Portrait of the Global Migrant Crisis

This is the third installment of Migrant Lives, Global Stories, a five-part series on the global migrant crisis presented in partnership with the Goldstein-Goren Center for American Jewish History at New York University, which is dedicated to furthering the study of Jewish history in the broadest context. Read series editors Jeremy Adelman and Caitlin Zaloom’s introduction here.
COVID-19 highlights how the global order is built on, and excels in, closing the path of migrants unjustly.

In May 2016, Ai Weiwei visited the Palestinian politician Hanan Ashrawi in Ramallah. “Being a refugee,” she tells him, “is the most pervasive kind of cruelty that can be exercised against a human being.” She knows from personal experience. Deprived of home, security, and political membership, “that person [is] at the mercy of very inhospitable host countries that don’t want to receive them.” Fenced in, walled off, Palestinians cannot go home, seek resettlement, or enjoy the benefits of political community like their Arab or Israeli neighbors. Stuck for decades, their lives are mirrored by the encamped in Bangladesh, northern Mexico, Pakistan and Jordan, Lesbos, and the Beqaa Valley.

The camp, a word to denote makeshift solutions for other people’s problems, is the perfect solution for—and the moral failure of—a world order committed to national sovereignty for some with soothing rhetoric about rights for all.

In the wake of COVID-19, the plight of forced migrants and refugees has disappeared from the headlines, appearing sporadically when border guards get caught chasing down refugees in Poland and Texas. For the most part, the global migrant crisis has been supplanted by the pandemic.

Amid this amnesia, Ai Weiwei, the public experimental artist, now living in Portugal, has published a remarkable dossier, Human Flow: Stories from the Global Refugee Crisis. Human Flow is a group portrait of the cruel paradoxes of global order. It’s not just that horrible states do horrible things to their own people; that much is known. Ai Weiwei shatters an illusion about the international system. Refugeedom is sewn into the global order because the constellation of agencies, conventions, relief organizations, and camps to hold people until they could find permanent homes was designed in the early Cold War days to handle defectors from the Soviet bloc. This regime gave refugees asylum rights if they could prove persecution. But it left to nation-states the power to decide who had rights to prove their persecution so their status could be recognized as part of a wider geopolitical game.

Human Flow makes especially disturbing reading when these same technologies of containment—walls, barbed wire, biometric tracking, expulsion, and visas—have become staples in the campaign against COVID-19.



The first pandemic ended Roman grandeur. The second—known as the Black Death—sundered the fourteenth century. In the last decade of the nineteenth century, the world plunged into the “third plague pandemic.” European outposts in Canton and Hong Kong panicked at the sight of swelling buboes and erupting pus. By 1896, the plague had reached Bombay en route to wiping out 10 to 12 million Indians. Then Aden, Mogadishu, Cairo, and fears that Rome and Marseilles would be next. The pestis showed up in San Francisco in 1900.

The culprit for spreading disease was human migration. One intervention to contain the plague was the concentration camp, a biomedical strategy devised by empires to manage their far-flung and infectious subjects moving across global disease pools. Originally, Spanish commanders devised the campo de concentración to crush Cuban rebels and to curb typhoid in 1896. American liberators resorted to the same practices of disease control and guerrilla containment in Cuba and the Philippines. British officers adapted the method in southern Africa and baptized it the “concentration camp.” The model got shipped to India, where concentration camps dampened both sedition and a raging pandemic. Calcutta’s chief medical officer, Dr. William J. Simpson, invoked images of Constantinople’s imperial demise and misery during the Black Death to urge the Raj government to deploy barbed wire (itself a novelty of the age) in camps across the subcontinent.1


Refuge: Denied. Asylum: Pending

By Evan Taparata et al.

We forget that the current pandemic is embedded within a long-standing furor over human migration and disease. The dominant technology for handling unwanted migrants, herding, fencing, encamping—separating those who are free to move around from those who cannot—is the substrate for handling COVID-19. While the commentariat frets over the collapsing cruise-ship industry, millions of migrants have been displaced once more. This time, the flow is not in the direction that inspired Viktor Orbán to line Hungary’s borders with razor wire and Donald Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party with hysteria about Mexican rapists and drug dealers. According to the International Organization for Migration, 2020 brought global “migration” to historic lows. Re-migration rates, however, reached historic highs. Within the first four months of the pandemic, 2 million Ukrainians had to return to Ukraine; by February 2021, India repatriated almost 5 million stranded Indians worldwide.2 Even as Bashar al-Assad consolidated his grip, hundreds of thousands of exiled Syrians left the squalor of refugee camps and shrinking World Food Program assistance (COVID-19 cut into nonmedical relief budgets) to return to their rubbled country. Policies to tackle COVID-19 have thrown the human flow of the previous decade into screeching reverse.



Human Flow consists of 100 interviews conducted during the height of “global migrant crisis” hype from the end of 2015 to the end of 2016. It is an oral history of a hinge moment in world history as the relatively open-border era of globalization was giving way to the patriotism-obsessed country-firstism of our day, in large part in response to anxieties about minorities and migrants. The interviews were the raw material for Ai Weiwei’s sensational documentary of the same title. The film hit screens in 2017, when migration was something the Western world worried about enough to dub it a “global crisis,” that is, when the flows reached European shores and American borders in numbers. Ai Weiwei lets his smartphone—held at the hip to transmit a candid street feel—and his drones, his Leica, and his team of 14 photographers, five drone operators, and their eight assistants do a lot of heavy lifting. The cine-essay sometimes aestheticizes suffering; one panorama tracks silhouetted migrants walking through a dust storm in northern Kenya. There are also voyeuristic moments. One Afghan refugee caught in Turkey, Ismatollah Sediqi, sobs into the camera as he points out the graves of his drowned children and wife.

The film now feels dated, despite its visual proficiency. But the words behind the images convey a deeper, more lasting, and altogether more epic story—which is why the dossier of Human Flow needs to be read now. Refugeedom is supposedly what happens when things go wrong, when polities, especially in the global South, “fail.” Refugees are the casualties of someone else’s disaster and a “burden” on the rest.

Human Flow turns this self-serving formula on its head. It reveals how the migrant crisis is baked into the international regulatory regime for geopolitical reasons. Human rights talk is committed to a universal rhetoric but gives sovereign nation-states the power to enforce or deny those rights to migrants as a subclass of humans. Nation-states produce exodus. They also carefully guard their power over who gets admitted into political community; nation-states refuse entry. No one can hold them accountable. The result is a human calamity by design on a scale unseen since 1945.



Of course, to start with, there was welcoming and solidarity. Spyros Galinos, the mayor of Lesbos, the Greek island at the frontline of the exodus from Turkey in 2015, describes the sensation at the beginning. A trickle of boats in February gave way, within months, to 10,000 people arriving daily. Local citizens went to the beach to help waterlogged refugees; humanitarians flocked from around Europe. How did you handle the 500,000 that came within months? asks Ai Weiwei. “My fellow citizens rose to the occasion,” replies Galinos. “Together, we managed to define Lesvos as the capital of solidarity throughout the world.”

Most refugees never got this far. Ai Weiwei charts how countries with fewer resources absorb the human flows and do the receiving and welcoming. No country stands out more than Lebanon. Ravaged by war and a real invasion (first from Israel, then by Assad’s armies), it took in 1.5 million Syrian refugees (only half of whom are registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees office [UNHCR]), as well as Afghans, Iraqis, and Ethiopians.3 No country has taken more refugees per capita—while Fox News froths about the American border being overwhelmed by an “avalanche” from Mesoamerica. In one of Ai Weiwei’s longest transcripts, Nadim Houry of Human Rights Watch in Beirut notes that the Lebanese government was in no position to arrest a million refugees. Instead, it accepted them without legal recognition of their status. The result: Syrians can’t go home, can’t work, can’t claim sustenance from the UNHCR, and so live as a shadow population in the streets. Where, asks Houry, does one begin to search for blame in these circumstances?

Nation-states produce exodus. They also carefully guard their power over who gets admitted into political community; nation-states refuse entry. No one can hold them accountable.

Subtly, Ai Weiwei follows the shift in wealthy countries from welcoming to moral hesitancy to resistance. Migrants fled repression in Afghanistan and Myanmar only to encounter ambivalent and hostile states. László Toroczkai, the mayor of Ásotthalom on the Hungarian-Serbian border, asked the Hungarian government to erect a fence in early 2014 to stop the “invasion” from Africa and Bangladesh. Bicycles, crops, and vehicles were stolen. Migrant numbers rose. Locals’ sympathy vaporized as European states dithered and left Hungarian farmers to cope. In the summer of 2015, Orbán sent fence builders and the army to push migrants into alternative routes. “Now it’s quiet and there’s peace,” the mayor concludes. He advocates “refugee camps with high-quality life standards in the first safe countries.”

These are the hostile states; then there are the cynical ones that contrive international deals to mask their hostility. At the core of Human Flow is a pact that the EU made with the Turkish government in March 2016. The European efforts to be welcoming had hit their limits. A backlash was in full flight. The mayor of Ásotthalom’s prayers for more refugee camps somewhere else were heard. Rather than blockade people with fences and visa denials and let images of drowned children rub the world’s moral conscience the wrong way, a deal was made with Turkey: retain the human flow, build a corridor of camps along its border with Syria, and hold the refugees there in retrofitted shipping containers surrounded by fences. In return, Turkey got 6 billion euros in aid from Europe and visa-free travel for its citizens to Europe. This spared Europe the moral quandary of seeming to close its doors while preserving the fiction that the problem lay elsewhere. Meanwhile, the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, kept one hand firmly on the spigot: if Europeans squawked about his autocratic urges (and the exodus he was producing), he could just release the flow and unleash nativist panic in Berlin or Copenhagen. He weaponized 4 million weaponless refugees. This is why Ai Weiwei notes that “Turkey has become like a container for refugees, and it takes so many of them.” Was Europe using Turkey? Or was it the other way around?

A regime designed to safeguard how states manage their ethnos, it externalizes the costs of global war and warming and makes encampment not an exception but a rule of international society.

Human Flow is not a simple story of escape and exclusion, a trope of other documentaries and narratives. Barbed-wire fences and walls have become permanent fixtures in the modern global order. What starts as improvised relief with ramshackle tents becomes durable containment, literally housing people in shipping containers, and even makes the regime’s mostly well-meaning officials squirm. Wella Kouyou, the deputy representative of the UNHCR in Nairobi, notes wishfully that “[a] refugee station is temporary.” His agency is committed to “resettlement possibilities.” But, Ai Weiwei replies, haven’t many Somalis been in camps for almost three decades? Kouyou rephrases: “the refugees’ situation was supposed to be temporary, and a camp was supposed to last for maybe five years.” Despite his efforts to buff the “opportunities” for refugees (like allowing a handful to participate in the Olympic games), he admits to donor fatigue, asylum fatigue, and host-country fatigue as reasons Kenya’s Dadaab Refugee Complex is the provisional home for a third generation of Somali refugees.

Sakhi Ahmad’s brother Ismetollah, while comforting Sakhi, explains to Ai Weiwei in the interview why and how they fled the Taliban’s assault on women’s rights (his wife was an activist), and how they sought a “peaceful life” in Europe. “All the world supports women’s rights—Germany, Japan, and America. They kept saying, ‘women’s rights, women’s rights.’” Now they have no rights to have rights. When Ai Weiwei’s interlocutors talk without the mediation of lenses and screens, new plotlines emerge, many prompted by his smart and well-informed questions. They add up to a powerful reminder: the reason for the exodus is a shameful disparity in the distribution of basic rights that no amount of solidarity and welcoming can make up for. What is more: flow triggers anxieties about “swarms,” “floods,” migrant caravans of future “minority” people who threaten the ethnos of the nation—which leads to practices that blur the questionable distinction between the refugee camp and the concentration camp.

As the world emerges, unevenly and unfairly, from the shutdowns of COVID-19, all signs point to a resumption of the human flow. It is estimated that in 2021, almost 2 million people will have been detained at the border separating the US from Mexico alone. As the full extent of the pandemic’s social deprivation and climate change sinks in, the numbers are expected to soar worldwide. Not for the first or last time will states use public health measures and justifications to contain the human flow and redirect people to countries and regions with fewer defenses and resources—and thereby create a cascade. icon

  1. Aidan Forth, Barbed-Wire Imperialism: Britain’s Empire of Camps, 1876-1903 (University of California Press, 2017), p. 74.
  2. https://migrationdataportal.org/blog/5-key-global-trends-covid-19-and-migration.
  3. https://reliefweb.int/report/lebanon/unhcr-lebanon-fact-sheet-january-2021.
Featured image: Still frame from Human Flow (2017). IMDb