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18 March 2022

How refugees strengthen democracy and solidarity

Those who have had to flee their countries can be architects of political repair, both in their host societies and back home.

By Ashwini Vasanthakumar

As Afghanistan fell to the Taliban last summer, ordinary Afghans were urged to fight for democracy. The then president Ashraf Ghani asked civilians to defend the country’s “democratic fabric”; of Afghan troops, President Biden shrugged, “They’ve got to fight for themselves, fight for their nation.” Days later, Ghani fled the country; weeks later, foreigners – military personnel, diplomatic missions, international NGO staff – also left, leaving Afghans to face an uncertain future of Taliban rule.

In contrast to Ghani, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky has remained in Ukraine to resist Russia’s invasion. When offered evacuation, Zelensky reportedly responded, “I need ammunition; not a ride.” And ordinary citizens’ willingness to stay and fight, as Michael Walzer emphasises, reveals the extent of their loyalty to Ukraine.

The courage of civilians during occupation and war, from Afghanistan to Ukraine, is in equal parts humbling and inspiring. But the humanitarian disaster of these conflicts has forced many to flee, and it is important to recognise that this is not an act of abandonment. In fact, leaving their war-torn countries can allow refugees to continue resistance from afar. And provided they have secure status, rights and resources, refugees can engage in a “politics from below” that may help repair the democratic fabric of the countries they have left.

Albert Hirschman, who fought in the Spanish Civil War and helped Jewish refugees flee occupied France, famously identified “exit, voice, and loyalty” as the options for dissatisfied citizens: they could leave, stay and complain, or stay and accept their circumstances. Although these were initially theorised as mutually exclusive options, the relationship between leaving, protesting and acquiescing is far more complex.

This complex relationship is evident in the context of migration. Exit can reflect loyalty to a particular constitutional vision of society – one that is under threat or one that is yet to be built. And exit is often essential for voice: for providing information, for criticising the regime back home, and for pursuing alternative political ideals.

Refugees are a critical source of information, especially when the use of social media and other forms of communication are restricted in the country they have left, as they have been under the Taliban, or when artillery fire makes communication from the front lines impossible, or when communications infrastructure has been targeted. Not only do refugees provide more recent news from the places they have left, but they can also connect media and advocacy organisations abroad with people who are still there. This is especially critical in places journalists have limited access to – Afghanistan; Xinjiang, where the Chinese government persecutes Uyghurs and other minorities; and the conflict zone in Tigray province in Ethiopia.

Refugees also provide critical perspectives on the regime they have escaped. From the relative safety of exile, they can speak more openly, engage more critically, and sustain practices of criticism and complaint abroad that are suppressed back home. Exile can be a leveller, upending old hierarchies and ensuring that perspectives marginalised in their home country, say of women and other groups, are more easily expressed and better attended to.

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Lastly, the greater openness of exile allows for organisation. Political opposition, such as the Afghan Women’s Parliamentarians Network, currently based in Greece, can regroup to reflect on the path forward, and new alliances and associations can be built that devise alternative visions of political life . European and American allies have already discussed how to support a Ukrainian government-in-exile, which would be crucial to ensuring a legitimate voice for free Ukraine in the event that Vladimir Putin installs a puppet regime.

This is not to paint too rosy a picture of refugees’ political efforts; they do not always play these emancipatory roles. Refugees are often traumatised by the ordeals they have endured, or remain subject to threats in exile, and are unable or unwilling to engage with what is happening in the country they have fled. Since those who are able and willing to leave their countries are often living in different circumstances to those who choose, or are forced, to stay (who may lack, for example, the resources or networks that enable migration), politically engaged refugees may be driven by ideals that do not resonate with many in their homeland. And refugees may engage in the morally hazardous politics of “long-distance nationalism” where, for example, they help to sustain armed conflicts, through arms and diplomatic support, far away from the front lines.

As a result, refugees are easily dismissed as trouble-making armchair revolutionaries, and some countries have even tried to limit the political rights of refugees and asylum-seekers. This is a mistake. Refugees need more political autonomy, not less, and third parties – host states, civil society and international NGOs – should enable rather than inhibit the vital roles that refugees play in their home countries.

To begin with, refugees need rights and resources, including safe routes by which to claim these. Otherwise, they are unable to lead minimally decent lives: they are shunted to the margins of society, and risk being contained in detention facilities, camps or isolated asylum accommodation. They are unable to pursue an education, work, or family life – much less to engage politically with their home countries. Perpetuating this limbo is an affront to the values of decency, dignity and the rule of law.

Second, third parties need to act in solidarity with refugees, attending to their perspectives on what is happening in their country, on what counts as assistance or a solution, and on how to bring these about. Needless to say, refugees will not agree among themselves on these vexed questions, but their often well-informed views are regularly ignored by powerful actors abroad and armed actors back home.

Specifically, acting in solidarity with refugees prevents host-state actors from treating them as pawns to further their own strategic interests. This includes the tendency to focus on the economic contributions that refugees make to their home countries: policymakers often treat refugees as resources that can be used to further a variety of economic and political goals, but this fails to recognise refugees as political agents who are entitled to a say in determining what those goals are and how they should be pursued.

It is worth noting that refugees also make political contributions to their adopted countries, which debates about the economic costs and benefits of hosting refugees largely ignore. For one, refugees can helpfully complicate the political discourse in their host countries. They may reveal the connection, past and present, between countries of origin and of exile, and the ways that the states now eschewing responsibility have contributed to the very crises forcing refugees to flee.  

In doing so, refugees can reanimate anti-racism and anti-poverty movements in host societies, cultivating transnational solidarity with and among other marginalised citizens contending with the legacies of imperialism, racism and Islamophobia, and economic dispossession.

And finally, refugees can strengthen an incipient international ethos. Latin Americans fleeing authoritarian regimes in the middle of the 20th century played a central role in fostering the global human rights discourse that fundamentally re-oriented global politics and that continues to shape the world today.

Hannah Arendt once described refugees as the bearers of ill tidings, writing that “it was not only their own misfortunes that the refugees carried with them from land to land… but the great misfortune of the whole world”. Arendt’s ill tidings were of the dangers of nationalism; today, refugees also bring news of rising authoritarianism, imperial misadventure, extreme poverty and climate disaster – interrelated phenomena that no border will keep at bay and to which we are all, ultimately, vulnerable.  

European countries and their citizens are evidently more able to recognise that they share a common fate with some refugees than others. In response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the EU has activated the Temporary Protection Directive for the first time; Ylva Johansson, the EU’s Home Affairs Commissioner said, “Millions more will flee and we must welcome them.” This response is a marked departure from the EU’s response to other refugees, and reveals, among other things, the capacity to respond to large refugee flows in a way that respects the dignity and agency of refugees. Refugee crises, it turns out, are in part created by the response of host societies.

The response to Ukrainian refugees seems to be driven by the sentiment that if Ukrainians can be refugees, then anyone can, and that what Ukrainians are fleeing is a threat to what those in liberal democracies hold dear. But this is true of most refugees. Afghan refugees, for example, are fleeing authoritarianism and the generalised violence that decades of war and foreign occupation bring, as well as drought and chronic food insecurity induced by climate change and exacerbated by punitive sanctions.

Ultimately, refugees from Afghanistan, Ukraine and other conflicts are not mere messengers bringing advance warning of the crises they have barely escaped; they can also inspire new ways of thinking about communities, belonging and borders, and can be architects of political repair and reconstitution back home and abroad.

Ashwini Vasanthakumar is Queen’s National Scholar in Legal and Political Philosophy and Associate Professor of Law at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. She is the author of The Ethics of Exile (OUP).

This article is part of the Agora series, a collaboration between the New Statesman and Aaron James Wendland. Wendland is Vision Fellow in Public Philosophy at King’s College, London and a Senior Research Fellow at Massey College, Toronto. He tweets @aj_wendland.

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