By Leonardo Schiocchet
* This post is based on Schiocchet, Leonardo. 2019. "Outcasts among Undesirables: 117 Palestinian Refugees in Brazil in-between Humanitarianism and Nationalism". Latin American Perspectives, 46(3), pp. 84-101. The full article can be found here. A slightly different version of this post has also been published at The Maydan.
In 2007, a group of 117 Palestinian refugees moved from Iraq to Brazil following a resettlement plan involving the UNHCR, the Brazilian government, and the civil society, including international NGOs. In what follows, I highlight some of the experiences of Palestinian refugees and established diaspora in relation to this plan. This, in turn, enables us to access the way the Brazilian nation-state navigated its political meanders and question broad assumptions about humanitarianism.
The Brazilian Political Context
Since 2003 and until President Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment in 2016, the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) party’s government in Brazil had striven to diminish Brazil’s enormous class, gender, and economic inequalities with varying success. From a 2019 perspective, and in the light of the ongoing systematic dismantling, it may be said that social policies of inclusion reached their apex during the PT (Workers Party) era.
An important component of the Brazilian developmental project during the PT years had been to increase visibility in international politics. This new international orientation, in turn, demanded humanitarian action. The resettlement plan discussed here unfolded within this larger context, and more specifically, that of Brazil’s interest in securing a permanent seat in the UN Security Council, which calls for dealing with the world’s refugees.
While there is a heated debate in Brazil about the country’s indigenous minority policies, much less is known about Brazil’s policies regarding non-indigenous minorities, particularly refugees. I will argue that it treated the refugees as migrants, and expected them to integrate just as previous Arab migrants had in the early 20th Century. In the following, I will examine refugee policies during the PT government and relate them to the migrant assumption as a broader national myth influencing state practices.
Michel Agier has noted that the world’s refugees are “undesirable”. He states: “They are at the end of the day undesirable, kept apart from the world, far from the city. (…) They are the very figure of a detestable liminality” (2008, 62). Yet, the following story concerns a slightly different category of people, for the group coming from Iraq was branded outcast among such undesirables. The resettled Palestinians were a group of 117 refugees who left Iraq for Brazil in 2007 due to the war. Among them were men, women, and children of all ages. Many of the adults worked for the Iraqi government bureaucracy at least at some point. Prior to coming to Brazil, almost all of them were temporarily lodged in Rwayshed, a refugee camp in the Jordanian desert close to the border with Iraq. There, they had already developed a reputation for being “undesirable” and unfit for refuge elsewhere, even in comparison to other local refugees. They were among the last to find refuge prior to the camp’s closure. Once in Brazil, they were again deemed undesirable, only this time due primarily to a mythical national narrative. This double rejection of being outcasts among “undesirables” has worked against these Palestinians’ perceived “integration”. Through the lens of this double rejection, I discuss the principles of integration and tutelage, putting the supposed apolitical character of humanitarianism into perspective and showing how mythical-ideological notions of Brazilianness also helped to reinforce and reproduce stereotypes associated with Palestinians.
After the fall of Saddam Hussein, many refugee camps started to form in Iraq. These camps received refugee groups of diverse ethnicities and religions, and vulnerable due to various political reasons – all of which were connected to the demise of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003. The refugees were Sunni, Shi’a and Christian Iraqis. They were also Iranians, Kurds, Sudanese, and Palestinians, among other minorities historically living in Iraq at the time of the war. Rwayshed was located in the Jordanian desert, close to the Iraqi border, and thus under Jordanian jurisdiction. The camp there was created in 2003 specifically to receive refugees from all other camps, and to serve as a transitional point between Iraq and the resettlement countries.
In 2007, the UNHCR aimed at closing Rwayshed and resettling all of its population. For the institution, “resettlement” entails permanent residency in a country other than that of the refugee (UNHCR, 2014). The group of originally 117 Palestinians who landed in Brazil was the last to leave Rwayshed before the camp was deactivated.
The humanitarian agents frequently spoke to me of the resettlement project as a “favor”. The benefit was not inclusion through national citizenship at first, but protraction through tutelage, which in turn implies the non-recognition of the autonomy of the subjected, who become then objects of the humanitarian policies. In this model, there are those who are eternally recipients, and those who are eternally “givers”. Consequently, the relationship between these terms is always unilinearly asymmetrical, as the recipients are always bound to the givers’ favor. Accordingly, once in Brazil, the Rwayshed group discovered that Brazilian citizenship was not unconditional, automatic, and uninterested. It was rather something that they would have to “deserve” in the eyes of the Brazilian government. Far from a gift, the logic was closer to the Weberian protestant ethics: a prize given only to those who were able to demonstrate their successful efforts to “integrate”, overcoming inherent difficulties. What “integration” meant, however, was elusive.
In theory, integration loosely meant to be able to “fit” Brazilian society, and almost every resettlement agent had an opinion on the matter. In practice, CONARE officially decided who would become integrated – and thus who deserved to gain permanent status in Brazil – on an individual basis grounded on relative criteria, such as personal sympathies and especially the display of non-confrontational behavior towards the ressettlement agents, the project itself, and all levels of Brazilian authority.
Nevertheless, a discourse recognizing the authoritative character of the tutelage did not always accompany the tutelary intervention. In fact, tutelage often came bound to a critical discourse against the vulnerability of the refugees. The group of Palestinian refugees in question were constructed by CONARE as objects of tutelage because they are restricted not only by extrinsic war impositions (for instance, territorial mobility), but also because they were supposedly incapable of understanding – and thus choosing – what was best for them. Accordingly, what the refugees were incapable of conceiving of in first place is the Brazilian state’s heroic act of saving them from the catastrophe that undercut their lives. These Palestinians were thus incapable of judging that their coming to Brazil was a unique opportunity, given the multicultural tradition of the Brazilian nation, and the competence of the state in its treatment of “immigrants”. In a interview with one of CONARE’s top representatives, I also heard that “in Brazil those who do not integrate are only those who choose not to”. Such integration was related to the Brazilian “long tradition” of “receiving immigrants” and, therefore, the non-integration of the Palestinians was an abnormality associated with limitations (social, political, ethnic, religious, or cultural) intrinsic to them and dissociated from the resettlement program or the Brazilian context.
However, the concept of “integration” proved to be very elusive. The criteria could not be found in any text of law, or even in any of the institutions’ brochures, websites, or other forms of official discourse. They were not evident or transparent, and the decision was on an individual basis and dependent on a CONARE commissary’s judgment. Rwayshed refugees constantly reiterated their unawareness of the conditional character of their Brazilian citizenship. The very move to Brazil and the subsequent “integration” into the Brazilian nation were imposed upon the Rwayshed group. Once in Brazil, each refugee had to tackle the Brazilian context in one way or another, either by trying exile or seeking “integration”. By conditioning citizenship on integration, and by informally associating integration with both civic duties and cultural expectations, the Brazilian state’s integration efforts were instead often perceived by the refugees as “assimilation” and/or “obedience” to all forms of authority to which they were subjected.
Nations and Humanitarianism
These “undesirables” went to Brazil because no other country accepted them, and they only went there because that decision was imposed on them. The humanitarian discourse not only qualified these refugees as being incapable of autonomous decision, but also denied them the right to desire (to be sent to another country) and to resent the humanitarian agents (for sending them to Brazil). In practice, the refugees could not even choose to remain in Rwayshed, as a few supposedly had preferred. The refugees’ ideas about Brazil contrasted greatly with the state’s official narrative, which was based on a mythical-heroic description of the nation, of its potentialities, and its natural and social riches.
Among all the promises made and not granted by UNHCR and Brazil, the refugees placed one above all the others: citizenship, which, in this sense, represented more than just a simple chart of common rights and duties. It represented belonging to the Brazilian nation.
Nationality via citizenship is the only possibility of becoming a subject in the contemporary “national order” of the World – to use Liisa Malkki’s words (1992; 1995a; 1995b). In practice, even the humanitarian agents presuppose that the “human” (in the plenitude of its rights and duties, thus beyond tutelage) is only imaginable within the parameters of the nation-state. This view assumes the ineluctable political condition of the subject. However, this is also precisely what the humanitarian discourse denies by upholding the assumption that it is beyond politics and, thus, beyond ideology. Most commonly, the humanitarian discourse is thought of in terms of an ideological liberal notion of universal human rights associated with a politics of commitment to the just protection of those rights. However, the claim to transcend politics, or the particular interests of nation-states and other political actors, constitutes the very substance of humanitarian politics. By claiming universality, the humanitarian discourse also claims to be beyond ideology. This universal pretension serves to legitimize humanitarianism in both ideological and political terms.
The perlocutionary effects of this denial of particularism (politics and ideology) are vast and manifest. For instance, it precludes the possibility of self-criticism and of being put in perspective: being beyond politics and ideology essentially entails an ontological, out-of-the-world position beyond perspectives. Consequently, “problems” – whenever they exist – are always located elsewhere, usually in the object of tutelage or in the not-so-partial host institutions.
National Mythologies through an Asymmetrical Encounter
While the resettlement agents took for granted that the locals closest to the refugees would be other Palestinians and Arabs, the relationship between these groups proved to be less than harmonious. In addition, the UNHCR entrusted its responsibility to local humanitarian NGOs, who responded directly to Brazilian laws and shared nationalistic myths about the country’s cosmopolitan potential. Such myths suggested that any difficulty of integration should be justified as resulting from a collective limitation of the ward – and not of the state or nation. The resettlement agents often found such limitations in the “Palestinian culture” – also commonly referred to as the “Arab culture” – in general, but also in the “problematic” condition of these “undesirables”, and usually in the confluence between these two factors. Authorities involved in the resettlement argued that since history had shown that everyone else integrated well in Brazil, the unruliness of the Palestinian group had to be attributed to their “culture” and problematic character. The latter characteristic was part of a narrative that had been transmitted from the UNHCR to the NGOs they hired in Brazil, and to the Brazilian government which was aware that they were outcasts among undesirables.
The Brazilian official discourse about the refugees borrowed elements from the humanitarian vernacular, investing the government with morality as it omitted the political character of the decision to receive the refugees, of the resettlement process, and of the actual legal and symbolic status bestowed upon the refugees vis-à-vis the Brazilian nation. Such supposed (apolitical) morality, besides yielding corporality to the nation, in turn justifies a civilizatory mission – as stated by Hamid (2013). In my opinion, it is this civilizatory mission that motivates a priori the disposition and the disciplinary practices the resettlement projects’ agents bring to bear upon the objects of tutelage.
The Rawayshed refugees resettled in Brazil were affected by scenarios as diverse as those of war-torn Iraq, the ideology of global humanitarianism, and Brazilian developmentalist policies. Legitimized through the tutelary regime, the resettlement agents re-incorporated and in part unconsciously managed disciplinary practices upon the refugees.
The shortcommings of humanitarian tutelage are hardly ever problematized beyond the accepted consensus. In the case presented, tutelage assumed the refugees’ temporary incapacity to govern their lives on their own, evoking the transference of biopower (Foucault, 1988), or the power over subjects’ lives, from the refugees to the UN and then to the Brazilian state. Tutelage was supposed to be transitory, ending upon complete integration. It was thus a counterpart to integration. While integration mobilized a mythical-ideological view of the host (Brazilian) nation, tutelage mobilized a bureaucratic regulatory apparatus in line with this view.
The mythical-ideological view of the Brazilian nation was based on the assumption that Brazil is a prejudice-free melting-pot, evidenced especially by how all immigrants there had supposedly “integrated” to form one coherent Brazilian nation, beyond ethnic, racial, religious, and cultural differences (Lesser, 2000: 130-133; Karam, 2007: 157). As such, the Brazilian government expected that the refugees should emulate the supposed behavior of the immigrants of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, generational, contextual, and legal gaps notwithstanding. The conceptual place of the immigrant, and thus of the refugee, was in turn supported by heroic narratives and representations about the history of the immigrants in Brazil, upheld by the state as much as by the immigrants themselves and their descendants. Moreover, it was by dealing with undesirable refugees that the nation maintained its ideals about the Brazilian citizen. Failure to properly “integrate” was then to be solely attributed to the refugees themselves, rather than to the resettlement progam or any of its actors. Thus, when these refugees’ integration proved difficult, the rhetoric of the outcasts among undesirables evoked stereotypes of Palestinians as bellicose, unruly, and backward, this being the sole cause of the resettlement plan’s faililures.
Neither the Brazilian government nor the UN and its NGOs acknowledged the contradiction between humanitarianism and the nation, which I suggest are tacit counterparts. Yet, the disciplinary practices of the resettlement project departed from representations of the Palestinian and especially the Brazilian nation, and about the place of the refugee in what Malkki (1995b) calls the national order of the world. Thus, a humanitarian vernacular was embedded in the Brazilian rhetoric and policies towards the refugees, informing expectations about the refugees’ so-called integration. Refugees are not simply immigrants. Yet, on the one hand, in the case presented here, they were expected to conform to an idealized view of those who left their countries voluntarily to live in Brazil many decades ago. On the other hand, they were kept under tutelary control, their voices rarely heard. Rather than treating the refugees as active subjects of their own lives, the resettlement process muted the refugees’ voices. While this paradox was evidenced by the Brazilian case, it is by no means solely a Brazilian problem. Rather, it is a broader issue relating to the encounter between the national order of the world and humanitarianism at large.
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 CONARE, Comitê Nacional para os Refugiados [National committee for Refugees], is an interministerial commission under the Brazilian Ministry of Justice.