President Trump’s recent Executive Order is, without a doubt, extreme. The four-month hold on allowing refugees into the US, and the temporary ban on travellers from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Sudan, Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen, is both ridiculous and cruel. It is also wrong at multiple levels. It is flawed in its methodology, mistakenly based on the claim that these particular restrictions will make America safer; it violates US law; and it is morally unjustifiable in a context in which the responsibility for refugee protection is supposed to be shared – not to mention the fact that many of those who are fleeing are doing so as a result of wars that the US quite possibly helped to ignite.
Perhaps worst of all, while the ban is being legally challenged and may well end up being over-ruled once and for all, it will be hard to undo the damage that has already been done in further stigmatising refugees.
One of the most dangerous aspects of the Executive Order is that it legitimises, at a political level, the exclusion of those who are seeking safety outside of their own country. Having stripped away all the sweeteners and fancy wrappers that usually coat discussions around refugee protection, the US President has shown us a dystopian reality that is deeply unsettling and raises uncomfortable questions about the trajectory of refugee protection. He has also shown us the extraordinary damage that can be done when a democratically elected leader decides to throw out the rule book.
But it is important to remember that the challenges of exclusion faced by refugees are, unfortunately, neither new nor novel. In his poem “Refugee Blues” written in 1939, W.H. Auden portrays a German Jewish couple seeking a new home:
“Say this city has ten million souls,
Some are living in mansions, some are living in holes:
Yet there’s no place for us, my dear, yet there’s no place for us.”
The failure to find safety the poem evokes reminds us that the history of refugee protection is one that few of us can be proud of.
While the 1951 Refugee Convention (agreed 12 years after Auden wrote the poem in response to the plight of those such as the narrator) continues to provide clear guidance on how to protect a category of people who are, by any standards, some of the most vulnerable on the planet, Trump’s actions have exposed the vulnerability of a system that is reliant on the will of individual States to implement it.
Extreme as his actions are, we have to remember that the world has failed to implement the 1951 Convention in a consistent and humane way and has been marginalising and failing refugees for decades. The sum of the many policies, both national and international, that are supposed to ensure that the 1951 Convention is translated into refugee protection has, in practice, created a situation in which safety and belonging for those who have been uprooted from their homes has constantly eluded them.
Whether a refugee who has spent over two years in limbo while jumping through endless hoops to be accepted for resettlement to a rich, Western country only to then have their claim turned down (the reality for most resettlement applicants); or an asylum seeker who is unable to flee political persecution because neighbouring states have closed their borders; or an asylum applicant who has had their claim rejected on an unjustified technicality, refugees and asylum seekers are repeatedly failed by those mandated to protect them. For most, their experience is one of pushing on doors that are locked, or of having them metaphorically – and, at times, literally – slammed in their faces. In reality, refugees are easy scape-goats in wider political games in which their lack of meaningful citizenship makes them particularly powerless. The Executive Order might be a stark and particularly belligerent example of how governments can deliberately used policy to drive exclusion, therefore, but it still remains part of a broader global failure to share the burden of asylum.
As the poem continues,
“The consul banged the table and said,
‘If you’ve got no passport you’re officially dead’:
But we are still alive, my dear, but we are still alive.”
If we were to judge the US (and other western nations) under the old adage that “the moral test of government is how that government treats…those who are in the shadows of life”, most would fail. So it is crucial that the forces needed to mitigate this trend are sufficiently strengthened, co-ordinated and galvanised, to push back against it. In a context in which spaces for belonging are shrinking across the world, and in which governments are becoming increasingly exclusionary in their politics, we must not allow the final word in Trump’s actions to expedite a trajectory towards exclusion. Protests against the Executive Order and the challenge to its legitimacy through the courts are a good beginning. But there now needs to be a sustained and multi-level approach if there is to be any chance of turning this trajectory around – and on that we have no choice.
 From W.H. Auden, Selected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson. Faber and Faber, 1979.