Blue. Blue was the colour of the sea surrounding them, and blue was the sky above. Blue were the edges of the boat, onto which dozens of people were desperately trying to hold on. Blue was the colour of their clothes; for some, the only belongings they managed to smuggle. Blue was the flag of their so called ‘protector’ but little did they know that blue was also their future – for some, because they’d never reach the shore; for others, precisely because they would step foot on it.
In 2015, the ‘refugee crisis’ entered ‘our’ lives through every modern form of communication – from disturbing news reports of capsizing boats in Greece and Italy, to troubling pictures on social media depicting hundreds of people stranded at Eastern European borders. Whether ‘we’ wanted (or fully understood) it or not, ‘we’ were now a part of it. But it seems as if the ‘crisis’ arrived and never left. Why do we still speak about a ‘refugee crisis’ in 2018, when 8,097 asylum-seekers reached Europe by sea in January, as opposed to 221,457 in October 2015 at the peak of arrivals? Is it because the main root cause, the Syrian conflict, continues seven years on? Or is it because a significant part of the millions of refugees who arrived more than 2 years ago still lack an official status and proper conditions to live in?
Maybe all of these things are responsible, but I believe something else is at play here – something that has little to do with Syria or the refugees themselves, but a lot to do with ‘us’. ‘We’ have been fundamentally changed by what is improperly called the ‘refugee’ crisis. Our countries, homes and identities have been forever altered by what should actually be titled ‘our’ crisis.
Firstly, the countries ‘we’ live in – the entities that are supposed to protect ‘us’ as their citizens and refugees as persecuted individuals – have failed to do so. Of course, most of ‘us’ do not agree with everything ‘our’ state does – ‘we’ may be disappointed in its leaders, ‘we’ might want things to change, ‘we’ might even move to a different country because of this. But regardless of all this, ‘we’ will trust a state with our life and happiness. Indeed, ‘we’ do not really have a choice – states are everywhere and, despite recent challenges, they are still the main actors in international politics.
‘We’ do not think about this very often, but states are incredibly violent organisations – as Weber noted, they are the only ones with a monopoly over the rightful use of force. Of course, most states do not come knocking on ‘our’ doors, demanding things or threatening ‘us’. It is the possibility that states may exercise this power whenever ‘we’ are seen as a threat that is most frightening – the looming idea that, at any moment, if you break a law you do not entirely understand, created by people who do not fully represent you despite their democratic election, you will be punished. ‘We’ do not consider this very often because ‘we’ have been taught to accept the state and its national identity. After all, ‘we’ are share a language, history and culture with our fellow citizens. If ‘we’ refuse to, the state might try to impose a certain unified identity on ‘us’ – often generating violence and conflict towards individuals who do not fit into the national stereotype. Refugees are such individuals, whose race, religion, nationality or social and political participation do not match the imposed identity. But does the refugee, by leaving his or her country of origin, not demonstrate that the forceful imposition of identity, although considered legitimate by the state, cannot fabricate a sense of belonging?
What is a legitimate response by a state then, when high numbers of people make their way across its borders? While it is widely acknowledged that the state can lawfully employ force on its citizens or against other countries when it is threatened, the refugee, neither a citizen of the receiving country, nor representing the country he or she fled, is not included in the traditional definition of a security concern. The closing of borders to asylum-seekers by the Hungarian government in September 2015, for example, is doubtful in terms of its legitimacy in light of the moral and legal duty of states to uphold the right of all people to seek asylum. If a refugee’s originating country proved to be so predisposed to discrimination and violence, and the receiving country, although legally bound to respect the human rights of all people, rejects this responsibility, refugees reveal how the very existence and effectiveness of treaties between states becomes impotent. So the meaning of ‘citizen’ itself is called into question – will our state protect ‘us’? Against what – or ‘who’? People looking for protection, like ‘we’ are?
This raises another question – what does it mean to be human? Enlightenment thinkers such as Rousseau and Wollstonecraft would say it is about being rational; others have linked human existence to belonging to a political community. From Aristotle, who thought that those who are not part of society “must be either a beast or a god”, to the 1776 U.S. Declaration of Independence or the 1789 French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, rights have historically only been awarded to those belonging to the ‘polis’. The refugee, who is not a citizen of his host country, finds himself at the ambiguous border between the country where he is now living and the nation to whom he does not belong; included in the territorial sense but excluded with regards to many political and social matters.
It is strange that creating a unified identity involves excluding some – the nation itself is nothing more than an “imagined political community”, as Anderson once said. It’s members will only ever know a fraction of the other members, and will only live with the impression of fellowship. The refugee, who is not a citizen of his host country but who cannot enjoy the protections granted by citizenship of his native country, appears to locate himself in a place of alienation; between two legal conditions, unable to be recognized as fully ‘human’ by neither. Indeed, when the refugee, often deemed as threatening, evil, sinful and barbarous, flees his or her country of origin because of the very hateful and hostile circumstances that ‘we’ fear, ‘we’ can no longer blame the foreigner for all that ‘we’ perceive as terrifying to express ‘our’ individuality. It is the refugee who exposes the imprecise location of humanity – between two definite extremes of belonging to a nation, a set of values or a fixed stereotype.
And what about our homes? The word ‘home’ is often connected to a physical location, such as a building or a clearly demarcated territory. This is perpetuated by the state – citizenship is granted to individuals on the basis of property ownership, not by pondering about their emotional connection to a place. The spatial representation of ‘our’ homes shapes ‘our’ expectations of a household and of the homes other members of society ought to have; the home becomes a social norm, a possession that gives ‘us’ access to public life. The refugee, however, as an individual looking for a new residence because he was forcefully evicted from his last, challenges ‘our’ dominant representations of the home. As one who does not traditionally belong to the materiality of his receiving country, the refugee, like the migrant and the homeless, does not reflect the local image of ‘home’; he is made to feel out of place. In the eyes of ‘our’ community, which assumes the home to be a place of infinite protection, the experience of refugees is horrifying – they no longer have an emotional safe haven to return to when circumstances deteriorate. But ‘we’ cannot simply retreat from the world when troubling situations arise; facing the world’s violence and discrimination is necessary when the fragility of ‘our’ homes is made increasingly evident by mass media. Many of ‘us’ have seen the destruction of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, in harrowing images of demolished buildings. The issue of war has entered ‘our’ personal space – and that of millions – ‘we’ can no longer assume that ‘we’ are immune to danger and devastation.
What do words like ‘we’, ‘us’, ‘our’ symbolise? In this context, ‘we’ may be the citizens of European countries who have seen great numbers of refugees arriving to their region. But I believe ‘we’ embodies so much more than that – ‘we’ represents a changing perception of what it means to be human, to have a home and be part of a state. While not long ago, ‘we’ assumed ‘we’ were citizens, property owners, and humans entitled to protection, ‘we’ have now seen how easy it is for ‘us’ to lose all those things. ‘We’ have entered a new phase, one of self-reflection, in which everything ‘we’ know is under attack. A crisis is unfolding; not among refugees, but among ourselves – how will ‘we’ define who ‘we’ are?
Editor's Note: We are more than glad to bring you this amazing piece just in time for STAR (STudent Action for Refugees)'s Refugee Week Challenge!
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