By Nina Egger
Multiple refugee regulatory regimes exist around the globe. Sometimes local Refugee regimes in the Middle Eastern region coordinate their actions with the international refugee regime, sometimes they overlap, sometimes they stand in contradiction to one another. The various refugee regimes govern the lives of refugees in different ways (Bauer-Amin, Schiocchet and Six-Hohenbalken et al. in press). If international actors such as UNHCR that promote secular values in the refugee governance want to operate in the Middle East region, they need the approval of local governments. Therefore, the local authorities’ policy priorities play into the management* of refugees there.
The administration of refugees within a humanitarian setting may comprise such factors as housing allocation, access to food aid, de-politicization, repatriation, stereotypes etc. (Zetter, 1991). However, fewer scholars of forced migration have discussed the importance of religion as a factor for refugee management (Horstmann and Jung, 2015). In what follows, I demonstrate how religion is important, if not essential, for refugee management in the Middle East.
My first argument is that depending on the political parties in power or the institutional arrangement of a nation-state, religion continues to structure the political life in many Post-Ottoman states officially or unofficially. In various Middle Eastern states, the whole concept of minorities is still based on the millet system, a law introduced in the time of the Ottoman Empire. This legal system was formulated in the contracts Islamic conquerors made with the leaders of the non-Muslim religious groups of the territories they conquered. This legal system based on religion still lays the base for politics and minority politics in many but not all Middle Eastern States (Braude and Lewis, 1982).
In Israel and the Palestinian Occupied Territories, the millet system lays the base for the country’s politics of exclusion of non-Jews and their categorization into different ethno-religious groups. In other words, Israeli authorities have adapted and appropriated it to achieve the preservation of Israeli Jewish identity and the differentiation of non-Jewish identities. Thus, the country’s ruling elites use the millet system for their politics to exclude non-Jewish groups from power and equal citizenship in their country (Sezgin, 2010).
A second example of an ME country in which the millet system influences political and social life is Lebanon. In this country, the millet system has even been institutionalized in consociational political power-sharing agreements, and sectarianism continues to structure societal life on the ground (Bauer, 2012). A further example is Jordan, where a re-configured version of the millet system still influences political life, at least on the level of formal politics. The political life on the ground, particularly in the peripheral regions, is structured more strongly by tribalism and such criteria as group numbers (Maggiolini, 2021). But on the whole, due to the influence of the League of Nations and the British Mandate for Palestine on the level of formal politics, millets have been re-framed as religious minorities with particular cultural and religious rights since the foundation of the Jordanian nation-state. Owing to these administrative amendments, the members of the former millets have been integrated into the state as equal citizens and have ceased to be bound to the authorities of their faith.
My second argument is that the continued strength of identity and power politics in the Middle East has a great bearing on refugee policies. Local governments are not keen to accept displaced people that do not demonstrate the preferred religious or ethnic identity features and do not fit the prescribed vision of community. For this reason, as refugees, they are often marginalized within the polities’ and societies. In Turkey, since 2014, Arab- Sunni Muslim Syrian refugees have received preferential treatment when it comes to access to political advantages and humanitarian assistance as compared with refugee groups of other religious backgrounds. Afeef-Fathimath (2009) provides further evidence for Israel, where refugees from countries considered enemy states, that is, almost all majority Muslim states, are not allowed to claim asylum. However, the question is not only religious even in Sunni-majority countries, but also in many cases ethnic, for example, concerning the Kurds in Syria and Turkey.
The third argument supporting my claim that religion is relevant for refugee management in the Middle East is that many governments of the region equate religion, ethnicity, and nationhood with the political loyalties of individual subjects. Israel, for example, considers all refugees from so-called enemy states (Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Joran, Iraq and Yemen, Iran, and Afghanistan) as not eligible for seeking asylum in their country (Afeef-Fathimath 2009). In Turkey, only Syrian refugees are allowed to apply for temporary protection, which entails that nationhood is in practice still a vital factor for refugee management. Through nationhood, the Turkish refugee regime is purposely determining access to humanitarian services on the grounds of religion and ethnicity. This point is further illustrated by Danis (2011), who has demonstrated that Kurdish refugees from Iraq in 1988 and Kurds and Shia refugees from Iraq in 1991 have been ignored by Turkish authorities and have no access to any humanitarian support. I have illustrated elsewhere how Ezidi refugees were provided with adequate access to humanitarian services in Tukey in 2014 and afterwards, owing in large part to ethnicity and religion as the Turkish refugee regime’ policy criteria (Egger 2016).
My fourth argument is that authorities worry that the presence of religious minorities may allow the international community to interfere with their domestic political affairs. A case in point is the Vatican involvement on behalf of the Christians in Iraq (Pullela, 2014). Furthermore, there is the angst that non-Muslim faith groups and Muslim minority confessional groups may organize politically and form political opposition in countries that are mostly governed by Sunni Muslim autocratic leaders and religious clans. The Ezidis and Syriacs in Turkey joining the opposition party HDP may be considered one such example (Toksabay, 2015).
My fifth and final argument is that Civil Society Organisations (CSO) as well as Civil Society and International Organisations such as UNHCR have very limited influence when it comes to challenging the power of governments regarding their criteria for refugee management in all Middle Eastern countries. For this reason, exclusive criteria such as religion and ethnicity continue to be important for refugee management. There are several reasons for this.
First, many civil society organizations in the Middle East are not secular but religious. Hence, in the ME, religion is often an essential component within CS, which in turn affects the management of forced migrants.
Second, CSOs are considered as a threat by many ME governments. This particularly applies to those that are secular and offer services beyond humanitarianism. CSOs often have different interpretations of political problems and of how to solve them. Consequently, some ME countries design legal frameworks to restrict their influence, for example by monitoring their operations and funding (Kuzmanovic, 2012). Therefore, even secular CSOs are often not capable of maintaining their standards of ethnic and religious neutrality in the field of refugee assistance.
Third, because of the sheer power and often brutality of regional governments, CS is not capable of challenging them regarding the criteria they apply for refugee management, including religion, ethnicity, and race. Aware of the risks involved, many Middle Easterners do not actively speak out on exclusionary refugee politics.
Fourth, international organizations such as the UNHCR have limited influence on the criteria according to which local governments implement the administration of refugees. They need to collaborate with local governments and respect national legislations. Hence, even though the UNHCR is conducting Refugee Status Determination Procedures in some Middle Eastern countries according to mandate definition, its influence is still limited. It can only provide RSD services to a limited number of refugees considered eligible for resettlement by local governments and governments around the globe that are willing to take them in. In Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq, UNHCR was and is conducting RSD services only for people of Syrian nationality and a few other refugee groups considered eligible (UNHCR Lebanon 2018; Oktay, D and Tumer, Ö and Veysel, E 2015; UNHCR Iraq 2015). In other countries such as Jordan, by contrast, UNHCR can only provide humanitarian protection services to refugees (UNHCR, 2006). Thus, despite UNHCR’s presence in the Middle East, its overall ability to challenge local criteria for refugee management remains minimal.
In many but not all Middle Eastern countries, long established traditional institutions such as the millet system, which is based on religion, continue to structure political and often social life. Religion is associated with political loyalties and is therefore still vital for the governments in most of these states. For this reason, religion, along with ethnicity, remains relevant for the administration of displaced people in the region. I have also demonstrated that citizen-led political organizations and non-organized civil society and international organizations operating in the field of refugee management such as UNHCR only have very limited influence on government and their handling of challenges relating to refugees. They have hardly any impact on local governments' policy priorities regarding refugee administration.
Governments in the ME are very protective of their sovereignty and their own political sensitivities. Hence, even if not the sole relevant factor, religion continues to play a relevant role in refugee management. What I have argued here paves the way for further relevant questions, for example, of the impact of the long-term instability in the region and its correlation with the relevance of religion for refugee management. One also needs to probe into the question of what other factors in addition to religion and ethnicity, such as race, poverty, illness, visions of community, traditions, etc., are relevant for refugee management in the region.
Afeef-Fathimath, Karin 2009, ‘New Issues in Refugee Research: A promised land for refugees? Asylum and Migration in Israel, EPAU Working Papers [New Issues in Refugee Research], 183, Geneva, viewed September 2021 https://www.prio.org/Publications/Publication/?x=4362.
Agier, M 2010, ‘Humanity as an Identity and its Political Effects: A Note on Camps and Humanitarian Government’ International Journal of Human Rights Vol (1):1, pp.29-45.
Al Hindy, E et.al. 2019, Religion and Civil Society in the Arab World: In the Vortex of Globalization and Tradition, New York, Routledge.
Bauer, SM 2012, Alterität und Identität im Libanon: Eine Generation zwischen Bürgerkrieg und arabischem Frühling, Hamburg, Disserta Verlag.
Bauer-Amin, S and Schiocchet, L and Six-Hohenbalken, M 2022, Embodied Violence and Agency in Refugee Regimes: Anthropological Perspectives (in press.), Bielefeld, transcript Verlag.
Braude, B and Lewis, B, 1982, Christian and Jews in the Ottoman Empire: the functioning of plural society:1: the central lands, New York, Holmes & Meier.
Danis, D 2011, ‘Changing fortunes: Iraqi refugees in Turkey’ International Journal of Contemporary Iraqi Studies Vol (5):2, pp.199-213.
Egger, N 2016, ‘A political science analysis of the Turkish state political system and UNHCR’s response toward the Yezidi refugees, in the Republic of Turkey’ [Unpublished Manuscript] Master-thesis, Copenhagen University, Copenhagen.
Fiddian- Qasmiyeh, E 2015, Conflicting Missions? The Politics of Evangelical Humanitarianism in the Sahrawi and Palestinian Protracted Refugee Situation, in in Horstmann, A and Jung, JH (ed[s]) Building Noah’s Ark for Migrants, refugees, and religious communities, Palgrave Mc Millan, New York, United States.
Kuzmanovic, D 2012, Refractions of Civil Society in Turkey, New York, Palgrave McMillan.
Maggiolini, P 2021, ‘Christians of the Emirate: The Citizenship Process, Confessionalisation and Minoritization, in Maggiolini, P and Ouahes, I (ed.) Minorities and State Building in the Middle East: The Case of Jordan, Cham, Springer and MacMillan.
Oktay, D and Tumer, Ö and Veysel, E 2015, AIDA Asylum Information Database-Country Report Turkey, AIDA Asylum Information Database, viewed October 2016 < https://asylumineurope.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/report- download_aida_tr_update.i.pdf>.
Pullella, P 2021, ‘ Pope’s risky trip to Iraq defies sceptics’ Reuters, viewed on 10 September 2021 <https: //www.google.it/amp/s/mobile.reuters.com/article/amp/idUSKCN2AT1Gl >.
Sezgin, Y 2010, ‘The Israeli Millet System: Examining Legal Pluralism through the Lenses of Nation Building and Human Rights’ Israeli Law Review Vol (43):3, pp.631-654.
Toksabay, E 2015. ‘Women, ethnic, religious minorities change face of Turkish parliament` Reuters, viewed on 12.September 2021 <https://www.google.it/amp/s/mobile.reuters.com/article.amp/idUSKBN0OP1ZZ20150609>.
UNHCR 2006, The Middle East: Recent Developments, viewed on 29 September 2021, <https://www.unhcr.org/4371d1970.pdf>.
UNHCR Iraq 2015, ‘Iraq Situation-Emergency Response’, viewed on 16.September 2021 > https://www.unhcr.org/54f8592ef93.pdf >.
UNHCR Lebanon 2018,’ Who we are and what we do?’ viewed on 13.September 2021 https://www.unhrc.org/lb/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2018/04/Who-we-are-and-what-we-do_apr18_EN.pdf>.
Zetter, R 1991, ‘Labelling Refugees: Forming and Transforming a Bureaucratic Identity’, Journal of Refugee Studies Vol (4):1, pp.39-62.
[*] By “refugee management,” I refer to institutionalized refugee management.
 Among the exceptions are Leonardo Schiocchet, Janet Hoskins, Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, and Elisabeth Mac Allister. Overall, Building Noah’s Ark for Migrants, Refugees, and Religious Communities sheds light on the insipient topic of the centrality of religion for navigating the internal and external worlds of people in displacement.
 This does not mean at all that Arab-Sunni Muslim Syrian refugees are not marginalized and disenfranchised in Turkey, only that other groups are even more marginalized.
 Afeef-Fathimath also speaks of strong ideological preferences for Jewish immigration and reveals that the authorities in Israel distinguish between Jewish and non-Jewish immigration and only encourage the latter. Moreover, she shows that non-Jews are not encouraged to enter the state, as their presence is perceived to challenge and undermine the state’s ethno-national foundation. Non-ethnics are considered a serious threat to the survival and integrity of the nation state due to demographic and other reasons.
 They fled to Turkey due to the chemical weapon attack targeting Iraqi Kurds, especially in Halabja in 1998 under the government of Saddam Hussein.
 They entered Turkey as refugees due to the Iraqi Gulf War.
 Funds are especially monitored by governments in this region if they originate from abroad.
 UNHCR is obviously not the only international organisation operating in the field of refugee legal and humanitarian assistance in the region. Nevertheless, it remains the only international organisation conducting RSD procedures for non-Palestinian refugees.
 Meaning, according to religious and ethnic secular criteria.
By Ruth Wodak
On 21 April 2021, The Guardian reported that “[N]early 17 child migrants a day vanished in Europe since 2018”. Of course, this fact as well as many other numbers and statistics are not new and not surprising. National governments, the European Union, politicians of all parties know that unaccompanied refugee children belong to the most vulnerable groups in our globalized societies as recent reports of the United Nations Global Study on Children Deprived of Liberty and of the Austrian Kindeswohlkommission (established in the spring of 2021) illustrate. Frequently under way for months or even years, they finally arrive – if they survive such highly dangerous and traumatizing journeys at all – at the borders of countries which do not want to host them and which either imprison them in camps, lock them into cages and separate them from their parents (like at the US-Mexican border), threaten to send them back immediately or – rarely – after many months or even years of waiting because of difficult bureaucratic procedures allow them to stay legally with foster families who receive monies from the respective state for their food, education, clothing, and so forth. NGOs, journalists, scholars, and international organizations have written a vast number of reports, proposals, articles, and books, documenting the plight of child and adult refugees; petitions are launched daily, asking for help; and symposia continue to discuss options for humanitarian policies.
In predictable cycles, pictures of drowning women, men, and children in the Mediterranean , - between 2014 and 2018, UNICEF assumes that at least 678 children have died when trying to reach the safe harbors of Italy or Spain by boat - or of fleeing women, men and children in Afghanistan, or of starving children in camps in an African camp or of children running around in bombed-out streets in a Syrian town shock the TV audience around the world. Since September 2021, quality broadsheets report almost daily that children, women, and men are freezing at the border of Belarus and Poland. In fact, these refugees have become instrumentalized as pinball between the autocratic regime in Belarus and the European Union, as sociologist Judith Kohlenberger poignantly argues in a recent commentary: “Poland as well as Belarus conduct violent pushbacks which clearly violate the Geneva Convention as well as European Charta of Human Rights”.
To date, the sanctions proposed by the European Union prove ineffective, as migration expert Gerald Knaus rightly maintains. On 18 October 2021, CBC radio reported that Polish volunteers were trying to help refugees to escape to Poland despite the danger of being caught by the Polish police. The Polish border is mainly protected by the Polish army. In fact, Catholic priests have brought collapsible prayer pulpits to pray – not for the refugees but for the soldiers, protecting Poland from refugees. The liberal broadsheet Gazeta Wyborcza reported that, “at a joint press conference aired on public television, Poland's Ministers of Interior and National Defense [both members of the Polish far-right national conservative Party PiS] presented a photo showing an alleged migrant having sexual intercourse with a cow. The presented material, it turns out, comes from an old pornographic video.” Obviously, such lies, xenophobic sentiments and related activities catch international attention and lead to scandalization. However, after a few days of intensive debates, other pressing news stories replace such reports, and daily routines prove more important.
At this point, I would like to stress the process of de-historization. It is worth asking ourselves how it is possible that refugees, women, men, and children, are turned away from borders? That they are pushed back into extreme danger? That they receive no visas to enter safe countries? Has a collective amnesia infected (some of) the member states of the European Union? Has the memory of the Conference of Evian-les-Bains 6-15 July 1938 been suppressed? A conference where delegates from thirty-two countries met to discuss the future of European Jews trying to escape Nazi atrocities.
During the nine-day meeting, much sympathy for the refugees was expressed; but most countries, including the United States and Britain, offered lame excuses for not taking in more refugees. Even efforts by some Americans to rescue children failed: the so-called “Wagner-Rogers bill”, an effort to admit 20,000 endangered Jewish refugee children, was not supported by the Senate in 1939 and 1940, probably due to widespread antisemitic prejudice.
On 27 January 2017, when former US President Donald Trump signed an executive order that would ban all refugees from settling in the US for 4 months and ban Syrian refugees indefinitely, journalist Dara Lind sarcastically states, “We’ve been here before,” and recounts the failure of the Wagner-Rogers bill in much detail. But – unfortunately – the past does not influence present decision-making. We are all experiencing a déjà-vu. In this way, historians Michal Frankl and Lidia Zessin-Jurek remind readers in an opinion piece in the broadsheet Der Standard on 13 November 2021 that the situation at the Polish-Belarusian border seems horrifyingly similar to the situation of Jewish refugees at this very border in 1939, caught in no-mans-land. Sadly, many powerful politicians seem not to have learnt from history!
Accordingly, the success of the so-called Kindertransport has been forgotten; the Kindertransport saved over 10,000 Austrian and German Jewish children in 1938 by allowing them to travel to the UK, escaping Nazi persecution. In fact, Lord Dubs, a British Labour politician, had to appeal to the British government and British Prime minister Boris Johnson to grant safety to stranded children by reminding MPs and readers of the Kindertransport. He stated that “I certainly never imagined that 81 years later, in the same country that gave homes to 10,000 lone refugee children like me, I’d be fighting for just a few hundred to be allowed to find their families here.” Historian Philipp Ther has traced the trajectory and persecution of refugees in Europe over many centuries. In one chapter, he specifically focuses on the plight of children. In the 1930s, apart from the Kindertransport, around 20,000 Spanish children were saved from being killed by Franco-fascists during the Spanish Civil War. These children were given shelter by French civilians in France, after having successfully crossed the borders to France.
Secure rich countries such as Austria seem to have forgotten a non-distant past, a past where many Austrians had to flee their homes because of the Nazi regime and the danger of being deported, tortured, and murdered – by Austrian perpetrators. The reason for such de-historization is the impact of realpolitik. National-conservative parties across Europe have shamelessly normalized the discriminatory body-politics of the far-right in order to attract the far-right electorate. The restrictive, exclusionary policies demanded by far-right populists seem to be on the rise: only specific individuals ‘deserve’ to be admitted – what political scientist Bastian Vollmer addresses as “moralization of borders”, while others are kept waiting outside or are denied entry, thus reinforcing borders and boundaries.
In fact, former Austrian Chancellor Kurz (ÖVP) denounced the saving of lives in the Mediterranean as “NGO madness”. On 18 January 2020, Kurz, during an interview with the German newspaper Bild, was asked whether Austria would help some of the children (‘You’ve mentioned migration. There is, again, a large crisis on the Greek island. Would you be willing to accept refugee children from Lesbos in Austria?’). His response was: “No, we are not willing to do that. Austria over the last few years made a disproportionate contribution. There were over 150,000 asylum applications in our country, in my opinion far too many for the small Austria. We are still processing those.” Legitimation by rationalization and the argument of numbers are used here in the attempt to justify Austria’s decision to close its borders to incoming refugees – obviously an instance of what Wilhelm Heitmeyer labels “coarse civility” [rohe Bürgerlichkeit].
When asked if Austria would open its borders for 100 unaccompanied minors stranded in the camps on Moria, then Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg answered in an interview from 10 September 2020 that “If we clear the Moria camp, it will be full again […] It is also sending the wrong signal, namely that there is hope to get to Europe. That would trigger a chain reaction and we would no longer be in control of the situation. […] This is a question of common sense". Appealing to common-sense without conveying facts is a typical populist strategy. The then foreign minister explicitly argues fallaciously that the situation would get out of control if one would even help a few children. A “chain reaction” would follow, a scenario of threat, without any facts to substantiate these claims. He framed his remarks as “shouting for [fair] distribution [of refugees] would not be the solution”; in this way, any humanitarian appeals were quickly denounced as unproductive and irrational “shouts”.
In a video message on 12 September 2020, Sebastian Kurz added a fallacious argument to justify the decision that no unaccompanied refugee children from Moria should be hosted in Austria: "This inhumane system from 2015, I cannot reconcile this with my conscience. […] At the European level, we will advocate a holistic approach. What we don't need is symbolic politics. [Instead] real sustainable support for affected areas, an economic perspective for the African continent, and an effective protection of our external borders [are needed].”
Why the policies of 2015 should be assessed as inhumane is not elaborated, no evidence is provided. On the contrary, civil society, NGOs, local, regional as well as a few national governments succeeded in saving many refugees; solidarity with the vulnerable became relevant. This changed after the terror attacks in Paris (November 2015) and New Year’s Eve 2015 in Cologne. However, latter actions were not committed by refugees who had just arrived; but these terrible events were quickly instrumentalized by many politicians as arguments for protecting the countries from refugees. Kurz explained that he could not reconcile with his conscience not being able to save all children; and he fallaciously concluded it would be better not to save even one. Moreover, he denounced the attempts to help refugee children as symbolic politics; and once again cynically emphasized that protecting the external borders was more important than protecting the children. Predictably, Kurz and his turquoise-green coalition government stated on 21 August 2021 that no refugees from Afghanistan would be granted visa from Austria – although the Viennese Major Michael Ludwig (from the Social-democratic Party), for example, immediately proposed to host at least 300 Afghan female judges and journalists in Vienna, after the victory of the Taliban.
The cynical rejection of the Charta of Human Rights and of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child substantiate de-historization and the normalization of exclusion. Far-right populism in all its varieties has become normalized as a mainstream political force in many European countries and beyond. It is possible, therefore, to claim that the far right has successfully launched and subsequently established an overall exclusionary, quasi “political-religious master frame” (@ Michael Minkenberg) with immense influence on discourses and material practices, far beyond the boundaries of the far right.
By Angela Facundo Navia
For several years I have conducted anthropological research on the political and administrative character of refuge in Brazil. Although more recently I have worked with people from other countries, my expertise mostly rests on the experiences of Colombians with a wide range of state officials, international agencies and NGOs.
The mention of nationality when describing the groups we work with is viewed with suspicion by some authors addressing the anthropology of migration. They point out, quite rightly, that considering nationality as the main criterion for the analysis of what happens to people when they migrate may disregard other more important factors such as class, gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, political action, etc. These categories are indeed better suited to explain the enormous inequalities in access to the benefits and rights in the citizen’s link with a state. The criterion of nationality, moreover, can lead us to take for granted or naturalize the very idea of nationhood, that is, a permanent construction that aims to encompass an enormous diversity of subjects, times, spaces, experiences, and memories, and present it to us as an experience common to the group of people it tries to describe (Colombians, Haitians, Venezuelans, Syrians, etc.).
We know that, on the contrary, in addition to the differentiated experiences that we have just pointed out, regional variations in Latin American countries are strongly marked and become indispensable elements for understanding the reasons why people migrate, flee, are displaced or are afraid to return. Finally, the criticisms point, also rightly, to the fact that not all people have a nationality and that the dispute over what the national project should look like is often the source of the violence that expels people and allows banishment to be one of the contemporary political punishments.
On the other hand, there are also risks if the category of nationality or national origin of refugees is completely ignored in our investigations. Like it or not, the prevailing model of contemporary planetary organization is that of nation-states that provokes what author Liisa Malkki calls the "national order of things" (1995). Refugees in that order are thought of and produced as inhabitants of a different world: "the world of refugees", as people who are outside the national order and outside the power of the state, as Butler has also pointed out in conversation with Spivak (2007). This reading ignores the situations of violence and injustice that led to the exodus from their country of origin, nationality or where they lived for a time. The formulas so used in the language of humanitarian management in Brazil such as restart, new opportunity and a life that is remade from scratch also reinforce the idea that the refugee ceases to exist in that hostile place of origin and will be reborn protected and sheltered in a place of peace. It is also assumed that this change of state will occur thanks to the power of the State to recognize people as refugees. That is clearly not what happens. Nor do these notions mirror what we have seen in the trajectories of refugees, even among those who manage to activate an official application or obtain such recognition[i].
In the case of Colombia, moreover, nationality has been used not only to describe and qualify people, but also the conflict itself, which causes one of the most intense and prolonged displacements in the world, leaving to date more than 8 million people forcibly displaced and almost 400 thousand refugees (UNHCR, 2000).[ii] The formula "the internal Colombian conflict" invokes the idea that this is only a product of relations between individuals and groups within the country, ignoring the game of international interests that feeds and keeps it active and, in addition, reinforces the imagination of a conflict contained by the fictitious lines that are the geopolitical borders. The dynamics of the war in Colombia, as persecution of political opponents and social leaders, the control of local economics with practices such as money-lending, forced displacement of populations and the export of paramilitaries and mercenaries (as was made clear in the recent assassination of the president of Haiti), to name but a few, are practices that have passed beyond Colombia's national borders long ago and are part of regional dynamics.
As a research category, nationality does not necessarily give us information about people's specific experiences or conditions, or even their character, way of thinking, and personality. Instead, it locates the analysis of the social situation in a geopolitical context. In addition, the diplomatic relationship between different countries usually affects the administrative responses of a government when it comes to acknowledging groups of refugees. This can be seen in the attitude of the Brazilian government to Venezuelans. Another case in point is the issuance of humanitarian visas for most of the Haitians who arrived at the beginning of the last decade[iii].
In the early 2010s, the massive presence of people from Haiti strongly mobilized public opinion, the media and humanitarian agencies in Brazil, as is the case today with Venezuelans. In this context, most of the economic benefits or in-kind donations distributed by NGOs went to Haitians, generating discontent on the part of some white-mestizo Colombian families who at the time lived in the same shelters and demanded the same benefits. Some Afro-Colombians, on the other hand, benefited from a kind of racially informed blindness of some officials who thought, according to my interlocutors, that all the black people in these management spaces were Haitians. Thus, a political-administrative decision, based on the national order of things, directly impacted the daily lives and coexistence of people who shared the status of asylum seekers.
In the contexts investigated, nationality also appears as an element of negotiation based on the attributes that are commonly associated with a certain group. The refugees and applicants with whom I spoke were convinced, for example, that Colombians were very hardworking and that this characteristic was associated with nationality. Other nationalities, by contrast, were thought to be lazy and deceptive. Elsewhere (Facundo, 2021), I have explored how these supposed national characteristics are associated with gender and especially with race. Here, I want to point out that the interpretation of the national characteristics was not only carried out by migrants, but also by the officials responsible for implementing the programs for the reception and care of refugees and applicants.
As for the Colombian refugees in Brazil, it struck me that the officials emphatically referred to their case as positive and that this evaluation was based not only on the technical competence of the programs and officials, but also on the characteristics of the Colombians. According to officials, Colombians, especially those who arrived as refugees through the solidarity resettlement program, were very grateful people, who accepted any job, who complained little about life's problems and were always willing to make progress. Most striking to me was that those supposed characteristics of Colombians were always contrasted with the supposed characteristics of Palestinians who had also arrived in the country through the resettlement program. For the officials I interviewed, the Palestinians had acquired "the habit of protest" and that prevented them from establishing a dialogue that Brazilian programs considered adequate and educated, as was explored by Sonia Hamid (2019). In addition, their cultural habits and their alleged machismo contrasted, according to the officials, with Brazilian cultural dynamics, including hygiene habits, the custom of salaried female labor, as well as the manifestation of gratitude. In that permanent comparison, Colombians in Brazil were constructed as a “close otherness” in contrast to the “radical otherness” represented by other national groups.
In addition to the interpretation of nationality, another element that allowed an immense drama, still active, of millions of people banished, exiled, persecuted, to be transformed into a successful story of refuge and integration in the Brazilian nation, was the small number of Colombian refugees. At the time I started the investigations there were fewer than 700 Colombians, most of whom had come through the Brazilian resettlement program for Colombian refugees in Ecuador (which at the time had recognized almost 60,000 Colombian refugees). Therefore, they had not arrived in Brazil on their own and had not activated an application for refuge. The low number of Colombian refugees was not read by the representatives of the government or its NGOs as a problem. Quite the contrary: it was seen as evidence of the good technical management of programs that only brought in people according to the reception capacity. Moreover, starting in 2011, when Colombia's then-president recognized for the first time in national history that there was an armed conflict, Brazilian officials' interpretation was that Colombia would be in the process of finding its way to peace and therefore capable of protecting its own citizens. This interpretation translated into a refinement of the selection criteria for spontaneous refugees, a reduction in the number of applications granted, and the progressive deactivation of the resettlement program for Colombians.
The Residence and Free Transit Agreement between Mercosur member countries and partners, including Colombia, was also a key element in reducing the number of refugee applications. According to my interlocutors, federal police officials refused to open the refugee application processes, citing the option of obtaining immigration regularization through the residence treaty. Furthermore, many of those holding the required documents and capable of paying the fees, chose this option, as it did not impose restrictions on them in entering and leaving the country, or paying vital visits to Colombia. The national and international bodies responsible for the management of refugees and migrants insist on the need to distinguish between different categories to safeguard the status of the refugee. However, in the daily lives of the people with whom I worked, these categories are often mixed.
In recent years, the situation in Colombia has deteriorated again. Assassinations of social leaders and signatories of the failed peace agreement have increased exponentially. Collective displacements and massacres have again reached the same scale as in the closing decade of the last century, leaving vast territories available for mega mining, agro-industrial, tourism and energy generation projects. The repression of social protest leaves hundreds of people missing, killed, maimed, or imprisoned without due process of law.[iv] Social inequality is progressively increasing on account of the prevailing war economy and the Covid-19 pandemic[v].
Despite rising Colombian applications for asylum in Brazil, the majority of residence permits issued since 2016 are based on the Mercosur agreement. This calls into question the supposed transparency according to which an experience of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution translates into a request for protection or its recognition. I do not intend to question the moral and existential value that the figure of the refugee has for many people, and that, in multiple ways, dignifies and recognizes their suffering. But based on the case illustrated here, I suggest that not all the well-founded fears of persecution are captured by this juridical-political figure.
Moreover, we can say that the economic consequences of the state of war experienced by a country like Colombia make it difficult to distinguish the threats to life derived from deterritorialization from economic or political threats. The perception of events in a given country and their translation into protection policies for the affected persons is a complex game that includes decisions and administrative traditions of the nation-state and diplomatic relations, as well as assessments and negotiations with categories of nationality that qualify individuals and the conflicts or causes of expulsion. Yet, perhaps most importantly, protection and policies also depend on the assessments and choices (even if they are very limited) of migrants themselves.
BUTLER, Judith; SPIVAK, Gayatri. Who Sings the Nation-State? Language, Politics, Belonging. Oxford: Seagull Books, 2007
FACUNDO, Angela. "Territories of experience and places of administration in an ethnography about Colombian refugees in Brazil". In: Ethnography and space: conceptual transits and challenges of doing (Quiceno Toro e Echeverri Zuluaga, comp.) Medellín: Universidad de Antioquia, 2021 (in press).
HAMID, Sônia C. (Des) Integrando Refugiados: os processos do reassentamento de palestinos no Brasil. 1. ed. Brasília: Editora UnB, 2019
MALKKI, Liisa. Purity and exile: violence, memory, and national cosmology among Hutu refugees in Tanzania. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.
UNHCR Global Trends 2020
[i] Many of the contemporary nation state mobility regimes are based on what is known as “reciprocity rule”. This means that the nation states treat citizens of a determinate country as their own citizens are treated in that country. One of the problems of that manifestation of the power of the state is that stateless persons do not have a state to enable such rule. Often stateless persons are treated in the worst possible manner in the countries applying the reciprocity rule.
[ii] Due to the dynamics of the conflict in Colombia, which has lasted for more than 7 decades, there are disputes over the starting date for accounting for displacements. The year considered by the National Government is 1985. The historical record, according to the Registro Único de Víctimas (RUV) is 8.1 million displaced from 1985 to December 31, 2020. The IDMC (Global Observatory of Internal Displacement) in collaboration with the RUV published in 2021 a Global Report on Internal Displacement estimating that, of that historical accumulated, almost 3,300,000 people had overcome the condition of displacement to 2020. The number of people who remain displaced, according to that report, is 4,922,000. Nevertheless, considering that the conflict continues active, the risks of new displacements remain, and the historical record is used for social care and repair policies, the official data continues to be that of the historical record. https://www.internal-displacement.org/sites/default/files/publications/documents/grid2021_idmc.pdf#page=34?v=2
[iii] I thank Leonardo Schiocchet for reminding me that an exception to this dynamic was the case of Syrian refugees. The Brazilian government opted for the formula "refugees from the conflict in Syria." So he included in that group people of other nationalities, including Palestinian refugees. A much broader way of protection than that of other countries at the time.
[iv] See the Reports of Indepaz and Tremors: https://4ed5c6d6-a3c0-4a68-8191-92ab5d1ca365.filesusr.com/ugd/7bbd97_691330ba1e714daea53990b35ab351df.pdf
[v] These circumstances led to one of the most intense social massive protests in recent years. Since April 28 of this year a national strike was declared. More information about the situation of human rights in the context of the national strike was available in: http://www.indepaz.org.co/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/3.-INFORME-VIOLENCIAS-EN-EL-MARCO-DEL-PARO-NACIONAL-2021.pdf