The myth of the nation-state as a “natural” entity is problematic, for it allows our humanity to weaken at the border controls, says Nitasha Kaul.
“We do not care—
That much is clear.
Of us care
We are not wise—
For that reason,
Is much against
—Langston Hughes, ‘Wisdom And War’
“People die of dehydration on ocean rafts, suffocate in lorries, face fierce dogs, prison walls and inhuman insults—why? Because they want to earn a living or escape violence, and they were born on the wrong global latitude and longitude, imaginary lines that dictate real fates. What a world! … If one day, all the people around the world were to refuse to produce their passport upon travel—just refuse, on principle. Hide it or burn it or something, and say, we do not know, we want everyone to have the same paper of identity, wherever they are. … Passport bonfires, non-cooperation and boycotts until people are treated better!”
—Nitasha Kaul, Residue
Borders demarcate, and simultaneously construct, regimes of power. The violent upheavals of imperialism, colonialism, and decolonisation shaped much of the geography of the modern world. People were conquered/civilised/colonised in the name of economic rationality and assumed moral superiority, they were forcibly moved around the globe to enhance profit and production, and populations were identified and structured into labels that then became self-identificational for the colonised.
The myth of the nationstate as a “natural” entity continuously handed down from history and geography has been problematic and detrimental, because this “nation-statism” allows our humanity and conscience to weaken at the border controls. Viewing the world as a billiard ball model of comparable unitary nationstates (as results from the application of atomistic natural science models to space and society), each responsible for their own populations alone, distorts the global spatial and social relations.
The nowdominant Westphalian model of nationstates is merely one specific historical way of structuring the world. And it relies upon an unholy nexus of GeographyEconomicsLaw that has forced truly urgent political questions of land-capital-rule into the margins. We live in a world where there is an enforced hierarchy of human worth that is encoded into passports. An online infographic ranks the “power” of the passports of different countries in terms of the travel freedom afforded to a passport holder of that country. Unsurprisingly, the imperial-colonial countries of Euro-America do very well—among others, UK and US passport holders can access 173 and 172 countries globally. While claiming to be bastions of freedom and democracy and upholders of global human rights, these same countries have, in many cases, failed to act with humanity when faced with “Others” who are seeking refuge.
We live in a world where there is an enforced hierarchy of human worth that is encoded into passports.
Even before the “refugee crisis” unfolded in Europe this summer, the death toll of asylum seekers, refugees, and migrants—that’s human beings to you and me—due to the policies of ‘Fortress Europe’ stood at over 22,000 people between 1993 and April 2015. Many thousands more have died since. In the mainstream European media, the “refugee crisis” unfolded as if it were a televisual drama, with the mention of the deaths becoming ever more routine, buried as a statistic somewhere in the bulletins. The mediatised image of three-year old Aylan Kurdi’s body lying face down on the beach in Turkey at first threatened to burst this bubble of indifference, but it too was soon forgotten. As I write this, another capsized boat in the Aegean Sea brings news of more deaths, half of them children.
The situation in Europe is not a “refugee crisis”, it is a crisis of humanity. For it is the basic principle of universal human rights—that all human beings are inherently equal—which is threatened by a toxic combination of xenophobia, Islamophobia, racism, nation-statism and right-wing populism that largely prevails on this continent today.
The theorist Judith Butler writes of “mournable bodies/grievable lives”. She analyses EU immigration policies to show how they give rise to certain categories of “recognisable persons” who are worthy of protection and grieving. In the case of the others, it isn’t that the law is necessarily suspended but there are no clear limits to state arbitrariness regarding the rights of the less worthy and less recognisable category of persons, the migrants.
How can a relation between memory and violence be such that the world can say “we will never forget” to the lives lost on the September 11 attacks in New York, and yet be oblivious to the daily deaths of the refugees who are fleeing war, catastrophe and destruction?
On 11 September 2015, when I spoke about the anger and apathy towards immigration and immigrants in ‘Fortress Europe’, Butler’s thoughts were uppermost in my mind. How can a relation between memory and violence be such that the world can say “we will never forget” to the lives lost on the September 11 attacks in New York, and yet be oblivious to the daily deaths of the refugees who are fleeing war, catastrophe and destruction?
Less than a century after the Holocaust, we are faced again with rhetoric, policies and procedures which seek to dehumanise the refugees as “the Other” that does not deserve compassion or humanity. The dehumanisation and dehistoricisation of the refugees happens through their stories being denied hearing, through images of people pressed together as nameless faceless masses, through right-wing reportage that deliberately calls refugees “illegal immigrants”, or makes stereotypical associations between refugees and criminality or scrounging. While there have always been, and will always be, some people motivated by hatred for those who are different, the scale of such words and actions has dramatically increased recently.
This last year has seen media commentators compare refugees to vermin (in the UK, Katie Hopkins called them cockroaches and suggested using gunboats on migrants to shoot them at sea), the British Prime Minister David Cameron talk about them as a “swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean”, the inking of numbers with indelible markers on the hands of refugees in Czech Republic, refugees in Budapest being lied to about being taken to Austria to force them to get onto trains that would take them to camps, thousands of refugees facing the riot police after being locked overnight in a stadium in Greece, physical attacks on refugees (even an instance where a Hungarian TV camerawoman deliberately tripped escaping refugees while filming), calls in some countries to only take in Christian refugees and not Muslim ones. People seeking refuge in Europe face suspension of Schengen rules and reinstated national border controls, a resurgence of far-right parties and anti-immigrant rallies, plus polls that show a majority of citizens in some countries (for example, the Czech Republic) openly advocating sending those seeking refuge back to their home countries without providing any help.
Less than a century after the Holocaust, we are faced again with rhetoric, policies and procedures which seek to dehumanise the refugees as “the Other” that does not deserve compassion or humanity.
The policies by many European governments—Germany is a notable exception, where Chancellor Angela Merkel has taken a more responsible and humane stance—have focused on spending money on border controls to keep the desperate refugees out. There are the razor wire fences in Hungary, and the millions of Euros spent by Bulgaria building a wall to fence its border with Turkey. Most recently, the Justice Minister in Denmark proposed a bill (that is expected to pass into law soon) that would allow the Danish authorities to confiscate jewellery and valuables from refugees in order to meet the cost of helping them. The normalisation of hate speech against refugees has become such that when some anonymous users, in an online experiment, commented on right-wing British tabloid (The Daily Mail) articles with actual Nazi propaganda, changing the word ‘Jew’ with ‘migrant’, their posts got “upvoted” (i.e., recommended by other users who were in agreement) and the more blatant Nazi propaganda (including direct quotes from Hitler in the Mein Kampf) they used, the more their posts got upvoted (reported in The Independent by Matthew Champion). It is also important to note how in the aftermath of the 13 November Paris attacks, there was an immediate blaming of the refugees, something which was found to be utterly unsubstantiated later.This normalisation of hate speech against a target group is crucial to the way in which states respond to their needs. It is a miracle of mass media functioning that so many European citizens can fail to see that the refugees are fleeing the exact same regions that are being bombed by their governments. Further, there is the obvious hypocrisy of claiming to stand for freedom while denying refuge to people who are escaping authoritarian dictators or religious fundamentalists. Why was it legitimate to celebrate the Berlin Wall crossings over from the Eastern bloc in the name of freedom, but not those Syrians who also wish to transition into freedom, safety and rights?
Classifying land and people into nations and continents was a historical process fraught with prejudice and power. But what makes us human is the premise of a shared common humanity. The best human virtues and values cannot be judged within national borders alone. If we care about human freedom and the fulfilment of human potential for everyone, we cannot abandon concern for our fellow beings, wherever they actually are, and wherever they are deemed to legally belong.
Why was it legitimate to celebrate the Berlin Wall crossings over from the Eastern bloc in the name of freedom, but not those Syrians who also wish to transition into freedom, safety and rights?
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights—the most radical document to which the world has ever been committed—has these opening Articles:
- All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
- Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.
- Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person…
It is this spirit that is kept alive by those in Europe today—volunteers working to provide food and shelter to refugees in camps (at Calais, Lesbos, Lampedusa and everywhere else across the continent), No Borders activists raising awareness of the unjust system, pro bono lawyers acting on behalf of refugees, German families taking in Syrians into their homes, those in alternative and digital media who bring the refugee voices into the public sphere, people like Rob Lawrie who face prison for breaking the law to help refugees for reasons of compassion and conscience, protestors and petitioners who document the injustices and influence better policies and many others who are struggling against the common-sense apartheid of nation-statism so that fellow human beings know what being human means.