Refuge is not a point on a map

What obligation do more prosperous nations have to help those in disarray or distress?

Gregory Bull/AP
Concertina wire lines the top of a wall at the San Ysidro port of entry in San Diego.

First and foremost, Wilmot Collins was seeking refuge. When he got on a ship to escape Liberia – and the men with AK-47s who were tearing the country apart – he had no idea where it was going. “Somewhere else” was all that mattered.

Refugees like Mr. Collins are not seeking any particular place or plot of land. They are seeking something at once more real and yet harder to place on a map. They want the opportunity to turn their lives into something more than constant fear. They want a sense of home and safety. The “where” is incidental.

As the Monitor’s Christa Case Bryant chronicles in this week’s cover story, Collins eventually turned his yearning into something extraordinary. He is now the first black mayor in Montana, the least black state in America. But the article is more than one man’s success story. It explores a question that is always percolating worldwide but is now bubbling to the surface in forceful ways: What obligation do more prosperous nations have to help those in disarray or distress?

This question rears its head in many issues: foreign aid, military intervention as a global cop, participation in international organizations such as the United Nations, immigration policy in general, and in the case of Christa’s article, refugee policy in particular. Elections in countries throughout the West suggest that many voters think the pendulum has swung too far toward thinking of others and countries must swing back toward taking better care of themselves. The message to the rest of the world is, in essence, the same: You need to get better at solving your own problems, too.

But Collins’s story offers a different perspective on the situation. It suggests that any border-based approach is perhaps too narrow. Like Collins, those who have lost a fundamental sense of home and safety don’t care about borders. They will go anywhere and to any length to find those qualities for their families or themselves. The only ultimate answer, then, must be in expanding the palpable sense of home and safety.

From reading much of the media coverage today, that conclusion might seem hopelessly naive. No question, it is neither an easy nor a quick fix. But the fact is we have a formula for how to do it, and we have dramatic proof that it works. 

One of the most powerful lessons of the past century is that as the world has become more collaborative and codependent, wealth has expanded exponentially. And as wealth has expanded, war and violence have correspondingly plummeted. (To hear more, check out the “Perception Gaps” podcasts in the Monitor Daily part of your bundled subscription.) This formula is not tied to any particular policy. It is tied to a mind-set, and that mind-set is fundamentally expansive, manifested through inclusion and interconnection. The question of today: How do we do that best?

Collins’s story is one small part of that grand experiment. The way forward is to keep experimenting, knowing that basic human values must expand, not be cordoned off.

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