On not helping refugees

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By Rachel Humphris, Lecturer
Department of Social Policy, Sociology and Criminology, University of Birmingham

Refugee Week offers us the opportunity to reflect on the ways that we can better support refugees. For me, there are three critical points to consider when looking at how we can welcome and help those often badged as ‘others’:

Why are we so needy?

Professor Veena Das posed the question ‘why are we so needy?’ when discussing the critical concept of conviviality at a seminar at Birkbeck on 4th June. This question begins to open up sharp questions about liberal conceptions of welcome (Muelebach 2012). By thinking about how we welcome refugees, we are also involved in producing expectations (and also parameters for their belonging – however they are defined).

Rather than think about the ways that we think we can help refugees and what we expect from them, it is perhaps worth bearing in mind why and how we have come to think about ‘welcome’ in the first instance. It also draws attention to what Lisa Maalki (2015) has eloquently described as ‘the need to help’. She eloquently describes how Norwegian citizens and international workers engage and draw meaning from ‘the domestic arts of international humanitarianism’. She points to a similar critical question: what do we gain from ‘helping’ refugees? And what are the structural societal conditions through which we provide this help?

‘Who are we to come to you, who are you to come to us’

This quote from Yousif M. Qasmiyeh’s deeply affecting poem entitled ‘Writing the Camp’ written as part of the Refugee Hosts project highlights another essential point about welcome. It assumes a static state that strangers are being welcomed into. Although the UK may not have the extreme constellations of different types of mobility, as those documented in such fine-grained ethnographic detail, as Baddawi refugee camp, it again draws attention for us to interrogate our own assumptions before we begin to think about how we can help ‘others’. It also unsettles an idea that we enter into linear and one-way relationships – that we will help them.

No hospitality without hostility

Derrida explored:

“I want to be master at home, to be able to receive whomever I like there. Anyone who encroaches on my ‘at home’, on my power of hospitality, on my sovereign as host, I start to regard as an undesirable foreigner, and virtually as an enemy. This ‘other’ becomes a hostile subject, and I risk becoming his hostage.” (2000 [1997]: 53-54).

Hospitality and welcome do not take place without hostility – they are always relative and draw their meaning from comparison with the other. In the UK we are living in an explicitly hostile environment which doesn’t just affect refugees or migrants but, as Bridget Anderson (2014) has noted, all those on a scale between ‘non-citizen’ and ‘failed citizen’. The system of auditing and the salience of ‘proof’ that are evident in the UK migration and social security systems are designed to punish and deter all those who do not belong whether they are welfare claimants, homeless people, migrants etc. Rather than focusing on welcoming refugees, I suggest we think of ways that we can build solidarities with as many different people as possible to work on issues of social equality. As the Aboriginal activists group, Queensland, 1970s said:

“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together”

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