I wrote some parts of this two years ago, but today we are faced with a humanitarian disaster that has passed the threshold of genocide with the Rohingyas. This disaster is 30 years in the making. In all the cases that created forced migration and exile, including the great tragedies of this century, the crisis was always political. The humanitarian spectacle we are an audience to was the always the aftermath. Since the Second world war, talking about refugees have become standardised. The language, grammar and the context of visual and textual representation used by States, NGOs, Refugee relief agencies typically mimic each other. This standardisation has made its way into journalism, and storytelling that report on refugees and document their grief.
These reductive explanations and narratives are de-historicized, de-politicised accounts of suffering. These stories follow an established representational practice that has important systemic consequence. It most often silences people who find themselves categorised and labelled as ” the refugee.”
The refugees suffer from a peculiar kind of erasure and speechlessness.
Their stories are disqualified almost a priori. Often their stories have to be told to fit the procedural requirements of what UNHCR calls “status determination”. The languages of refugee relief, humanitarian intervention, national interests and security become sole producers of authoritative narratives about the refugees and the impending crisis.
Quoting Feldman, “Generalities of bodies-dead, wounded, starving, diseased, and homeless are pressed against the television screen as mass articles. In their pervasive depersonalization, this anonymous corporeality functions as an allegory of the elephantine, “archaic,” and violent histories of external and internal subalterns.”
I am not making romantic arguments about, “bearing witness” or “giving refugees a voice”. What demands to be liberated, beneath the silence are sedimented memories, bitter struggles fraught with struggles over history and truth. But deeper questions about the nation-state, its boundaries, it’s visceral need to extinguish life it deems unnecessary, and the vile and eccentric justifications to maintain itself. I was asked yesterday whether the Rohingyas are stateless or should be considered as refugees? I winced.
In a world made of nation states, where ungoverned populations have been forcefully added to the outlines of various republics, where does the question of statelessness arise? There are and can be no stateless people by the logic of the modern nations state; there can only be people that the state no longer wants, people it discarded, who became inconvenient to the history it was rewriting.
That does not make them stateless; it makes them expendable, disposable and bodies that can be extinguished.