Whose crisis? Refugees and Europe’s political development

Let us start by noting something painfully obvious: the refugee crisis is above all a crisis experienced by refugees. Beyond this, the notion of ‘crisis’ starts to look far less serious, far more politically-spun, and far more vexed in terms of our moral thinking. Here in the UK we are given a depressingly familiar official discourse in which all manner of migrating people are lumped together into a kind of threatening and alien collectivity. Fear of immigration is a mainstay of creaky conservative politics that excuses poor governance and parochial worldviews. Is it possible that the flow of refugees up to European borders offers new possibilities for political progress rather than tired anxieties about security?

As ever, political discussion of immigration in Britain triggers a set of arguments and assertions that resemble nothing so much as a cankerous sneeze. The naturalistic metaphors are dusted off and we see refugees as a tide, swamping/flooding ‘our’ (that poisonous xenophobic coding) nation. The refugees themselves are corporeally encoded as vectors of disease-like threats: languages, medical conditions, and opaque purposes all of which should make us (supposedly) grip our armchairs and face the massive human suffering that refugees represent with nothing more than fear. Immigration – and refuges in particular – are framed as a political question of infrastructure: the extent to which this country’s networks and social care services can cope.

There is plenty of evidence from researchers and UN organisations which demonstrates that immigration statistics are always politicised and mainly put to the purposes of generating exaggerated images of inundation. The specific issues relating to the different forms of immigration are fudged and confused under the headline message that immigration, refugees, Poles, ‘gypsies’, Muslims are bursting through every border and our government is failing to protect ‘us’. It is like having a slightly drunk and abrasive Daily Mail op-ed writer as a town crier, tottering down every street on the hour every hour, shouting ‘Eight o’clock and all is panic!’

I am not going to rehearse the evidence about immigration and its impacts on the British economy, or the finessing of statistics. Nor am I going to identify moral panic about immigration with longer traditions of ‘Island Race’ mentality that have driven elite British politics and some aspects of popular culture since the seventeenth century. Yes, it goes that deep. Nor am I going to set out UN obligations to refugees or remind readers what the post-war meaning of the term ‘human rights’ is. Nor am I going to illustrate how vastly poorer countries take in vastly larger numbers of refugees. I want instead to present an altogether more positive argument about the current refugee ‘crisis’ that has emerged at the border points of some European states which have – for various reasons – failed to manage the relatively moderate logistical and administrative processes that would allow them to be given, well… refuge.

Consider the current flows of refugees. These people mainly started their migrations from Syria and Eritrea. Syria has suffered a protracted and complex civil war since 2011 that has led to the destruction of whole neighbourhoods, the use of weapons against civilians that were designed for major battlefront wars, complex internecine conflicts between different organisations, and a generalised failure of basic social provision. Eritrea has a government that has implemented a systematic forced labour regime backed up by a carceral system enforced by the military and a network of spies. In these two countries, the people who stay are too weak or fearful to move, perhaps already imprisoned or behind a battlefront. From a perspective that starts from a universal concern with human welfare: we need more refugees.

Of course, the Daily Mail town crier is now spluttering and jangling his town crier’s bell like a fatuous and bellicose idiot.

‘More refuges?!’

Yes, more refugees. Any person who has got away from the violence and arduousness of life in Syria and Eritrea has got away from the situation in which their life has been discounted, people who are waiting to enter a statistical death-chart, people who are beyond the pale. Insufficiently dead, in Iain Sinclair’s darkly ironic phrase. In academic work, this distinction is, in a rather convoluted way, presented as the distinction between ‘political life’ and ‘bare life’. Political life is a modern condition in which people enjoy membership of a state that is obliged to provide the basis of order and entitlement to be able to live as a citizen. ‘Bare life’ is the life of those who have no stable political entitlements and face states that are as likely to exclude or destroy them as set rules to make life bearable.

Refugees are attempting to escape bare life and this is an extremely difficult thing to do. Last year, I read first-hand accounts of people escaping from Libya across the Mediterranean and was struck by the following immanent characteristics of taking refuge: the massive amounts of risk people take on from the day they move; the ingenuity required to broker transport deals, cross borders, access resources for food and water; the constant challenge one faces to assert one’s social identity in the face of officials, traffickers, and wheeler-dealers who see in you either a ‘case’ or an opportunity to make money. These characteristics are immanent in refuges accounts elsewhere.

If you have suffered that much, taken the decision to move, and successfully escaped and got to a border point within the European Union, you do not only deserve to be ‘let in’; you deserve an award. You deserve they keys to the Union. Binevenue, willkommen, benvenutoa, kalós orísate, and yes: you are very welcome.

If the town crier has not collapsed in an apoplectic cardiac event, he might respond with something like:

‘I cannot deny that refugees come from very harsh circumstances and it is all very tragic et cetera, blah blah blah, but we simply cannot take them all, can we? We need to think realistically’

I don’t know about you, but my imaginary Town Crier is beginning to look rather Cameronesque.

I reply to David-Cameron-The-Daily-Mail-Town-Crier-That-Only-A-Quarter-Of-The-British-Electorate-Voted-For as follows: whose reality is this that you are assuming we all share? One of the main dangers that political realism is frequently at risk of is assuming a partial formulation of what ‘political reality’ is and what major issues it presents. Let us remain focussed on the refugees’ reality, not simply in order to have a basic understanding of what it means to take refuge but also because, in the act of arrival, their realities become ‘our’ realities. They are cantoned at border points, embodiments of the atrocity politics of distant spaces, a physical insistence that distant humanity is still humanity. They pose a set of possibilities for political cultures – like the British one – that have both historically prided themselves on their charitable natures, their popular sentiments of sympathy and compassion, but also failed and failed again to find a way to engage in places where mass human distress is taking place. Debates in the UK broadsheets veer aimlessly but predictably from ‘we must help them’ to ‘there is nothing we can do here’ or a series of cynical derelictions that, short of a ‘new colonialism’ the displaced and famine-stricken will have to face their own fates as best they can. ‘We’ cannot nearly as easily go through the inchoate emotions of compassion, hubris, action, partial success/failure, and melancholic cynicism when those benighted ‘distant others’ are now – through their own remarkable exercise in political agency – ‘proximate others’.

And, actually, these ‘proximate others’ are very often ‘proximate familiars’. The refugees from north Africa and more recently and in particular Syria and Eritrea have tenaciously held on to properties that make them look rather remarkable in their familiarity: they have tried their best to remain as families (even if they are now often incomplete families), they come to us and address us in the name of international law, norms of hospitality, notions of common justice. They are outraged by police brutality, the slow and idiotic bureaucracies replete with Catch 22s and indifferences to the human condition. They speak to us and about us. They are not so different.

This formulation is not only idealistic or speculative political rhetoric. The conservative political discourses of some European leaders have been met and matched by European popular political organisations that have been ahead of the curve in developing political aesthetics and activism that precisely brings the identities of refuges in from distant other to proximate familiar status. New forms of sociability, sympathetic stories, provision of basic comfort, public demonstrations, volunteering accommodation and kitchens. The refugees arrive here and galvanise a new politics, a re-thinking of the political and moral content of ‘us’ and ‘here’. A very healthy and welcome replacement of charitable campaigns with solidarity politics, and a solidarity politics based not in helping only those far away but also those who are both ‘far away’ and ‘expectant neighbours’.

The refugees wait behind lines of police, largely calmly and orderly (don’t believe the tabloids about Calais), probably unaware that they are bringing with them a great political test for ‘us’ and our sovereignties. What kind of ‘nation’ or ‘community of nations’ are we? What kind of government do we have? What resources can we generate to embrace not the ‘burden’ of the refugees but the opportunities of expanded political energy and possibilities that they provoke?

Let them all come; let us see what ‘we’ are made of.

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