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differential treatment of refugees

Does the State Treat “Refugees” Differently?

Oh my children, we are like sailors driven before the storm, who on touching safe shores once more, find that the wind drives us off yet again. We are thus chased from the soil where we had believed ourselves saved. Alas, why did you charm us, cruel hope, with empty promises?

Euripides (480-406 BCE)

This essay discusses the differential treatment of refugees in Europe.

Over 8 million Ukrainians had left the nation due to the Russia-Ukraine conflict by the end of April 2022, which accounts for about a quarter of the total population. Many have returned to their homes since. According to CNN, 90 per cent of those refugees were women and children.

The United Nations has called the crisis the “biggest in the twenty-first century”. The EU has opened its borders to these Ukrainian refugees, allowing them to stay, study, and work in an EU member state. But, these doors have not been open equitably for those knocking on them. Take, for example, Syrians in 2015.

The State of differential treatment and norms

Even within Ukraine, people of Asian and African origin found it particularly difficult to leave their homes. At the height of conflicts, these racial groups have faced discrimination in train stations and checkpoints by border police. Some reports even go as far as saying that several refugees of Asian origin were shoved off buses and trains and were forced to take long, battered walks along the dangerous route.

Some reports further claim that Blacks and Asians were beaten up with sticks and pushed back in line, further creating a hierarchy among the nation’s refugees–as someone who deserves the title more than others. It is not just an odd case of differential treatment of refugees. In the US, for instance, there has been a long exclusion of what it deems as “undesirable” immigrants, from the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act to the recent Muslim Ban during the Trump era.

During 2015-2016, when millions of refugees from the Middle East and Africa fled war and persecution, many European countries closed their borders, detained refugees, and conducted mass deportations. More recently, the Ministers in the BJP-led Indian government have begun the rhetoric regarding Rohingya Muslims as illegal migrants, who are “termites” that need to be “thrown into the Bay of Bengal”.

This differential treatment between refugees begs to ask a larger question:

How does the State classify displaced people?

Specifically, what cultural conditions make a displaced person a “refugee”, while other conditions make them an “illegal migrant”? How do such categorizations help the State bypass the norms on displaced people? Refugees are one of the world’s most vulnerable populations, suffering trauma’s physical and mental effects as they flee persecution, war, and violence. Due to a lack of access to treatment, housing, and high-quality food, refugees are more likely to suffer untreated chronic diseases, infectious infections, nutritional deficiencies, and mental illnesses.

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Photo by Eric Masur on Unsplash

The Geneva Convention of 1954 defines a refugee as “owing to a well-founded fear of persecution 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.”

However, the racial element in categorising a displaced person as a refugee or illegal often pervades international politics. Racism and other forms of ethnic prejudice and discrimination, whatever defined, can manifest themselves on various levels when it comes to refugees.

Some refugees are more likeable, while others are less.

It is a classic Orwellian case: “Some animals are more equal than others.” For instance, the British, the French and other White populations are placed at the top of the hierarchy in European countries when it comes to assisting refugees, while Blacks, Asians, and Africans are placed at the bottom. The question is, why does this happen?

Race and the differential treatment of refugees

A simplistic explanation of why some get classified as refugees and others do not is due to CASTE. A definition I had expounded on in another essay, “Where There is No Caste: Utopia”. I define caste as:

Caste, in its truest sense, is one’s inability to accept others as ourselves. And this form of caste exists everywhere. It is precisely this inability that enables the rich to look at the poor-in-tatters with particular disgust. In a rural Indian household, the women — all their lives — are taught that their role is restricted to the four-walled kitchen. In international society, developed countries look down upon the third world. And the transgender community still faces perpetual stigma in South Asian societies. 

(Badri, 2020)

While this definition is about “one’s inability to accept the other”, turning this upside down would mean: “looking at the other as ourselves”. If a person looks like me, thinks as I do, prays like me, eats what I eat, and values what I value, that person will invariably become my other self or me. Therefore, he will be more valued in my eyes. He will be seen as a lost brother in need of help.

This socio-religious and cultural element of trying to place oneself in the other enables us to see the connectedness and the disconnectedness in the other, and the disconnectedness will inevitably lead to leaving out the other. If this happens at a larger scale, it manifests into racial segregation and social stigma.

States seek to segregate refugees based on who they are, what they look like, and what they value. In doing so, they provide the displaced people with the identity of either a “refugee” bound by international laws or an “illegal migrant” out to be deported.

But why do developed societies discriminate?

Scholars refer to this particular phenomenon as – Democratic Racism. A term used to describe how societies subscribe to liberal democratic values while also implicitly having racist attitudes and practices. Even as Western liberal democracies share a common commitment to granting asylum to Refugees, by signing the 1951 Geneva Convention, they have resorted to differential treatment of refugees in recent times.

In this context, Hannah Arendt’s Quote in The Origin of Totalitarianism makes complete sense:

Those whom the persecutor singles out as scum of the earth are actually received everywhere as the scum of the earth.

(Arendt, 1951)

Liza Schuster’s research on asylum, migration, and deportation has shown us that refugees from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo have barely found takers in Western countries concerning asylum, whereas Kosovans were welcomed in Europe. While the refugees from Iraq and other societies found it difficult for themselves to consider refugees—or called them something else to bypass norms on refugees, Kosovan was called “civil war refugees”.

By stripping the refugees of the status of refugees – and terming them as something else, like economic migrants, illegal migrants, or terrorists, the State inevitably seeks to bypass the norms on refugees bound by the Geneva convention of 1951. The 1951 convention created a gateway for those persecuted.

Still, States strip all identities of the individuals that would make them a refugee by calling them something because the State can decide who gets to be called a refugee and who does not. The Westphalian nation-state does this through “speech act” – a term propounded by Ole Waever, discussing how the discursive practice of “something that is considered a security concern” becomes a security concern through its utterance.

How does the state bypass norms on refugees?

There are two strategies the State uses to bypass the norms of refugees.

First, they may bypass international norms by not being a signatory. Let’s take India’s case. India is not a signatory to the 1951 UN convention on refugees, even while it has witnessed millions of people being displaced in the subcontinent due to the bloody partition of India and Pakistan. For instance, Rohingyas are the world’s least wanted and most persecuted marginalised groups. Since 2013, they have been the victims of ethnic cleansing spearheaded by Buddist Monks in Myanmar.

An estimated 2 million Rohingyas have fled their country, taking refuge in Bangladesh, India, Thailand, and Malaysia. Since 2015, the Modi-led BJP Government has targeted Rohingya Muslims as causing terror. The Home Minister, Amit Shah, would say that the Rohingyas were the termites who needed to be tossed into the Bay of Bengal. The notion of the Indian State not being a signatory of a norm related to refugees will allow it to profess un-norm-like behaviour.

Second, by redefining and reclassifying refugees as illegal migrants. Since the 9/11 terror attacks, Muslims have been disproportionately discriminated against in a melting-pot society like the United States. This discriminatory treatment of Muslims has found traction among white conservative voters, who predominantly vote for the Republican party in the US elections. They are treated as terrorists. More recently, with Donald Trump’s ascendancy to power, there was a ban on Muslims from several other countries. Trump, on multiple occasions, has called Muslims terrorists and sought to build a wall to reduce illegal migrants.

This behaviour has considerably reduced the effectiveness of the norms on refugees; however, Western societies must take measures to curb the differential treatment of refugees. Treating refugees differently will make them less human and violate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which they set out to profess to the rest of the world.


Cover Photo by Julie Ricard on Unsplash


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