There was a certain amount of irony for me this weekend. At the same time as thousands of refugees were making their way into Europe with varying degrees of welcome, I jumped over to Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia on what is known here as a ‘visa run’.
I’ll save my experience in KK for another post or article and while I’ve gone into the topic in a previous post and podcast a visa run deserves another quick explanation because it’s germane to the topic at hand; namely, the free movement of people or lack thereof. Essentially, because the Visa on Arrival (VOA) is only valid for 30 days and can only be extended once for an extra 30, every 60 days those of us on the VOA have to leave the country. While this has given me a couple opportunities to explore Malaysia, I’m reminded of its slight absurdity every time. On this visa run, though, the brutal image of a Kurdish/Syrian boy washed up on the shores of Turkey and the news of thousands of refugees (yes, refugees, the term is significant) banging on Europe’s proverbial door put that slight absurdity in stark relief.
While there have been moments of horror (such as the image of the boy) and disappointing responses from some countries including Hungary, The Netherlands, and the UK to name a few, there have also been encouraging acts of humanity. Thousands of Icelanders joined a movement to welcome a refugee into their homes and with the German government expecting to see as many as 800,000 arrive this year the country’s reception, at least among football fans, has been heart-warming.
But as much as grassroots movements to help are nice things to post on social media and can serve to absorb some of the strain, the real work must be done by the EU and the wealthy, developing countries where these extremely at-risk men, women, and children are heading. The fact of the matter is they have a moral and legal responsibility to help.
Now, both morals (for example Human Rights) and international law (which frequently is derived from those morals) depend on what are called in IR-speak ‘norms’, which means they’re flimsy and somewhat less persuasive than the hard power of, say, several thousand tanks. But with those wealthy, development countries being the main purveyors of those norms, ignoring them now would be the ultimate in tragic hypocrisy.
Fortunately though, we’ve seen that the people in many of these countries still believe in helping out their fellow humans despite fearful rhetoric about Islamization and potential threats from terror. And I think a whole lot of that humanity comes from the understanding that they are privileged to live comfortable, safe, and relatively free lives in their homes countries.
And so that privilege brings me to this past weekend. At the other end of ‘migrant’ spectrum from ‘refugee’ is ‘expat’. This is what I have called myself as a title and word to describe the experiences I’ve had living in Indonesia. But I use this term keeping in mind the word ‘expat’ is racially and economically loaded and stuffed with all sorts of neo-colonialism. You’re not an expat if you’re from Africa or Asia and move to the West, you’re an ‘immigrant’ at best. But because I am an ‘expat’, I was able to catch a plane to Malaysia for a couple nights and return on my now 5th tourism visa with no questions asked. There’s also the fact that I can return home whenever I want without fearing for my life.
Really that’s what all migrants, from refugees to expats, are looking for: to live their lives in the best way possible. Arbitrary lines on a map shouldn’t get in their way.