The Birthright Lottery

Volunteer Words
August 30, 2021
4 min read
Alicia Grupp

For people born into wealthy societies, it is hard to appreciate the extent to which their lives have been positively predetermined due to the lottery of birthright. Yet global statistics constantly show us the brutal reality.

Last summer I had the opportunity to give something back to people who really need support, especially during the difficult times of the ongoing pandemic. I volunteered with IHA between August and October 2020. While volunteering, I would usually spend around two days a week working at the warehouse, sorting incoming donations of clothes and hygiene articles, as well as preparing food packages for people staying in Lagadikia camp who needed extra support. I spent the rest of the week at the Lagadikia community centre, where we offer different activities such as playing cards or ping pong, sports activities and language classes. IHA aims to offer the residents of Lagadikia a welcoming space, where they are able to feel safe and enjoy themselves.

Alicia (right) at Lagadikia Community Centre (Summer 2020, IHA)

While I think that this work is really important, it would of course be better if such work would not be needed at all. Yet IHA’s work will be necessary as long as we live in a world where people’s lives are strongly determined by a concept called the birthright lottery. In this blog post, I want to open a discussion around this topic: it’s a topic which everyone knows but still so few are aware of its actual political implications. The concept of the "birthright lottery" means that, although where and into which conditions one is born into is completely down to coincidence, it predetermines a person’s life more than anything else. For people born into wealthy societies, it is hard to appreciate the extent to which their lives have been positively predetermined due to the lottery of birthright. Yet global statistics constantly show us the brutal reality. For example, children born in the world’s poorest nations are five times more likely to die before the age of five. The list of disadvantages is endless. But all these disadvantages that shape lives represent systemic and structural patterns of inequality (see Ayelet Shachar’s The birthright lottery: citizenship and global inequality).

Our birth gives us direct access to a particular citizenship, which then provides a certain scale of security, gives (or denies) opportunities in education and professional life, among many other (dis)advantages. If we now imagine a world where all countries are completely equal, there would be much less of an incentive to move to try to acquire citizenship or residency elsewhere. But in a world of ongoing conflicts, political instability and material inequality, things are starkly different. People move, they flee from war, oppression, uncertain futures, they try to get a better life than the one they were given due to the place where they were born.

The “refugee crisis” is inherently political and almost everyone has an opinion about it. When people move to another country, they often have to deal with the hostility of the host country's population. They are discriminated against because of their religion, skin colour, names, cultural habits, and so on. Often the people who are discriminating are not aware of the background of people migrating and fleeing, and do not take into consideration the birthright lottery. Especially in this context, it is essential to take this concept into account and its far-reaching consequences. People who flee their homes are not doing so just because they are looking for a change in their lives; they came to Europe because living in their own countries was not bearable anymore. All these people had lives in their home countries: they have studied, they may have university degrees, they had a social environment with families and friends. No one just gives this up for nothing. Especially not if the act of fleeing itself is so dangerous that many people do not survive. Yet still they decided to do so because it seems like the better option. When people flee to Europe, they are looking for a safe space to live and work, they are seeking normality and stability. Unfortunately, the reality for refugees arriving to Europe is very different: they are housed in inhumane conditions, often facing racism and discrimination. Above all else, living in a refugee camp means that people are forced to give away all control of their lives to the officials running the camps, slow bureaucratic structures, and the arbitrariness of politicians.

Hopes and dreams are put on hold as they wait to progress to the next step in the long and complicated asylum process. Once refugees arrive in Greece they have to launch their asylum application, a process which can take several months. Until they are officially registered as an asylum seeker, they do not receive any form of international or governmental financial assistance or accommodation. As IHA is a small NGO, our advantage is that we can help quickly and flexibly, where help is needed the most. While I was volunteering, for example, we would distribute food, clothes, hygiene articles and emergency items to people who were already in Greece but were not officially registered yet, meaning that they did not receive any other support. Once people are officially registered as asylum seekers, they are given an international protection applicant card and an interview date. The process can take many years. In the meantime, there is nothing they can do other than wait, often hopelessly and aimlessly, to see if their application will be accepted or if they will be deported. This is where the role of the community centre in Lagadikia is clearly so crucial: it tackles this hopelessness and gives people purpose and fun, whether it is learning a new language, getting support in accessing the documents required to find a job, or just having a coffee and a laugh with friends.

Alicia (right) with the team at Lagadikia community centre (Summer 2020 IHA)

To draw back to the main point of this article, I want to emphasise that, when working in this environment - or discussing it, as many politicians do - it is important to keep in mind the concept of birthright lottery. People who are forcibly displaced did not choose to move but, due to the coincidence of being born into an unstable and unsafe environment (while most Europeans are born into a stable, safe environment), they decided to move in hope of a  better life. That is why I believe that the basic principle of dignity first is so important when acting in this environment. No one chose the conditions they were born into, but we can choose the way we treat people seeking a better life. We can choose a world that puts human rights and dignity first.

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