Barely a week after coming to office, US President Trump signed an executive order suspending the US refugee program for 120 days, specifically barring Syrian refugees from entering the country until further notice. Confusion erupted across US airports while shockwaves of protest gathered full force.
Although Trump’s executive order seemed extreme considering its direct repudiation of the international community’s commitment to refugee protection, the policy actually resembled asylum policies utilized by other western, refugee-receiving states; the only difference is the rhetoric. For example, Hungary recently passed a new set of anti-migration laws to prevent non-Europeans who do not intend to apply for asylum in the country from passing through its territory. In the wake of Europe’s recent migration crisis, only Germany offered mass protection thanks to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open door policy. However, even Merkel has recently admitted that her policy might not have been the best decision for Germany: “If I knew what change in refugee policy the people in Germany want, I would be prepared to consider it.”
In this case, is Trump really radical? Not really. His language is rudimentary and direct but not radical. The reality is that rich western states have been restricting access to their territories ever since the end of the Cold War, when refugees and asylum seekers no longer represented weapons against communism. Now that refugees no longer have value—their labor is no longer needed and they do not serve a political agenda—states are doing what they can to turn them away while also proclaiming their commitment to refugee protection in the international community. Matthew Gibney, a leading political theorist in refugee studies, calls this organized hypocrisy: “Northern states claim to support the principle of asylum, pointing to their status as signatories of the 1951 Refugee Convention, and their well-developed semi-judicial bodies that determine asylum claims, as well. However, they construct visa and control regimes that prevent asylum seekers from arriving lawfully at their borders.” These practices create negative attitudes towards refugees, attitudes that many individuals and human rights groups are working hard to subdue.
Alas, I am tired of begging people to see refugees as human beings. As one of the many individuals working to reverse discriminatory attitudes against refugees, I confess that sometimes I feel like I am hitting my head against a wall as states and leaders push for more rigid non-arrival measures. My documentary about Zaatari Syrian Refugee Camp in Jordan, talks, and discussion groups seem to have little influence against the tide of discrimination and organized hypocrisy. And, I am not the only one doing this work; several human rights groups and sincere individuals across sectors are also begging people to recognize refugees as human beings with rights. So, why is nothing changing? Why are we stuck with hate and mass hysteria against refugees? Why are our leaders reinforcing this hate and getting away with it?
Looking at possible solutions for today’s refugee crisis might offer some answers. Leading scholars and organizations in the humanitarian sector have recently put forward new and creative solutions for ‘fixing’ the international refugee system. For example, a new group named Europe in Africa (EIA) advocates for the founding of a new city-state on an artificial island built on the shallow Tunisian Plateau right between the Exclusive Economic Zone of Tunisia and Italy. The aim of EIA is “to provide a secure place for people who have to flee their country and want to reach Europe.” The group’s website provides a colorful map that lays out the infrastructure of the island, including hospitals, schools, churches, mosques, a soccer stadium, and even an airport. Reading this colorful map along with the organization’s objectives makes you question the seriousness of the proposal. My immediate response was “this cannot be for real.”
At the same time, leading scholars in the field of refugee studies have also offered interesting new solutions. In their attempt to reconcile the disconnect between the international commitment to refugees and what actually happens on the ground, scholars Alexander Betts and Paul Collier recently release a book titled ‘Refuge’ in which they argue for a new solution to refugee protection based on comparative advantage, an old school principle in international relations theory. However, many have criticized this solution as exacerbating the very problem it is trying to fix.
Why is it so hard to fix this problem? Why do all our solutions seem farcical and incomplete? The simple answer is that the system is flawed. An international regime based on nationalism inherently creates refugees. Emma Haddad, a political theorist, argues that refugees are not only an inevitable consequence of the international state system, but also a constitutive part of the structure. Refugees reinforce the insider/outsider relationship, which is essential for the nation-state concept. Refugees lie betwixt and between nation-states. Ultimately, Haddad argues, the ideal of the state-territory-citizen nexus on which international society is based will breakdown, and people will fall outside the state system, requiring that they receive a pathway back into that state system through asylum. These people represent “deviations from the normal model of international society.” Hence, they become anomalies, aliens left at the mercy of various communities willing to integrate them.
Of course, there are other factors that create or have created refugees in the past such as decolonization, failed states, structural poverty, and conflict. However, the source of the problem—especially of the discriminatory attitudes towards refugees—is the rooting of peoples in physical territory. Anthropologist Liisa Malkki questions the assumptions scholars and politicians make about the rooting of cultures and the territorialization of national identity. In other words, why are we obsessed with rooting cultures in soils and, therefore, peoples in places? Internalizing this idea makes it easy to reject people seeking asylum in our countries because they do not ‘naturally’ belong here. Hannah Arendt eloquently described this new political awareness in 1951:
Suddenly, there was no place on earth where migrants could go without the severest restrictions, no country where they would be assimilated…This, moreover, had next to nothing to do with any material problem of overpopulation; it was a problem not of space but of political organization.
The refugee problem, therefore, is a product of the international state system, and the only way to fix the problem is to fix the system.
It is not enough to beg people to see refugees for their humanity. Many groups and individuals are doing just that. We cannot change attitudes without changing the structural implications for their creation in the first place. The system is inherently flawed, frozen in time and space. Our current world leaders are not only reinforcing the structure but expanding it with new laws and restrictions. Groups like EIA do the same but with different intentions. We need a new world order if we really want to ‘fix’ the refugee crisis—a world order not rooted in sovereign nations but in common humanity.