There was a very interesting and well written article in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine respecting refugee travel to Christmas Island in Australia. As I understand it from the article, refugees from different parts of mostly the Muslim world (primarily it seems Iran, Afghanistan and Iraq) risk dangerous voyages to end up at Christmas Island. But none of them ever make it into Australia. (I claim no expertise on this subject, relying entirely on the facts as presented in the article, which I realize is dangerous). In any event, they are often detained for months on end, and either returned to their countries of origin, or they are resettled in Nauru or Papua New Guinea, in locations described in the articles respectively as “the barren carcass of a defunct strip mine” or “a destitute and crime-ridden island nation.”
The refugees do not seem to admit this to themselves, convincing themselves that they would make it into Australia and soon enjoy western comforts. This is despite news reports and even the journalist himself pointing out on more than one occasion their likely future. The delusion that they will enter Australia justifies the extraordinary costs and risks they undertake, and must be driven, the writer speculates, by the misery of their current circumstances.
Again, I thoroughly enjoyed the piece and admire the journalist for the risks taken. However, I am skeptical that the reason that these individuals have managed to convince themselves they will soon live happily in Australia is based entirely on current miseries leading them to want to delude themselves. I think there may be at work a different force here, of a more epistemological sort.
The reason I think this is because I’ve seen a rather miserable lot of people — Iraqi Shi’a Muslims under Saddam Hussein — faced with circumstances wherein the source of their misery –the Ba’ath regime — was nearing an end, and they didn’t manage to tell themselves a lie that paradise on earth was nigh as soon as Saddam was gone. Some did, exiles certainly, elites to some extent, but most more or less accepted the change passively, in some cases preferred it to what passed before, but without much enthusiasm. What did not happen as we all know was the wild throwing of chocolate and flowers at those who came to remove Saddam. There may have been some significant hope of improvement, but nothing compared to the wildly optimistic visions of the Christmas Island refugees as conveyed in the New York Times article.
I suspect the refugees believed they were going to Australia and they didn’t much believe the information they received that suggested otherwise because, first, it did not comport with the information they regarded as reliable (reports of friends and relatives already in Australia) and, second, because it did not comport with their worldview.
As for the first, one does not travel around Iraq very far and wide without running into someone who spent time in America, England, Australia, New Zealand, somewhere, and who gets some amount of attention for it. Usually there is some bragging about the English and about the wealth earned and the prestige garnered, and a fair amount seems rather exaggerated. It’s hard to see how an individual with passing English really earns $8000 a month teaching English in New York, in one memorable example. But they’re getting attention, often looking for a wife to bring back to the United States, and even if not looking good to their former classmates, little of it is particularly surprising. And as a source of information, it is held in far deeper regard than some random news report. Word of mouth is simply the coin of the realm as concerns information, eyewitness reports held regard over claims of expertise. It is astounding the number of times I have been told things that are flatly false respecting immigration law, with the insistence that their best friend Hassan has a second cousin Zainab who said X, or did Y, and it worked out well. Point out it doesn’t, quote the law, and you get blank faces. “What about Zainab then?” Can’t argue with Zainab, who I’m pretty sure doesn’t actually exist, or if she does she didn’t try the maneuver they are suggesting.
I dare not speculate on the sociological reasons for this. It would be easy to say that news reports lie often in the Muslim world and hence people are forced to rely on word of mouth. But then people lie too, and everyone knows that, and yet rumor and eyewitness report remains the reliable source. I’ll leave the explanation of that to others, but suffice it to say, the refugees no doubt heard, from sources in Australia, that they could get into the country, as those before them had, and that when they did, they’d be teaching English for $8000 month in a few week’s time in the land of milk and honey with its streets paved in gold and whatever else.
And second, the worldview. If the question is “will America make Iraq a good place to live?” your average Shi’i is skeptical from day one. Again, maybe he’ll hope so if his other choice is the misery of Saddam Hussein’s rule, but he isn’t overwhelmingly optimistic. But if the question is whether or not the West is somehow provides a decent standard of living and is good to those who arrive and seek its support, well that’s a widely accepted truth among refugees. These rich and prosperous countries would not just turn people away and put them somewhere else with a bad standard of living when they arrive on their shores, it’s unthinkable. They might lie to say that to get you not to come, but when you do come, they help. A reporter pointing out this to refugees who don’t believe him thinks they’re deluding themselves, but they I suspect think he is saying something that makes so little sense, because it comports so poorly with a worldview, that they think he has to be wrong. It’s as if someone were to tell me, as apparently someone told Michele Bachman, that in Japan health care is withheld from political opponents. I don’t believe them, and when Michele Bachman repeats it, I take it as evidence of her departures from reality rather than my own delusions. It’s just not sensible, not something I’d regard as reliable, and I’d hold to that with a pretty firm though of course not unshakeable presumption. I trust Japan not to do something that awful. Enough that I never even bothered to follow up to figure out when and how Japan debunked the reports. I just know they did because that’s how I see the world.
So in the end, I don’t really think these folks lied to themselves because they were so miserable they’d believe anything to leave where they were. I suspect they just had far more faith in the humanity of the Australian government than appears to have been warranted.
Good to be back . . . .