Research

“We Are Almost Dead”: The Politics of Migrants and Refugees in an Unequal World

WHEN ALAN KURDI washed up on Turkey’s western shore in September 2015, he immediately became the symbol of the global refugee crisis. The image of the lifeless three-year-old in a red T-shirt face down in the sand sparked international grief and outrage, and his brief life and watery death came to represent the horror of Syrian Civil War, the callousness of Europe, and the growing plight of all refugees today.

Life moved on, and the world forgot. Donations to aid groups and Google searches for “refugee,” both of which had surged in response to the photograph, plummeted within weeks. Charitable giving was never going to solve the situation anyway. As several excellent new books make clear, the global migration crisis is, at heart, a political problem. The political leaders who were so touched by the toddler’s photo failed to act decisively or compassionately. One year after Kurdi’s death, the boy’s father lamented, “The politicians said after the deaths in my family: Never again! […] But what is happening now? People are still dying and nobody is doing anything about it.”

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In 2016, there were over 65 million people who had fled their homes due to “persecution, conflict, violence, or human rights violations.” That figure, roughly the same as the entire population of the United Kingdom, is the highest ever recorded, and means that one in every 113 people worldwide is currently forcibly displaced.

Half of all refugees are children and 10 million people were newly displaced during the year — that’s 28,300 people fleeing their homes per day, or nearly 20 every minute. Two-thirds of the refugees under the UN Refugee Agency’s mandate — 11.6 million people — are in protracted situations, meaning their community has been in exile for five or more consecutive years. And yet, only 189,300 refugees were resettled in 37 countries.

As a rule, people live and die in their country of birth. In an equal world, this would not much matter. But our world is not equal: some countries are wealthy, free, and stable; others are poor, repressive, and violent. Thus the accident of birth behind certain lines on the map determines not only where you live and die, but how you live and die. The natal lottery that sets the course of your life is not a natural development, but the result of political decisions in the past and present. In the modern global system, goods and capital cross borders with ease. People do not. The immobility regime has created a catastrophe.

Yet, at the same time that the world’s poor are immobilized by the rules of state sovereignty, the world’s rich are greeted at the airport with champagne and residency papers to sign. This inequity between rich and poor migrants is most starkly illustrated by Atossa Araxia Abrahamian in her superb book, The Cosmopolites: The Coming of the Global Citizen, which focuses on the buying and selling of citizenship and the 21st-century truth that people are still arranged according to their nation of birth, antiquated as that might seem.

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