Age of Migration: The Fiction of the Nation-State

As part of our series This Age of Migration, Paul Currion argues that the existence of refugees exposes the nation-state as a convenient fiction, leading governments to view refugees as an existential threat – yet how we deal with refugees will define who we are in the 21st century.

Written by Paul Currion Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Top image: A migrant girl looks out from a tent at a train station near the makeshift refugee camp at the northern Greek border point of Idomeni, Greece. AP/Darko Vojinovic

If you are reading this, you probably know the statistics already. At the end of 2014 there were 59.5 million forcibly displaced people worldwide. During the first six months of 2015, UNHCR reported that at least 5 million more people had been displaced, and we can safely assume that a few million more were added to this number by the end of that year.

As far back as 1943, Hannah Arendt identified refugees as a test for the principles on which Europe was built, writing “The comity of European peoples went to pieces when, and because, it allowed its weakest member to be excluded and persecuted.” Those words could be applied equally to the European Union (E.U.) today, but this age of migration isn’t just a test for the E.U. It is a test for the entire international order that’s been constructed since the end of World War II.

That order was built upon the foundation stone of the idea of the nation-state, and so to understand why refugees are subject to so much exclusion and persecution, we need to examine this foundation.

The category of “forcibly displaced” covers a multitude of sins – but they are sins committed by governments, rather than by the displaced themselves. Whether it’s government forces or nonstate actors (such as Islamic State) that are the immediate cause of displacement, international and national laws hold the states ultimately responsible for protecting the displaced.

Internally displaced persons (IDPs) remain within their country of origin. So, their own governments continue to bear responsibility for them, at least nominally.

The 15 million or so known refugees worldwide have lost even that little protection. Under the limited cover of international refugee law and mostly reliant on their own wits, many refugees are at the mercy of the hospitality of their hosts – the nation-states in which they seek refuge.

The idea of the nation-state took hold after the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, which established the principle of state sovereignty. The modern international system of states is based on this principle. Although the idea is relatively old, most nation- states only came into existence after the European empires were broken up during the twentieth century, and particularly after World War II. Since then the nation-state has been widely viewed as the natural order of international affairs – membership of the United Nations, for example, is only available to nation-states.

We are easily frightened by any evidence that suggests this order might not be as natural as we’ve have been taught to believe. The mere existence of refugees is living, breathing evidence that the nation-state is a fiction. The paradox is that a refugee is legally defined solely in relation to the nation-state, as someone who “is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or … unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”

While any other questions we might have about the impact of refugees – whether on culture, jobs or power – are almost always couched in the context of the nation-state, the presence of refugees questions the legitimacy of the nation-state itself. Each and every refugee embodies the accusation that the state has failed the nation, or even turned against some part of that nation that will not bow to it. The ominous implication is that if one nation-state can fail, any of them can.

Refugees therefore pose an existential challenge that goes beyond their social or economic impact, and so even the most stable nation-states barely tolerate refugees in their territories. Whatever rhetoric they might recite – and most often that rhetoric refers to refugees as a burden, rather than a responsibility – host governments continue to marginalize refugees and make their lives precarious by containing them in camps, restricting their movements and limiting their right to work, if they are allowed entry in the first place.

The refugee crisis in the Mediterranean is of course only one part of a much wider global crisis. If all the forcibly displaced had their own country – a state for those who have been failed by their own state – it would be the 22nd largest country in the world. As Arendt pointed out, how we deal with the “weakest” members of the international community defines who we are.

Despite this, much of the media coverage of the crisis has provided only a superficial understanding of ourselves as citizens, the nation-states as hosts and the refugees arriving at our doors. Increasing our understanding of the real nature of forced displacement is essential because while most of us are not displaced, any of us could find ourselves in exactly that situation in the future. If you find that hard to imagine, just look at the faces of Syrians reeling from shock at being forced to flee their cities. That act of imagination is essential. It is what will define our common humanity in this age of migration .

Over the coming months Refugees Deeply will reflect on some of the currents running beneath the crisis, from border fences and biometrics to the role of innovation and the rhetoric of invasion. How do refugees and their movement impact the places they leave, the places they reach and the spaces in between?

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Refugees Deeply.

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