Refugee Crises &
"Mankind, for so long a time considered under the image of a family of nations, had reached the stage where whoever was thrown out of one of these tightly organized closed communities found himself thrown out of the family of nations altogether.
... the abstract nakedness of being nothing but human was their greatest danger."
Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism
A Century of Refugees
From the first World War through the Syrian civil war, the past century has been one characterized by war, conflict, forced migration, and expulsion--resulting in massive human displacement.
The two world wars caused millions to flee their countries and homes; the second World War alone was responsible for displacing 60 million Europeans.
Since then, the Cold War, wars and conflicts in Palestine, French Indochina, Vietnam, Sudan, Afghanistan, Rwanda, the Balkans, and most recently Syria (among other regions) have continued to escalate the pace and scale of human displacement at unprecedented rates.
14 million people fled their homes due to war and persecution in 2014 alone.
The UNHCR estimates that 65.3 million people are displaced globally, including 21 million refugees and asylum-seekers. The refugee number reflects both the masses of people uprooted from war-torn Syria and South Sudan, as well as other populations displaced decades prior from places like Pakistan and Afghanistan who haven't yet been able to return home.
The condition of statelessness
Hannah Arendt writes on the condition of statelessless as the “newest mass phenomenon in contemporary history,” and of stateless persons as “the most symptomatic group in contemporary politics.”
For her, the problem was not merely that the rightless “are deprived of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, or of equality before the law and freedom of opinion … but that they no longer belong to any community whatsoever.”
For her the stateless were those who had lost even “the right to have rights.”
The Concept of the Refugee
Accepted international definitions of the "refugee" acknowledge this condition of statelessness.
The 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees defines the refugee as an individual who:
"owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable or — unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country."
The Organization for African Unity Convention of 1969 added violence and colonial domination as causal factors:
The “refugee” category includes every person who "owing to external aggression, occupation, foreign domination, or events seriously disturbing the public order...is compelled to leave...to seek refuge in another place outside his country of origin or nationality."
The Cartagena Declaration, adopted in 1984 by a group of Latin American states, further added massive human rights violations to this list.
A contradiction in the idea of the nation-state
The very definition of "refugee" thus exposes a paradox: that refugees are products of the one dominant organizing principle of the 20th century, the nation-state.
"The figure of the refugee exposes a contradiction in the idea of the nation-state, as both a culturally homogeneous political community and as the universal principle of political organisation. The refugee is 'out of place' in a conceptual as well as an empirical sense. He or she is an anomaly produced by the universalisation of the nation-state as a principle of political organisation."
--Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism
The economic need labor to rebuild after the World Wars, and ideological dictates in the wake of the Cold war drove policy and created an acceptance for asylum seekers. But these frameworks have long since become defunct, non-national workers have become undesirable, and obstacles to asylum as well as the policing of borders have grown more and more complex--rendering refugees all the more anomalous.
'The refugee is an anomaly'
Let's just think on that for a moment.
Even in popular imagination the 'refugee' figure evokes guilt, sadness, compassion, identification, pity, the desire to help—or even racism, bigotry, and a lack of understanding of the diversity of human travails.
Our efforts are geared toward normalizing, incorporating, acculturating, accommodating, explaining, pressing for policy change, or just coping.
But even the best of our humanitarian initiatives treat the "refugee crisis" as an aberration that per force has to go away with the right social, economic, and political treatments. Refugees are innocents until suspected otherwise. Within our cultural grammar of nationhood, the refugee is an anomaly, at best.
And yet, numbers continue swelling...
Syria and Afghanistan remain the largest source of refugees, followed by Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Around four-fifths of the world's refugees flee to neighboring countries such as Pakistan, Iran, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. For the first time, Turkey became the largest refugee-hosting country worldwide, with 2.9 million refugees. Turkey was followed by Pakistan (1.5 million), Lebanon (1.1 million), the Islamic Republic of Iran (982,000), Ethiopia (659,500) and Jordan (654,100).
Source: UNHCR Global Trends Report
And national differences continue to assert themselves
In the face of an escalating migration crisis, European Union responses have been fractious, at best. The EU's human rights commitments and famed open borders policies were severely tested. A resettlement plan that allocated refugee intake quotas to each country went nowhere.
Countries responded variously to refugee influxes. Germany welcomed newcomers. Hungary put up barbed wire. Austria built a fence onto its border with Slovenia and introduced a "security corridor." Other states re-imposed border controls.
In March 2016, the Balkan route linking Turkey to Germany and other EU states was declared "closed," after the controversial EU-Turkey plan that allows Greece to return to Turkey "all new irregular migrants" crossing the Mediterranean to Greece.
Although the UK has remained largely unaffected by the refugee crisis, taking in only a small fraction of asylum-seekers, the Vote Leave Brexit campaign nonetheless called upon latent fears of boundary violation with posters such as these:
Conceptually, we continue to think of "refugees" as a category in-between citizenship in a home-country and asylum in a host-nation. As temporary signs of a world gone awry.
Growing numbers, however, and the escalating scale and frequencies of crises point to a different story: that "refugees" are in fact not temporary visitors, but growing sub-populations of existing nation-states, often significant contributors to local economies, very possibly a future citizenry.
Nation-states work best with stable populations. Refugees remind us that the world is in painful and constant flux.
How can we reconcile these opposed realities?
It is time we think beyond the nation-state.
"The basic components of statehood – including the right to grant and deny citizenship – are responsible for the existence of stateless persons. Particular refugee crises may be solved or ameliorated, but there will always be a crisis of statelessness as long as these political structures remain in place. The solution to the problem of the stateless lies outside the paradigm of the nation-state."
--Ben Reynolds, The Diplomat
"The refugee is an aberration only when people accept as a matter of common sense that citizenship is the only authentic political identity of modern life."
--Peter Nyers, Rethinking Refugees
What if we didn't think of refugees as temporary, anomalies, and aberrations, but products of the way in which our very world is organized—both the exception and the rule?
What if we didn’t look at refugees as a sign of our broken times, but as prompts to a possible future?
In this report, we present five elements of a framework which grapple with the present realities of crisis, while pushing action and thinking toward collective, cosmopolitan futures.
For us, the escalating scales of human displacement and suffering are opportunities to rethink what matters in the present, how we can work with structures that be, and what we could do to drive toward alternative futures.
The sections below indicate areas of emphasis and may overlap thematically. They point to only a handful of nascent ideas, hints, and clues, all of which are evolving still as the refugee crisis continues to shape our political presents and our future imaginaries.
Constant reporting on rising numbers of people crossing borders or seeking asylum make one thing clear: Europe has been caught unawares by the realities of refugee displacement. The talk of "preparedness" is the first sign that we must accept displacement as a persistent reality, not an occasional occurrence. We need to think at a policy level about safe passages, settlement, emergency services, the relationships between states, and cultural exchanges between communities.
The European crisis may be new, but refugee crises are not. There are existing models of how to prepare for a world of refugees.
The Indochina refugee resettlement model
Following the establishment of communism in the former French colonies of Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos), over 3 million people left seeking refuge in other parts of Southeast Asia. The most iconic of these were the Vietnamese "boat people"—who peaked at close to 60,000 in 1979. Under UN auspices, some western countries agreed to participate in a historic resettlement program. The Vietnamese government conceded also to an "Orderly Departure Program," which allowed Vietnamese to apply for resettlement without leaving their homelands.
Today, François Crépeau, the UN's special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, speaks of the need for similar global humanitarian plans to address refugee and economic migrancies.
"With globalization comes mobility," he says. "Let's not fear it, let’s regulate it."
Tibetan settlements in India
In the history of refugees, the Tibetan story is one of the happier ones.
Having left Tibet after the Chinese invasion in 1959, they sought refuge in the newly independent India. They were granted land and allowed to establish several large settlements (now over 35) in different parts of the country.
Since these settlements were independent, and self-governed, it allowed communities to preserve their culture under the guidance of their leader, the Dalai Lama. They were given land for housing and agriculture, allowing for both subsistence and economic self-reliance. A handicrafts industry soon flourished. Since some of the settlements have a large numbers of tourists visiting, there is a steady market for the products. This not only preserves their ethnic identity, but actually celebrates it and allows the flourishing of a healthy cultural diplomacy.
The settlement of Majnu-ka-Tilla near Delhi was one such settlement established, thanks to an allotment by the Government of India, in 1960. After the 1962 Sino-Indian war, refugees temporarily settled on the Indo-China border moved here as well. The area is known as a local tourist attraction, a "mini-Tibet."
Over time, enterprising Tibetans from this settlement community began selling momos (a wheat dumpling with vegetable or meat filling) across the city. After all, it took just a bicycle and a large container to transport the momos.
The appetite for momos among Delhiites grew so great that many locals (including enterprising migrants from Bihar) began to sell their own momos, making them a more than ubiquitous presence.
Both Majnu-ka-Tilla and its momos represent a model of re-settlement, integration, and cultural exchange that nonetheless allows Tibetans to retain their unique cultural identity.
Integration into development plans
Different countries have undertaken different measures to ensure integration with local communities. For example, the half a million refugees from strife-torn Burundi, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Somalia living in Uganda are eligible to work, move around as they wish, and live in the community rather than traditional camps. Those settling in rural areas may receive access to land plots.
Striving to become something of a European model in its handling of refugees, Germany recently announced new "integration" measures, including the 3-year suspension of a law requiring employers to give preference to EU or German applicants.
The idea of the "camp" is conventionally a model of storage, holding, and temporary residence where much-needed aid can most easily be distributed and procured.
Camps exemplify the principle of isolation. Located far from urban areas to protect the local populace and labor force, there are no schools or places of worship. Infrastructure and facilities are poor to non-existent. Crime and violence are rampant. Indeed, camps are places where the state can outsource itself and where its proxies (for example, security guards), can make up their own rules -- spaces "marked by the volatility of law, violence, police, and compassion, a zone where sovereign power is more an aspiration that an actual achievement" writes anthropologist Andrea Muehlebach.
Sameness, starkness, impermanence and volatility are built into the architecture of camps, whether it's tent-housing at Za’atari or IKEA ready-to-assemble flatpacks elsewhere. Nobody—not national governments, not humanitarian aid organizations—thinks of camps as anything but temporary holding pens where people wait for the promised, but increasingly elusive, “durable solutions.”
And yet, camps like Za’atari in Jordan are home to nearly 80,000, and stays in refugee camps can run years. Kenya’s Dadaab camp, the largest in the world, turned 20 in 2011. It was built for 90,000 refugees, but holds over 420,000.
“This isn’t living; it’s just existing,” Mzia Khizanishvili, a resident of a camp in Georgia, tells the Boston Globe’s Elizabeth Dunn.
Or could we embrace the fact that refugees are here to stay, and build cities of tomorrow around them?
Humanitarian aid expert Kilian Kleinschmidt suggests repurposing empty space: “Half of East Germany is empty,” he says. “Half of southern Italy is empty. Spain is empty. Many places in Europe are totally deserted.
You could redevelop some of these empty cities into free-trade [special development/industrial incubator] zones where you would put in a new population and actually set up opportunities to develop and trade and work…”
Echoing Kleinschmidt, authors of an essay in The Conversation ask: “Who will breathe life into Europe’s dying villages?” and offer abandoned villages as a potentially lucrative source of housing—and tax revenues: “seven-year study carried out by the Italian Revenue Agency, estimated that Italy’s 1.26m unregistered, abandoned homes could generate €589m worth of tax revenue.”
Shelter as Process
Thinking of camps as the “cities of tomorrow” underscores Ian Davis’ established insight that better products (like refugee shelters) are not effective substitutes for better processes.
Rather than constructing shelter with “destruction in mind,” what if we addressed the logistics of accommodation head-on?
“[T]hat's the survival bit,” says Kleinschmidt. “Everyone is struggling with this now, in reception centres, camps – every country in the world is dealing with this. Eighty-five to 90 per cent of any people on the move will be melting into the population so the real issue is how you deal with a sudden higher demand for accommodation.” The scale of refugee influx and the sudden, unprecedented need for housing could initiate a building boom—and all the jobs that come with it.
Half a good home
The experiences of CARE International, Habitat for Humanity and their local partners in implementing self-recovery shelter programs during the months after the Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines in 2013 additionally provide a model for self-recovery through shelter-building.
These organizations provided bespoke packages of materials and support to assist families to rebuild homes based on their needs in an "owner-driven" approach to post-disaster shelter. They provided oversight, technical expertise, and the framework within which families could combine salvaged materials, their own resources, as well as supplies provided in the process of rebuilding.
Venice Architecture Biennale 2016 director Alejandro Aravena similarly advocates provisioning “half a good home” which owners can finish, as a way of investing incrementally in future value. Similar approaches have been used in Chile and Mexico.
We adapt the idea of "stranger socialities" from Elizabeth Povinelli's work, Empire of Love. Refugee socialities move between fragmentary, distanciated, sometimes wounded and strained kinship networks, and new relationships with strangers—contractual, transitory, individual-oriented, or kin-like—which must now be negotiated.
Here we encounter a Möbius strip-like experience of inside/outside inversion: there is love and embrace, on the one hand, and anxiety, fear, xenophobia, and the language of danger, on the other.
The Discourse of Danger
The latter especially acquire a larger-than-life quality. Ideas about refugees are often steeped in the language of threat and danger, dependence and burden, incapacity and need.
The Humanitarian Innovation Project treats such discourses of danger as seeded by five central myths, each of which must be identified and debunked: that refugees are economically isolated and homogenous, a burden on host states, technologically illiterate, and dependent on humanitarian aid.
A host of other anxieties circulate alongside: that the refugee causes unemployment; that the presence of the refugee indicates a loss of control over sovereign borders; that the refugee weakens the national identity of the host society; and that the refugee brings disease. Expectations of "innocence" structure our relationships with refugees, making some of us saviors and others victims -- leaving "little room to see that we might actually owe them hospitality and welcome," says Miriam Ticktin.
Such layered anxieties express themselves at odd moments—for example in the German Federal Health Centre website (known as Zanzu) offering "advice on sex and sexuality for migrants who have not been living long in Germany" in twelve different languages. The site includes information on pornography and prostitution (legal in Germany).
Ostensibly well-intentioned, the government initiative has been roundly criticized for being patronizing, racist, ineffective in dealing with the actual problems of harassment, or in navigating cross-cultural differences via a crash course in “integration.”
The Zanzu case shows that simple “re-education” may be an ineffectual solution to problems of cultural translation and communication—but what the more viable alternatives would be remains unclear.
In the meantime, correctives come from outside state machineries, through private and quotidian engagements: after all, an Amnesty survey suggests that citizens' openness to refugees far exceeds that of their governments. Such initiatives both repudiate right-wing targeting and critique the state’s inadequacies in coping with the problems of cross-cultural communication.
Think also of how, in in August 2015, during a heat wave, makeshift tents appeared outside the State office where refugees had to register. A volunteer neighborhood organization called “Moabit Helps!” had provided thousands with food, water, and emergency services—keeping the registration system from collapse.
Humans of Syria
The theory driving these many community-based and individual efforts is an old one: “refugees” in the abstract can be feared, but in one-on-one contact, barriers break, bonds form.
Whether in a pop-up coffee stall set up by student Nienke Galjaard in Rotterdam, or Amnesty Poland’s film where locals and refugees share 4 minutes of uninterrupted eye contact—strangers meet, interact, converse, connect. Others like Sam Nemeth use social media to chronicle the journey of one refugee who goes by the name “Ideas,” to draw out the tangible, personal and entirely human side of the migrant crisis.
Still another corrective appears in the form of social business: for example, the Magdas Hotel in Vienna, where 20 of roughly 30 employees have been asylum-seekers.
The German word for refugee, fluechtling, has negative connotations—which the owners counter by showcasing the qualifications that refugees bring with them. In this, hotel owners make an explicitly "political statement that whoever is in Austria legally should also be able to work legally"—this is Martin Gantner of Caritas, the Catholic charity which funded the hotel. “It's pointless for society that these people remain unemployed for so long; they often have many untapped skills.”
Writing of the conditions of life in modern Kinshasa, Filip De Boeck asks: "What happens when people's material conditions of life become so incredibly hard that their very conceptions of what constitutes reality is affected?"
Here we encounter the imaginative dimensions of refugee experience—the unreal, interpretive, fragmentary expressions born of rupture, trauma, and uncertainty. For, as Michel Foucault has written, the “imaginary is not a mode of unreality, but indeed a mode of actuality.”
What objects, what practices could bring about wellbeing in such circumstances?
A group of Syrian artists living in Jordan's Za’atari camp have used whatever materials they could find to build models of important Syrian landmarks, several of which have been damaged or destroyed in the fighting. The replicas and miniatures become simulacra: imagined links to homelands and histories, the symbolic anchors of a community’s collective memory, and its relationship to itself.
Fountains and Birdcages
Kilian Kleinschmidt tells of the Syrians’ need for "a fountain and a birdcage and a plant and they need to sit next to the fountain to drink tea. That's their expression of home"—and how in Za’atari they used equipment in a fablab to manufacture their old civic-social environments in the less hospitable space of the refugee camp.
So it is that “maker” tools become aids to remembering the past—and re-making the future.
Kilian Kleinschmidt speaks of the insufficiency of present paradigms, and by extension the need for more future-making technologies to be placed in refugee hands: “That whole concept that you can connect a poor person with something that belongs to the 21st century is very alien to even most aid agencies. Intelligence services and so on from government think "my god, these are just refugees, so why should they be able to do 3D-printing? Why should they be working on robotics?" The idea is that if you're poor, it's all only about survival.”
Attending thus to other dimensions of need, the consortium, “Refugee Open Ware (ROW),” brings together several different initiatives and groups to establish maker spaces and innovation centers in refugee and conflict areas. The idea is to use disruptive technologies not only to return control of production to the disenfranchised, as a strategy of empowerment, but equally to “disrupt the whole nature of humanitarian relief.”
In the meantime, refugees' own well-documented uses of existing technologies and digital tools are also changing the nature of migration itself. 2012 research by Dekker and Engbersen shows "that social media are not only new communication channels in migration networks, but that they actively transform the nature of these networks" by
· Allowing families to stay in touch;
· Addressing weak links in current systems (government and other), often via an alternative social infrastructure;
· Offering discrete and unofficial insider knowledge on migration.
The European crisis is the first of its kind in the digital age; refugees rely heavily on smartphones, and on messaging and social media apps like Whatsapp, Facebook, and Viber to do everything from mark GPS locations to ensure smugglers are not cheating, and post selfie updates. Aid organizations use these media to diffuse rumors, mark potable water locations—and crowdsource updated information.
SIM cards, wifi, and electricity are among the top needs—now as critical to survival as food and water. Recognizing this, one Hungarian group supplied volunteers with wifi hotspots so they could become walking wifi beacons and the UNHRC has distributed almost 90,000 solar panels to charge cellphones, and many thousands of prepaid SIM cards.
This volume of data exchanged in such communications is fast becoming a veritable chronicle of refugee experiences—in real time [as with Abdul's chronicle in the top left image] and the subject of films such as Tanya Habjouqa’s Syria via Whatsapp.
"For Syrian refugees in Jordan, the burdens of violence are present in their scant belongings, heavy mementos to remind themselves of those they lost in the war. The draw to Europe seduces entire families, but most often because of the high risk and financial cost, it is often the fathers and brothers who first make the journey.
Given each of these various initiatives which either work within existing frameworks—or, straining, seek other possibilities, how can we imagine not just refugee futures, but our collective existences beyond the nation-state framework?
The first and most vital move is to see ourselves as part of what Ulrich Beck has called "communities of risk" alongside each refugee and displaced person.
Communities of risk are “imposed communities, communities with a common destiny.” We “are forced, in our own most pressing interest in survival, not only to address [others who are vulnerable, suffering, whose humanity is threatened or being destroyed], but to come together with them in order to devise a new kind of community and a new kind of politics and to fight for its achievement.”
This 'new kind of community and politics' is what would constitute our collective, cosmopolitan future. The impulses which drive toward such a vision have been present in most of the examples cited in prior slides. They are particularly evident in situations where individuals, organizations, and communities circumvent state-defined processes, creating viable independent alternatives to existing bureaucracies and thus express their discontent. But we need to ask more, and more creatively, what strategies or initiatives can take us beyond a culture of pity, and even empathy, towards one of solidarity?
Global risks compel us to efface social boundaries
"when staged in the media, global risks can become cosmopolitan events with a potentially explosive global reach … They transcend and efface all social boundaries and overturn the global order that holds sway in people's minds.
…what is to be done, must be recognised and done now and without delay. Otherwise the crisis will turn into a catastrophe, the community of fate into a community of downfall"
Ulrich Beck, “Imagined Communities of Global Risk”
We need new ways to cooperate…
The big problems of our times are trans-border and international.
There is a direct relation, says Beck, “between the unequal experience of being victimized by global risks and the trans-border nature of the problems. It is exactly the transnational aspect, which makes cooperation indispensable to their solution, that truly gives them a cosmopolitan nature.”
But we lack viable models of cooperation and collaboration on trans-border scales. Even the so-called “perfect” refugee camp, in Kilis, Turkey, is successful because Turkey controls all details and avoids typical problems: inter-agency clashes, conflicts with local leaders, competing hierarchies and so on.
Individual nations, however, are unable and unwilling to cope with people in PRS: Protracted Refugee Situations. On the Thai-Myanmar border, NGOs have aligned into committees to coordinate services and avoid chaos. We need more such inter-institutional models of cooperation and collaboration.
We need a culture of pliability…
Big data analytics can help us build one.
Many organizations, from the Swedish Migration Board to the Innovation Unit of the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), are turning to data analytics to predict migrant flows and other needs to allocate resources, enhance preparedness, as well as find solutions to local problems.
For example: The UNHCR’s Mindjet’s SpigitEngage platform leverages data analytics and game mechanics to identify problems and then crowdsource solutions—sometimes directly from refugee communities themselves.
The system’s “reputation ranking” also helps cut through bureaucratic red tape in ensuring the best ideas get the attention they deserve, in addition to ensuring transparency.
We need to democratize processes…
The use of messaging and social media to create unofficial alternative infrastructures that address lacunae in existing systems, many of them either state-defined—or the opposite, illegal.
Drawing on his own painful experiences of migration, a young Syrian known as Abu Amar studied the history of migration and smuggling, found routes that saved time and money, launched a Facebook group called “Asylum and Immigration Without Smugglers “ and began posting annotated maps, weather and other updates.
Refugee Air attends to safe passage in another way. It wants to “circumvent the stumbling block of Carriers Liability,” an EU directive which makes carriers financially liable for all costs related to passengers who are not ultimately granted asylum at their destination.”
These and countless other citizen-lead initiatives like it constitute “a form of silent resistance against restrictive immigration [or smuggler] regimes,” a transformation of the migration experience at its roots.
We need to re-draw our presents…
Anthropologist Liisa Malkki has written of the contrast between camp and town populations of Hutu refugees’ narratives of self: camps re-produce nations, while economic and social integration allow identity play, subversion, and the emergence of more cosmopolitan forms.
Several art initiatives undertaken with camp residents make room for art therapy, self-expression, and income-generation. Here, the “camp” becomes a canvas for experience writ-large—a way of breaking free of isolation from within a space built for nothing else, a subversion in its own right.
Self-governance or “bottom-up” governance by design (as with Tibetans in India) or default (as with Dadaab camp, Kenya) can help activate civil society structures where they do not currently exist and militate against radicalism.
Yet, Malkki’s insight holds: it was the economically and culturally integrated town refugees who were ever the more self-sufficient, and open to contingency.
Above all, we need to find the tools to connect with our futures…
When Mac McClelland of the New York Times asked a Turkish official why the camp at Kilis had such good amenities, he replied: “We just put ourselves in the Syrians’ shoes. We need Internet. We need barbershops. We need workshops. We need art. What we need as Turks, we give them.” He shrugged as though this were totally obvious. “We’re humans.”
Add to these: Fablabs, 3D printing, digital scrapbooking, and everything from common messaging to social networking and specialized platforms and all the tools of makerism.
Returning process to people radicalizes the meanings of humanitarian aid by rejecting the idea of “refugee” as merely a bundle of bare human needs—and connects them to all the possibilities of a richly imagined future.