Who is to Blame for the Refugee Crisis?

The refugee crisis that the world is currently facing is a long-term effect of colonialism.

In the last few years, there has been a steady stream of descriptive reports covering refugee crises the world over. Yet, none of these were able to generate alarm and empathy in the way that a picture of a Syrian baby did in 2016. The picture encapsulated the risk and danger faced by every refugee when migrating in hope of a safe future. However, safety and asylum are rarely to be found at the end of these precarious journeys. With borders being tightened all over the world, the global refugee crisis has been growing worse. The United Nations Human Rights Commission records a total of 68.5 million “forcibly displaced people” worldwide. Syria accounts for 6.3 million refugees alone, closely followed by South Sudan and Afghanistan.

This reading list is curated from articles that discuss in detail the difficulties that refugees from various places face when seeking asylum. Vijay Prashad shows us how the journey through the Saharan sands might look like from the eyes of a West African refugee sitting at the back of a pick-up truck. Nigel Harris describes the many dangers that refugees face while crossing tempestuous waters in ill-equipped boats trying to enter Europe. And these are just the natural forces that they have to reckon with. They also have to deal with smugglers, traffickers, and drug cartels, and put their faith and their money in extortionists who promise them passage for a fee. If they are able to reach their chosen destination safely, they still have to contend with detention centres, hostile attitudes, and the inhuman conditions of refugee camps.

How have we arrived at this situation? Each article in this reading list tries to analyse geopolitical problems that are ultimately responsible for pushing people out of their homelands. Read together, these articles show how the crisis might be a consequence of imperfect decolonisation. New ways of continuing unfair trade practices have led to the enduring exploitation of formerly colonised nations, the populations of which have been subjected to disastrous wars and unstable governments. In addition to this sort of economic exploitation, this reading list also examines oppressive Eurocentric ideologies of the state that are now being used to demonise refugees for political gains.

1) 'A Broken Global Economy'

Cotton and gold are primarily responsible for the refugee crisis in West Africa, writes Vijay Prashad. The subsidies provided by the United States government to its own cotton farmers have destroyed the livelihood of the cotton farmers in West Africa who are now unable to compete in global markets. Meanwhile, countries like Mali that are rich in gold are exploited by Western multinationals. The West is unwilling to change its practices and is therefore unwilling to see the refugee crisis in terms of a “broken global economy.” Analysing the overall movement of cotton and gold in exchange for money and guns, Prashad finds that consequence of preserving the West’s trade interests is always war and ecological devastation. The “War on Terror” is invoked whenever this status quo is disturbed. This inevitably forces people to leave as their livelihoods are made unsustainable.

The problem of drought and the growing Sahara Desert had been clear as early as the United Nations Conference on Desertification, held in Nairobi in 1977, and then again in the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification in 1994. The role of desertification in the conflict in Darfur (Sudan) has always been underplayed. To highlight it is to look carefully at the destruction of the planet’s climate by carbon capitalism. The role of desertification is central to the conflicts that have now come to define parts of the Sahel, as the Sahara Desert moves south.

2) Double Standards

The 1951 Geneva Convention protects the right of refugees to not be expelled or punished for entering a country illegally. This means that the signatories of the convention are required to accept refugees and ensure that they are treated humanely. However, as Nigel Harris points out, there is no corresponding authority that can police what countries actually do with refugees. There is only the intangible fear of a particular government appearing unethical in the eyes of the world. So far, several countries have taken great pains to prevent refugees from reaching their borders, so that they are not in direct violation of the Geneva Convention. The US coast guard, for instance, has turned away Haitian refugees as a rule, but Cuban refugees were welcomed and allowed to settle as “a weapon of foreign policy against Castro’s Cuba.” Similarly, Australia tries to redirect refugees elsewhere. In Europe, even the countries that are amenable to accepting refugees do as little as possible to make the process of migration safer. However, with rising xenophobia, these dubious strategies may no longer be required, as governments turn openly Islamophobic and hostile to “outsiders.” Harris argues that the refugee crisis has been a “godsend” for right-wing politics and politicians, such as Victor Orban in Hungary, who have sailed to power by exploiting the misfortunes of the migrant populations.

At present, the national ruling classes are set to hang on to their territorial power even at the cost of wiping out their national populations (as in Syria). When they are not at war—as in Syria—the glue that holds together the national political entity is xenophobia, refuelled by periodic campaigns to hate and even kill foreigners. Putin’s little games in Georgia or now in the Ukraine (closely matching his popularity ratings) vividly illustrate the dialectic, as also Beijing’s absurd games in the South and East China seas. Far more troublesome is the rise of xenophobic parties in Europe for whom the arrival of Syria’s destitute millions is a godsend. All aspire to a new illiberal model of the state: authoritarian, with tight state control of the media, toleration of expanded police powers, prisons, torture, severely limited human and civil rights, tight control of migration, etc.

3) No Rights Without Citizenship

In 1964, 40,000 Buddhist Chakma refugees sought asylum in India on grounds of facing persecution and displacement in East Pakistan. Since then, they have continued to live in India, but their existence has been stateless. Statelessness, Deepak K Singh writes, is a condition that is almost always caused and maintained by the state. Who is accepted as a citizen, or granted asylum, and is thereby entitled to rights, is single-handedly decided by the state. As Singh describes it, today, citizenship is “the right to have rights.” Those who are stateless, like the Chakma refugees in India, are left with no option but to come to terms with the idea and the reality of living without rights.

Lack of citizenship, which otherwise acts as the singular gateway into the world of state-orchestrated privileges and protections, often entails long-term-life-debilitating implications for stateless peoples. The absence of citizenship, as a rule, precludes stateless peoples and refugees from having access to schools, jobs, healthcare, property ownership, travel documents, and not least, justice. It is because of this twin absence of state and citizenship in the lives of stateless peoples that they are often referred to as “orphans of the nation-state system.”

4) Dominance of Statist Logic

The dominant discourse around the refugee crisis takes the existence of states and borders for granted. This discourse has remained unchallenged, because of which people have been categorised into the citizens versus “outsiders” binary. Refugees are automatically the outsiders, devoid of agency in this discourse since they are “stateless” and characterised only by their displacement. They are not bound by borders and as Deepa Rajkumar argues, they are not the “normal.” There is an urgent need to question the underlying “statist logic” that has been normalised in “modern human existence.”

Long-standing and mostly unquestioned statist understandings and practices, assumed as natural and foundational, bind the state, its borders, citizens, and governance. Driven by (neo)colonisation and capitalism, the (nation) state, a modern and Western construct, has been universalised and normalised as the most basic territorialised unit of identifiable living. The state, thus, embodies a concentration of notional, legal, legitimated, centralised, and organisational (physical) power: administrative, penal and military. And, human beings are made to primarily belong, legitimated and protected only as citizens, subjected to the rules, norms, and (national) identity of this polity.

However, seeping into and emerging out of the state that professes some sense of enshrined equal citizenship are debilitating, violent, and marginalising biases, prejudices, and discriminations. These are based on state-specific dominant understandings and discourses of religion, region, race, class, gender, language, sexuality, ability, etc. Additionally, in certain states such as the US and India, there are particular categorisations such as indigeneity and caste. This creates systematic and systemic hierarchies within the state that—servicing mainly the dominant and privileged within it, eventually—is not just for most.


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