in the Citizenship Birth Lottery

David Langness | Sep 5, 2015

PART 1 IN SERIES World Citizenship

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

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David Langness | Sep 5, 2015

PART 1 IN SERIES World Citizenship

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

Honesty, decency, faithfulness, and comradeship… must be shown when dealing with those of like blood but to no one else. What happens to a Russian, to a Czech, does not interest me in the slightest… Whether nations live in prosperity or starve to death like cattle interests me only insofar as we need them as slaves for our culture… Whether 10,000 Russian females collapse from exhaustion while digging an antitank ditch interests me only insofar as the antitank ditch for Germany is finished. – Heinrich Himmler, Reichsfuhrer of the Nazi SS.

Reading this horrifying quote, which describes Himmler’s and Hitler’s fascist totalitarian state and its hyper-nationalistic brutality quite succinctly, reminded me of the MS St. Louis, the German ocean liner that sailed across the Atlantic and tried to find homes for 908 Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis in 1939.

It’s a fascinating story, later the subject of a book and a Hollywood film called Voyage of the Damned. From the title, you can probably guess what happened.

Gustav-SchroederThe captain of the ocean liner, a heroic non-Jewish German named Gustav Schröder, steered his ship to Cuba, then to Florida, and finally towards Canada. No nation in the Americas would accept the refugees. Finally, Schröder had to sail back to Europe, where hundreds of the ship’s Jewish passengers later died in concentration camps. We could have saved them.

We didn’t save them because of prejudice and anti-Semitism—and a strong bias against immigrants. In each country, anti-immigrant political forces prevailed.

One year earlier, in 1938, as Jewish people and many other persecuted minorities fled Nazi Germany by the thousands, England’s Daily Mail newspaper ran an ignominious, scare-tactic front-page headline: “Stateless Jews Pouring into this Country.”

Anti-immigrant politicians of the period rushed to assure their constituencies that no such thing would be allowed on their watch. The United States and several other South American and European nations had denied asylum to Jews before, and would continue to, despite their knowledge of the Nazi persecutions and murders.

This refusal to save people, a shameful chapter in our recent history, now threatens to repeat itself. One photograph—Aylan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian boy, drowned—has made the world face that fact.

As refugees pour out of de-stabilized, war-torn countries like Iraq, Syria and Libya, a huge refugee crisis has developed in Europe. As migrants and refugees, many of them children, flee dangerous and even murderous conditions in Central American nations and try to cross into the United States for asylum, the same thing has happened in the U.S. Refugees from Central African countries, from Afghanistan and North Korea and many other global trouble spots now desperately seek shelter from the terrible conditions they encounter in their home countries—but have few viable options for refuge.

The United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) says almost 20 million people were on the move seeking refuge at the end of 2014; and that 3% of the world’s population are now refugees. This mass movement of desperate people raises a whole host of powerful, troubling questions: what does it mean to be a citizen? Do you feel secure in your role as a citizen of your country? What if the country you live in begins to decline, face corruption and destabilization and war? What if you had no work, no income, no way to feed your children? What if another, more powerful country invades, throws out your government and replaces it with one that no longer protects you or respects your human rights? What would you do then? What if conditions grew so bad that you feared for your life every day?

No matter what our citizenship, most of us would try to leave such misery. We would take our families and cross the border and try to find a place where we could have some security and peace. If conditions didn’t improve enough to return, we would voluntarily renounce our citizenship in our former country and try to become a citizen of our new nation—if we got very lucky, and that new nation accepted us.

This enormously unjust and completely arbitrary citizenship birth lottery now determines, more than any other single factor, how an individual will live, be treated, be educated, and live out his or her life. Those of us who win that lottery—born as citizens of stable, developed democracies, or accepted as immigrants and naturalized citizens by those countries—will have a chance to live better lives and have more opportunity than human beings at any other time in the world’s history. Those of us who lose that lottery—born as citizens of unstable, undeveloped countries with war, hunger, poverty and corrupt governments—will be condemned to a life without hope, or take the unknown risks most migrants and refugees take, putting their lives into the hands of smugglers and human traffickers to flee.

The immigration expert and author Ayelet Shachar, in her book The Birthright Lottery, calls this sad state of affairs “inherited privilege”—a form of property inheritance that becomes a valuable entitlement transmitted by law to a restricted group of recipients and their heirs. Nations, she writes, need to expand their membership boundaries beyond the old, unfair, outdated legal notions of citizenship.

For more than 150 years, the Baha’i teachings have said that these fundamental inequities must stop. How? Baha’is believe that all people have the inherent human right to world citizenship:

The oneness of the kingdom of humanity will supplant the banner of conquest, and all communities of the earth will gather under its protection. No nation with separate and restricted boundaries — such as Persia, for instance — will exist. The United States of America will be known only as a name. Germany, France, England, Turkey, Arabia — all these various nations will be welded together in unity. When the people of the future are asked, “To which nationality do you belong?” the answer will be, “To the nationality of humanity…” The people of the future will not say, “I belong to the nation of England, France or Persia”; for all of them will be citizens of a universal nationality — the one family, the one country, the one world of humanity — and then these wars, hatreds and strifes will pass away. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 18.

In this series of essays on the massively complex and supremely important contemporary question of citizenship, we’ll look at the laws; examine the controversies; explore the potential solutions the Baha’i teachings offer; and take a hard look at what citizenship really means in a modern context.

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Comments

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  • Dec 14, 2015
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    A well written series. I am going to translate and publish in in Urdu language (Pakistan) in blog .
  • IMO, an important and well-written article. I will add that many other aspects of the Baha'i Faith's approach cannot possibly fit into a single short piece--or many. The solution is far more than simply throwing open the doors.
    There are Baha'i models (currently in practice) for community-based, self-run programs for the poor and others, along with application of principles of social justice so that people are not simply dependent refugees who overload the system for everyone. I see these programs as essential. One of their unique features is their ability to function in the midst of seeming utter chaos, ...such as what happened just after the recent cyclone on Vanuatu. Well-practiced young people from the Jr Youth Spiritual Empowerment Groups, both Baha'is and their friends, spontaneously arose and began to help neighbors rebuild and replant, as well as coordinate rescue efforts, before government and other entities could reach their communities. Impressive stuff.
    This article lays out a strong ethical case for accepting immigrants in times of international crisis. I hope the author, in his continuing series on this important topic, covers some of its practical aspects as well as he did this principled one. IMO, of course.
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  • Sep 6, 2015
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    David. A naive view of World Citizenship that is just as arbitrary if not more than the birth lottery of life. Over time different societies have emerged in their own time from the world of barbarity. To protect their new found freedoms they drew borders around themselves. They know, especially in modern times of high mobility that it would take very little movement of populations to overwhelm all the progress they have made. The British, much criticised for their colonial policies had taken almost 1500 years of internal battles fought to a standstill, to realise ...the worth of national unity for the establishment of peace. Those nations still fighting civil wars will have to learn the same lesson as the UK did. In times of mass migration not all the migrants are of good intent and honest heart. The opportunists with the same evil intent prevailing at home also move. These people are the problem of an open borders policy. They will feel no obligation to a new country, they will just see an opportunity for personal success motivated by much the same ideals they had before. Australia discovered this to its detriment in the 1980's, after an 11 month period of essentially open borders to middle eastern countries. The Australian government showed the same naivety as is now being called for by many well intentioned commentators, including those from the Baha'i Faith. The first born generation of those immigrants are now causing disproportionate amounts of difficulty for commuities in Australia. They are poorly educated, poorly motivated and many find their income in the world of crime. If the members of the Baha'i Faith wish to contribute meaningfully to this debate they need to see the world as it is, rather than as it will probably be in 500 years. Repitition of meaningless slogan type platitudes about being 'one world' do nothing to further the discussion about what is happening now. Borders cannot be taken down but political moves can be made to ensure the safety of the people fleeing and the stability of their homelands. If people address real issues that exist today then progress will be made.
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    • Sep 10, 2015
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      Pam Erdman Hi Pam. You ask many questions and a reply that would answer them satisfactorily would need to be in the form of a disseration. I will attempt to give you a summary of the points that I think are relevant to what is happening in Europe today. Australia went through the common occurrance of having an ancient indigenous population that was colonised by a European power. At first the new government did not attempt to prevent further migrations but by 1900 it had decided it only wanted white migrants and passed those ...restrictions into law. After a referendum in 1972 the indigenous population became allowed to vote. Later in the decade Australia experienced its first government sanctioned refugee programme when Vietnames escaping from communist rule were able to migrate here. That programme despite experiencing some assimilation problems was eventually successful with the Vietnamese community becoming a valuable asset for Australia. At the same time the Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser decided he wanted to help the relatives of the Australian Lebanese Christian community who had been coming here for over 200 years (one exception to the White Australia policy, being Christian and almost white was enough), to escape from the Lebanese Civil War. He opened the door for anyone in Lebanon who had relatives here. PM Fraser allowed the Lebanese govt to decide who could come. After 11 months the Australian government realised the majority of the new migrants were quite dissimilar to those already here. Most were poor, illiterate and rural. They had poor personal hygiene and were of doubtful character. (The Australian, Jan/1/2007) The government reversed its permission and stopped the flow after about 100,000 had been allowed in. This group and their children have since become one of the major contributors to criminal activity in Sydney. They have aggregated mainly to about 6 suburbs which are known to be violent and dangerous, much of the second generation have studiously avoided becoming educated. Two years ago an Education Department report indicated that only 3% of the major Muslim public high school in Auburn carried on to teritary study. Approximately 25 of the first wave of migrants are in maximum security prison after being found guilty of preparing terrorist attacks in Australia. This group is now about 400,000 strong and is creating the most serious social difficulties for governments here, especially that of NSW. In 2007 under a new Labour government the rules for Middle Eastern refugee immigration were relaxed again and a further 50,000 were allowed in after minimal checking. Almost all of these migrants were advised to destroy their documents so that Australian officials could not positively identify them, thus making it easier for them to claim refugee status. In 2013 a Centrelink (department of social services) report said that 85% of that wave of migration was still on social security benefits. I think Pam, this shows the necessity of border control and the proper vetting of so called refugees. Whenever a mass movement begins, usually accompanied by the cries of the compassionate left, many of the migrants are indeed not escaping danger, just looking for a better opportunity for themselves. This is natural enough but orderly proper checks are needed. The young boy who drowned, Aylan Kurdi is a case in point. His father was in the process of applying to migrate to Canada. I heard his Canadian sister interviewed, she said he told her not to pursue the Canadian application, that he was going to Germany, where his new teeth would be provided free. Pam, my feeling is that the compassionate Left of the West sets our governments up to become playthings in the hands of the foolish.... 'The Secret of Divine Civilisation'. Their caving in to the carping of the compassionate bleeding hearts is an indeological threat to the future of the enlightened West. Thanks for your interest. Lindsay.
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    • Sep 9, 2015
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      Lindsay, thanks for your comments. I do not know what happened in the 1980 in Australia, but I would really like to understand the issue of migrants better, so could you give us a tutorial? Wo were the first generation of migrants? What were they like? Did they assimilate? Learn English? Find jobs? Did they soak up lots of national resources? what did they contribute? How did native-born Australians think about them? What problems did they cause? Same questions about the second generation. Thanks for taking the time to explain. ... I think about this issue a lot. Need more data.
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  • Sep 5, 2015
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    Me to agree and believe that the world is one family and there should be no discrimination due to any such factors as country,state,community,caste,creed etc. we have to live all as a family in a world without boundaries.
  • Sep 5, 2015
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    I agree and believe that the world is one family and there should be no discrimination due to any such factors as country, state, community, caste, creed etc...
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