A New Form of Genocide

By all accounts, Raphael Lemkin, a Polish–Jewish lawyer who fled Nazi Germany to the United States during World War II, first used the term genocide. Rather than limit genocide to mass murder, Lemkin’s (2005, 79) definition includes “the destruction of the personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and even the lives of the individuals belonging to [national] groups.” As we have seen, following Lemkin, the UN Genocide Convention cites debilitating living conditions, wherein a genocidal act can include “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” (Office of the UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, n.d.). In these terms, the treatment of refugees fleeing civil wars and violence in Syria, the Sudan, and many other regions meets the criteria of genocide insofar as the refugees’ living conditions in camps and detention centers are certainly lacking in personal security, liberty, health, and dignity and also too are often lacking in clean water, food and medical services, proper housing, clothing, and hygiene and lead to sickness, disease, and death. Thousands of refugees die every year trying to escape violence at home; and the ones who make it too often encounter violence in their “host” country. Civil war and violence, along with famine and drought, have led to mass migrations of people fleeing for their lives (UNHCR 2015a). Refugees make up a significant subgroup of the global population subject to incarceration and deprivation and, ultimately, to the genocidal logic of contemporary international military policies governing border security.

The refugee has become a global category that includes millions of people worldwide. Along with civil war, famine, and violence at home, the insistence on border patrols, national security, and the protection of certain citizens over others has created the “refugee crisis” wherein most of these displaced people lack proper shelter, clothing, and food; they lack the basic necessities of life. On the international stage, the category “refugee” operates according to a genocidal logic insofar as it produces a group of disposable people whose lives are marginal. In other words, international policy operates according to a genocidal logic that creates a group of people called “refugees,” who, if not outright murdered, are let—or even made—to die, whether from drowning, disease, starvation, or lack of health care. If refugees constitute a group, then as a group, they are denied the most basic necessities of life. Moreover, the logic of international policies toward refugees is genocidal insofar as it renders refugees fungible and disposable: figuratively as collateral damage in the war against terrorism and literally as they are exchanged as bargaining chips in international agreements between the United States and Mexico, for example, or Germany and the European Union and Turkey. Insofar as refugees have become a global subset of the human population, and insofar as they have become “collateral damage” in this age of humanitarian warfare, their lives are treated as fungible and disposable.

Currently human rights discourse has become comingled with risk–benefit analysis, which is part and parcel of a genocidal logic. Within the logic of risk–benefit, reducing life to statistical models and calculating costs and benefits become alibis for a seemingly more humanitarian warfare. Designed to avoid the worst violence (traditionally equated with genocide) by embracing the lesser of evils, the utilitarian cost–benefit model actually risks the worst violence. The calculus itself risks turning human life, or all life, into exchangeable units. This economy in which human life becomes fungible operates according to a genocidal logic in which the lives of some have become disposable. Indeed, statistical proportional analysis of collateral damage is part and parcel of genocidal logic defined as a view of human life (or nonhuman life) that leads to the practice of making one subset of that population fungible or disposable.[1] Refugees are a population that has been made fungible and disposable.