Migrant Lives, Global Stories

Migrant Lives, Global Stories is 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.
How can migrants speak? And what can listening to them reveal about the system of national sovereignty, the persistence of legal exclusion, and the longing for home?

In the autumn of 2021, the president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, manufactured a refugee crisis, in large part, for the images. Capitalizing on the real desperation in the Middle East, Lukashenko flew thousands of refugees to Belarus and left them to starve at the Polish border. His guards pointed into the woods and western Europe beyond. As families straggled across, they ran into barbed wire barricades, Polish machine guns, and hundreds of reporters and their cameras who were on-site to record the spectacle of asylum-seekers being driven back from the border. The optics were meant to embarrass and to stir discord in the European Union and force it to ease sanctions against Lukashenko’s regime.

Migrants were, once again, pawns in a geopolitical rivalry. Their images became ammunition in the battle among states over sovereign power to determine who can enter and who must stay out. And, as so often happens, the real lives of the migrants themselves were ground up in the news cycle of geopolitics, their voices reduced to wails, their images to destitution. The failure of the international system to address the needs of almost 85 million refugees—double the number of a decade ago—is mirrored by the failure to go beyond the stereotypes of helpless victims who need to be saved by a fractured West. The clichés reinforce each other: only a mythical West can save the needy, but the scale of need immobilizes the saviors.

The global migrant emergency comprises two crises. The first is the institutional crisis that allows refugees, legally, to be denied entry to the rich nations of the world. The second crisis is one of representation: how migrants are depicted shapes how they are welcomed—or not. Left unexamined, stock images of migrants service the geopolitics of nations and their headlock over the right to give rights.

How can migrants speak? And what can listening to them reveal about the system of national sovereignty, the persistence of legal exclusion, and the longing for home? This project raises questions to break out of inherited traps and help craft alternative narratives that present the crisis in more systemic, more global, and more human ways.

First, the crisis of institutions. The current refugee regime still bears the stamp of the Cold War. In the aftermath of 1945, European individuals and households fled oppression in the Eastern Bloc. The rules and institutions were designed around these “refugees”: idealized white, Christian exiles escaping demonstrable persecution. Even the familiar story of nations welcoming Jewish survivors is a myth. In fact, as historian David Nasaw has recently documented, many languished for years in camps until they could be shipped off to a new nation-state, Israel.1 Also, in the wake of the Second World War, signatories to the global refugee regime, led by western European states, embraced the evolving midcentury rhetoric of universalism. For refugees, this meant that the world’s states agreed to confer rights to the rightless.

Consider one of the most foundational. The covenants that govern the rights of refugees—the 1951 UN Convention and the 1967 Protocol—committed states to obey certain norms. The most important is the principle of “non-refoulement,” which forbids states from sending refugees back to countries where they are likely to be persecuted.

The right of individuals to seek asylum, however, did not obligate nation-states to give it to them. States reserved the power to grant or to deny sanctuary; they never signed away their sovereign capacity to determine who gains entry. This regime, touted in the name of humanity, produced inhuman consequences. Ever since, asylum-seekers have lived, in the millions, in a legal no man’s land.

This is not an accident. The system is designed to laud the West’s universalism without sacrificing the nation’s power to anoint members of their political communities.

Welcoming fugitives, at first, presented a diplomatic coup. Refugees were critical assets in the US struggle for primacy over the Soviet Union. This Cold War fact obscured the political limbo forced on those seeking sanctuary. Change came after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Instead of being welcomed—in order to broadcast the moral superiority of the West—refugees were fenced into camps or consigned to the world of the undocumented.

No people captures this agonizing purgatory more than the Palestinians, whose calamity could be considered the painful precedent, a kind of legal petri dish, for today’s model. Driven from their land in order to resolve a refugee crisis among European Jews, who were themselves unwanted in the now-victorious West, they were excluded from membership in neighboring political communities. For generations they have made homes without a homeland. Now, similarly, governments from Myanmar to Venezuela actively push citizens into the wretched ether of rightlessness, with no corresponding obligation from anyone to receive the unwanted. What happened to Palestinians after 1949 has become a generalized practice since 1989.

The COVID-19 pandemic has only given cover for more exclusion under the banner of securing public health for nations. At first, it seemed to demote the global migrant crisis. Scenes of overcrowded dinghies and blue-and-white UNHCR tents, common from 2015 to 2017, slipped from our newsfeeds, replaced by pictures of antivaccination protests and harried ICUs.

In fact, the pandemic redirected the pressures. According to the International Migration Office, 2020 brought global migration to historic lows. The movement of people across borders, however, continued. Remigration and expulsion rates reached historic highs. In 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. The infamous US health law implemented on March 20, 2020, called, in Blade Runner–speak, “Title 42 (section 265),” enabled the federal government to expel migrants who threaten to spread the virus because they came from countries that had a communicable disease. Since then, more than 1.2 million people have been deported from the United States, the vast majority of them carried back across the border or herded onto planes under the Biden administration, despite the availability of rapid tests that could filter the public health risk.2 Although it might have taken Lukashenko’s ploy to bring migrants back to the borders of Europe, the global emergency has never gone away.

The failure of the international system to address the needs of almost 85 million refugees is mirrored by the failure to go beyond the stereotypes of helpless victims who need to be saved by a fractured West.

A crisis of representation facilitates this institutional crisis. Consider a few unexamined assumptions about the everyday narratives of the global migrant crisis. Perhaps the most deep-seated among the citizens of wealthy countries is to see the cause of the problem in state failures elsewhere. Instead, they should see that their own borders are meant to rebuff. This is a convenient blind spot. Nativists like Éric Zemmour, Narendra Modi, and Donald Trump prey on this formula to legitimate exclusions and deportations; their nations, these ultranationalist leaders proclaim, are not obligated to solve other peoples’ problems. For humanitarians, the same narrative is invoked to justify the opposite—to see themselves as saviors; the South’s problem is the North’s to solve.

This longstanding view—and hierarchy—perpetuates a narrative about who manages global norms and who governs the global refugee regime. It revives a tradition of 19th-century civilizing missions, updated with a humanitarian veneer. This is a self-serving fiction. It’s also nonsense. The source of the crisis is not “out there,” beyond the world of Western jurisprudence where only lawlessness prevails, waiting to spill into the West. An alternative, global narrative of the migrant crisis treats the fabrication of the divide as part of the problem. It challenges the default that locates moral and legal authority to exclude or include with Western actors and their nation-states.

This fiction about the divide between Westerners’ moral agency and Resterners’ helplessness relies on another whitewashing act. It overlooks where the migrants actually are in the world in order to recycle an image of the West as more welcoming than it is. According to the UNHCR, there are currently more than 84 million forcibly displaced people without homes and another 48 million internally displaced people. Listening to cynical, media-savvy activists like Zemmour, Nigel Farage, or Tucker Carlson, you would think they were all banging on European or North American gates. In fact, the main sanctuaries are in the global South: Turkey houses nearly 4 million; Colombia, almost 2 million; Uganda and Pakistan, 1.5 million each. The Venezuelan share of Colombia’s national population jumped in a few years from 1 percent to 4 percent. By contrast, the United States is on target to welcome the fewest refugees in modern American history: despite President Biden’s promise to admit 62,500 asylum-seekers in fiscal year 2021, only 11,500 were given sanctuary.3 Ever since Europe stiffened interdiction at sea, Somalians, Ethiopians, and Congolese have reversed their migration from north to south, seeking more shelter in Uganda, Kenya, and South Africa. European authorities and the Italian Coast Guard pour millions of euros every year into militia coffers in Libya to run mass containment camps in North Africa. The United States has one-fifth the number of Venezuelans seeking sanctuary as Colombia does.

The representational and institutional crises feed off each other. As long as the plight of the displaced is seen as a problem originating elsewhere, nation-states of the global North will continue to see themselves in either-or terms, as guardians of national homogeneity or as saviors of humanity. In both cases, leaders of nation-states invoke the powers to admit or reject. It is most extreme and pernicious on the nativist end of the spectrum. The menace of migrant “waves,” “deluges,” and “tides” (aquatic metaphors running amok on Fox News) would be laughable if the nativists weren’t so influential. The humanitarian left, however, has also recycled images of migrants as helplessly destitute and abjectly needy, which does little to challenge the nativist caricature even if progressives do confront the state’s iron grip on the power to confer asylum as a privilege, not a right. Where progressives often trip is by treating the needy as helpless until they can reach the Elysium of the global North, thus reducing the solution to acts of mass charity and selfless welcoming on one side of the global coin.

Both breathe new life into a paternalistic tradition. Familiar humanitarian tropes of distended bellies and skeletal children have been replaced by sinking rafts and gaunt figures huddled under space blankets. In this view, migrants, shorn of agility, resources, and power, can be seen only as hyperdependent.

The challenge must be to create development choices where people need—and want—them. Migration on the scale and of the kind that we are witnessing happens when people watch their options disappear, when jobs, schools, security, and health vanish into the smoke of war, rising oceans, and spreading deserts that originate from international conflicts, debt-crippled states, and an addiction to a carbon-fueled economy. No amount of kindness and charity or deportation and turpitude in the global North can compensate. As long as those remain the default responses, wealthier nations, where human choices abound, will react with the hodgepodge of care and cruelty, throwing up tent cities, walling off borders, getting caught in the moral vice of condemning the Lukashenkos and Orbáns of the world while relying on them to keep the migrant problem from nearing their borders. As Dina Nayeri has powerfully written, the few who are able to cross are expected to express endless gratitude and shoulder a burden of an unpayable debt to nations that gave them the privilege of creating a new home.4

We need a broader range of stories and portraits, ingredients for alternative narratives if the world is going to break this impasse. This dossier aims to bring voices and visions from outside the conventional circles of representation that dominate the public square. Students, architects, artists, and writers, many of them displaced, share their views about the lives of migrants and how they matter for rethinking the regime in which we are all stuck.

Our first proposition comes from Gerawork Teferra, a development economist and longstanding resident of the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, and Kate Reed, a history graduate student at Oxford University in the UK. They challenge the imperative that accounts of camp life should provoke empathy for stateless people in citizens of the global North. What, then, Teferra and Reed ask, is “the purpose of representing refugees and camps to nonrefugee audiences”? The answer is to see beyond the words into the conditions that made camps necessary.

Reviewing three books—a Somali migrant’s self-published account of his life in a Dadaab Refugee Camp in Kenya, another by a collective of writers confined in France at the Calais Refugee Camp, and a third by a well-respected British writer and former Human Rights Watch researcher—Teferra and Reed argue that readers should not only absorb the content of these accounts but analyze the conditions that make it possible to report and publish these particular stories in the first place. In doing so, the authors contend that readers can appreciate that it is not only “humanitarian support” but primarily “political support” that camp residents seek.

Enabling migrants to define their own stories is a governing principle of Joey O’Loughlin’s photographic practice. In her essay in portraits, she presents pairs of images created with migrant families. In 2017 and 2018, O’Loughlin traveled to the Tara Kepe Camp in Lesbos, Greece, and set up a studio where newly arrived migrants could make pictures to document this point along their journey. Lesbos was just one stop. In December 2021 and January 2022, O’Loughlin reconnected with families who had settled in Germany and the Netherlands, where they presented changes in their family life.

Between these photographic moments, we see children grow into teenagers and teenagers into young adults; mothers change their style of clothes, or not; fathers trim their beards or let them grow. Expelled from their home countries and now crafting their lives in another, they are part of an intergenerational drama at once driven by geopolitics and entirely their own.

Challenging the way that sovereign power produces both refugees and the conditions in which they are forced to live gives ground for historian Jeremy Adelman’s essay. Drawing on Ai Weiwei’s work—specifically, the images across the artist’s compendium and film both titled Human Flow—Adelman blasts the power of nation-states to hoard rights, which they gift to some migrants and, in the process, also establish a class of subhumans denied belonging.

That condition establishes the image of the hyperdependent migrant used by politicians across the right-left spectrum. Those excluded are subject to “durable containment,” the international order of permanent encampment or enclosure that, Adelman argues, represents a founding moral failure of our sovereign national order. The “soothing rhetoric about rights for all” does nothing to alleviate the exclusion from national belonging thrust on so many migrants.

Exclusion also requires the constant patrolling of borders and their reinforcement by violence. On land that today lies inside Gaza at the border with Israel, the Qudaih family have farmed for hundreds of years. For more than half a century, they have been subjected to bombardment in a zone of containment. Architect Malkit Shoshan’s contribution to this series, drawn in part from the award-winning project Border Ecologies, entwines the story of her own family’s migration from Morocco to Israel with conversations with Amir Qudaih, who migrated from Gaza to the United States. Shoshan and Qudaih talked about wars and borders and also about the pleasures of everyday life, like food and cooking, which sustain connection in the face of state violence designed to enforce distance and separation.

Even under these conditions, relationships with the land, among generations, and between friends and partners can break through the suspended time of occupation. Shoshan’s contribution can be seen as an experiment in doing what Teferra and Reed suggest: keeping the violence of state sovereignty in tension with the ongoing work of building lives, histories, and connections that happen within and despite it.

Shared experiences and, especially, histories of colonization create the context for Patrick Weil’s concluding contribution to our series. Weil examines why the ultraright French presidential candidate Éric Zemmour has found success peddling a false narrative that immigrants have organized to supplant native French people in their dominance. “The great replacement” is only the latest deformation. Weil argues that, in fact, widespread and longstanding lies about French history ground citizens’ embrace of contemporary anti-immigrant politics. The French right wing holds deeply rooted antipathies toward difference. At the same time, as Weil points out, progressive narratives have not convinced right-leaning citizens to reject narrow, nationalistic attitudes, let alone conspiratorial falsehoods. Instead, he argues that teaching a complete French history—especially its colonial past and its moments of honoring the diversity of its population as part of the national epic—is the only path toward establishing an inclusive political community for all its citizens, new and old.

The pandemic has created an illusion that the migrant crisis has taken care of itself. Out of sight has meant out of mind, or at least out of the news, except for the occasional border flare-up or tragedy of a sunken boat. In fact, the pandemic has layered on another screen obscuring the global nature of the problem and the displacement of true solutions for displaced persons. The pandemic has given cover for politicians to enact laws that keep more and more people as far away from the global North as possible. This stop-gap measure is effective, on its own terms: it takes the air out of inflated anxieties about invasions by the needy and replacements of the deserving. But it also ensures that Lukashenko, Erdogan, human traffickers, and militias can turn the human flow into a moral and material business. They thrive off the Western confusion of wanting to be the guardians of a universal humanity while remaining reluctant even to think about—let alone embrace—sovereignty beyond the nation-state.

The scale of the emergency demands rethinking. On the eve of COVID-19, the World Bank predicted that Latin America, Asia, and Africa would generate an additional 143 million displaced people as a result of climate change by 2050. That’s a doubling of the figure in one generation. That’s double the misery and double the resources for people who prey on it. Only with a wider repertoire of voices and visions engaged in rethinking the global migrant crisis together can activists, lawyers, policy makers, and, of course, the displaced themselves begin to unravel the enduring structures of sovereignty that reproduce it. icon

  1. David Nasaw, The Last Million: Europe’s Displaced Persons from World War to Cold War (Penguin, 2021).
  2. On summer 2021 “operational updates,” see https://www.cbp.gov/newsroom/national-media-release/cbp-releases-july-2021-operational-update.
  3. To be fair to the Biden administration, they inherited a shattered refugee resettlement infrastructure.
  4. Dina Nayeri, The Ungrateful Refugee: What Immigrants Never Tell You (Catapult, 2019).
Featured Image: Belarusian Territorial Defense Forces erecting a fence at the border with Poland. November 15, 2021. Photo by Kancelaria Premiera / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)