Rethinking Solidarity with Refugees
By Budour Hassan
In an attempt to challenge the rising tide of prejudice and incitement against refugees, world renowned artist Banksy sprayed a graffiti of the late Apple founder, Steve Jobs, on a wall in Calais Refugee Camp last month.
The piece depicted Jobs, himself the son of a Syrian immigrant to the United States, carrying an Apple computer in his hand and a black bin bag over his shoulder.
Banksy, who rarely comments on his art, wrote in a statement:
“We’re often led to believe migration is a drain on the country’s resources but Steve Jobs was the son of a Syrian migrant. Apple is the world’s most profitable company, it pays over $7bn a year in taxes – and it only exists because they allowed in a young man from Homs.”
While it is commendable that Banksy is dedicating his art and reputation to the cause of supporting refugees, he has provided an example of how even the most well-meaning initiatives to counter anti-refugee propaganda can get it completely wrong.
The problem with Banksy’s latest work does not solely lie in the fact that the move whitewashes Apple Inc., overlooking the corporation’s exploitation of workers and its flagrant and well-documented violations of their most basic rights.
Banksy’s action points to another profound problem: namely, the resort to a consequential argument in order to encourage more humane policies towards refugees.
While it is true that the myth that immigration is responsible for draining resources must be debunked, should our priority then be to saturate the media with individual success stories of immigrants to prove the propagandists wrong?
What position does this argument then force us into when confronted with the reality that millions of immigrants fail to become Steve Jobs? How will then we discuss those who were never granted the opportunity and privileges afforded to Jobs? Should they be dismissed? Of perhaps we agree they are worthy of vilification?
And even more still, what about those who cannot or do not want to be assimilated? Why should immigrants bear, in the first place, the burden to prove that they can “pay back” to the communities that absorb them, a burden with which a white male citizen isn’t encumbered?
In recounting the success stories of immigrants who turned out to be profitable to their host countries, not only are stories of wealthy, educated, and pioneering immigrants brought up. Some even go as far as boasting of those immigrants of Muslim origins who would go on to serve in the American army and fight in the Iraq war.
One can understand why Muslim immigrants facing blanket defamation would desperately try to prove their loyalty to their host countries. Yet was is not so readily recognized is that such arguments only further boost right-wing propaganda, reinforcing the notion that immigrants and refugees must constantly be obliged to prove their loyalty through assimilation—and that those who fail to do so are somehow the “bad immigrants” who then deserve our scorn and disdain.
The same applies to using the consequential argument that refugees, in the long run, will bring economic assets to their host countries.
It is likely that the migrants and refugees trapped in the Calais jungle will identify more with the sweat-drenched workers at the Apple factories than with Steve Jobs, the man who founded said factories.
It is also very likely that many of them will not be able to undergo such a dream transformation from being lost migrants to spectacularly successful businessmen.
That should not make them unworthy of reception, and they should not always be expected to beat impossibly tough odds to show that giving them asylum will provide the host country a sizable return on investment.
When advocating for the reception of migrants and refugees, our main argument should be a deontological rather than a utilitarian one. That’s not to say that there are not actual benefits for opening the borders. And those benefits are not just economic. The social interactions and multicultural diversity that open migration allows can only advance us a species. But it is the conviction that we hold a moral duty to open our borders and hearts to people fleeing war, poverty, persecution and other vulnerable statuses that should guide our attitudes towards refugees. Migrants and refugees should be welcome even if they fail to become the new Steve Jobs of this century or commit the very human sin of struggling to settle and succeed. In fact, human survival is dependent upon our consciousness of this moral duty not only to welcome refugees but to overthrow the man-made boundaries that restrict their movement.
“Only in a world in which the spaces of states have been perforated and topologically deformed and in which the citizen has been able to recognize the refugee that he or she is,” writes Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, “only in such a world is the political survival of humankind thinkable.”
In other words, our collective social, political and cultural survival rests upon realizing that we are all, in one way or another, refugees on this earth. As such, shaking the holy trinity of state-nation-territory, and dismantling the political, economic and bureaucratic regimes and structures that protect and buttress it, is our collective obligation.
Many might claim that this sounds too utopian and will be of little value when we face impoverished local workers who are convinced that migrants seek to deprive them of the scant opportunities they have and compete with them over the very limited resources at their disposal. It is inevitable that this perceived competition over meagre resources will lead an embattled working class to express antagonism and react with outright hostility towards migrants.
As the late historian Howard Zinn argues in his seminal book “A People’s History of the United States,” “the victims, themselves desperate and tainted with the culture that oppresses them, turn on other victims.” This conflict is not solely fueled by the far right and the populist fascist propaganda. It is also the state, the political and business elite who also fan the flames as they thrive on the emergence and perpetuity of conflict amongst the different oppressed and marginalized groups. While the latter have the kind of rationality and political correctness that prevent them from employing the blatantly racist lexicon promoted by the far right; they incessantly work to alienate oppressed groups against each other to maintain the status quo and remain in power.
But just as abstract utopian principles will not suffice to overcome those very real and tangible tensions and clashes, neither will consequential arguments. Our empirical data to prove the opposite will matter little for those whose racist incitement against refugees is not grounded on facts and figures even if it is cloaked by them.
Highlighting the falsehoods of their claims is essential; yet more essential is to build alliances between the local working classes and marginalized groups and between refugees and migrants. The genuine conflict doesn’t take place between the oppressed but rather between them and the political and corporate elite. The latter are the ones monopolizing the wealth and concentrating resources in their hands while antagonizing their victims against each other and deflecting their outrage from the real oppressor to the most oppressed. Building those alliances and coalitions requires a long process but can only be achieved through intense and horizontal organizing on the ground and forming new networks of solidarity.
Such networks of solidarity are also important to build among the different groups of migrants and refugees. The starting point this process is for our advocacy not to be confined to legal definitions and classifications. The 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees only applies to those persecuted “for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” Excluded from this protection are those who leave everything behind in their home countries to escape poverty and economic deprivation and in search of a more dignified life.
Poverty is war by other means and is the result of a structurally unjust local and global systems. It is primarily funneled by the same global powers that fund wars. Incidentally, those are the same forces that create this division between refugees and labor migrants, barely accepting the former while completely dehumanizing the latter.
It is mandatory to move beyond this legal classification and adopt a humanist, universal approach, because, as Nigerian novelist Teju Cole puts it: “moving for economic benefit is itself a matter of life and death. Because money is the universal language, and to be deprived of it is to be deprived of a voice while everyone else is shouting. Sometimes the gun aimed at your head is grinding poverty, or endless shabby struggle, or soul crushing tedium.”
Rather than being embroiled in a formalistic debate on who is a ‘real” refugee and on who deserves protection, our vocation should revolve around supporting refugees and migrants in challenging the global capitalist system that dispossesses them by shaking the borders that protect it. Shifting the discussion from refugees vs. migrants to mobilizing for open borders. Our discourse has to be as radical as the sacrifices of those migrants and refugees risking their lives leaving their homeland.
Driven from country to country, they, in Hannah Arendt’s words, “represent the vanguard of their peoples.” They do so not only by virtue of their courage to pave the way for others and search for new routes; they do so by exposing the crisis of the nation-state and shaking the concept of sovereignty to its very core. Inspired by their courage, we should follow their lead and break with the narrow legal categorizations that only aim at protecting the modern nation-state and defending its sovereignty. As the slogan goes, “protect humans not borders,” and this stands whether those trying to cross the borders are asylum or job seekers.