“Love Will Win”

 

Refugeee Love

A young refugee couple kiss in a tent in Keleti station in Budapest, Hungary. Photograph: Istvan Zsiros. Source

From the article in The Guardian:

 “I hope every refugee finds a their place in the world, finds peace as quickly as possible,” (photographer) Istvan Zsiros says. “That everyone is happy. It’s a very difficult situation, a very complex situation.”

And he hopes his photograph might change the way people see the situation: “Love,” he says, quoting the movie Interstellar, “is the one thing we’re capable of perceiving that transcends time and space.” And, perhaps, borders.”

Some Lessons on War and Forced Displacement

Lessons from our SSHB conference on The Human Biology of Poverty, held in Lisbon earlier this month. Thanks to Ines Varela Silva for putting together a great conference in a beautiful country.

This is not a complete list, but a copy and paste of some of the highlights from our session: 

Presentations

  • War and forced displacement: Embodiment of conflict-related experiences (Patrick Clarkin)
  • Female minor refugees: Are they underprivileged by forensic age estimation? (Bianca Gelbrich)
  • War and its effect on the changes in lifestyles: a case of Croatia (Sasa Missoni)
  • Secular trends of somatic development in Abkhazian children and adolescents for the last decades (Elena Godina)
  • Do stress biomarkers track poverty, stress, and trauma? Evaluating war-affected youth (Amelia Sancilio)
  • Refugees in Portugal: What do we know? (Cristina Santinho and Ines Varela-Silva)
  • Poster: Maya Guatemalan children in refugee camps in Mexico. How bad is their growth status? (Aya Ueno, Barry Bogin, Faith Warner and Ines Varela-Silva)

Summary of the session

Below are some reasons why our research is important and how it is relevant  for the public in general.

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You Are My Cousin

There’s so many different worlds
So many different suns
And we have just one world
But we live in different ones

         — Mark Knopfler, Brothers in Arms

I had the above T-shirt custom-made a couple of weeks ago, which reads “you are my cousin” in several languages. I can’t say for certain whether all of the translations are 100% accurate, but I tried to include a diverse range of languages, including the most commonly spoken ones (and Hmong; I just had to include Hmong). I’ve yet to wear it in public, but I am curious whether people will ask me about it. My hope is that it will get people to think a little about human diversity, similarity, difference, and how we are all related.

Of course, I’m playing fast and loose with terminology here, using ‘cousin’ in a very broad evolutionary sense. From an evolutionary perspective, genetic ties (or ‘blood’) are considered important since they indicate degree of shared genetic material. However, not every society sees family relations in the same way, which is a testament to the power of culture.

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“We are so sorry for coming to your country”

“We are so sorry for coming to your country, but we have to. There is no way else. I’m so sorry.”

— Syrian refugee, Mohamed Hussein, arriving by boat to Greece.

There is something that strikes a nerve when a desperate refugee feels the need to apologize for simply trying to find a life safe from war. They certainly have more humanity than the people who refer to them as cockroaches or vermin

Refugees Are Scum

“Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.”  

— Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 14 (Source)

 

The Biology of Forced Displacement

“Seeking asylum is not illegal under international law and people have a right to be treated humanely and with dignity.”  – UNHCR

We crossed the Mekong to get to Thailand at night, so no one would see us. We had always lived in the mountains (of northern Laos), so we did not know how to swim. When we came to the river, we used anything to help us float – bamboo, bicycle tubes. But at night, it is easy to get lost. Someone in our group said: ‘Remember, if you get lost when you’re going down the river (with the current), don’t panic. Thailand is on your right.’ ”

 

 

Every refugee has a story. The one above was told to me by a Hmong man I met in French Guiana in 2001. I went to learn about the experiences of the people there and how they had adjusted to being resettled half a world away, from Southeast Asia to a French ‘overseas department’ in Amazonia. They were actually doing quite well at the time, living as independent farmers who had been given land by the government years earlier.

Hmong men in French Guiana going hunting by bike.

Hmong men in French Guiana going hunting by bike.

They also retained a good degree of cultural continuity. While most are fluent in French, the majority of the 2,000+ Hmong in the country lived in rural, semi-isolated, ethnically homogenous villages. This gave them a buffer of sorts, allowing them to acculturate on their own terms. As they often put it, they were “free to be their own boss,” free to be Hmong, and most said they were happy with life in French Guiana. This combination of traits – economically self-sufficient, culturally distinct, mostly content, living in a rural overseas department – is not the typical refugee story. In fact, because of that relative uniqueness, the French Guiana Hmong have drawn attention from media outlets such as the BBC and the NY Times.

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Civilian Casualties Are a Feature, Not a Bug, of War

“The first pattern is that forbearance toward the helpless has always been instrumental rather than absolute.” Historians Mark Grimsley and Clifford J Rogers (2002: xii), on treatment of civilians in war over time. 

 

Much of the world’s attention has been focused on two recent tragedies: the Malaysia Airlines flight shot down over Ukraine and the civilian casualties in Gaza. In his Foreign Policy essay “The Slaughter of Innocents”, David Rothkopf couched these events within the concepts of ‘limited war’ and ‘collateral damage,’ writing:

From a purely political perspective, such tragedies, isolated though they may be, instantly dominate the narrative of a conflict because they speak to the heart of observers — whereas government speeches, Twitter feeds, and press releases seem too coldly rational and calculated, too soulless and self-interested. There are no arguments a political leader or a press officer can make that trump horror or anguish. There is no moral equation that offers a satisfactory calculus to enable us to accept the death of innocents as warranted.

I agree with much of this, except for one non-trivial point: tragedies involving civilian casualties are not that isolated, unfortunately. Not all incidents will be nearly as visible as the deaths of four young children playing football on a beach near a hotel filled with journalists, or a commercial airplane shot out of the sky. But they are all tragedies nonetheless. Civilian casualties are a feature of modern war, not a bug.

War deaths 2

Civilian casualties. See references below for sources.

 

And this is not exactly a new pattern or feature of ‘limited war.’ Instead, nearly a century of data suggests that civilians, not soldiers, have suffered the brunt of war, experiencing 67% to 90% of casualties across various conflicts since WW2. And many more civilians suffer through forced displacement, along with its short- and long-term effects on health (Bradley 2014). Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised at these patterns, for the very simple reason that war is a sledgehammer, not a scalpel. It cannot easily excise some unwanted faction from a society without also cutting out several times more innocent lives. The real tragedy are not those ‘rare mistakes’ (which are not rare, really) that injure or kill civilians. It is the decision to go to war at all.    Continue reading

The Rights of the Displaced

T. Alexander Aleinikoff, UN Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees, wrote the following on June 20th (World Refugee Day):

The protection of refugees and other persons forced from their homes is not an act of charity; it is not an act of noblesse oblige; and it is more than a moral obligation that the fortunate owe the less fortunate.

It is a matter of rights.

  • Persons forced to flee have a right to seek and receive asylum.
  • They have a right not be “pushed back” at sea or arbitrarily detained upon arrival.
  • They have rights, under the Refugee Convention, to freedom of movement and to work within countries in which they have been recognized as refugees.
  • Persons forced to flee have a right not to be discriminated against because of their race or their religion or their gender or their sexual orientation.
  • Women forced from their homes have a right not to be forced into survival sex.
  • Children forced to flee because of conflict have a right not to be forced to serve as child soldiers.

 

As persons forced from their homes have rights, so too the international community has responsibilities.

  • Nations must share the burden imposed on countries that have opened their borders to those forced to flee.
  • They are responsible for the humane treatment of asylum-seekers, and the development of fair and efficient asylum systems.
  • And the international community has a responsibility to provide solutions to refugees, internally displaced and stateless persons—who sometimes remain in uncertain legal status for decades.

These rights and responsibilities belong to all of us; they are affirmed collectively to provide for our protection and to remind us of our duties.

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Civilians, Refugees, and the 2nd Indochina War in Laos

[Note (June 2020): I’m seeing an uptick in the number of views on this essay. Is there any reason? Since this site is a labor of love, I’m just curious how it is being used.]

In Houa Phanh and Xieng Khouang provinces, the war (in Laos) has reached into every home and forced every individual, down to the very youngest, to make the agonizing choice of flight or death.” (Yang 1993: 104)

Those who suffered the most from the escalating conflict were populations living in the east of the country: overwhelmingly highland minorities, Lao Thoeng and particularly Lao Sung (Mien as well as Hmong), but also upland Tai, the Phuan of Xiang Khouang and the Phu-Tai of east central Laos.” (Stuart-Fox, 1997: 139)

Military Region II (northeastern Laos) bore the brunt of the war for almost fifteen years. Nearly 80% of the refugee population in Laos originated in MR II, including the refugees on the Vientiane Plaine. Almost the entire population of Houa Phan (Sam Neua) and Xieng Khouang Provinces were gradually forced south into the Long Tieng, Ban Xon, Muang Cha crescent.” (USAID, 1976: 210)

Displaced Hmong in Laos, probably in the early 1970s. Source: Roger Warner. 1998.

Displaced Hmong in Laos, probably in the early 1970s. Source: Roger Warner. 1998.

A consistent feature of war is the harming of civilian lives. The extent of harm is not always easy to ascertain, but is sometimes quantified in the number of “excess deaths” that occur during a war. For example, Hagopian et al (2013) surveyed two thousand randomly selected households throughout Iraq, interviewing residents about their family members before and during the US-led invasion and occupation. They estimated that from March 2003-2011 approximately 405,000 deaths occurred as a result of the war, mostly from violence.

However, such studies always have limitations – recall bias, survivor bias (the dead cannot be interviewed), and logistics in surveying high violence areas – meaning that mortality estimates will never be perfect, and Hagopian et al. gave a range around their figure (a 95% uncertainty interval of 48,000 to 751,000 excess deaths). Whatever the exact number, which we will probably never know, we can still be confident that mortality rates increased during the war years.  

The same challenges apply to all wars, including one that I have been interested in for a while – the Second Indochina War in LaosThe Australian historian Martin Stuart-Fox wrote that: “loss of life can only be guessed at, but 200,000 dead and twice that number of wounded would be a conservative estimate” (1997: 144). Mortality estimates for Laos are further complicated by the fact that it was one the least developed countries in Asia at the time of the war, likely with unreliable census data and other record keeping (though, for those who are interested, see the 1961 Joel Halpern “Laos Project Papers” from UCLA, which contain demographic and health statistics).

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Global Refugee Trends

At the end of 2013, there were more than 50 million displaced people globally, the highest number since WW2. I’m working on another post on how these experiences may impact biology and health, particularly for children. In the meantime, this UNHCR video shows some of the places that are most affected by forced displacement.

“Displacement is brutal. Many children stumble into exile barely alive after weeks in the bush.”