We are all refugees (1)

Apparently nobody wants to know that contemporary history has created a new kind of human beings – the kind that are put in concentration camps by their foes and in internment camps by their friends.

Hannah Arendt, We Refugees

The images of thousands upon thousands of people seeking refuge in europe, moving by whatever means are available and that they can afford, or simply on foot, with the inevitable companion catalogue of tragedies and horrors,  is quickly transformed into an official “crisis” that aims to de-politicise the unfolding event and in the face of which the protected and privileged “citizens” of petite-bourgeois peace are led to demand measures of security from the State against the “swarms” of uncivilised and heathen barbarians.  For some, exceptions are made for “good christians”; for others, racist assimilation is declared to be the price for protection (e.g. Nicolas Sarkozy: Le Monde, 18/09/2015)

Let us set aside once and for all the blind prejudice that the phenomenon of mass refugees is novel, that it is an anomaly amidst the civilised community of nations, consequence only of unrestrained and irrational savagery.  The refugee is a child of the Nation State, witness to its birth, contemporary to its construction and institutionalisation.  Rather than a marginal phenomenon, it has been a central consequence, an excrescence, of the constitution of nations and their conflicts and wars of influence and appropriation.

As Hannah Arendt wrote in 1943, refugees “driven from country to country represent the vanguard of their peoples”(2); a vanguard in the sense that they upset, overturn, the supposed “natural” relation between a set of interconnected concepts: human being-birth-citizen-nation-territory.  And thus the concepts through which one thinks politics, a radical politics, concepts such as sovereigntyfreedom, revolution, and the like, must be re-thought, along with the practices that follow from them.

Arendt, in The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), directly addressed the figure of the refugee in post-WWI europe in a chapter forcefully entitled, “The Decline of the Nation-State and the End of the Rights of Man”.  The disintegration of multi-national and multi-ethinic states in the wake of the war, most notably russia, austria-hungary and the ottoman empire, led to an unprecedented number of refugees: 1.5 million white russians, a million greeks, 700,000 armenians, half a million bulgarians, and hundreds of thousands of germans, hungarians, and roumanians.  To these, 30% of the population in the new states created by the peace treaties on the model of the Nation State (Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, for example) was comprised of minorities that had to be protected by a series of international treaties – the so called Minority Treaties – which were often never enforced.  A few years later, the racial laws in germany and the civil war in spain created new refugee populations in europe. (3)

To understand that the refugee is a stateless individual is the key to unveiling her/his political significance, according to Arendt.  If politics is, among other things for her, the “space of appearances”, “the space where I appear to others as others appear to me”(4), then the refugee without any recognised political belonging is invisible.  Stripped of any dense or thick political affiliation, s/he is naked, a mere human being subject to whims, violence, arbitrary power, at the hands of states and non-states.  And should they become visible, it is only in the fleeting media imagery of victimhood, or as objects of “humanitarian” administration.  Any notion of “human dignity” within the political system of Nation States thus presupposes a great deal more than human life or existence; in other words, no dignity is to be found in simply being alive.  As Giorgio Agamben states the matter, a “stable statute for the human in itself is inconceivable in the law of the Nation-State.” (5)  What the refugee then unmasks within the system is the dependence of any supposedly human right on national sovereignty.  Stateless, the refugee is also without rights.  And thus human rights are revealed as the privilege of national citizens, of those who by birth “merit” the protection of State authority.  Beyond the latter, lie impotent non-governmental organisations and not so impotent armed guards.

The united nations today calculates that there are over 60 million refugees (UNHCR 18/06/2015); a number which no doubt sins as an underestimate, for it assumes the legal definition of “refugee”, whereas if one were to add the number of “undocumented” migrants and all of those for one reason or another forced to move, on a global scale – and “we are all becoming migrants”(6) – the total sum would no doubt be far greater.  Indeed, it may today constitute the majority of the world’s population. (7)  “Human rights” discourse is impotent in the face of this reality.  To the extent that “human rights” were first articulated in parallel with citizen’s or civil rights, then their dependence on the power of the Nation State for their “effectiveness” was inevitable, though only revealed in the figure of the refugee.

“If the refugee represents such a disquieting element in the order of the Nation-State, that is so primarily because, by breaking the identity between the human and the citizen and that between nativity and nationality, it brings the originary fiction of sovereignty to crisis. … What is new in our time is that growing sections of humankind are no longer representable inside the Nation-State – and this novelty threatens the very foundations of the latter.  Inasmuch as the refugee, an apparently marginal figure, unhinges the old trinity of State-nation-territory, it deserves instead to be regarded as the central figure of our political history.” (8)

To take the refugee as the “central figure” of our time is to separate it from the concept of “human rights”.  “The refugee should be considered for what it is, namely, nothing less than a limit-concept that at once brings a radical crisis to the principles of the Nation-State and clears the way for a renewal of categories that can no longer be delayed.” (9)  With increasingly large masses of “non-citizens” in the heart of Nation-States (a number that can only increase) and with an increasingly large number of citizens reduced to “non-citizens” due to proliferating and overlapping forms of precariousness, what needs to be imagined and lived are forms of extra-territoriality, of forms of life within “aterritorial or extraterritorial space in which all the (citizen and noncitizen) residents … would be in a position of exodus or refuge.” (10)  Any “national” status “would then mean the being-in-exodus of the citizen”, which would thereby break the ties that bind birth and nation, and thus liberating the people from citizenship and sovereignty. (11)

If the term “refugee” is in some sense burdened by the idea of a “refuge”, and thus the exchange of one master for another through agencies of co-optation by States and Capital, it need not be so (though the risk of the later is never absent, as the recent events testify to), for as Arendt wrote as a refugee, “we don’t like to be called refugees”. (12)  And if, as she says, they “represent the vanguard of their peoples”, it is only so “if they keep their identity”(13); not however in the sense of being the “nucleus of a future national State”(14), but as generating a legal no-man’s-land, a threshold space that exists/moves between and transgresses national sovereignties, while simultaneously creating autonomous, collective spaces in the cracks of State-Capital control.



1. The title of this reflection may offend, for it somehow suggests an equivalence between the condition of the refugee, with all of its hardships, deprivations, humiliations, suffering and even death, with that of those who are comfortably at home.  But the “we” here has not to do with any kind of similarity in physical state (though such exits), but rather with a political equivalence, namely, that we are all, refugee or not, governed under a state of exception, and that what separates those of us who are “citizens” from refugees is a precarious liminal space, a threshold, secured by State power, as well as transgressed by rebels against this power.  A mere shift, a clinamen, of events beyond our control can therefore place us in one category or the other.

2. Hannah Arendt, “We Refugees”, in Marc Robinson ed.,Altogether Elsewhere: Writers on Exile. Boston: Faber and Faber, 1994, p. 119.

3. Giorgio Agamben, “Beyond Human Rights”, in Paolo Virno and Michael Hardt eds., Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics. Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1996, p. 159.

4. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958, pp. 198, 199.

5. Giorgio Agamben, “Beyond Human Rights”, p. 161.

6. Jose Rosales, “On Destroying What Destroys You: An Interview with Thomas Nail” (30/06/2015), in Critical Legal Thinking.

7. Such a claim of course is not based on any strictly legal definition of “refugee” or “migrant”, but rather a political one.  To cite Thomas Nail again (Ibid.):

“… the figure of the migrant is not a class or identity; it is a vector (a position in motion).  As such, anyone can move into and out of it as territorial, political, juridical, and economic factors change.  This position is one defined by the primacy of movement and can be formulated in the following way: the figure of the migrant is a political figure who is socially expelled or dispossessed as a result, or as the cause, of their mobility.  The migrant is the collective name for all of the political figures in history who have been territorially, politically, juridically, and economically displaced as a condition of the social expansion of power.”

“… we are all becoming migrants.  People today relocate to greater distances more frequently than ever before in human history.  While many people may not move across a regional or international border, they tend to change jobs more often, commute longer and farther to work, change their residence repeatedly, and tour internationally more often.  Some of these phenomena are directly related to recent events, such as the impoverishment of middle classes in certain rich countries after the financial crisis of 2008, subsequently austerity cuts to social welfare programs, and rising unemployment.  The subprime mortgage crisis led to the expulsion of millions of people from their homes worldwide, 9 million in the United States alone.  Foreign investors and governments have acquired 540 million acres since 2006, resulting in the eviction of millions of small farmers in poor countries; and mining practices have become increasingly destructive around the world, including hydraulic fracturing and tar sands.  This general increase in human mobility and expulsion is now widely recognized as a defining feature of the twenty-first century.  “A specter haunts the world and it is the specter of migration.”

8. Giorgio Agamben, “Beyond Human Rights”, pp. 161-2.

9. Ibid., p. 162.

10. Ibid., p. 163.

11. Ibid.

12. Hannah Arendt, “We Refugees”, p. 110.

13. Ibid., 119.

14. Giorgio Agamben, “Beyond Human Rights”, pp. 163.


From Espai en blanc/El pressentiment, a microvideo …

Men and women wanted for a dangerous journey.  Low salary and extreme cold.  Long months of obscurity.  Few chances of returning alive.  Honour and recognition are irrelevant.

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