The Refugee Within

December 26th, 2012

Here in the UK, the news has been full of reports about the school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut. I’ve worked in many New York City school programs and experienced my share of bomb threats along with occasional intrusions by unstable individuals. Still, when working my very first teaching job in Connecticut back in 1979, the prospect of any type of violence simply never occurred to us. Taking precautions back in those days meant guarding against the parental kidnapping of children living within divided families. These days we see guns intended to defend isolated homesteads, being toted to locales by fragile minds that have reached their breaking points. I’ll leave the discussion of second amendment rights and the kinds of weapons useful within free societies to more knowledgeable folks. In the meantime, I felt moved to address the problems of people who are basically ‘armless’ while facing undeclared incursions into their homes and even their minds, as they take unpopular positions on issues of national import.

As discontent rises internationally, violence becomes both explosive and implosive. Persecuted individuals and groups face fewer options in terms of finding legal help when imprisoned and escaping their more informal urban and rural prisons. The world news round-up on any given day might review stories of striking mine workers in South Africa being shot, Chinese dissidents being beaten while under house arrest or journalists being jailed for the disclosure of mere facts. Incursions by greater powers across borders (e.g. China into Tibet) may extend the range of influence by oppressive governments without the public recognition of other nations falling under such influence.

Done quietly or openly, an increase in the permeability of borders to the strongest authorities makes the problems of identifying persecuted people more difficult. Worse, it makes their journeys to freer territory more hazardous and expensive to accomplish. Human rights groups can hardly place a watch or mount a rescue mission to those deep in the interior of a vast seat of power.

Below is a letter I emailed to various groups engaging with refugees. There is no reason not to recognize such individuals like Malaka as living like a refugee within her own borders. Once you are forced to write (or blog) under an assumed identity, it’s hard to feel ‘at home’. Would the recognition of being beyond the pale amidst one’s own civil authorities prevent a child from needing an airlift to another country for life-saving surgery after being shot?

Perhaps in the interests of preventing violence and mitigating the degree of force used against political victims, we need to expand the definition of ‘refugee’.

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To: UNICEF
Amnesty International
Doctors Without Borders
U.S. Department of State
N.Y. Times Editorial Department

Re: Expansion of the definition of ‘Refugee’
Date: December 11, 2012

Each of your organizations deals daily with the problems of individuals known as ‘refugees’. These people have been forced from their own places of residence and even their states by some pervasive form of oppression. As the influence of repressive state governments expands into neighboring countries, we see the numbers of people being persecuted for political, cultural, economic, and/or religious reasons increasing proportionally.

The ‘unofficial’ expansions of borders leading to new areas becoming ‘engulfed’ serves to increase the severity of the condition of older residents now deeper within national territories. The distance for travel to ‘real’ border areas and friendly neighbors increases while opportunities for crossing these new borders becomes increasingly hazardous. What becomes of these internal refugees who may wish to divorce themselves from identification with the laws of their states while remaining ‘in-country’?

These persons have traditionally been referred to as dissidents, implying violations of laws and/or customs where no actual legal statutes have been broken as per a particular national constitution. This is common when an onerous degree of censorship is present and even thoughts held by citizens about their governments become suspect in the minds of officials. Ambiguous statutes (as with the US Patriot Act) can lead to real charges of criminal acts in the absence of intent or actual impact upon others. Officials are becoming quite intuitive in analyzing the behavior pattens of citizens and extracting convenient implications.

I was recently in Athens, Greece when the populace was newly required to stand on the right of escalator steps in the metro stations. This seemingly innocuous safety precaution is evidently larger than billed. Various individuals in somber garb and carrying strings of beads in their hands, would shake them in frank disapproval of violators. The sound often resulted in the immediate shifting of positions of suddenly shame-filled expressions on the faces of left-standing individuals hastily moving to the right.

Ridiculous? Perhaps, but the extreme disconnect between leftists and the far-right government of Greece is felt every minute of the day in that emotional, politicized nation. Many are subject to excessive scrutiny which seems devoted to things other than common crime.

I propose expanding the definition of ‘refugee’, applying it to those unable or unwilling to cross their state/national borders. If these individuals can be formally registered as ‘in-country refugees, external monitoring of their welfare before they become subject to imprisonment, loss of mobility as in house arrests, deprivation of basic medical care and contacts with family and friends might be prevented. While applications for that status would certainly have to be smuggled out of some areas, the sheer numbers of applicants would be a window into the silent worlds of suffering citizens.

Identification of commonalities in gender, religion, age, occupation, place of origin and other specific details would identify more clearly the objects of persecution previously identified in open forums like your own.

I hope these considerations spur further discussion. If my experiences in this area are of interest to you, please feel free to contact me.

Barbara Rubin

Categories: Letters

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