Eritrean refugees are a humanitarian emergency

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Eritrea is regularly ranked as the most repressive countries in Africa. There is essentially no internet and absolutely no free press, and Freedom House ranks it as the 3rd “least free” country in the world. There are no elections, no legislature, and no non-profit organizations. Uniquely, obligatory military conscription, starting in the last year of high school, can last for decades. The harsh conditions during service coupled with brutal punishments for evading it constitute nationalized slavery. Poverty is grinding and, aside from remittances, immune to international bolstering now that sanctions have been put in place against the government for human rights abuses.

Eritreans flee their country at rates unmatched by any other country not actively experiencing war (e.g. Syria)—making it an “emptying nation“. Over 5000 Eritreans flee each month to then make up the 7th largest migrant population in Europe, despite the small country only having a population of 6 million.

Their trek is one of the deadliest in the world. A quarter million Eritreans occupy crowded refugee camps across the border in Sudan and Ethiopia, from which Eritrea gained independence in a civil war in 1991. They travel by foot north across the Sahara. They then constitute the majority of migrants to arrive in Italy.

But, they don’t stay.  Only 1 in 100 Eritreans in Italy applies for asylum there, most continuing on to Switzerland or Germany. There are obvious reasons for this: Italy takes a harsher stance on immigrants, has less developed infrastructure for immigrants, and works with a smaller budget.

However, there are also reasons to expect them to stay once they get there. They arrive in Italy mentally and physically exhausted, and with very little money with which to proceed onward. (This might be why arrivees in Italy are now being flown to other parts of Europe.) Also, one might expect a historical link to play a role in where Eritreans settle, as Italy occupied (but did not colonize) what is now Eritrea to create Italian East Africa before WWII. Refugees and members of the diaspora often seek out developed countries with which they have a historical connection. We see this with the Nigerian population in the UK and Algerians in France. Eritreans are not doing this. Perhaps the connection with Italy was too weak and is too far past, or perhaps they understand that other European countries are better able to meet the needs of African refugees.

Consider that Germany is concerned enough with refugee well-being that it now hosts a gender/sexuality-sensitive refugee center to help protect those with minority LGBTQ status. Too often, especially when migrants are housed with others of their same nationalities, discrimination and harassment that occurred in their home countries can also be reproduced in welcome centers and government housing. As I found in my ethnographic research on transgender Pakistani migrants, violence based on gender expression was reproduced by other Pakistanis awaiting asylum applications along with them. Gender stereotypes and differentiated roles between men and women also take root because changing a person’s location doesn’t necessarily change their ideology and culture.

Italy also cannot offer Eritreans the housing options of other European countries. Albeit with the benefit of finances impossible elsewhere, Luxembourg has managed to place many refugees with host families to support them (and after Syrians, Eritreans constitute the most asylum cases there). Italy also has a more encumbered immigration system in which cases languish longer than in the rest of Western Europe.

The good news is that immigrants now have easier access to employment in Italy, which they want. Most Eritrean immigrants are teenage boys escaping conscription who are eager to work and build a life. Previously asylum applicants had to wait six months to hold a job, and now its just 60 days.  Boredom is a mental health issue for many who await an asylum application, and the Italian government hopes that putting them to work will also help Italians to be more accepting of their presence in the country.

To try to stem the tide of Eritrean migrants, the EU and the UN have invested in a job creation program based on building industrial parks that would make 100,000 new jobs. This would change the opportunity cost for Eritreans seeking to make the dangerous land crossing across north Africa followed by the equally perilous boat ride across the Mediterranean. Ostensibly, these jobs would likely go to men, and there has been no discussion of how to improve economic security for Eritrean women. It is debatable if industrial parks can off-set widespread human rights abuses and plaguing poverty, but it is worth trying.

Nigeria already has an Olympic victory, and its athletes haven’t even competed yet

The Olympics involve as much political and social symbolism as athletics, and that attention is good for Nigeria this year. The most populous nation in Africa makes its winter games debut this week—and its four athletes are all women. They call themselves the Ice Blazers.

Three Nigerian women, Seun Odigun, Akuoma Omeoga, Ngozi Onwumere, make up the bobsled team. They are the first Africans to ever qualify for the bobsled competition. In a lesser known singles event, Simidele Adeagbo is Africa’s first female skeleton athlete, as well as the first Black female athlete in skeleton.

They are all former track and field stars with dual Nigerian-American citizenship, some with summer Olympic experience, who planted the seeds for their journey on their own. Odigun started a GoFundMe page to raise money for the coaching and travel of a bobsled team and handcrafted her training sled. Her teammates took hiatus from their careers to join her.

The women represent not just a huge leap forward for female athletics but send a strong message of diasporic power. They wear their Nigerian identity on their sleeves by speaking indigenous languages with their parents, blasting Nigerian dance music, and one has even died her hair green to match the shade of the Nigerian flag. They are global forces in every sense—by participating in European sports of affluence, by being dual passport holders, by choosing to represent a developing country, and by doing so at an Olympics held in one of the most ethnically homogenous countries in the world.

There are 12 athletes from 8 African countries participating in the Pyeongchang Games this year. Ecuador, Eritrea, Malaysia, and Singapore are also sending athletes to the Winter Olympics for the first time.

It is unfortunate these Nigerian women are not getting the best games possible. The Olympics have had a disappointing turn out this year, and not just from low ticket sales due to concerns about North Korea. Based on my experience attending, the official website did not accept credit cards, public transportation to the event was extremely limited, and infrastructure was shockingly underdeveloped (the sliding center ran out of hot food and drinks, and there was no standing room in the tiny spectator shelters with heat). Seats for the luge were nearly empty.

These women have overcome so many obstacles and represent so much to Africa, though, that certainly some low tickets sales will soon be forgotten as they blaze the ice, and social expectations.

 

Africa is not an expletive and poverty isn’t confusing

It has been weeks since Trump called Haiti, El Salvador, and African states “s*hole countries” in a White House meeting on immigration. Many have been waiting for the denial, the justification, the spin, or an apology. We certainly got the first and then some degree of the second and the third. On Friday when Trump met with the President of Rwanda and the new head of the African Union in a friendly meeting in Switzerland, one where he ignored the shouted questions about “s*hole countries”. The President’s lack of comprehension of world economies is troubling on many levels, but for me, largely on an intellectual one. You see, although fixing poverty is extremely difficult, understanding it is not.

Poverty is really quite simple: Being poor means you spend your life choosing the least awful of two or more awful choices in an environment that constrains your options at every turn. The countries that Trump referenced in his comments are so unmeritocratic that they disincentivize working hard, following the rules, and being innovative in business.

Why invest your hard-earned money in order to buy a house when the government could seize your property on oil-rich land, or refuse to compensate you for environmental damage? E.g. Nigeria. Why would an individual citizen pay their income taxes when even the state oil company doesn’t? E.g. Angola. When you live at the poverty line, why risk starting a new business when it might fail and cost you everything, and your innovation is likely to be appropriated by others? E.g. Sierra Leone. Poverty deeply entrenches the status quo because it makes us risk-averse when our choices are limited to begin with.

Amartya Sen argues that economic development isn’t just about average salaries. It consists of interconnected freedoms: a) political freedom and transparency in relationships, b) free of opportunity to access credit, start businesses, engage in trade, etc., and c) freedom from abject poverty that can be eased with state income and unemployment assistance.

He says that all three must be present for people to rise out of poverty. If any are missing, people suffer from exclusion, coercion, and predation that impedes their ability to increase their incomes. That describes Haiti and most African countries.

Trump’s lack of understanding of poverty is not just alarming internationally but domestically too—America has a stubbornly high poverty rate. Just under 15% of the U.S. population, 45 million people, live below the American poverty line. These urban and rural poor are Trump’s constituents, and confusingly, his supporters. His obligation to understand the realities of being poor apply to his own country as well.

Cameroon: Nigeria’s Crisis Next Door

 

Oil platforms outside Limbe, Cameroon, near the Nigerian border.

There has been little media coverage of Cameroon’s 2016 Anglophone insurgency against the Francophone majority, when separatists declared their own state of Ambazonia. English-speakers near the Nigerian border constitute 20% of the country’s population and have long complained of political and resource marginalization. Now, there are concerns that this civil unrest is causing a potential refugee crisis.

Cameroonian English-speakers have a strong trade relationship with neighboring Nigeria, with large ships and small speedboats regularly traveling between the Nigerian port of Calabar and the Anglophone city of Limbe in Cameroon. I took both these forms of transport during a visit to Cameroon in 2012. Then, the water vessels were stockpiled mostly with raw goods to trade and sell, while passengers tried their best to find a spot to sit or nap wherever they could. Aside from some troublesome mechanical troubles, the journey did not feel terribly dangerous. The border was porous, interactions amiable among passengers, and there was little sense of an impending refugee issue.

Since then, separatists have targeted Cameroonian state agents, and those agents have in turn pursued rebels across the border into Nigeria. Tens of thousands of Anglophone Cameroonians have reportedly fled towards Calabar to avoid violence. So many refugees crossing into Nigeria exacerbates long-standing ethnic tensions in the Niger Delta, even those apart from the oil issue. It also strains resources and is a burden the Nigeria government is not prepared to bear, with much of its focus still on Boko Haram in the north.

Voice of America reported on the political backlash within Cameroon. Some argue that Paul Biya is using the separatist movement as a reason to militarize Anglophone areas even further and cement his 35-year rule. The text of that story is below.

Cameroon’s main opposition party on Thursday accused the government of having “militarized” two regions shaken by unrest among the country’s anglophone minority.

“The Northwest and Southwest regions are heavily militarized,” the head of the Social Democratic Front (SDF), Jean Tsomelou, said in an interview with AFP, describing the situation as “worrying.”

“We have observed troop movements in both regions. The government has spoken of thousands [of troops] who are in the Southwest and Northwest,” he said.

“Abuse has been committed” against local people, he said.

In September and October, “live fire was targeted against people who were simply carrying a message of peace,” he charged.

Since November 2016, resentment has fed demands for autonomy or a separate state to which the government has responded with a crackdown, including curfews, raids and restrictions on travel.

International monitors say at least 20 and possibly 40 people have been killed since late September.

 

Sexual Violence in Africa, Climate Change, and the U.S. Secretary of Energy

U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry is fending off criticism for comments he made about the relationship between fossil fuels and sexual violence against African women. He said in South Africa that using fossil fuels to generate electricity in Africa would lower rates of rape because, “When the lights are on, when you have light that shines — the righteousness, if you will — on those types of acts.” To paraphrase, the literal light of electricity (and figurative one of God?) would stop some acts of sexual violence. The general feedback in the media has been about his unclear reasoning and the ridiculousness of linking a light bulb to a pervasive social problem. To approach it more moderately though, I believe he was just hypothesizing that light in homes would make women logistically safer. It was a somewhat silly notion that just shouldn’t have been said aloud so flippantly. Here is the text of his statement:

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However, the issues of fossil fuels, climate change, and gender-based violence are actually not unrelated—they’re just related in a way totally contrary to Perry’s comments. This is an opportunity to better understand how fossil fuels are actually bad for women in sub-Saharan Africa, and why it is alarming that one of the world’s most powerful policymakers on energy would miss this.

 

Climate change: Fossil fuels, the Fahrenheit, and female farmers

First, climate change is particularly threatening to poor women in Africa who are assault victims during climate change migrations. As an example, the Sudanese Civil War, including the genocide in Darfur, was due in part to desertification of grazing lands for livestock. As these grazing lands turned to hot desert, ethnic groups were forced to move to new areas to keep their animals fed. This migration caused conflicts with those already present in the area, spurring violence that entailed sexual assaults as military strategy. As the temperature of the earth rises, such conflicts will only increase in pastoral and agricultural societies that rely on the land for their survival.

Additionally, 50-80% of all agricultural workers in developing countries are women, an economically vulnerable group. Thus, they will lose out more from climate change that alters their growing and harvesting conditions more than men, who are more likely to be employed in non-farming or industrialized sectors. Financial vulnerability also forces rural women to work farther away from home and its protections, e.g. moving to a city alone, walking farther each day to access suitable land, or engaging in sex work to survive. Hence, climate change affects the safety of women in developing countries in particular ways.

Perry may have been referring to the boon of fossil fuels across the globe, it’s not clear from his quote, but Africa is pivotal to the natural resource industry in the 21st century. The eastern coast of central Africa, specifically around the Gulf of Guinea, has some of the sweetest crude in the world, meaning it is high quality and requires less refinement than sand-filled oil, thus raising profit margins. We should assume that, as U.S. Secretary of Energy, Perry knows this, and would be aware that expansion of this industry across the globe entails its expansion in Africa.

 

Sexual violence and natural resource extraction

Perry’s assertion that increased extraction of fossil fuels would lower sexual assault rates is probably the opposite of what would happen in sub-Saharan Africa.

In developing countries, there is some evidence to suggest a correlation between militarized natural resource extraction sites and violence against women in the area. There are several explanations for this. One is that jobs in the natural resource sector require men to move away from their families, and thus the kinship ties, social norms, and social boundaries that help regulate their behavior. This is not to say that men need to be socially monitored to not commit gender violence, but that all people rely on authority, rules, and the actions of those around them to know what is acceptable. (Imagine the otherwise responsible American university student acting badly on spring break vacation in Mexico—this is an example of how the removal of norms in a new environment changes how we comport ourselves.) Additionally, valuable natural resources require increased (male) security agents to keep operations running. So, natural resource extraction presents the conditions under which sexual violence can become more common.

Secondly, natural resource corporations can become their own mini-governments and, conveniently, their own law enforcement in developing countries. In line with James Scott’s work on state theory, I found that foreign oil companies operating in the Niger Delta employ their own private security forces, erect clear perimeters around extraction sites, exploit local labor at informal and very low wages, and function largely outside of the control of the Nigerian government. In drawing a comparison to a government, Nigerian oil companies a) employ their own military, b) maintain distinct geographic boundaries, c) draw some form of “taxation” through labor, and d) function autonomously. These are four measurements of state strength. Accordingly, gender violence perpetrated by employees or other affiliates of the company could easily go unpunished, as the company acts as its own police force of sorts. So, natural resource extraction then presents the conditions under which sexual violence can go unrecognized.

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Fossil fuel economies are no help to women

On a larger scale, the fossil fuel industry economically marginalizes women of the global south in nearly every way. First, it is a male-dominated industry that offers few jobs for females, who can earn income largely through the agricultural or informal sectors. Childcare responsibilities and unequal domestic duties make it difficult for women to work far away from the home, which jobs in natural resources call for. There is spurious evidence that such economic disenfranchisement increases rates of prostitution, and the gender-based violence and HIV/AIDS that accompanies that phenomenon. Oil, gas, minerals and other natural resources do not increase employment or economic opportunities for women.

Secondly, the African men it employs often spend long hours far away from their families or live at their work site altogether, as there may be low population density around drilling or mining sites. This only serves to exacerbate the inequality in domestic work in the home.

Third, modern economic investigations reveal that, as a whole, women don’t fare so well when the bulk of family income is in the form of cash paid to men. It separates women from control of family finances, and UN reports indicate that less of that money makes it home to children than if women earn it. Even in historical examinations, there is the theory that the transition from (comparably more gender equal) agricultural lifestyles to (comparably male-based) cash economies, as result of European investment in Africa, hastened the transition from traditionally matrilineal family structures to patrilineal ones.

Although this is just my conjecture, I imagine that Rick Perry has heard of the use of rape as a weapon of war, probably in the context of the Congo. It is doubtful that he was aware that South Africa suffers from a prolific scourge of sexual assault in its townships, and it is just a coincidence he made his remarks from there. He knows so little about the region that he may have been attempting to bring together the issues of fossil fuels and gender violence to further his energy agenda, without realizing that the reasons for gender-based violence in different parts of Africa vary—mass displacement, militarization, ethnic cleansing, geography, etc.

Drawing on the issue of violence against women to further a totally different agenda is misleading and exploitative.

As an aside, from my brief scan, it appears that most news articles on Perry’s comments referred to his “trip to Africa.” He was in Capetown, South Africa to be exact. This ambiguity regarding his location matters. Capetown is one of the richest cities on the continent, a worldwide tourism spot, and frankly, totally unrepresentative of anywhere else in Africa. The fact that Perry discussed development for the whole continent from this city, based on a conversation with a local girl, demonstrates his lack of understanding of the region—one common among Western policy-makers. The media’s description of his trip ignores the fact that Africa is the second largest and second most populous continent in the world (20% of earth’s land mass, with a population of over one billion). It’s ethnic, linguistic, and religious diversity is unparalleled. It is unimaginable that reports would refer to his “trip to Europe” if he was in Geneva or his “trip to North America” if he was in New York. Coverage of African politics deserves more nuance than that.

An obvious last thought: Wouldn’t solar panels be the best solution for Africa?

 

 

Why Nigeria’s Credit Rating Matters More than Oil

How can something intangible (credit) matter more than a real resource (oil)?

I just finished a book that changed, or at least makes more dynamic, the way I view African development, Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens. Sometimes we get so ensnared in the details of social analysis that we forget to take a step back and look at the larger picture. Harari’s historical account helps us to do just that. His research deepens our understanding of the complexities of the resource course in oil-rich nations without strong democratic institutions.

He argues that one of the key turning points in human history was when we stopped viewing world resources and money as finite, and instead recognized that trust in imaginary future goods could create infinite economic expansion. These imaginary future goods were represented with a new kind of money: CREDIT.

Although we hear of the dark side of credit often—consumer credit card debt, credit on a loan to buy a home that the consumer could never pay off—credit is actually miraculous. As Harari phrases it, “credit enables us to build the present at the expense of the future.” In it, there is implicit hope that future resources will be more bountiful than current ones. That hope in the hypothetical is just so….human. And it has allowed the world’s per capita production to grow at a staggering rate over the last several centuries.

Although he doesn’t mention Nigeria specifically, a section of the book lucidly argues that a country’s credit rating, or the shared belief that a country will pay back its debts, matters more to its economic development than any other factor—including natural resource endowments.

Here is a grossly over simplified explanation using a feedback loop of why a nation’s healthy credit matters so much:

A) People have faith in the future economy —> B) credit is given out —> C) credit allows us to grow current businesses —> D) this growth is invested in new businesses —> E) businesses create goods that can be sold to pay back loans to creditors —> F) these pay backs fortify faith in the future economy.

And we are now back at the beginning of this cycle.

For those familiar with Nigeria’s economic history, any moment in this cycle can be, and has been, interrupted because of its unhealthy oil economy. In 2004, Nigeria required international debt relief after sovereign defaults on what it owed to the IMF. This was due to “heavy borrowing, rising interest rates, and inefficient trade” (see D). When the country suspended the national fuel subsidy in January 2012, no one wanted to expand their businesses that required gasoline, which is all of them since electricity is unreliable (see D). As I have mentioned in another post, oil can create a dangerous mono-economy in developing countries because it replaces the drive to produce anything aside from the oil itself (see E). Because so much of Nigeria’s economy is based on oil, its unstable pricing erodes the “faith in the future economy” that is the basis of credit extensions at all (see A).

Here is the excerpt of Sapiens that struck me as so pertinent to Nigeria:

A country’s credit rating is far more important to its economic well-being than are its natural resources. Credit ratings indicate the probability that a country will pay its debts. In addition to purely economic data, they take into account political, social and even cultural factors. An oil-rich country cursed with a despotic government, endemic warfare and a corrupt judicial system will usually receive a low credit rating. As a result, it is likely remain relatively poor since it will not be able to raise the necessary capital to make the most of its oil bounty.

Based on the description below, would you trust Nigeria to pay back money you gave it as a loan? Or as a business owner, would you trust its economy to grow, and give you returns on a new business you started with money you got from a creditor? Not many people would.

 

What is a country’s credit rating anyway?

In general, a credit rating is used by sovereign wealth funds, pension funds, and other investors to gauge the credit worthiness of a country—thus having a big impact on the country’s borrowing costs.

Standard & Poor’s credit rating for Nigeria stands at B with stable outlook. Moody’s credit rating for Nigeria was last set at B1 with stable outlook. Fitch’s credit rating for Nigeria was last reported at B+ with negative outlook. Overall, there are 11 ratings of stable, 9 rating of negative, and just rating of positive for Nigeria

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As an aside, anyone who witnessed the 2008 American economic meltdown based on home loans can appreciate that these credit ratings are hypothetical. All of those agencies above, those “experts,” failed to change their credit ratings, would could have helped alleviate the devastating U.S. housing crisis that negatively impacted every country in the world.

So, if Nigerian policy makers are to take Harari’s purely academic arguments to heart, they’ll stop writing checks they can’t cash and pay back creditors.

Trust matters.

Idrissi Artfully Addresses Perceptions of Africa

 

The Beauty of African Literature, Ready to Be Explored

Welcome to the Africa Reading Challenge. This will be the fifth time that I’m hosting the Africa Reading Challenge. Details and requirements are the same this year as for the 2012 Africa Reading Challenge, which started with: “I have absolutely no reason for hosting nor urging you to participate in this challenge save for the […]

via 2017 Africa Reading Challenge — Kinna Reads

This is a great blog post about African literature. Take the Kinna challenge and read up!

Korea’s Few Muslims, and Few Africans

I recently published a piece in The Islamic Monthly about Muslim immigrants and refugees in South Korea. A good number of these Muslim immigrants to Korea are African, and East Africans have been at the forefront of pushing the boundaries of Korean refugee policies. For clarification, an immigrant chooses to leave their home country, often for improved economic opportunities. A refugee is forced to flee their home country out of fear of violence or persecution.  An asylum seeker is a refugee who has officially applied for protection in the country that received them. South Korea has all of these.

Much of the social stigma Muslim immigrants to South Korea experience is not unlike that Nigerians and other West Africans face when moving abroad. See below for the text of the article.

Korea: A Land of Few Muslims
I took Ramadan for granted when I lived within the diversity of New York. Even as a non-Muslim, it was a beautiful time of year. I remember the explosion of smell of cumin and curry wafting from family-owned restaurants just before sundown. I loved hearing the noisy laughter of families as they lingered over their Eid tables, allowing their playing children to stay up later than usual. It buoyed me to see posters reminding everyone to pay their zakat (alms) for the year to charities. The contemplation the holy month inspires in observers somehow made parts of the city more sober, yet also more joyful for the same reason.

But after moving to South Korea last year, this Ramadan was a very different experience. There are so few practitioners of Islam here — Muslims comprise less than 0.5% of the population — that one must know how to search for acknowledgement of Ramadan at all. The small-but-growing Muslim community is largely centered in the capital, Seoul, on a hilly street hosting the Central Mosque and the core of Islamic culture for the country. The mosque is over-capacity each Friday, with worshipers sometimes laying their pray rugs on the sidewalk outside, an indicator of the slowly rising number of Muslim immigrants in the city.

Seoul’s Muslims have created their community in the international Itaewon neighborhood, interestingly, right near the Yongsan U.S. Army base. A stroll up a colorful side street reveals halal restaurants and grocers, electronics stores, pilgrimage travel agencies, offices of immigration attorneys and cosmetics vendors. The range of Muslim immigrants is so great here that one can eat Malaysian-Egyptian food, exchange Thai baht for Emirati dirham and book a trip to Bahrain or Brunei. Some women wear gauzy shayla veils barely covering their hair, a few others a black niqab revealing only eyes. The street very much flows with the rhythm of daily prayer, and many of these doors are closed during salah (prayer) times, which I noticed confused some Korean visitors.

As-salaam alaykum” (peace be on you) is the most common greeting on this street, one I have seen embraced also by non-Muslims doing business here. There are Chinese tailors, Nigerian cell phone salesmen and Korean nail salons alongside these Muslim shops. They buy, sell and trade among each other. Many long-time Muslim residents — I spoke with Pakistanis who had been in Seoul for 20 years — speak Korean, and they benefit from and contribute to the local economy. Spending just a day on this peaceful street might lead a visitor to believe these Muslim immigrants have a solid foothold in South Korea.

However, this religious minority must tread softly. I have written elsewhere about my outreach efforts to a local mosque here, which were not welcomed by mosque leadership. In better understanding the complicated terrain Muslims navigate in South Korea, I can appreciate the leadership’s defensiveness. I received a distant reception (admittedly due in part to language barrier) again when I recently visited the mosque to try to learn more about the history of Korean Muslims. I understand: They are trying to practice a marginalized religion in a country unaccustomed to diversity. The small number of Muslims in South Korea, and the country’s uncharted path to dealing with them, is precisely why the Muslim presence here is so intriguing.

We read often of the unstoppable tide of Muslims migrating to Europe, but little of those who seek out developed countries with few practitioners of Islam at all. What follows is the background story of how Muslims experience this vulnerable social space in one of the most ethnically homogenous countries in the world. It also explores the inconsistent way in which the government approaches immigration, and a few of the factors influencing policies toward outsiders. South Korea struggles to maintain social harmony and economic prosperity in the face of unprecedented immigration, which is difficult.

Who are the Muslims of South Korea?

 There are approximately 250,000 Muslims among a population of about 51 million, largely non-religious, South Koreans. A small fraction of these Muslims, up to 75,000, are ethnic Koreans born in the country. A spokesman at the Seoul Central Mosque says this number is even smaller, about 40,000.

Middle Eastern traders and later Mongols introduced Islam to the Korean peninsula beginning in the 9th century. The greatest rise in the number of Korean Muslims occurred in the 20th century, after Koreans fled to Muslim areas of China to escape Japanese occupation, and later returned converted. At the same time, Turkish troops stationed by the United Nations during the Korean War had an Islamizing effect.

Yet, there are three times more foreign-born Muslims than ethnic Korean ones, numbering about 150,000. These are Muslims living and working on that Itaewon street with the Central Mosque. There is a steady rise in Muslims each year in the form of foreign university students and Muslims staying in the country as they intermarry with Koreans. These spouses are from other Asian countries typically. These two groups have helped quadruple the number of Muslims in South Korea since 1994. Admittedly, the size of the Muslim population is challenging to verify because the government has not done a census on their numbers in five years, and just under 20% of Muslim immigrants are in the country illegally (an issue explored in the latter half of this article).

The burdens of trailblazing

 The challenges begin for many Muslims upon arrival at Seoul’s Incheon airport. For hopeful Muslim refugees who don’t have all their necessary paperwork, some of whom stayed during a layover or traveled via a “safe” country, their arrival is a grim one. Hundreds of immigrants have been held at the airport in a space meant for 50, for up to six months at a time. These have included men from war-torn parts of Africa and Syria. During their weeks and months of wait, they are given three meals per day of only a hamburger or chicken burger with a soda. There are reports of devout Muslims living off just the bread to avoid non-halal meat. There are no beds, so they sleep on the floor. There are two showers, one for each gender. They take occasional walks through duty-free stores to look at goods they will never be able to afford.

When the government announced plans to build a “Welcome Center,” a refugee housing facility called Young Jong Reception Center, nearby residents protested. They voiced concerns about a flood of immigrants and a rise in crime in the area, the general concern of many Koreans. This backlash was unsurprising to many. According to a 2013 WorldValues Survey,more than 1 in 3 South Koreans responded they didn’t want a neighbor of a different race.

In trying to better understand the experiences of those who make it past the airport, I spoke with Aman Ullah Khan, a Pakistani Ph.D. candidate and a Korean-Urdu interpreter and translator who has been living in Seoul for almost five years. He described to me the challenges of practicing Islam in South Korea.

He has found that many Koreans don’t understand the basic tenets of Islam, and a lack of legal protections allows some to deny religious freedoms to those Muslims who work under them. For example, the most pressing of these is the need to pray five times per day. Some employers deny Muslim employees prayer breaks during the workday, and no law explicitly protects this right, he says. Ramadan is always particularly difficult. Koreans work extremely long hours typically; 10 hours per day is not unusual. Muslim employees do not have shortened workdays or days off for fasting or Islamic holidays. He feels that “the belief among many employers is that religious needs are not their problem.”

In addition to rights protections, religious infrastructure is lacking in this largely secular society. While Muslim migrants account for two-thirds of all Muslims in South Korea, they make up over 90% of attendees at religious services — meaning immigrants are far more actively engaged in the religious community outside their homes than Koreans of any religion. Yet there are only about 15 mosques and 60 Islamic centers in the country. There is no Muslim cemetery, even for Korean Muslims, and there is a single halal chicken slaughterhouse run by a Pakistani-Korean.

Yet for many, it is difficult to make the argument that South Korea has an obligation to meet the religious needs of foreigners, especially those who were not invited in the first place. Any public relations campaign for foreign Muslims in South Korea would be a challenge. In addition to a pervasive desire for sameness-based harmony, Koreans have reacted strongly to reports of Islamic violence. There was the 2004 decapitation of a Korean missionary in Iraq, then the 2007 kidnapping of Korean missionaries in Afghanistan. South Korean news was flooded with reports in 2015 of an 18-year-old Korean man who traveled to Turkey, a post-exam gift from his mother, and then purportedly disappeared into Syria to join ISIS. Last year, it was widely reported that ISIS hackers had gained information to attack U.S. military bases in South Korea. These incidents have fueled the notion of the “Islamic terrorist.” Islamophobia is as prevalent in South Korea as anywhere in the West.

Refugees to an unwilling refuge 

Khan is certainly not the typical Muslim in South Korea. Even a cursory glance at population statistics demonstrates that the country does not open its doors to immigrants, and it certainly doesn’t do so for Muslim refugees from the Middle East or Africa. Although South Korea legally could begin accepting refugees in 1994, it didn’t take in the first one, an Ethiopian, until 2001. As of August 2015, only 600 non-ethnic Korean refugees have been legally admitted, out of 18,800 applicants. This makes South Korea’s refugee acceptance rate 3% to 4% overall. In 2014 alone, the U.S., a close ally, accepted 745 refugees for each one that South Korea did — 70,000 by Washington compared with 94 by Seoul. South Korea has the highest denial rate of refugee applications in Asia, after Japan.

South Korea has granted asylum to only three Syrians, ever. Almost 700 are there on temporary humanitarian and G-1 temporary residence visas, but these visas limit their access to employment and complete social services. Those Syrians and other refugee applicants denied protection have been told that fleeing civil war is not considered grounds for refugee status by the Korean government. This reaction to Syrian refugees indicates that Korean officials see far-off humanitarian crises as, in Khan’s words, “not their problem.”

“Foreign wars don’t wait for domestic bureaucrats”

Here is the rub with asylum applications in places like South Korea: Applicants are given a small stipend to live on while their cases are evaluated and are not permitted to work for up to six months while awaiting approval. If they do work, they are deemed an employment migrant. These people are seen as exploiting the asylum application system. However, what applicant from Africa, the Middle East or South Asia shows up to a country of possible refuge with enough supplemental money for six months? The system puts applicants in a position in which they need to find illegal work, but then uses that illegal work as proof that they really only came to South Korea for employment, not safety. The application can then be denied.

Khan, in his interpretation work for the High Court, estimates that 99% of immigration appeals are denied. “Those who appeal never win,” he says. Indeed, 2015 was the first year that an asylum seeker won an appeal to even have his asylum case reviewed, after the Immigration Authority had refused to process his application because he had been in the country over a year.

Ha Yong-guk, a Justice Ministry official, reported that 4 out of every 10 people who applied for asylum last year did so while staying in the country illegally. It is understandable that a government doesn’t sympathize with an illegal immigrant, but it is this same government that constructs the laws that make this immigrant an illegal one to begin with. Simply put, foreign wars don’t wait for domestic bureaucrats.

A visitor to Seoul, however, doesn’t need these numbers. Even a day riding on the metro system shows how few foreigners are allowed into the country.

A legal paradox

South Korean notions of immigration, specifically of refugee seekers, are still focused on an outdated ideology of anti-communism. During the Cold War, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was mostly concerned with those fleeing communist countries to seek asylum in the West. Refugee protections were expanded in the past decades to cover those forced from home due to violence and war. The UNHCR’s convention, which South Korea ratified in 1992, has moved past this 20th-century Cold War perspective while South Korea has not. This disadvantages Arab and African Muslims who do not come from socialist or communist states. The country readily accepts defectors from North Korea (as it should), but denies the urgency and relevancy of other immigration cases.

However, here is the contradiction. South Korea actually has one of the most progressive immigration laws in Asia. The Law on the Status and Treatment of Refugees, or the Refugee Act, enacted in 2012, was the first set of refugee protections separate from general immigration laws in East Asia. The Refugee Act allows for refugee applications on arrival at the airport, bans deportation until a final decision is made and allows the applicant to work after six months if no decision is made. It is a vast improvement on immigration laws that were in place before, but Korean refugee activists argue it is still not nearly comprehensive enough to protect the thousands of refugees who arrive each year. Yet it was a clear step forward considering how South Korea came to have such closed borders to non-White immigrants to begin with.

A country ready for refugees?

By exploring the Korean perspective, and the perspective of countries like it, we can better understand its tightly secured borders. There are historical, economic and cultural reasons why the government strives to firmly control incomers from developing countries, particularly those from a minority religion. Here are questions to ask when considering why some populations of developed countries may be hesitant to accept refugees and other immigrants.

How long has this country been dealing with immigration issues?

We need to consider the level of experience a country has with integrating refugees. WWII forced Europe and the U.S. to resettle Jews, Roma and other displaced people, and they have been doing so for over 70 years. The current refugee crisis with Muslims, especially out of the Middle East, has been ongoing for five years, perhaps longer if one also considers East African civil wars. In fact, until the democratic transition of the 1980s, South Korea was an origin country of refugees, rather than a recipient. South Korea simply hasn’t had decades of practice with immigrants.

How long has this country been a developed one?

South Korea is extraordinary in the speed with which it pulled itself out of poverty in a single generation. After the Korean War ended in 1953, South Korea had a GDP and per capita income similar to that of North Korea. South Koreans labored with great intensity, sacrificing even individual liberties to meet economic goals, and turned their country into a fully developed one within about 40 years. They did this without bountiful natural resources or helpful border neighbors. Based on the work ethic of today’s pensioners, who can still remember childhoods of food insecurity, South Korea is now one of the Four Asian Tiger economies (along with Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan). Those pensioners, and the country as a whole, are understandably slow to share that hard-earned prosperity with outsiders. The collective memory of poverty still lingers.

How do the people believe the country came to be developed?

South Korean society is based on harmony, and many see Muslim refugees as a threat to that harmony. The country struggles to overcome its emphasis on racial purity, minjok, and only within the past few years were such concepts removed in writing from schools and the military. Its only experience with non-Koreans was the brutal Japanese occupation, a traumatic one that contributed to an aversion to outside ethnicities.

In addition to racial attitudes, some Koreans fear that current social welfare systems are not sufficient to support refugees. Social welfare programs are not as expansive as one might expect based on the country’s wealth, perhaps since unemployment is only a significant problem among youth and familial ties are often strong enough to support those who would otherwise seek government help. Some worry that if immigrants couldn’t support themselves, perhaps they would turn to crime. The rate of stranger-on-stranger crime is low in South Korea, and citizens understandably want to keep it that way.

What do the government and the people fear most?

Many countries in South Korea’s position, developed but not yet home to many outsiders, have a clear anxiety about a flood of immigrants. Most pressingly, an inundation of refugees from North Korea would be highly problematic for Seoul. It’s easiest for governments like these to deny asylum applications as much as possible.

“Not their problem” until it is

As an admirer of South Korea, I have thought about how the country could change its policy to benefit from the rapid increase in Muslim immigrants. There is a population gap due to low birth rates. Maybe accepting refugees could bolster the number of employees in low-skilled jobs? The country will need 15 million immigrants in the coming years to maintain the balance of the labor force. Koreans have an appetite for English. Perhaps immigrants could contribute to an increase in English acquisition among the population as they seek a common language? As the economy continues to grow, it will need to expand its reach of trading partners. Could taking in Muslim refugees help do this, and increase goodwill with countries in the Middle East? I don’t believe immigration is a zero-sum game in which taking in a refugee means fewer resources for a citizen.

Here is the challenge for newly developed countries like South Korea, trying to maintain the population status quo: A government can’t both seek to be a global player and then close its borders to global forces. One of the realities of being a developed country is that people from underdeveloped countries will try to come to build a better life. So, the best course of action is to create policies and infrastructure that galvanize the power of immigrants advantageously. In these times of unprecedented migratory patterns, developed countries can do their best to keep outsiders away for only so long. No government can avoid refugees in the 21st century because they’re “not their problem.” Refugees are everyone’s problem.

*All images via author. 

What is the Population of Nigeria? Maybe 182 Million, Maybe.

The Economist published a comprehensive and clear piece on Nigeria’s struggles to understand it’s own population numbers. It is a more concise version of my previous post on what even makes Nigeria a state at all. It is something we may not think about often, but an accurate and up-to-date census is vital to a strong democracy.  It helps determine which representatives get power, where social and public services need to be implemented, and, truly, it separates a well-functioning government from the Wild West.

Nobody knows how many Nigerians there are.

No census has yet arrived at an accurate figure.

NIGERIA is Africa’s most populous country, a designation it wears with pride. It had more than 182m citizens in 2015, according to the World Bank, and is poised to have the world’s third-largest population, behind India and China, by 2050. But that figure and the extrapolation are based on Nigeria’s 2006 census, which was probably exaggerated. Parliamentary seats and central government money are handed out to states based on population, giving politicians an incentive to inflate the numbers. In 2013 the head of the National Population Commission (NPC), Festus Odimegwu, said that neither the 2006 census nor any previous one had been accurate. He resigned soon after (the then-government said he was fired).

Counting Nigerians has caused controversy since the colonial era. The country was stitched together from two British colonies: a largely Christian south and a Muslim-dominated north. In the lead-up to independence in 1960, the British were accused by southerners of manufacturing a majority in the north, which they were thought to favour. In 1962 unofficial census figures showed population increases in some south-eastern areas of as high as 200% in a decade. The full data were never published and northern leaders held a recount, which duly showed they had retained their majority (their region had apparently grown by 84%, rather than the originally estimated 30%). This politicking led to coups, the attempted secession of what was then known as the Eastern Region and a civil war.

The north-south divide has remained salient; there is still an unwritten rule that the presidency should alternate between a northerner and a southerner. Allegations that the north has manipulated its way to a majority continue. The censuses of 1973 and 1991 were annulled. In 2006 arguments flared when 9.4m people were counted in the northern state of Kano, compared with just 9m in Lagos, the commercial capital. The Lagos state government conducted its own, technically illegal, census and came up with 17.5m (probably a vast overestimate). A new national census has been repeatedly delayed. It is now scheduled for 2018, but the NPC’s estimate that it will “gulp” 223bn naira ($708m) may mean the count is put off indefinitely.

Even by other methods, Nigeria’s population has proven tricky to pin down. Africapolis, a French-funded research project, used satellite mapping to estimate the population of towns and cities in 2010. It found several cities, mostly in the north, had hundreds of thousands fewer people than the 2006 census counted. But even those data are not entirely trustworthy: it later transpired that the researchers had underestimated urbanisation in the densely populated Niger delta. Until there is an accurate, impartial census it will be impossible to know just how many Nigerians there really are. That means government policy will not be fully anchored in reality and it will not be possible to send resources where they are most needed.