Boat people from Vietnam sailed to where they expected to be taken for asylum. When preferred destination Hong Kong got too crowded, the Philippines became America’s processing center of refugees. The term “refugee” refers to an asylum seeker recognized by the state where a claim is made.
I worked to train Peace Corps volunteers in the '80s and some language instructors and ex-PCVs ended in the Bataan Refugee center. I never made it to the site, but the reality of refugees in Philippine soil gave us some serious pause.
My Judeo-Christian upbringing provided me with an attitude of preferential treatment toward the "the alien and stranger." Sojourners in Egypt, Canaan, Assyria, and Babylon understood their finitude and temporality in the land of their fathers!
After the holocaust of WWII, we were supportive of the Jews in diaspora establishing a home of their own. When the prospects of claiming sovereign status for a Palestine to include the nation Israel, we were, as the Philippines did in the United Nations’ vote, all for it.
Ironically, the 3 million Jews surrounded by 120 million belligerent Arabs left the survival of the new nation in a precarious situation that elicited a worldwide net of sympathy and support, until the same nation of refugees turned around to create a new group of refugees in Palestine. There are now two generations in Gaza who knows nothing else in life but being a refugee.
In the attention garnered by Darfur, Sudan, women and children mirror innocent suffering. The wrenching conflict that arose as a consequence of the Civil War in Sudan (rooted in oil, of course) between the majority Islamic north and the non-Arab south, spilled into Chad and the Central African Republic. Darfur dramatically focuses the refugee situation in the world, and why it is that this vestige of nation-state definition, a left over from European colonial times, is allowed to continue.
Legal instruments have been devised to deal with the issue of crossing borders. We have federalism in the United States that allows residents of every state to freely cross borders. The EU started the same recently as well, causing furor when immigrants took advantage of the new open borders. Indigene sensitivities were shaken and racial prejudices long dormant in the aftermath of the claim of Aryan supremacy reemerged.
Not quite offering free mobility to citizens, free trade allows for the smooth flow of goods and services across borders. Already in place in U.S. inter-State commerce, it extended to NAFTA that allows free trade between Canada-U.S.-Mexico, though their borders remain controlled, more stringently in the U.S. south, as it is lax in the north.
South American signatories of the Mercosur (Mercado common del Sur) practice some form of open borders and free trade. So do the U.K. and Ireland, New Zealand, and Australia.
The United States has a visa waiver program we are familiar with in the CNMI. Favoring those countries with a high human development index rating and standard of living (save Russia and China in the Marianas), those in the program can travel to the U.S. for 90 days without first securing a travel visa.
Our allegiance is to the blue orb rotating around the solar system, and we promote a more global sense of open borders. From a human rights perspective, migration complements the U.N. Universal Declaration on Human Rights that advocates freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state, the right to leave any country, including one’s own, and to return at will.
At the end of 2005, refugees came from Afghanistan, Iraq, Sierra Leone, Myanmar, Somalia, Sudan, and Palestine. We have our own contingent of asylum seeking Falun Gong/Dafa in Saipan; prominent in the Garapan street market, their reputation is a bit tarnished by the rumor that they ingratiate themselves to ICE by informing on their own compatriots. 20,000 bonded servants from China once staffed our ill-fated garment industry.
Fear of harm for one’s survival undergirds the plight of the refugee. Freedom from fear is one of four vaunted pillars in American democracy. Unfortunately, we are selective on those we save, ourselves fearful of the influx of the unwashed and the unschooled. Ben Fitial’s fear leads the pack in the Marianas, it seems. Much of this fear is the prospect of having the indigene cultural identity obliterated by the staying power of "the alien and the stranger" in their home turf.
The cultured and educated indigene long ago saw the handwriting on the wall, and now reside in the Southwest deserts and Pacific Northwest states of the Union.
Israel turned around to make refugees out of their Semitic cousins. The ill-conceived policy to preserve colonial boundaries after WWII resulted in racial discord, and add the addiction to oil, it made the forceful maintenance of national borders a matter of profit.
Meanwhile, the earth plunges into outer space oblivious of the artificial political boundaries we impose on its geography.
"You were strangers in a strange land," sayeth the Lord, is an old statement about our state of being, not the location of our citizenship. From this view, there are no refugees on planet earth!
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Jaime R. Vergara (email@example.com) previously taught at San Vicente Elementary School on Saipan and is currently a guest lecturer at Shenyang Aerospace University in China.