One of the most poignant and morbid legacies of the twentieth century is the notion of a refugee. A woman, man, or child, forced to flee from their home, village, town, city under duress, often fleeing sure death. The twentieth century’s first refugees were the survivors of the genocide of the Armenian populations living in the territory that would soon become the Republic of Turkey. The campaigns of organized massacres started in 1915 and lasted until 1923, the genocide claiming the lives of approximately one and a half million people. The Ottoman army organized the deportation of those who survived massacres across the borders of modern-day Syria and Iraq. People were crammed into trains like cattle or forced to walk across the Syrian desert for weeks without water, food, or medical aid, and while they walked, they were humiliated, brutalized, and raped. The genocide was reported in the press. The survivors of the massacres and of the long march were received by international relief agencies (such as the American Committee for Relief in the Near East), a novelty at the time, in makeshift “triage” stations established in Deir ez-Zor, Aleppo and Mosul. Refugee camps were improvised in the environs of these cities in the entire region (modern-day Iraq, Syria and Lebanon), sometimes in military barracks abandoned by the Ottoman army, as in the village of Anjar in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley. In the case of Bourj Hammoud, a swampy marshland at the outskirts of Beirut, refugees were housed in tents. As the Ottoman empire collapsed, the nascent Turkish Republic expelled all the communities it defined as culturally, ethnically, and religiously “alien”, and deemed potentially dissident or secessionist. The communities identified culturally as Greek were also forced to flee, but they were smaller in size and there was no large-scale organized massacre as in the case of Armenian Ottomans. Ottoman Greeks were aggressed, terrorized, and given express instructions to leave and return to “their homeland.”
As colonial empires collapsed in the twentieth century, new borders were drawn in blood and fire as nation-states fought for self-rule, one of the most tragic outcomes was a sudden, large-scale forced expulsion of populations from their lands and homes and their overnight transformation into refugees. The thorough and systematic cultivation of ethnic, cultural, and religious differences among “indigenous” societies was one of the most toxic legacies of colonial rule. Moreover, the settlement of foreign populations (in some cases native to the colonizer’s society, and in other cases migrants from other colonies) to whom were afforded remarkable social and economic privileges on the grounds of racial or religious “superiority,” compounded the pathos of incommensurable difference. Within the wars for independence from colonial rule, whether they had been inspired by ethnic nationalisms, or less chauvinist forms of nationalist ideologies, were less visible and less understood internecine power struggles among different communities.
For instance, ruling high-ranking British colonial administrators who understood that the end of their empire was near and that they had made contradicting pledges to different social or communal groups, decided that “partitioning” a territory (that had, more often than not, been a historically coherent entity), was a solution to fulfill the jarring promises that were made to different populations. In India and Pakistan, the partition plan of 1947 spurred, a year later, a violent armed conflict and a blood-drenched population transfer of nearly 10 to 12 million people. In the case of Palestine, the British covertly pledged an independent state to both the Palestinians and the Zionist settlers. As violence mounted between both communities, a partition plan of the territory was discussed at the United Nations in 1947, and resulted in a war a few months later. The outcome was the expulsion of nearly one million Palestinians into bordering Arab countries or within Palestine, outside the territory recognized by the international community as the State of Israel in 1948.
In that same year, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948, in Paris, was intended to incarnate fundamental and inalienable entitlements of human beings specifically after the devastations of World War II. A few years later, the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (also known as the Refugee Convention) was signed by 144 countries on July 28, 1951, in Geneva. Building on Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the text defined who is a refugee, and the rights entitled to people identified as such. That said, the second half of the twentieth century was far more focused on studying and celebrating the nation-state as the incarnation of political, economic, and social progress, the sole guarantee for a life with dignity and the protector of cultural identity and patrimony. Meanwhile, the millions of populations that existed under the status of refugees continued to do so, living, working, and procreating new generations of refugees, while new conflicts generated more refugees. The political science dictionary of the twentieth century was eschewed in its positive bias toward nations, state actors, and citizen because refugees were regarded as an epiphenomenon of specific conflicts, a problem at once substrate and temporary that should be resolved in the writ of eventual political truce. The “state of exception” that refugees embodied was bound to end, either in allowing the forcibly displaced to return to their homes, or to integrate into their host societies. Refugees were and continue to be quantified and qualified, indexed in all kinds of censuses and databases, but their being in the world as denizens, their subjectivity of statelessness, their experience as outside the polity and system and yet within it, have rarely instigated inquiry or analysis, and almost never in a positive light. Academics, policymakers, experts, and activists have rarely imagined learning from refugees, from the skills, wisdom, and poetics of surviving, adjusting outside and within at once.
It is an oddity when considering number of seminal figures that have made towering contributions to the western humanities (in social theory, the arts, and the belles-lettres) of the past century who had themselves endured the trials of seeking safe harbor and asylum, an experience that marked their thought and mindset. Furthermore, refugees are rarely accredited for the growth they contribute to their host countries’ economies, the know-how they bring and improve, the resourcefulness that amplifies with survival skills. Those who seem to have monitored that economic angle most notably are the big capitalists and proponents of globalization, and who have notoriously negotiated the relocation of manufacturing outside countries where labor has protections. In fact, much of the conditions of “transnational” capitalist manufacturing reproduces the disenfranchisement from basic rights that refugees endure. In other words, when states deprive communities of their basic rights for whatever reason, it may be useful to regard them as “stateless” in order to imagine strategies of struggle and resistance.
When Palestinian refugees arrived in Lebanon in 1948, they were directed to sites where a few decades earlier Armenian refugees had been first directed to. And when Syrian refugees began to arrive in 2012 and 2013 they were settled on the vestiges of old refugee camps and nearby existing camps. Camps are sites or spaces compelled by a permanent, enduring impermanence. The decision to locate camps on these sites was the outcome of negotiations between various Lebanese governmental institutions and the international agencies entrusted with the mission to bring immediate assistance, relief, and protection to refugees. These international organizations have accumulated and transmitted a degree of knowledge and wisdom regarding the management of life in refugee camps. They have also created a vocabulary within the writ of international law and non-governmental humanitarian practice. For instance, refugees are “aid recipients” and “stakeholders” and programs aimed at social empowerment and nurturing skills are referred to as “capacity-building.” States too have created a vocabulary to refer to the lingering traces of expelled communities. The Ottomans organized the systemic expropriation of the expelled Armenian population’s properties through the establishment of the Abandoned Properties Administration Commissions and Liquidation Commissions in 1915 and 1916, that were supposedly entrusted with safeguarding them. Under the aegis of the Turkish Republic, the expropriations continued under a less veiled guise of guardianship and protection, some of the referents were altered, but essentially, not much has changed. The Israeli State refers to Palestinians displaced from their homes and who relocated elsewhere in the territory that came to be Israel (i.e. internally displaced) as “present absentees.” The term is used to refer to their descendants as well. The strange semantic construction originates from the fact that the Israeli government registered them as “absent from their home,” on a particular day, even if they had left involuntarily or under duress. Their homes and property were entrusted to the Custodian of Absentees’ Property via legislation imparted in 1948 and 1950.
In the past two years, the large-scale influx of refugees to Europe seems to have polarized societies and flared the rise of right-wing nationalism, which has been on a rise for the past four decades. This political crisis is also related to the steep decline of the nation-state system. In his prolific reflections on statelessness, the bare life, and refugees, Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben proposes to rethink the organization of societies from these notions, precisely because they seem to embody less and less a state of exception. If, for instance, the notion of the present absentee is explored concomitantly with its experiential “palindrome,” namely the absent present, then the potentiality of repairing an injustice or suturing a wound begins to emerge as material and immaterial patrimony are placed at par. And the possibility of imagining forms of restitution of expropriated material patrimony exchanged for immaterial patrimony, or the knowledge, skills, and poetics acquired while absent from one’s property.