Those Refugees

While most Americans were looking forward to this past Independence Day, an ugly scene was unfolding in Murrieta, California. Patriotic citizens, armed with placards that read “America has been ...

While most Americans were looking forward to this past Independence Day, an ugly scene was unfolding in Murrieta, California. Patriotic citizens, armed with placards that read “America has been invaded” and “Return to Sender,” blocked buses ferrying undocumented migrants to the town’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement processing center.

This was no ordinary display of xenophobia. The residents of this small city in Riverside County weren’t just angry at the “illegals,” they were upset with the Federal Government for importing the so-called “border surge” to their doorstep. Since 2011, there has been a steady increase in the number of undocumented minors crossing either alone or with family members over the Southern Border, the majority originating from Mexico and Central America. In an effort to deter future arrivals, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) expanded the detention of these families. Before the move towards a “no bond, no release” policy, only those without any family members or community ties were detained as their legal proceedings unfolded. Naturally, this decision has put a severe strain on ICE’s resources, forcing officials to relocate groups of migrants throughout its network of over 250 facilities spread out across the country.1

Murrieta thus became a flashpoint for the long-simmering debate over immigration. An all too familiar hyperbole quickly consumed the proceedings: angry residents called for the National Guard to reinforce border security, the Mayor made a grandiose proclamation that “federal policy … isn’t working,” and a US House of Representatives member from Georgia, a licensed physician, speculated that some of the migrants could be carrying dangerous diseases “such as swine flu, dengue fever, Ebola virus, and tuberculosis.”2

That the public discourse surrounding these migrants reached such absurd, irrational heights is hardly noteworthy. Far more interesting was the brief glimpse it afforded into the massive security apparatus erected to manage our growing undocumented population. While there is a constant stream of new TV shows, books, and magazine features depicting the prison system, the sprawling network of detention centers, border patrol offices, housing complexes, and deportation facilities has remained almost entirely invisible.

The US is certainly not alone in this respect; most citizens of the Global North are equally shielded from the grim realities awaiting the undocumented as they traverse the juridical gauntlet required to attain legal residency. Many Australians, for instance, only first heard about the atrocious conditions at the detention centers constructed by their government on nearby islands after major rioting broke out at one of them in July 2013. Six months later, “the Pacific solution,” to use the Australian state’s unfortunate description of this policy, came into public view again after yet another riot at one of the camps. In addition to millions of dollars of damage, this second round of upheaval claimed the life of 23-year-old Iranian refugee claimant Reza Berati, reportedly after security forces and a Salvation Army aid worker beat him with a stick and rock.3

Now, two recent books have infiltrated this secret world reserved for the stateless, albeit in different ways. While Refugee Radio Times: Voices of Asylum, Identity and Resistance, an edited collection published by a human rights charity based in England that began as a radio broadcast, provides eyewitness accounts of life inside the system, Bruno Cabanes’s The Great War and the Origins of Humanitarianism, 1918–1924 sheds light on the historical events that fostered its eventual genesis. Each offers a unique and timely contribution to one of the most pressing dilemmas confronting our supposedly borderless world.

Not so much a debate as a collection of dialogues, Refugee Radio Times grants some voices otherwise excluded from the public discourse “permission to narrate,” to borrow Edward Said’s term. In the acknowledgements, the editors describe the goal of the book: “If integration is a two-way process then it is incumbent on the host population to communicate with their new neighbors and to build a new community together. Rather than a debate about refugees and migrants, we wanted to create a debate by refugees and migrants.”

Through a mixed bag of short essays, interviews, and oral histories authored almost entirely by refugees living in the United Kingdom, readers get a broad view of the global history of catastrophe that beset the Twentieth Century. The autobiographical portraits share many aspects common to other refugee narratives, describing long periods of time in prison for political activities, brutal violence, and a heartbreaking departure from the homeland. They also feature their authors’ persistent difficulties with the branches of the UK state tasked with caring for refugees. Arbitrary, petty tactics that seemed designed to degrade and humiliate asylum seekers pervade these stories: one recounts how his payments from the Home Office (a whopping sum of £37) were cut off because of a minor problem with his paperwork.

Some migrants flee their native lands only to find themselves in circumstances just as dreadful. One Cameroonian man relates how he got entangled in the “Detained Fast Track” system, an administrative procedure that allows authorities to make quick decisions about an application—decisions that cannot be appealed. Asylum seekers are locked up in the meantime, and it is entirely possible for this process to be anything but “fast”: “You can find yourself detained for years without your case being decided upon, and you are still in the fast track system, treated like a criminal. If you complain about the food you will be sent to the ‘F-wing,’ a wing specially made for psychological torture. You are with three people in a room and the toilet is in the same room, openly and just right next to you.” (Earlier this summer, a High Court judge determined that the system was “unacceptably unfair” but declined to force its suspension.)

Photograph by Sina Rahmani

Photograph by Sina Rahmani

This book and other similar projects that aim to give voice to the voiceless inevitably generate two questions. The first is the iconic question posed by philosopher and literary critic Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak in her landmark essay of the same name: “Can the Subaltern Speak?” This question seems particularly apt given the fact that many of the contributions to this book have been composed, in part, by other writers. An explication of this question and how it relates to the book would require an essay of its own. In any event, the contributors seem more interested in another famous question, posed by a certain Marxist philosopher: “What is to be done?” It therefore makes sense that despite all the despair and tragedy in these pages, the text ends on a resilient note. In the conclusion, one of the co-editors explains how, “If … there is a danger of overshadowing the wealth of life experience of refugees by focusing only on asylum challenges, we hope this project has gone some way to counteract that tendency. Beneath the harsh realities of the asylum process, there are fascinating stories of lives spanning continents and cultures … and of the perseverance of those campaigning for the people they’ve left behind.” As a Kurdish refugee puts it, “language is the most important thing—you need to express yourself and you need to understand what is going on around you in the place where you are now living.” Ultimately, gaining the “permission to narrate” is only the first step in a larger and more important process: the forging of political links and alliances between the documented and the undocumented.

But what about the documents themselves? Where did they come from? And how did they come to have such a fundamental importance in not just our daily lives but also in the interactions between states? When did statelessness become a problem both juridical and ontological? What makes the refugees of the modern era different than, say, the exiled Jews who settled in Ancient Persia?

The answers to these questions can be found in Bruno Cabanes’s archaeology of modern organized efforts to promote human welfare. Cabanes, who teaches in the Department of History at Yale, provides a fresh and elegantly written perspective on what he calls the “transnational turn” in humanitarian activism that rose from the ashes of the grand calamity of 1914–1918. “The Great War,” he argues at the opening of his study, “did more than create disaster. It fostered deep and long-term pacifist feeling among a substantial population, and it made the protection of all the war’s victims, civilians and soldiers alike, an absolute necessity—a project that drew to it a surprisingly large and talented group of activists and their supporters.”

The book is accordingly structured around five individuals whose work both during and after the war laid the groundwork for the global humanitarian ventures so widespread today: René Cassin, the French jurist who helped draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; Albert Thomas, the first Director General of the International Labour Organization; Fridtjof Nansen, the Norwegian explorer cum statesman who helped resettle millions of stateless people; US businessman Herbert Hoover, who worked to fight famine; and English activist Eglantyne Jebb, founder of Save the Children. What sets these five apart is not the fact that they were do-gooders that sought to alleviate suffering in far off corners of the world. Rather, Cabanes convincingly shows that their separate yet interrelated humanitarian campaigns signaled a distinct shift towards a more globalized rhetoric of “rights, not charity.”

The book necessarily cuts across a number of different subfields: legal history, military history, social history, and diplomatic history. Moreover, it’s fortified by in-depth engagements with a number of archives. The third chapter should prove of particular interest to academics and more general readers alike, for here Cabanes has provided a highly readable and detail-rich account of the rise of the modern refugee, one of the most enigmatic legal fictions of the 20th century.

When did statelessness become a problem both juridical and ontological?

In 1921, the League of Nations, which had only come into existence two years earlier, faced a new kind of humanitarian crisis: an estimated three million people living in the legal and political limbo of statelessness. For the first time in history, Cabanes points out, nation states started stripping portions of their own populations of any kinds of legal protections. Worse, this explosion in statelessness occurred at the precise moment when “the right to asylum … had become a prerogative of the state.” To complicate matters further, the war had spurred European states to begin guarding their borders more aggressively, and they began requiring some form of textual documentation for all those seeking entry.

In response, the League of Nations created the High Commission for Refugees, and asked Nansen to be its first chair. An accomplished scientist, oceanographer, and arctic explorer, Nansen already had some experience in this line of work. Shortly after the November armistice, he led an effort to repatriate hundreds of thousands of prisoners of war scattered across Europe and Russia. Although the Commission’s work was initially limited to Russian refugees, the mandate was expanded to include Armenians and Greeks in subsequent years. After the Norwegian’s sudden death in 1930, the Commission was renamed the Nansen International Office for Refugees. The most important achievements of the office were the creation of the “Nansen passport,” a travel document designed for stateless peoples that was recognized for a time around the world, and the 1933 Convention Relating to the International Status of Refugees, the first modern legal framework that sought to grant refugees comprehensive legal protections.

While the outlines of this history are well known, there is an important and two-fold accomplishment here. First, it provides a clear and convincing origin story of a troubling and deeply contested figure, a discussion that has been dominated by legal historians and social scientists. Secondly, it situates the emergence of the refugee against the wider historical landscape of the rise of human rights. As such, this chapter belongs among the foundational work of Michael Marrus, Guy S. Goodwin-Gill, Jane McAdam, and James C. Hathaway.

Taken together, these two recent works highlight just how little those fortunate enough to be documented understand about the difficulties faced by the sans-papiers. And yet, to return to Murrieta and a crucial detail I omitted about last summer’s display of xenophobia, this may be changing. Standing only a few meters away from the angry patriots was a far larger and louder group of counter-protesters, voicing their support for the migrants. Indeed, these counter-protesters—not to mention the thousands of Australians who took to the streets to express their outrage at Berati’s death—suggest that another way of imagining the question of the refugee is possible. icon

  1. Women’s Refugee Commission, “Locking Up Family Values, Again.” October 28, 2014.
  2. “Murrieta Mayor: Undocumented Immigrant Bus Protests Are Free Speech.”, July 2, 2014. Tim Murphy, “GOP Congressman Who Warned About Unvaccinated Migrants Opposed Vaccination,” Mother Jones, July 14, 2014. Phil Helsel, To be fair, not all were so alarmist. A local Los Angeles evening news reporter alerted viewers to the fact “a number of them have been found to have head lice.” KCAL, “Protesters Block First Wave Of Detained Immigrants In Murrieta,” July 1, 2014.
  3. “Review finds asylum seeker Reza Berati killed on Manus Island by Salvation Army officer and PNG security guards,”, May 27, 2014.
Featured image: Detention center for illegal immigrants, Pabrade. Photograph by yesfuture / Flickr