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What Is a Refugee If There Is No Nation-State?

The poignant parallels of the Palestinian and Syrian refugee experiences.

Al-Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, near the Syrian border.
Photo Credit: MTL/Creative Time Reports


The legacy of the 20th century has been to define a stateless person in need as a refugee. In the Middle East, there are millions of such “refugees,” many of whom have lacked a state for 65 years, since thenakba of 1948 that created Israel out of Palestine. The dates of the disasters are written on the walls of the camps: 1948, 1967, 1973. And Israel continues to divide Palestine and its people while its own borders implode. In recent weeks, Eritrean and Sudanese immigrants in the thousands have been occupying public space, demanding that their humanity be recognized, chanting, “We are all refugees; yes to freedom—no to prison!”

Contemporaneously, in the wake of uprisings from Sidi Bouzid to Daraa, the borders that the British government and the League of Nations created for the former provinces of the Ottoman Empire—forging the present states of Israel, Egypt, Syria and Lebanon (and leaving Palestinians stateless)—are  breaking down. The Middle East is a microcosm of the demise of  Westphalian civilization, showing how nation-states dissolve in the heady crucible of global capital and militarism. So what does it mean to say and hear, “We are all refugees”?

On the Nation-State

Hannah Arendt, in exile from Nazi Germany, influentially described the refugee as a person lacking the rights promised by liberal democratic states—a paradox because those same states denied refugees their human rights in the defense of their own sovereignty. Nations wage war, internally and externally, to the point that militarism has become a constant condition. But are states really sovereign today, when war is not declared and violence flows ceaselessly across borders? Or when governments represent the interests of multinational corporations rather than those of their people? Think of the  drones monitoring and bombing people in Yemen and Pakistan, countries against which the United States has never declared war. Consider the debt created by conditions of economic servitude in Greece or Egypt or even the United States.

The Middle East, in particular, poses the quintessential questions of our time: What is a refugee if there is no nation-state? Can refugees really exist as a category if there are no effective governments in control of territory and the mass illusion of real democracy has faded away? Today’s refugee is a person seeking multiple refuges, not only from political violence but also from neoliberalism, a system that erodes every border to create ceaseless capital flows while erecting new walls to separate humans.

Detroiters refer to the municipal boundaries that enclose their shrinking population as “the border.” People evicted from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina refused to be called refugees because they insisted that they remained citizens of the United States. When people occupied Wall Street on September 17, 2011, they said they came as  refugees from a native dreamland, seeking asylum in the actual. They sought to rediscover and reclaim the world—without the state and without the refugees the state creates. When Superstorm Sandy struck, people  saw beyond the state. They declared their own emergency and mobilized supplies and volunteers to collaborate with those whose lives were in danger from hunger, darkness and exposure to the elements. When Palestinian Syrians boarded a boat seeking refuge, they were denied asylum by Malta. Instead they were  taken in by the international waters of the Mediterranean while the relatives they left behind continue to experience a brutal siege by the Syrian regime in Yarmouk refugee camp, dying slowly as they are starved,  lynched and tortured.

How do we see the person who is displaced by state or economic violence, whether from Syria, Palestine, Sudan, Detroit, Soweto or any other place? In addition to those driven away from their homes by war or poverty, climate disasters and environmental violence are forging new types of displaced people: oil refugees, nuclear refugees, bauxite refugees, water refugees. What name do we give to these emerging states of statelessness? For many years, the politics of the powerless largely centered on creating a state for them. What is the politics of today’s global stateless, left behind by governments at the mercy of corporations that transcend national laws and international treaties?

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