We are All Refugees

(Note: This is an edited and reworked version of a talk I gave in 2013. Reproduced here because it seemed timely.)

I’m talking tonight about the meaning of the refugee experience for political life.  In doing so, I am trying to expose some assumptions operating behind much of political science/philosophy/theory and to probe some of the different assumptions at work in my own research and teaching.  I will suggest that the refugee experience is crucially important for how we think and talk about politics in general, not just for debates about asylum or foreign aid.

My title references the influential article by Daniel Warner, “We are all Refugees,” published in 1992.

“Going beyond the specificity of the legal definitions, we can discern the universality of the refugee situation, and how the otherness of refugees can be refuted without prejudicing the need of certain people for international legal protection. This does not entail our re-integrating refugees into a universal category, but seeing how those outside the refugee category are similar to refugees.  The situation of the refugee becomes the basic norm and we, the outsiders, disclose our similarity. The differentiation between refugees and non-refugees diminishes as we see the important ways in which we are all refugees.”  Warner, pp. 367-8

Warner observes that the way we think about refugees today is powerfully informed by the experience of World War II.  Refugees as we imagine them are “other” – radically distinct from ourselves.

They are hungry, their clothes are tattered, and they speak other languages.  They are driven by guns and bombs.  They need things that non-refugees have.  The main thing they need is a stable-enough political community, without which all other goods – food, clothing, shelter, education – are insecure.  So when we see a refugee problem, or a proliferation of refugee problems, we tend to think the fix is relatively straightforward: we need to provide the refugee with a secure political community.  If her own is not available, the temporary mechanism of asylum may have to do as an approximation.  Even then, in the long run, we think eliminating the refugee problem involves shoring up citizenship in secure, relatively just, preferably democratic regimes.  We may even imagine we could eliminate the refugee problem entirely by extending a just, pluralist, liberal democratic (supply your own synonym for good) order across the face of the entire globe, as the cosmopolitans suggest.  Without war, and with justice established everywhere, no one would ever lose what refugee philosopher Hannah Arendt called the “right to have rights.”

These are necessary and prudential considerations. But if we focus exclusively on repatriation, asylum, and similarly “durable solutions,” we risk overlooking and distorting other aspects of human life and human need.  We may end up imagining, constructing, and defending political orders which would generate not just refugees but internally uprooted, displaced, and vulnerable people of endless variety (note: I would now include many forms of homelessness in this category – ed.).  In short, if we think the solution to the refugee problem is limited to extending or reconfiguring sovereign power, then we may not have understood the problem very well.

Of course, thinking of refugees simply as people who need a political community and some other things is fine for certain purposes.  If you’re in the courts trying to distinguish asylum-seekers with strong claims from those with weak claims, for example, this definition will work fine.  But if you’re trying to do more than apply law as written – say, to lobby for dramatic policy change, or to shift local attitudes toward refugees in order to facilitate resettlement and integration efforts, or even to develop a critique of the very circumstances that produce a “refugee problem” in the first place – the conventional understanding can be limiting, even distorting.

By focusing on how refugees differ from non-refugees – citizens and residents – we risk mistaking the nature of the refugee experience.  Worse, we risk misunderstanding the situation of non-refugees as well, insofar as we assume that we (and those we unthinkingly include in our “we”) are on all relevant counts dissimilar to the refugee: non-needy, secure, and in firm possession of the right to have rights.  Most especially, we may assume that we already know what political community is, that is always the same kind of thing, that its mere existence is more important than its relative capacity to promote human flourishing.  To do so would be, I will argue, a serious mistake – for non-refugees and refugees alike.

My initial interest in this topic stems mostly from two experiences as a volunteer serving displaced persons.  One is the time I spent in Guatemala in a community of resettled refugees. The recent trial in that country of former dictator Rios Montt on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity is related to work I was doing there ten years ago.

I volunteered in Xaman, where Maya-speaking people had resettled after 12 years as refugees in Mexico.  They were involved in a trial against the soldiers who had committed a massacre there in 1995.  I traveled with witnesses who participated in that trial, a form of deterrent against extra-judicial threats or violence.  Between trips to the city for court, I mostly visited with people in the community in order to be a visible international presence and a bodily expression of cross-border solidarity.

Here’s what I learned there (to my embarrassment, an obvious lesson): refugees are people.  I was sensitive to the risks of romanticism, going in but I didn’t really understand how much I retained romantic notions until I lived in a resettled refugee community for a year and came to relate to its residents as neighbors.  That is to say, I was dependent on and grateful to people whom I often found supremely irritating – a decent definition of community life in general.  Just like your neighbors, refugees – even indigenous Maya-speaking peoples with vaguely Marxist political consciousness – are not especially virtuous or vicious.  They are not all interested in social justice.  They are not marked for suffering from birth, nor are they destined for heroism.  They are people – full stop.

Another experience: in 2008, I spent a few short weeks with No More Deaths – essentially the anti-New Minutemen – attending to a class of people generally excluded from the category of “refugee.”  These were economic migrants crossing the border from the United States in Mexico.  My knowledge of the living conditions and political subjectivity of repatriated refugees in Guatemala encouraged me to question the commonplace distinction in the United States between political refugees and economic migrants.  After all, in Xaman, when someone was about to head out to the United States looking for work, he or she usually compared the trip to the original “refugio,” both in terms of risk (a deadly trip) and reward (life for self and family).  In terms of desperation and stakes, this “economic migration” seemed to many little different from the war that had turned them into “refugees” several years before.  Once relocation for economic reasons appears a matter of survival, the barrier between refugees and non-refugees is lowered even further.  We can imagine economic migrants at greater risk than political refugees, refugees from deliberate economic destabilization, and so on. This realization pushes back against our tendency to require refugees be pure victims, preferably with an army at their backs or political imprisonment in their pasts. At the same time, to migrate for economic opportunities that feed or nurture self and family is an experience to which many non-refugees can directly relate. Maybe the familiarity of this extremity is part of the barrier to casting it as a political and humanitarian problem demanding political solutions.

To be clear: Like Warner, I aim here to diminish the “otherness” of the refugee without depending too much on the notoriously weak cliché of the human family. So let me put it this way: what is helpful to keep in mind is not that refugees are like us but that we non-refugees are like them.

We are vulnerable. We are dependent on networks of both exploitation and mutuality that extend far beyond our knowledge. And we display in our actions an admixture of virtue and vice. We are to some degree alienated from our political authorities and neighbors – perhaps the degree is what separates us from actual refugees.

Thinking along this vector calls into question the usual terms of debate, according to which “we” sovereign citizens argue with another about how generous we should be or how deserving/blameless/needy the refugees are. It suggests we need to rethink a few things.


Sovereign and Non-Sovereign Politics:

I will attempt to tease out some fundamental and, I think, mistaken assumptions at work in just about any 20th and 21st century political discourse. Then, I’ll suggest some alternative ways of talking and thinking about politics that I consider more accurate and generative.

The Sovereign View

The assumptions I describe below more or less map onto the Westphalian paradigm, named after the treaty that established sovereign nation-states as equals and the only legitimate actors on the world stage. Westphalia assumes that sovereign nation-states, which are ideally permanent, unitary, and exclusive, occupy the entire non-ocean surface of the globe and recognize one another as sovereign within their own borders. Every person on the globe would, ideally, participate in democratic self-governance through a nation-state that corresponds to his or her own “nation” or political community (variously conceived as ethnic or liberal – or both at once – in composition).

  1. Unity.

The political community is at some level ONE.  Internal divisions or cleavages are not just problems but dangers.  Thomas Hobbes speaks of a political “Unitie” of the people that determines who is part of this group creating a government to protect itself.  Majoritarian rules ensure that the community continues to function as a body, lest disagreement tear it asunder.  A single person – king, president, figurehead, what-have-you – represents in his own body the unity of the political body.

The persons who participate in this political community are united by something, such as language, blood, history, culture, religion, principles, commitment to a constitution, commitment to a process, love of the land itself, or (usually and uneasily) some combination of the above.

The U.S. experiment to divide sovereignty into separate and overlapping powers and to diffuse it between state and federal levels struggles against this aspect of the sovereign view, but ultimately fails to escape its conclusions (as Thomas Paine predicted?).  Most doctrines of federalism come down to a unity at some point.  In the U.S., we argue about whether the nation is sovereign or states are sovereign.  That neither one should be conceived as sovereign is not on the table.  State sovereignty has become “states’ rights,” a tacit recognition that states stand with regard to the national government in the same relationship that individuals stand to government, as formerly sovereign agents that have delegated their sovereignty in exchange for the protection and enforcement of their rights.  In the Federalist Papers, Madison and Hamilton tried to skirt the problem by claiming the new Constitution would be national in some respects, federal in others.  Their argument is unconvincing.  The Civil War more or less settled the issue, but unstably, and we revisit it now with every budgetary crisis.


2. Exclusivity.

We belong to this community, and others do not.  One is either part of it or not. Changing citizenship is therefore exceptional and difficult. So is dual citizenship. A political community may be welcoming, but even then it’s usually a matter of bringing outsiders into our long and already well-established traditions (which may include immigration, comfortably woven into a rosy narrative about how this polity got to look the way it does). In fact, it may be impossible to hold a political community together without enemy outsiders. We can share public resources because we fellow-citizens are committed to each other in a way we are not committed to everyone. On some level, public libraries and military contracts both assume bounded mutuality and accountability. There is always an in-group and an out-group.


3. Permanence.

The polity is founded to last for as long as possible.  Within that assumption there are disagreements about what ensures longevity: absolute fidelity to a pure founding or flexible adaptation in the face of changing circumstances.  But either way, it is agreed that it would be a good thing for the polity in question to endure for as long as possible, and an unthinkable tragedy if it should pass out of existence.  Aspiring to permanence often degenerates into the hope – or the unthinking belief – that one’s political community is or should be eternal.  The thought that it might cease to exist is unthinkable, perhaps terrifying.


The assumptions of this paradigm obviously create some problems for refugees … when your polity kicks you out or it ceases to exist, you may have nowhere to go.  Even if you have somewhere to go, you may never make it there.

Less obviously, but nonetheless true, this paradigm – insofar as it applies, which is never perfectly – produces the refugee situation as we commonly understand it.

Sovereignty is at least one factor that makes many who might simply be migrants into fugitives, stateless persons into persons fleeing states and state-like actors that pursue. It turns uncertainty into desperation and risk into mortal danger. To prescribe more sovereign power (either intensifying the police state or extending its reach to cosmopolitan scope) as the antidote to the refugee situation is to reinforce the very conditions that make being a refugee so incredibly dangerous and so apparently distinct from the non-refugee experience.

My suggestion is that we need to think of political community (and thereby, the refugee condition) quite differently:


The Pluralist View.

1. Plurality.

A deep federalism all the way down and all the way up, with power overlapping, cross-cutting, diffused, shared in unpredictable ways.  Not the federalism of Madison and Hamilton but that of Bakunin and Proudhon.  Power is of several kinds.  It is always relative, emerging out of relations among people and not from the dominance of one over all others.  God’s sovereignty (the original sovereignty, shared with the King by extension and then the people after revolution) is a good model for overpowering force or strength, but a bad analogy for power among human beings.


2. Permeability.

This is essentially implied by the description of plurality.  It is not enough that several different political communities exist on the globe, giving discontented or alienated persons a mere right to “love it or leave it.”  Leaving and loving must both be concrete, practicable options.  Political communities (which in actuality do and should overlap and crosscut) must be increasingly communities of consent and consensus as we migrate among them, joining in different efforts in different places according to our gifts and inclinations.


Provisional Good.

With a little wordplay, I mean this in two senses: first, political community is always contingent, alterable, arranged in a certain way just for now and revisable upon further reflection or deliberation by diverse peoples.  I also mean that political community provides for the people it serves: provides security, risk, opportunities, and manifold other goods, and we can and must judge its performance in those terms rather than grant loyalty through a distorted view of history and essence.  Political community needs to endure long enough to do its jobs, but it cannot be built with such permanence and finality that we cannot alter it when it becomes more consumptive than providential.


This is a bare sketch, far from an exhaustive imagining of non-sovereign politics. I merely hint at some sources – Bakunin, Proudhon, the syndicalists, the British federalists – that offer lots of resources to the curious. This is certainly not how people in contemporary America usually talk and think about politics. My claim is that we should think about politics in this way, that we do so when we are thinking clearly, and that bad consequences (from conceptual incoherence to mass slaughter) follow from the Sovereign view.

Permeable borders, pluralist polities, and a “provisional” sense of political community won’t end the need for migration or ensure that absolutely everyone has a home.  But we shouldn’t want to eliminate migration or keep everyone at home.  To leave and search for our home(s) is crucial to human well-being.  To be stuck at home can be a nightmare.  Therefore, we need political communities that stave off danger without eliminating risk, and that do not purchase overprotective security for a privileged few at the expense of the at-risk many.

Coming back to Daniel Warner, he eloquently expresses the importance of seeking and migration to human experience thus:

“Even though the refugee has been disjoined from his or her traditional place, the disjuncture between self and ‘home’ existed before flight and will exist after flight, whether there is voluntary repatriation or asylum. It is this disjuncture which causes the refugee and non-refugee to be similar. If the refugee is searching for a ‘home’, so are we all, ‘we’ being those who have not been forced into exile.”  – Warner, p. 370

I assume you all are a pretty mobile audience.  Many of us have probably moved around quite a bit in the last few years, and most of us expect to do so again soon.  Sometimes we’ll do it out of hope, other times out of fear.  Sometimes we’d prefer to stay where we are. The upshot of Warner’s observation is that we should not naturalize the refugee as some kind of uprooted indigenous person for whom all would be well if only she remained tied to her ancestral land, or who could find a new perfect home if only we Americans were more committed to the poem inscribed on the Statue of Liberty. Being forced from home is bad, but staying or being at home is not necessarily good. We should remember our own life histories, the complicated calculations and feelings that surround moving and removing as we pursue diverse and sometimes conflicting goods – education, career, love, self-fulfillment, adventure, peace, sanctuary, good death – and flee evils – abuse, boredom, ignorance, constraining expectations, and bad death.

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