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The utility of refugees

There are several strands of conversation, or discourse, on the subject of refugees and why they should, or should not be offered the hospitality of our national borders. I find two of them particularly disturbing.

First, the idea that refugees are worthy of help because of who they may become.

The argument goes something like this: we should allow refugees into our countries because they may become the next Steve Jobs or Albert Einstein: they may end up contributing to history in such a way that it would be a huge mistake not to let them survive and thrive in our country. They are valuable because they contribute to our sense of the common good, and thus because of their utility.

The flaw in this argument is that it fails to recognise that human beings are valuable. They’re valuable not because of what they contribute to the greater good, but because of the basic fact of their humanity. We should offer hospitality to refugees not as some kind of high odds gamble in which we may hit the jackpot and find ourselves hosting a genius, but because we recognise the humanity we share.

The second is the idea that refugees should only be understood through the paradigm of victimhood.

There is a good reason why refugees tend to appear in the media as either victims of a great injustice, or as villains seeking to portray themselves as victims.

The reason is that the former is the easiest way for organisations like the UNHCR to raise funds.

They make a video that talks about how helpless these people are and how we must save them, otherwise they will die or face some other terrible injustice. How do we save them? By giving money to the UNHCR, who in turn promise to convert cash into changed lives.

The competing story about refugees has its roots in the same concept, but is the antithesis of the victim discourse. It says that refugees are not victims, but opportunists using political unrest in their homeland to further their personal ambitions. They leave an otherwise peaceful part of Syria and move to London or Stockholm in order to improve their standard of living and to give their kids a chance at getting in to better schools. Refugees, in other words are not victims but scroungers who don’t deserve to be helped.

My issue with the idea that refugees are victims is that it ignores the agency, the decision making powers, that the individual refugees have and use throughout their process of relocating.

Most of the people I have met who have obtained refugee status are extremely creative, strategic individuals who have used all their abilities to get to Europe and begin building a life for themselves here. They are doing what any of us would if we found ourselves in a similar position: finding a place that is more stable – somewhere that future generations can succeed. I don’t understand why we can’t learn to celebrate this creativity, to recognise their agency, rather than seeing it as a threat.

The victim narrative paints the picture of someone who is utterly useless once they arrive in their host country: they’re all take and no give, which is the opposite of the experience I have had as I’ve gotten to know refugees in Sweden and Jordan.

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2 Comments

  1. John

    Great thoughts jonathan. We recently looked at the danger of the “single story” as shared by Chimamanda in our training in Cape Town – definitely convicting!

    https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story

    • Jonathan Morgan

      Hi John, thanks for your comment – and for that great link!

      Chimamanda’s argument isn’t dissimilar to Edward Said’s amazing Orientalism. He talks about how much of what Europeans and Americans understand about the Middle East (and the ‘orient’ in general) is the product of processes of ‘othering’ designed to reinforce the idea that the West is superior.

      It’s a wake up call to those of us who want to have constructive, non-paternalistic friendships with people from different places.

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