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Reflections on the Global Refugee System

RoundTable VIII-6, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, November 4 at 11:00 am

RoundTable Description
What explains forced migration? The answers to this question are fragmented across different bodies of academic knowledge. Conflict studies examine the logic of violence that prompts some people to flee, but once refugees have left their places of origin, they fall off the radar screen unless they are implicated in further violence or post-conflict reconstruction. Policy-oriented refugee studies tend to take as their starting point people who have already crossed an international border to seek sanctuary, but these studies often pay little attention to those who wanted but were never able to leave their countries in the first place. International migration studies have highly developed theories of labor migration, but have been slow to integrate insights of economically-driven movement with flight from violence and persecution. In short, understandings of forced migration tend to fall into distinct siloes that hide connections across places of origin, transit, and hosting. Our interdisciplinary roundtable brings together insights from conflict, refugee, and international migration studies. Panelists will discuss how a systems approach can be empirically demonstrated with greater precision across different geographic contexts, connecting MENA to other regions in the Global South and through critical analyses of movement to states of resettlement and asylum in the Global North. We also examine immobility and containment in MENA, which includes critiques of humanitarianism and international aid. A systems approach shows how changes in one part of the system reverberate elsewhere. Blocked paths of mobility in one place redirect migration along other paths. Government policies today are shaped by historical legacies, behaviors of other states, and the actions of displaced people. All these processes are forged by deep inequalities of power.
Political Science
  • Sophia Balakian
    Refugee resettlement is a process that brings people living as refugees in global South locations to global North countries that offer a path to citizenship. It involves a transnational patchwork of state and non-state organizations that define their work around both humanitarian and security imperatives. Centering a systems approach to forced migration, how do we, as scholars, capture the interconnectedness of different locations, institutions, and communities involved in the resettlement of refugees around the world? How does an approach that foregrounds these interconnections implicate our methodological and ethical approaches? My contribution to this panel is based on ethnographic research on refugee resettlement systems as seen between Kenya, and the U.S. and Canada, particularly with people living as refugees from Somalia. My comments will focus on moments in which interconnections between different institutions and locations have been made particularly evident. On the other hand, I will consider when linkages between home countries, countries of asylum, and countries of resettlement have been especially difficult to follow in my own research. Putting a non-MENA, global South location into dialogue with the work of the other presenters studying similar issues may provide new and intriguing insights.
  • Nadia El-Shaarawi
    In this presentation, I argue in favor of scholarship that moves beyond siloed academic disciplines and state-centric legal categories in order to more fully understand the social realities and political implications of displacement and migration. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork on urban displacement within MENA as well as migration from the region to other parts of the world, I consider what is left out when we impose disciplinary borders on people whose movements transcend them. I draw on my own work on refugee resettlement as an illustration; much of the scholarship on resettlement focuses on refugees after they've been resettled in the Global North. However, my research shows that the UN's "durable solutions" framework obscures the creative and complicated ways that refugees themselves seek to rebuild their lives in the aftermath of war and displacement through strategies that illustrate the shortcoming of binaries such as illegal/legal, irregular/regular, and forced/voluntary among others. Just as importantly, much of the political impact of resettlement actually happens in the Global South as people spend months, years, and sometimes decades navigating the bureaucratic process of resettlement. Analyses that prioritize the Global North obscures these effects; a systems approach as well as one that foregrounds lived experiences from the South offers potential to consider displacement anew.
  • The Enduring Logic of Mercy: Humanitarianism’s Eclipse of Human Rights My contribution to this roundtable consists of exploring the persistence of the logic of mercy through two seemingly divergent, yet overlapping and co-constituting prisms: criminal sanctioning and humanitarianism. Drawing on my research in Iran’s criminal justice system and practice as an asylum and refugee lawyer, I examine the linkages between mercy in criminal justice and the increasingly global turn away from rights-based movements toward care-based appeals, such humanitarianism, which is just one major arena of increased reliance on and appeals to care over claims to rights (others include charity, aid, and philanthropy). While mercy may have a quality of “seasoning” justice, the inclination toward mercy and merciful grants (such as granting pardons to persons convicted of crimes) is both a legitimation and entrenchment of an absolute sovereign (over the judiciary or the legislative branch), as in Iran, while the increased recourse to aid, charity, and mercy (such as the granting of discretionary relief to refugees) reduces everyone to a potential supplicant. I argue that this state of affairs is not simply emerging from the “pre-modern” laws, as critics of Iran’s legal system might suggest, nor the neoliberal maelstrom that Moyn discusses. Rather it was best noted in Arendt’s finding that the failure of nation-states to protect minorities would lead to the certain diminution of all rights (the rights of man) and further underscores Mazower’s claim that the ascendance of human rights in the post-war era was something of a “strange triumph.” Indeed the persistence of mercy reveals that we have never been modern.
  • In this presentation, in tandem with the panel participants and addressing the main theme, I will discuss new and old faces of statelessness in the MENA region and address the inadequacy of methodological nationalism that ailed the field of forced migration studies since its foundation. Specifically, I will examine strategies employed in situ in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, where there have been millions of dispossessed and stateless people since WWII. The region is also marked by a long history of normalization of such displacements. I will offer a critical intervention vis-à-vis the production of knowledge on statelessness and forced migration nexus emanating from the regional landscape of nation building. I question the validity of established legal approaches to human rights and humanitarian law applied to situations of mass dispossession. The key objectives of this presentation are: 1) To underline the ways contemporary forms of statelessness differ from the classical idea of statelessness originating from the succession of states in the immediate post-WWII period with specific emphasis on the post-imperial age of migration in the MENA 2) To analyze the implications of the exclusive emphasis on citizenship acquisition in terms of international law’s application to statelessness as evidenced by the 1954 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness; 3) To provide a critique of the streamlined approach to the eradication of statelessness by international bodies such as the UNHCR and deliver an alternative approach based on the practices of constitutional protections and derivative applications of human rights in the selected hubs of statelessness in the MENA, including the Syrian crisis 4) To interrogate whether the current construction of statelessness is adequate to deal with the historical phenomenon of statelessness at a regional scale and identify the results of confining statelessness merely to a legal status/condition, which in turn contributes to the reproduction of statelessness as a multi-generational form of injustice.
  • Rawan Arar
    Scholars and practitioners often begin their assessment of refugee reception by indicating whether a state is signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. Of the 193 UN member states, 148 have signed the Convention, the Protocol, or both. These legally binding commitments are central to most understandings of how and why states host refugees. Yet many non-signatory states host large numbers of refugees. In 2020, at least forty percent of UN-recognized refugees lived in non-signatory states. The global system of refugee management is fundamentally dependent upon non-signatory states and refugee hosting in the Global South more broadly—with MENA being home to the majority of the world’s refugees. MENA states manage the movement of asylum seekers, resettling refugees, and returnees. Millions of refugees reside in MENA indefinitely, without a pathway to citizenship. We argue that in addition to being the final destination for most of the world’s refugees and providing territorial space for Northern reception operations, MENA states are foundational for the contemporary system of refugee management. Across the world, rights-oriented refugee reception, including adherence to the Convention and the protections outlined in national asylum policies, depend on mechanisms of immigration control that limit the number of individuals seeking refuge. Northern refuge regimes—even in the most generous states of reception—exist in their contemporary formulations because Southern states contain and control refugee movement and host most refugees. The challenges of reception are tied to global hierarchies among states, fueled by inequalities rooted in histories of colonialism, and developed through feedback mechanisms. We invite scholars to consider the many Global Souths—putting MENA in conversation with other Southern hosts—as we illustrate variation among Southern states.