The Refugee As Agent Of Change

By The Post Collective

This text states that the role of the refugee takes a crucial postition from which one can rethink and reinvent ways of inhabiting the world. Refugees as valuable agents for change. Through civil disobedience and political resistance, refugees play an activist role and offer non-nationalsitic and non-liberal alternatives. The text alternates between quotes of refugees and their experience and philosophical explorations on the topic. In a final statement, the text wonders what art institutions and cultural workers can do towards a more collective and inclusive art ecology.

As the Dutch philosopher Lieven De Cauter warns: “The world is increasingly being divided between those who have access to sanctuary and those who are destined to end up in camps, slums and ghettos”. By disregarding and breaking from such mechanisms of division and exclusion, undocumented refugees and migrants bring attention to the kinds of inequality and discrimination faced by so many worldwide. The so-called ‘migration crisis’ is a total misnomer and instead reflects a fundamental crisis of humanity. As the world is collapsing and becoming divided on a number of fronts, the role of the refugee presents a crucial position from which one can rethink and reinvent ways of inhabiting the world as we protect and share its resources. With every new and ongoing armed conflict, refugees may not be the anomalies or exceptions that politicians and privileged parts of the population insist on seeing them but rather THE political subject of the 21st century. The way undocumented refugees and migrants are presently perceived and treated will need to fundamentally change. Rather than being considered outsiders and pariahs, they should be seen as valuable agents of change and new thinking in a world rapidly sliding into catastrophic states of division and collapse. This does not imply that they be cast into the role of martyrs or heroic figures in terms of any specific cause or struggle, but rather, something that connects to what Marxist geographer David Harvey stipulates as a fundamental requirement for building a radically different world, in being able ‘to transform our mental conception of the world’.1 The task of political thinking is in recognising the refugee as a valuable generator of change and renewal across a wide range of cultural and social areas. In terms of the ‘dissolution of the nation state’ and developing post-national approaches to solving the great problems we face, the traversing of borders and allowance for freedom of movement holds a pivotal part in effectively recognising our global interrelationships and interdependency. The refugee and migrant’s aspirations and actions in terms of building forms of social self-determination and being-in-common are in direct opposition to the proliferation of walls, places of demarcation and separation, and all of the multiple forms of being inside and outside prevalent in the current geopolitical order. Ultimately, the radical democratic stance of the undocumented refugee and migrant as political subject is succinctly reflected and enunciated in the statement: “We are here, therefore we are from here”. Such a declaration is a central tenet for recognising a global collective identity and purpose. Also, it can be understood in terms of what the philosopher Peter Sloterdijk calls “a place within a self” in opposition to the prevalent mindset of the self being in a place.

“The place is the thing travelling from me to me. The place is the land and history within me. The place is the thing pointing towards me. Oh, nothing lights the name in this place.”

Mahmond Darwish Brief Reflections on an Ancient and Beautiful City on the Coast of the Mediterranean Sea.

By breaking from oppressively nationalistic laws and border controls, by seeking ways of surviving beyond one’s homeland, actions taken by the refugee and migrant, crucial feats of civil disobedience, political resistance and global activism emerge. Those who seek refuge and those who cross borders illegally do so in opposition to oppressive and life-threatening political regimes. This delineates an important ethical and activist position against a world of blind obedience. Such instants of resistance and disobedience also remind us that borders and discrimination against migrants play a central role in establishing privilege, racial imperialism and colonisation. Systems that restrict freedom of movement are designed to deliver exclusive access to resources and wealth for the privileged parts of populations. In defiance of border enforcement and migratory controls, the undocumented refugee and migrant is, therefore, on the forefront of a struggle against racial capitalism and the increasingly brutal, unfair injustices and inequalities that it perpetuates.

When I was young, I never thought of how much impact it would have to grow up in another country. I was bold, strong and resourceful and thought that I could endure hardships with no big consequences. But living in an environment that denies me my rights has defined the big part of my identity, and I have only realised it when my body started to be sick for no apparent reason, and my mental health has degraded to the point where I’ve lost control over my emotions. Being illegal while committing no crime has infected my life with constant crippling fear, which poisons my existence in everyday life. I’m scared of every policeman that passes by me, and I’m anxious to be perceived as a thief in shops or restaurants, while I didn’t steal anything. Every bike ride is touched by anticipation of, what if an accident occurs? I will not be able to pay my hospital bills. My work, my love, my friendships, my family – there’s no aspect of my life that is not somehow touched by the fact that I have no rights in this country.

agent of social change

As facilitator and agent of social change, the refugee and migrant can be considered in relation to what Marxist philosopher John Holloway calls “the capacity to not emancipate an oppressed identity, but rather to emancipate an oppressed non-identity”. Implying that instead of identities being labelled and contained by standards of social reproduction or integration, the emancipator figure of the refugee and migrant refuses to comply with social mechanisms that endlessly reduce humans to circumscribed and fixed identities. Non-identity means relational identity; multifarious and open-ended identity. Rather than being classified and contained in this or that identity, identity can be positioned within the notion and declaration of the ‘not-yet’, which bears and requires a plurality in modes of thinking that exist between different life experiences and perspectives — a putting aside of limiting categories of identity too often used and abused. Re-thinking and re-imagining notions of identity delivers opportunities for constructing an identity for oneself in a self-generative, self-validating way.2

I was talking to my lawyer, and while she described my chances of getting my papers, I asked her: “what if my procedure doesn’t work?” She answered, “well, then you just go back to your country”. Her tone was unbothered and light, as if she just told me somethi​​ng simple and obvious. I thought to myself, what country should I go back to? Almost half of my life, I have been living away from ‘my country’. The village where I grew up has changed its name, and the house where I lived is inhabited by another family. The people that I left there have changed or left or died. The forest where I walked has been cut, and the river where I swam has dried up. The weather is different, the cities are different, the politics too. So, where should I return, and how is this country still mine? To people and places that I no longer know? I have lived here for 12 years, I have become an adult here, have built my network and invested immense amount of my efforts, my projections, my time, my skills on this country. My life is here, and I am tired, I don’t have any power to go to a new place to start building all these all over again. ‘Coming back to my country’ means abandoning my life here, while having absolutely no resources for rebuilding. If they say that “to say goodbye is to die a little” then deportation feels like to die a lot.

differential inclusion

By scapegoating and demonising refugees, a system of division and categorisation is implemented to differentiate between those deemed false or bogus migrants and those deemed so-called ‘true migrants’. This process of discrimination is termed ‘differential inclusion’ and it perpetrates the exploitation and alienation of people with precarious legal statuses, who have reduced capacities to bargain or exert themselves while under threat of deportation and familial separation. Such a system perpetuates the gaping divisions between people and inequality globally. The plight of those seeking survival and safety from war, economic hardship and environmental disasters is the very same plight that faces and will face the entire planet. To flee from these kinds of dangers and unlivable conditions, to seek refuge outside one’s homeland is not to escape or avoid such difficulties but is to introduce strategies of survival and ways of resolving circumstances that are intolerable. When one is forced to leave one’s homeland, attitudes and strategies for change are brought to the surface on a global scale.

As a paradigmatic figure, the undocumented migrant brings awareness of the universal vulnerability and interdependence that operates between all people, and to which we are all essentially subjected and brought to recognise. As Judith Butler points out, such vulnerability should not be seen as a subjective state, but rather as a feature of shared and interdependent lives or situations.

Crucially, the refugee and migrant present possibilities for recalibrating and opening up social and cultural institutions. Artists and cultural workers can join by envisaging and activating strategies of inclusion and participation. Anthropologist Arjun Appadurai coined the term ‘ethnoscape’ for precisely this construction of an imaginary community outside notions of the nation-state, directed towards implementing an ethical and equitable process of sharing life’s resources.

Shifts and changes

A shift from individual consciousness towards collective and emancipatory action that is ‘talking back’ and ‘lifting and pulling forward’ in direct opposition to the increasingly barbaric modes of ‘push back’ now directed towards refugees. A shift from tokenism-programming in arts institutions to ‘push harder’ even if it breaks their own limits or requires new tasks, skills or knowledge. A shift from surrendering to discouraging policies to fighting them and exposing and critiquing them with a univocal message across the entire sector: We need open borders for our field to prosper with humane values.

Concretely, arts institutions can make a difference when it alleviates problems for those who are already in the same country and reaching out to artists and cultural workers who cannot leave their countries. This involves the far more tedious and excruciating bureaucratic work of arranging work permits, helping with visas, allocating time and money, following up on procedures, making exceptions to rules, providing long-term residencies with stipends that can benefit those who need ‘refuge’ beyond short commitments, or simply securing existence through jobs. It definitely means that the arts sector cannot fold back and use the diasporic communities in its own country as an excuse to not deal with those who are stuck behind borders.

Nearly one hundred years ago, the writer Karl Kraus declared, “The subjugation of humanity to the economy has left it only the freedom of hostility”. This rings more true now than ever before. Economic structures and funding within art communities must be fundamentally re-thought in light of how such systems hinder possibilities for substantive change by propagating hostility/exclusion rather than hospitality/inclusion. For such changes to be set around the construction of new modes of collaboration and inclusion, there must be reaching out from art communities to more marginalised and excluded communities. Just as the refugee and migrant focuses on re-thinking identity and experimenting with place-making, then the artistic community can actively engage with and support similar initiatives on everyday, micropolitical levels.

For instance, an important part of this opening out and action of inclusion is in recognising how the city offers a network of thresholds and in-between spaces to be crossed, infiltrated and transformed – making spaces no longer barriers or borders for determining degrees of separation and modes of exclusion. This requires the artist and cultural worker becoming an insurgent figure, by refusing to support existing dominant structures of inequality and by designing and creating as yet uncharted platforms from which life is liveable by all planetary inhabitants – both human and non-human.

This includes adopting principles of decolonisation by applying an entirely different logic for the production, reception and experience of art.

My Belgian friend was searching for a job and for a long time didn’t know what kind of job she wanted. Independent photographer? Assistant in a tourist agency? Graphic designer? Or maybe she should travel around the world before settling with her boyfriend? Surely they must have fun before marrying, buying a house, and having a kid. Though I understood how uneasy it is to know what you want from life, I was jealous. The life of my friend seemed to be a field of possibilities. She was free to be an artist, a traveller, a mother, and a house owner. So many ways to express herself. My life is more like a narrow corridor. What can I give back to the community while I’m just busy surviving? The only thing I have to keep doing is to try and get my rights in this country cause there’s no going back. It doesn’t matter who I wanna be, what I wanna do, what I think and what my dreams are. Usually, I feel like a ghost, but then I felt like a zombie.

To move freely

To move freely is one of the basic rights that each and every human should be provided. Movement within different places and between different places holds an essence to fulfill life’s potentiality: With regard to calls for the universal right to freedom of movement, the philosopher Martha Nussbaum and the economist Amartya Sen proposed that economic progress shouldn’t be measured in terms of growth of income or individually based reports of economic wellbeing but rather assessed in terms of specific capabilities. This means in terms of the ability to actualise valuable human capacity like reading, writing, making friends, or the capacities to direct one’s own life, to play, to enjoy nature and appreciate beauty. Instead of understanding economic development in terms of acquisition of money, one understands development in terms of the development of human capabilities. Nussbaum extended this to a theory of social justice by arguing that a just society would be one in which every person has access to the resources and opportunities necessary to develop her essential human abilities. To be ‘capable’ is to be able to participate in life with a fully healthy bodily integrity. Meaning a person flourishes and is happy when they are able to exercise their capabilities for freedom of movement, for self-determination, for education and play, for political and social participation, all of which - free from violence and discrimination. A just world is one in which everyone has the opportunity to develop these and other capabilities.

Through acts of resistance and disobedience combined with feats of generosity and community building, the refugee provides a capacity for change, and as Hannah Arendt describes, a way of “caring for the world”. Something reflected within the recent calls for developing and adopting a universal ethics of care.3 This means agreeing to a cosmopolitan obligation of co-habitation and interdependence, where all lives are considered to have equal value. Fundamentally, it’s about recognising the precariousness of life and embracing what the philosopher Achille Mbembe deems planetary politics and governance based upon the profound symbiosis of human and non-human life.

Landscape In Motion

One must be able to leave yet be like a tree: as if the root stayed in the ground, as if the landscape passed and we stayed firm. Hold the breath until the wind slows down and the foreign air begins to circulate, until the play of light and shadow, of green and blue reveals familiar patterns and we’re at home again where it is and can sit down and lean at rest as if this were the grave of our mother.

By Hilde Domin translated from German by Agnes Stein and the author.

  1. As the anthropologist Ghassan Hage rightfully stipulates, once we recognise that we live in “a multiplicity of realities”, then we can fully assess the capacity “to be other than what we are”. 

  2. Giorgio Agamben says: “the refugee is perhaps the only thinkable figure for the people of our time and the only category in which one may see today (at least until the process of dissolution of the nation state and of its sovereignty has achieved full completion) the forms and limits of a coming political community”. 

  3. Check, e.g. The Care Manifesto, which articulates a ‘politics of care’ as a form of power that can instigate real change through expanded networks of care. Or Judith Butler’s timely What World is This?: A Pandemic Phenomenology, demonstrates through the lens of the pandemic a “care solidarity”. Or Dirk Holemans, Philsan Osman and Merie-Monique Franssen in Dare to Care: Ecofeminism as a source of inspiration