We Refugees

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“By the 1950s, a pattern had been set. Haphazard humanitarianism caught up political powerplays is largely what is left of human rights for millions of refugees today.”


What we are talking about when we talk of refugee or migrant crises is in reality a global crisis of moral and political citizenship which can no longer disguise, or maintain, the inequalities of our world. ‘Emigration’, wrote John Berger, ‘does not only involve leaving behind, crossing water, living amongst strangers, but, also, undoing the very meaning of the world.’  The world is undone not just for the person who moves, but for everyone.

We’ve been here before; in fact, we’ve been undoing the meanings of world citizenship pretty consistently since at least the middle of the last century.  ‘Everywhere, the word exile which once had an undertone of almost sacred awe, now provokes the idea of something simultaneously suspicious and unfortunate,’ wrote the political philosopher, Hannah Arendt, then a refugee herself, in June 1944.

Exiles stopped being awesome once people started identifying themselves, and their core sense of being, with the nation. Placeless people came, at best, to be pitied, and, at worst, feared and revived because they reminded the citizens of nation states just how precarious these identities in fact were.  This situation became murderous in the 1930s and 1940s when ethno-nationalism over took the legal functions of European states which then, casually, brutally, ‘de-citizened’ millions. Colonialism had already established mass population movements as a means of economic and political control. Now, Arendt wrote, casual racist de-humanisation and the habits of treating people as human cargo ‘boomeranged’ back to the West. 

It was at this moment, she also thought, that human rights were exposed for the frail fiction they’d always been for much of the world. The natural rights of men and citizens had been declared in Europe and the US in the eighteenth century. But the placeless people of the twentieth century had a new message: once you were stripped of political citizenship, once you were ‘merely human,’ you had no rights at all. Refugees were not calling for human rights after the war, Arendt pointed out. What they wanted was a community to be at home in again, somewhere to be a citizen, somewhere they could share in making the meanings of world, not simply be pitied. ‘The passport’, wrote Bertolt Brecht ‘is the most noble part of the human being’.

The big new international human rights regimes that came after the war tried to fix this. In 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights gave everyone the right to nationality and to ‘seek and enjoy’ asylum. The 1951 Convention on Refugees followed. These were good and largely well-intentioned innovations which have helped push back some of the worst abuses, and kept the idea of asylum alive as a concept. But as the current pull-backs of refugees and migrants to Libya in the Mediterranean show, for every human rights lawyer putting international law to work, there’s a small army of bureaucrats and politicians making sure that whilst European countries can still be seen to talk the talk when it comes to human rights, it’s still refugees who get to walk the walk.

From the start, UN declarations and conventions were caught in a cleft-stick. The self-determination of nation states was assumed, not unreasonably, to be the best protection for human rights. The problem was what happened when those states went – or were forced – to the bad. Refugee rights were supposed to scoop up those then left to the capricious hospitality of other nations. But in reality, those safety nets were sewn together with cultural memes of European victims escaping fascism and communist persecution; non-Europeans were, and still are, assumed to be the passive victims of war, state formation and failure, and revolution – objects of humanitarian pity (if they’re lucky), not subjects of international human rights. By the 1950s, a pattern had been set. Haphazard humanitarianism caught up political powerplays is largely what is left of human rights for millions of refugees today. 

Lyndsey Stonebridge is the author of Placeless People: Writing, Rights, and Refugees