We Refugees

A version of this essay was presented at The New School for Social Research’s Politics Panel – Refugee Movements and the Crisis of Europe: Theoretical Interventions on April 18.

In 1943 Hannah Arendt published a short essay in the Jewish periodical “The Menorah Journal” entitled We Refugees. She described in it a widespread refusal among Jews who had escaped the Nazis to call themselves “refugees.” Having lost everything — their occupation, their language, their family — they were eager to adapt to their new country as quickly as possible and to become “normal” citizens. Arendt thought that this assimilation strategy was doomed to failure, because it ignored the fact that the European model of the nation state is structurally dependent upon the fabrication of stateless and displaced persons. Instead, Jews should remember what made them special precisely as refugees. Refugees, she wrote, are “the vanguard of their peoples,” since for them history was no longer “a sealed book.” They have already experienced and recognized what to others has only become obvious today, in the era of globalization: the violence, fragility, and historical obsolescence of a territorial understanding of citizenship. The definition of the human being as a zoon politikon, as a political animal, can today no longer be realized in the form of local communities that are strictly distinguished from one another, but must orient itself to humanity as a whole. It is about understanding that we never live on this earth alone, but only together with others.

Fifty years after the publication of Arendt’s essay, Giorgio Agamben has taken up its arguments and developed them further. For Agamben, Arendt’s fundamental insight has today been proven historically. Statelessness has become a mass global phenomenon. As such, it presents a challenge to the model of the European nation state which rests upon the fiction that birth in the territory of a state guarantees a person citizenship of that state. Mass flight and migration fundamentally contest this model, for the rising numbers of stateless persons can no longer be represented within this conventional nexus of birth and nationality. Agamben considers European states to be less and less capable of upholding the principle of territoriality as the foundation of modern sovereignty. States will never again be able to absorb the mass of refugees. His pessimistic diagnosis is that European states will seek to master this problem by concentrating refugees in particular areas, trying to localize what is un-localizable in the phenomenon of migration. This attempt will take the form of creating spatial states of exception, in other words, camps: places of bare life which are subject to the law but can itself never actively invoke it.

The political developments of the last few weeks seems to confirm many aspects of Agamben’s prognosis. The Mediterranean resembles those places he calls camps: the EU border protection agency, Frontex, acts as a temporary sovereign on the high seas beyond the twelve-mile limit, and refugees are powerless in the face of their actions. Frontex regularly engages in push-backs that infringe international law, seeking to block refugees’ right to claim asylum in an EU member state. The Italian operation Mare Nostrum, which enabled many people to be rescued at sea, ended in 2014. It was replaced by Triton, the Frontex mission, whose main concern is to secure the external borders of the EU. In this year alone the militarization of the EU external borders has cost 2,500 lives in the Mediterranean (and counting). In May 2015 the EU Council of Ministers responded to the increase in migration by deciding to confront so called people traffickers in the Mediterranean with a military response, which involved the armed closure of one of the most important refugee routes to Europe. But horrific scenes have not only occurred in the Mediterranean; they have recently also played out on the borders of Eastern European states. In early September in Hungary, hundreds of newly-arrived Syrian refugees boarded a train to a camp, because they were told it would take them to freedom in the West; and in the Czech Republic the authorities came up with the idea of writing identification numbers in indelible ink on the forearms of refugees. The New York Times noted with horror that in the whole of European postwar history never had so many images been seen of people locked into trains, men in military uniform supervising crowds of people, and babies being passed over barbed wire fences.

At the same time, in many Europe cities there were spontaneous demonstrations of solidarity with the refugees. Large donations of emergency supplies were made, accommodation was organized, and a rescue operation was even undertaken to enable people stuck at Budapest’s Keleti Station to travel onwards. The German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared that Germany would take a ‘leading role’ in dealing with those seeking shelter, and the President of the EU Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, emphasized the fundamental historical significance of the right of asylum to European identity. These reactions were quite rightly treated as an expression of direct sympathy that countered the increase of racism and nationalism. However, if we take seriously Arendt’s insight and its actualization by Agamben, then the answer to exclusion can never simply be inclusion. Seeking to solve the current “refugee crisis” (a term that mistakenly ascribes the crisis to the fleeing human beings rather than to anachronistic political institutions) through the inclusion of those seeking protection in existing states still adheres to the fiction of a necessary connection between citizenship and territoriality. From this perspective, Merkel’s and Juncker’s talk of “admission” and “integration” – thereby always also implying the existence of a “limit of burden” – turns out to be just one side of a coin, on the other side of which there is Viktor Orbán’s and Frontex’s policy of fortification and internment. Equally inadequate is the idea of “fighting the causes for flight”, a notion that is especially widespread among leftists. While it is true enough that the political and economic misery of large parts of the world has been brought about by the actions of Europe and the USA – through arms exports and military intervention, the work of the World Bank and free trade agreements, ecological asset-stripping and the destruction of living conditions – the implication is that everything would be for the best if everyone stayed in their “own country”.

All of these proposals, however critical and compassionate they might be intended, reproduce the problem to which Arendt first drew attention in questioning the aim of assimilation: the status of the refugee is understood as a deficiency that has to be overcome. “Refugees” should once more become “normal” citizens. By unquestioningly accepting the conventional conception of citizenship the latent catastrophic structure of the sovereign state is being reproduced on several different levels. The division of the globe into different nations, and the division of humanity into different peoples, is based upon establishing borders designed to hinder the autonomous global mobility of individuals. Nationhood, by definition, makes people illegal. Furthermore, it is only with the monopolization of force in modern state apparatuses that hitherto unheard of technologies of national fortification on the one hand, on the other the supervision, channelling and internment of refugees have become possible. The defense of Fortress Europe with warships, submarines, drones, helicopters, satellites and communications centers, as decided by the EU Council of Ministers, represents a vain attempt to deny the fact of global mobility through the restoration of conventional state forms. This strategy is simply futile because globalization cannot be reversed; all goods already freely circulate through the whole world, except the commodity of human labour (I could cross your shitty Western Sea / as a sport shoe or a flat screen TV).

Instead of holding on to an obsolete model of the nation state, Arendt and Agamben demand that central political categories should be completely rethought, based on the experiences of refugees. Arendt’s response to the problem of statelessness as a mass phenomenon was to coin the phrase “the right to have rights”: the right to belong to political communities and to participate in their social practices. However, if  this basic right cannot be realized in the form of membership of an existing nation state, then the challenge is to find or to invent a form of democracy that is not bound up with the principle of territoriality. Instead of talking about integration, there should be discussion of political participation independent of locality and of transnational public spheres that would make it possible for mobile people to govern themselves. This implies the possibility of several political communities existing in one and the same location, as well as the possibility of belonging to several communities at once, so that the members of these communities would find themselves constantly in exile within the other. Agamben proposes the idea of the “refugium” as a name for such an aterritorial space, thereby reminding European cities of their original vocation as ‘world cities’.

We have to think beyond conventional conceptions of inclusion and integration. It is not the refugees that must adapt to states and their power apparatuses; instead, states must be reorganized to adapt to universal aterritoriality as the prime human condition: “normal” citizens must become refugees. This does not imply a romanticization of the real sufferings of refugees, but a recognition that statelessness rather than conventional citizenship corresponds to the way in which human beings actually cohabit in the world. It is the refugee, not the citizen, who has renounced the violent temptations of the territorial form of community. Thus, the diasporic mode of existence inspires us to think of bonds of our communities other than blood or soil. New conceptions of citizenship, which can for example make use of Aihwa Ong’s notion of “flexible citizenship,” can make it possible for people to themselves choose the political communities to which they wish to belong, according to their own needs and interests. The internet has created a form of public discourse emancipated from the constraints of the territory of the nation state. It also creates new forms of co-operation and decision-making. There are already legal discussions of quite what form international law should take in today’s world society. For example, the concept of ‘inter-legality’ has been developed to reflect the plurality of legal sources that now exist, without seeking to integrate them into a single supranational legal framework. Conflicts arising between the norms embodied in different legal orders should in this view be resolved on a case-by-case basis, and not through an overarching body of law. There is no reason, however, why this model should only be applicable to international law, adhering to the notion that the world order is an order of sovereign national states. Even within the territory of an existing state heterogeneous legal sources can be linked together without requiring them to be hierarchised as in the Roman-Christian notion of judicial review. This corresponds to the fact that only some legal provisions require a territorial link, while others are independent of any one location. These kinds of developments suggest how it might be possible to rework basic political concepts on the basis of refugee experience.

Until these fundamental social changes are achieved, the most urgent task is the struggle against all those legal, political, cultural and social obstacles that states present to global mobility. This involves struggle against the illegalization and criminalization of migration, the militarization of borders, the internment of refugees, their subjection to administrative and police chicanery, as well as the struggle against the withholding of essential goods such as shelter and food, work and communication. Given the proven incapacity of conventional political institutions to deal with a human catastrophe that they have themselves created, this is the sole possible Realpolitik.


This contribution was first published in September 2015 by EUtopia – Ideas for Europe. Translated from German by Keith Tribe.


Further readings:

Giorgio Agamben, Beyond Human Rights, in his Means without Ends. Notes on Politics, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press 2000.

Hannah Arendt, We Refugees, in Marc Robinson (ed.), Altogether Elsewhere. Writers on Exile, Washington, Harvest Books 1996.


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