The West’s Obsession With ‘Good Refugees’ Is Bad Policy
Wealthy countries love to celebrate immigrant success stories, but they are letting many potentially productive citizens fall through the cracks.
Ty McCormick’s Beyond the Sand and Sea is a heart-wrenching story that chronicles the life of a Somali family trapped in a seemingly endless state of statelessness. The book demonstrates how the global migration system—mired in bureaucratic inefficiencies and populist fervor—relegates refugees to a permanent state of displacement, marginalization, and trauma that prevents them from truly moving forward.
For readers like me, who are so often heralded as the “good immigrant,” the book conjures deeper questions steeped in guilt: Why me?
I was born in 1992 during the height of Somalia’s civil war and famine that eventually displaced millions of people in the Horn of Africa and earned Somalia the title of a failed state. In 1998, my family and I were eventually granted asylum in Australia. Why was my family granted asylum over others? And am I, more than 20 years later, truly beyond the sand and sea—or are my present-day ambitions (and dysfunctions) still remnants of those formative years?
In the stillness that only a pandemic-induced isolation can offer, the book posed another, more existential question: Has my status as a model minority, marked by the rosy narrative of a young Somali refugee who excelled in school and the larger world, helped elevate the voices of others? Or has it unwittingly validated the dangerous narrative of the good vs. bad refugee, which chastises those whose deeply held trauma blocks them from a similarly successful life?
Beyond the Sand and Sea is set against the backdrop of one of the most politicized and securitized areas of the world: Dadaab. Situated in Kenya’s far east, it is home to one of the largest refugee camps in the world, mostly inhabited by the survivors of the civil war in neighboring Somalia. McCormick presents the reader with a glaring visual. What does it feel like to be stateless? What does it feel like for a once nomadic people, guided by seasons and vast terrains, to be bound by the confines of a refugee camp—knowing that this, too, could change adversely at the flick of a switch? (The Kenyan government has repeatedly threatened to close Dadaab—a dire outcome that would leave the most vulnerable to essentially fend for themselves.)
The average resident in Dadaab waits about 17 years in hopes of relocation. As the book shows, some are born in the camp with a yearning for the outside world, and some eventually die there, too. Inevitably, time and place are warped measurements for the residents whose understanding of the world is limited to the parameters of the camp and who’ve simply lost faith in the passing of time.
The name of a local market (fittingly referred to as Bosnia), within miles of the camp, demonstrates this warped geography. Over time, this is bound to also narrow the psychological horizons of residents who are rendered incapable of making simple decisions—including competing for a once-in-a-lifetime scholarship opportunity or attending a job interview on time.
When officials interact with refugees, they typically decouple them from their trauma. In doing so, they are unable to appreciate examples of disruptive behaviors typically associated with the “bad refugee,” who is seemingly ungrateful and undeserving of resettlement. On the flip side, there is the “good refugee,” captured in the story of the book’s main protagonist, Asad, who defies all odds and eventually lands a spot at Princeton University.
In more ways than one, he and I are extensions of the same narrative; we are children of the 1991 civil war—well-educated prototypes of the model refugee whom officials love to laud. However, the spotlight afforded to us can sometimes come at a cost that is borne by those who have fallen through the cracks.
In the case of Maryan, Asad’s older sister, who is granted asylum decades before the rest of the family, her U.S. employer seems to consider her through this lens. With high blood pressure, crippling anxiety, and an abusive partner, she would often find herself unable to hold back tears during working hours and missed work on three separate occasions, which eventually led to her firing.
Her story, marked by suicide attempts and deteriorating health, is a lament for the millions of refugees who in the midst of a new environment, the unraveling of years of pent-up trauma, fractured family dynamics, and low wages find that they are unable to live up to the caricature of the model minority and end up sequestered on the margins of society. Worse still, their lives are often marked by limited employment, which serves as fodder for populist narratives that depict them as a drain on Western society, which further perpetuates their marginalization.
Like so many other refugees, Maryan must also contend with another hurdle: the psychological cost of upward mobility. In her book Moving Up Without Losing Your Way, the philosopher Jennifer Morton presents a critique of the American Dream that often underscores the psychological disconnect borne by those who are the first in their community or family to venture into new terrain.
This phenomenon—marked by isolation, guilt, and an inability to live in the present—affects many people, from working-class kids at elite universities to underrepresented minorities working at predominantly white Wall Street institutions. But this feeling is particularly pronounced for refugees contending with class, racial, religious, and ancestral anxieties as they trade all that was familiar to them for the potential of upward mobility.
The tensions created by this upward mobility can fester, eventually leading to destructive behaviors, whether falling behind at work or falling prey to the demon of substance abuse. Yet there is little public regard for such vulnerable people as the current approach to refugees is simply incapable of making space for those who demonstrate the very human qualities of failure and struggle.
This raises the question of whether wealthy Western countries are truly capable of welcoming refugees if they are unable to offer communities with years of unprocessed trauma the ability to make mistakes without putting their legality and right to stay up for public debate. If the best host governments can offer is a conditional bond where the value pegged to the most vulnerable is defined by their ability to leap beyond what are seemingly impossible feats, then refugees will constantly fall short of their potential, leading to missed social and economic returns and laying the foundation for intergenerational disadvantage in the decades ahead.
Instead, policymakers should direct attention and resources to help support Maryan and others like her by parting ways with warped expectations and mending the fractured systems of housing, transportation, employment, and mental health that so often limit the capacity of refugees.
There are a few individuals further apart on the moral spectrum than survivors and perpetrators. The battle between the survivor and the perpetrator runs deep throughout McCormick’s book—whether it’s Maryan’s battle with a partner described as emotionally abusive or Goobe, a doctor in the Dadaab refugee camp who has the power to punish women who avoid his sexual advances by delaying their prospects for migration. In the case of Maryan, her partner also blames her for the demise of their marriage. Despite this, readers are able to (and understandably so) draw a distinction between the survivor and the perpetrator.
One lesser appreciated contrast of the survivor-perpetrator dynamic is the relationship between refugees and violent terrorist groups, which are often the cause of the refugees’ forced migration. Unlike other aspects of the survivor-perpetrator dynamic, the lines are seemingly blurred for refugees who are survivors but are nevertheless often likened to perpetrators in public debate.
Take, for example, Australian Sen. Pauline Hanson, who warned viewers on a morning chat show that “these refugees that we brought in are actually terrorists.” As the book explores, whether it’s from a racist passerby or an opportunistic politician, there is a widespread trend that validates the suspicion that refugees are so often met with.
And it is in this blur that xenophobic epithets thrive. Calls to halt migration “until [we] can figure out what is going on,” as then-U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump famously declared, or caricatures of refugees as innately savage and animalistic are examples of this. By drawing irresponsible and painful comparisons between refugees and terrorists, pundits and politicians commit one of the worst possible sins: presenting the perpetrator and the victim as one and the same.
As much as the title alludes to the movement of refugees, Beyond the Sand and Sea is a reflection on the narratives we hold, from the American Dream to the blurred lines between refugees and terrorists—and how these misconceptions limit the capacity of refugees to move away from the margins of society in their new homes.
McCormick’s book is a call for greater empathy for those refugees who fall short of the unrealistic expectation of living up to standards of the “good refugee” and the need for those living in wealthy Western nations to critically assess what they mean when they describe their societies as just and fair. Ultimately, it is a call for readers to allow sometimes broken people the space to grow and make mistakes as they reckon with years and sometimes generations of pent-up trauma and disadvantage.
Every so often, we are met with an Asad—the model refugee who overcomes entrenched adversities and achieves the unthinkable. Instead of uplifting other refugees, these accounts offer an increasingly narrow celebration of the struggle we have all endured. Even worse, they can sometimes punish refugees who do not rise to seemingly impossible feats.
Instead, the bulk of policymakers’ focus should be on the Maryans. That is, the single mother barely surviving; the taxi driver whose evening shifts are marked by the occasional racist slur, reminding him of his second-class status; and, of course, the student who doesn’t end up with a university offer and now must contend with the harsh reality that one refugee can win a ticket out of the camp—and she can’t.
It is these squandered success stories that present the biggest opportunity for policymakers seeking to tap into the talent, skills, and know-how of refugees whose very survival speaks to an inherent capacity to innovate and thrive. Doing so would require them to part ways with the current approach and take a deep interest in the long and deeply flawed settlement supply chain, from a lagging migration process to the degree of communal support (or lack thereof) provided on arrival, and how this often shapes the experiences and prospects of refugees—and, ultimately, the future of the countries they now call home.