“Rescue Politics”

When we consider refugees today, the statistics are overwhelming. It is difficult to fathom the depths of this “humanitarian crisis” that leaves millions fleeing for their lives. Using statistics and eyewitness reports, I set the stage by briefly touching on the global proportions, and dismal living conditions, of refugees today. Although the numbers are staggering, my argument is based not on numbers, nor on utilitarian calculations, when considering forced migration and asylum seekers but rather on the ethical and political stakes of discourses of rights and responsibilities where refugees are concerned. I start by sketching the scope of the political problem posed by carceral humanitarianism in terms of people affected worldwide, people subjected to violence at home, perilous journeys to escape, dangerous border spaces, and inadequate basic resources in refugee camps. Even if they make it to “safety,” they are often subjected to appalling conditions at best and more violence at the hands of their hosts at worst. The subsequent sketch is merely an outline of the problem to set the stage for my analysis of the relationship between humanitarian aid and humanitarian war that follows.

Last year, global forced displacement reached an all-time high, with at least 65.3 million people (at a rate of 24 people every minute) displaced from their homes by conflict and persecution (Edwards 2016). Of the entire world’s population, 1 in every 113 people is a refugee or asylum seeker, and of those, roughly half are women and girls, with 51 percent younger than eighteen years of age (Edwards 2016). In 2015, more than a million people fled to Europe seeking asylum, primarily from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. The vast majority of them arrived by sea, making a perilous journey that has cost thousands their lives. At least thirty-seven hundred people died crossing the Mediterranean Sea in 2015. And given that thousands more go missing or are unaccounted for, it is impossible to determine how many people have actually died (BBC News 2016). Because many refugees and asylum seekers are forced to attempt illegal border crossings, until their dead bodies wash ashore, many are not counted in statistics of the missing or dead (see Tazzioli 2015). Statistics of perilous crossings and deaths coming in for 2016 are significantly higher than for other years.[1] For example, in just the first six weeks of 2016, crossings increased tenfold, and so did deaths (Al Jazeera 2016). Of the refugees escaping from Syria, at least 1 million women were of childbearing age, and at least seventy thousand of them were pregnant when they fled (United Nations Population Fund for Arab States 2016). Their children born in refugee camps are stateless, not just because their mothers’ fled their countries of origin but also and moreover because most Middle Eastern countries base citizenship on soil rather than on birth, whereas most host countries base citizenship on birth rather than on soil (or do not recognize refugees). This means that an entire generation of Syrian refugees will be without papers, will be stateless people (Spencer 2016). The director of the United Nations Population Fund says, “We are dealing with a lost generation of children who have not gone to school, who are not registered, who are stateless” (Spencer 2016). Last year, the majority of refugees were under eighteen years old. By the end of 2014, the number of people assisted by UNHCR had reached a record high of 46.7 million (UNHCR 2015a).

Still, there is another “humanitarian crisis” that doesn’t get the media attention of refugees fleeing to Europe. In Africa, there are more than 3 million refugees, 12.5 million internally displaced people, and another 700,000 stateless people (Momodu 2015). The UNHCR reports that “of the estimated 529,000 maternal deaths that occur globally every year, 48% are in Africa. And, refugee women and newborns are particularly vulnerable. For each maternal death, at least 30 more suffer from infection, injury and short or long term disability” (UNHCR, n.d.). As with women and girl refugees everywhere, African women refugees are at very high risk of sexual violence, first in areas of civil conflict, then on the road to escape, then in refugee camps and outside camps when searching for firewood and from the authorities within the camps. “According to Amnesty International, individuals who commit rape and other violence against women and girls often enjoy near total impunity. Some of the barriers to justice for these crimes include: inability of victims to identify their attackers; lack of will by authorities to investigate; threats and intimidation techniques to prevent victims from testifying; weaknesses in the legal framework; and the use of traditional customs of conflict resolution that do not discourage perpetrators from negative behavior” (Miller 2011, 78).

These statistics are mind-boggling. More astounding is that most refugees end up living in camps for decades before resettlement. Unlike refugees from World War II, who were resettled by 1952, many of today’s refugees spend decades in a permanent state of temporary living. For example, the largest refugee camp in the world, Kenya’s Dadaab, is twenty-five years old; it was built for 90,000 refugees but now holds more than 420,000. On average, a refugee lives twelve years in a camp (McClelland 2014). Furthermore, conditions in most refugee camps are dangerous and unhealthy; people are forced to live in overcrowded, makeshift tent compounds without adequate basic necessities like bathrooms, clothing, and food. For example, in Dunkirk camp in France, more than three thousand refugees live in rat-infested tents pitched in ankle-deep mud and human waste with only two water faucets; one resident says, “This place is for animals, not for human beings” (Sputnik International 2016).

Unfortunately, Dunkirk is not an isolated example. Calais, another camp in France near the Channel Tunnel, was known as the “Jungle” and housed more than six thousand at its peak, most living in squalor, where “sanitation ranges from appalling to nonexistent” and “human shit litters every ‘path’ of the camp” (Charlton 2015). The residents call it the Jungle because they’re treated like animals (see Charlton 2015). Echoing many others, one resident told a reporter, “We are humans, not animals” (Gentleman 2015). Violent protests and clashes with police throwing tear-gas resulted from the French government bulldozing a large section of the camp in March 2016, further displacing already displaced people (see Courbet 2016). At least 129 children have gone missing since the camp was razed (see RT News 2016).

Recently, the Greek interior minister, Panagiotis Kouroublis, called the Idomeni camp on Greece’s border with Macedonia “a modern-day Dachau, a result of the logic of closed borders” (Worley and Dearden 2016). “Despite being planned for just 2,500 people, the camp hosts around 12,000 refugees—many from Syria and Iraq—in wet, cold and muddy conditions” (Worley and Dearden 2016), which Red Cross officials warn are rife for the spread of disease. These are the refugees who “feel like we are dying slowly.” And now, because the route to Greece from Syria has been effectively closed, refugees flee through Libya, making an even more dangerous crossing of the Mediterranean Sea into Italy—one that recently led to more than one thousand people dying and another four thousand being rescued in a matter of days, in what a spokesperson for Save the Children called “a massacre” (Yardley and Pianigiani 2016).

Thousands of miles away in the United States (which has been slow to take in Syrian refugees), refugees live in detention centers that look like and are run like prisons, with locked cells and “inmates” wearing jumpsuits, and where processing refugees takes months to years (Cone 2015).[2] The United States operates the world’s largest immigration detention system, and most centers provide substandard health care (see Janet 2016). As in other prisons, conditions in detention centers are often poor, with inadequate health care, lack of facilities and personnel, and preventable deaths, including suicide (Granski, Keller, and Venters 2015). A recent investigation into subpar health care in detention centers confirmed that the lack of health care contributed to several deaths: “system-wide problems remain, including a failure to prevent or fix substandard medical care that literally kills people,” and isolation is improperly used to confine people suffering from mental health issues (Human Rights Watch 2016).

Human Rights First (2009b) reports that in the United States, “since 2002, the number of immigrants detained each year has more than doubled—with an increase from 202,000 in 2002 to an estimated population of over 440,000 in 2009. The average daily-detained population has grown from 20,662 in 2002 to 33,400 in 2009. As this network has grown, problems of poor conditions, inadequate medical care, difficulty accessing legal counsel, or receiving religious services have also worsened. Of the hundreds of thousands of immigrants annually who find themselves caught up in this system—all for civil immigration violations—a few thousand are asylum seekers, individuals who come here to ask for protection from persecution.” In addition, many of these immigrants and asylum seekers have been denied due process and are locked up without legal recourse. According to Human Rights Watch (2016), “most of the hundreds of thousands of people held in this system each year are subject to harsh mandatory detention laws, which do not allow for an individualized review of the decision to detain them during their immigration proceedings.” Many asylum seekers suffer in detention centers for months, some for years, before their cases are resolved.

Although Syrian refugees arriving in Europe get the most media attention, there is another American refugee crisis taking place outside the spotlight, one involving primarily women and children fleeing Central America for Mexico and the United States. Tens of thousands of women and children are fleeing violence in El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and parts of Mexico. Worldwide, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala rank first, third, and seventh, respectively, for rates of homicides of women (see UNHCR 2015b). The UNHCR reports “a nearly fivefold increase in asylum-seekers arriving to the United States from the Northern Triangle region of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras” and a “thirteenfold increase in the number of requests for asylum from within Central America and Mexico—a staggering indicator of the surging violence shaking the region.” Most of the refugees are women escaping repeated rape, assault, extortion, threat from armed criminal gangs, watching their children being recruited into gangs or killed, and watching other family members being murdered or disappeared, while authorities do nothing. Often, they reach a breaking point when their lives are in imminent danger unless they flee immediately. But escaping presents its own dangers, as women are forced to pay exorbitant fees to “coyotes” and then suffer more rape, beating, and sometimes murder by these human traffickers (see UNHCR 2015b). If they reach Mexico or the United States, these women face detention, a lack of adequate health care, and lengthy interrogations, which too often exacerbate their psychological trauma; and then, there is no guarantee that they will be given asylum rather than sent back home to face more violence.[3]

Deputy High Commissioner L. Craig Johnstone stated in 2008 that “refugee women are more affected by violence against women than any other women’s population group in the world” (Dobbs 2008). The Refugee Council (2009, 4) reports that “all refugee women are at risk of rape or other forms of sexual violence.” Yet, the number of women refugees affected by sexual and gender-based violence is impossible to access for several reasons, among which are that refugee women are escaping war zones without facilities for addressing rape, many refugee women do not report sexual assault or gender-based violence, and some refugee women are shunned for admitting sexual assault or gender-based violence.[4] Many refugee women come from countries where the shame associated with rape is even greater than it is in the United States and where repercussions for reporting may be grave. The Refugee Council’s “Vulnerable Women” report concludes, “Some women, including many of those claiming asylum on the basis of gender-specific persecution, come from countries where sexual violence by security forces has been institutionalized. Women coming from conflict zones will be especially affected: ‘war rape’ has reached epidemic proportions. . . . Rape has been used strategically, as a weapon of war in attempts to destroy the opposing culture” (4).

Women refugees fleeing violence at home are at a far greater risk than men of encountering violence, especially sexual assault and rape, en route to their host countries and while in refugee camps. They risk assault at the hands of human traffickers, smugglers who insist on sex in exchange for help or food, fellow refugees, and even police and soldiers along the way or guarding the camps. In general, the journey to safety is perilous for men and women, but women and girls face unique challenges both on the road and in the camps. Inadequate food and medical care disproportionately affect women, especially pregnant women, who lack access to prenatal care, adequate nutrition, and midwives or hospital facilities. In addition, a lack of feminine hygiene products, birth control, and OB-GYN services presents unique problems for girls and women. Furthermore, insofar as women are seen as primarily responsible for children, their burden on the road and in camps is wrenching. And because of their close connection with children, often the effects of disease and death among their children take a physical and psychological toll on women that goes unaddressed in overcrowded refugee camps lacking food and water, basic medical supplies and medical personnel, and adequate shelter.

We could go so far as to say that the dismal circumstances of most refugees—men, women, and children—whether in U.S. detention centers or international refugee camps, meet the criteria for genocide set out by the UN, which includes debilitating living conditions: “less obvious methods of destruction, such as the deliberate deprivation of resources needed for the group’s physical survival and which are available to the rest of the population, such as clean water, food and medical services; Creation of circumstances that could lead to a slow death, such as lack of proper housing, clothing and hygiene or excessive work or physical exertion” (United Nations 2014). Hundreds of thousands of people are forced to live in situations without adequate clean water, food, shelter, and medical care; and even if they do get those basic needs met, it is often at the expense of their personal security, liberty, mental health, and dignity.

Indeed, no matter how many mind-boggling statistics we accumulate, we can never approach the human element of the equation, which cannot be quantified or reduced to a mere number. Furthermore, statistics piled one on top of the other can lead to “disaster fatigue,” even for those most committed to helping. Perhaps this is why most news stories begin and end with “human interest” angles that focus on the experiences of particular individuals (mostly children, like the tragic poster boy for the refugee crisis, the washed-up body of tiny, three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, or the small, ash-covered face of Omran Daqneesh as he was placed in an ambulance in Aleppo) to make the numbers come to life. Many news reports on the refugee crisis in Europe or Africa refer to a “humanitarian crisis” and the lack of human rights or humane living conditions. But the rhetoric of humanity cuts both ways. For example, one aid worker in the Calais camp described the situation: “There’s no official structure, no camp leadership, just a group of people surviving, a random collection of humanity camped in a field” (Gentleman 2015); the same report goes on to say that “some of the newer British volunteers are cheerful as they hand out supplies. ‘It’s touching, isn’t it?’ they say, brightly. ‘The humanity is amazing!’” (Gentleman 2015). Simultaneously, as we’ve seen, many of the refugees call on their hosts to treat them like human beings instead of animals. The list of horrors from camps and detention centers goes on and on. And so do the statistics on numbers of displaced and dead, to the point that it becomes impossible to fathom fully the depths of the current “humanitarian crisis.”

The UN Refugee Convention defines a refugee as a person who, “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it” (United Nations General Assembly 1951). Many refugees today who are fleeing war and violence, or drought and famine, in their home countries do not meet the letter of this definition insofar as they are not being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, or membership in a particular social or political group. In fact, the largest group of refugees (those escaping violence in Syria) are not technically refugees according to this definition. The women fleeing violence in Central America have been considered a protected group only relatively recently in the United States but not in all countries. And even in the United States, women must demonstrate that they are being persecuted because of their group identity or political opinions, which is often difficult to prove.

Although the UN insists that seeking asylum is a lawfully protected act, in practice, it is difficult to do so legally with all of the documentation required, including passports issued by home countries; in turn, illegal entry authorizes the host country to detain and interrogate asylum seekers. Indeed, the rights granted to asylum seekers by international law are very similar to rights granted to criminals, with the significant exception of lack of due process or access to legal counsel. For example, in the United States, in the name of Homeland Security, and security against terrorist threats across the globe, in actuality, regardless of international law, asylum seekers have very few rights. They can be detained indefinitely without counsel.

The fact that refugee status in particular requires the applicant to make it to a host country and then prove his persecution at home means that those fleeing war and famine must have a means of escape (which costs money), make it out of their home countries, make an illegal border crossing (unless they have proper passports and visas, which are extremely difficult, if not impossible, to obtain in regions fraught with war and violence), and then prove persecution (which is also difficult for those fleeing war or famine). This leads to “rescue politics,” where boatloads and truckloads of refugees risk their lives and are either rescued or perish. This also means that they must find their own way out of a precarious and dangerous situation and face further trauma and violence, only to arrive (if they are lucky) in a host country that accepts them into a camp or detention center where they are further traumatized, even interrogated as criminals or terrorists. If and when they reach a host country, and are sorted, managed, detained, and fenced into camps, they become members of a group defined by law as “refugees” or “asylum seekers,” who are too often denied basic human rights as defined by the UN (clean water, food, shelter, health care, freedom of movement, security, and dignity), if not also persecuted and then allowed slowly to perish. If they don’t die from violence or starvation at home, or on the perilous escape, they face disease, and what some refugees call “slow death,” in the camps.