Refugees: The Modern Political Condition
by Nicholas Xenos
Summary written by: Tanya Glaser, Conflict Research Consortium
Citation: "Refugees: The Modern Political Condition," Alternatives, 18:4 (Fall 1993), pp. 419-430.
Xenos explores the condition of being a refugee. He argues that the problem for refugees is not so much that they are stateless, as that they are homeless. He then examines the modern connection between having a state and having a home, and concludes that the refugee problem is not primarily territorial; it is political.
A refugee, according to the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees, is any individual who is outside their country and outside the protection of that country "owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social groups or political opinion...."[p. 421] The Conventional definition focuses on individuals rather than groups, and political rather than economic hardship. However, interpretation of this definition has varied widely between nations, generally to suit the nation's own political concerns. During the Cold War the western nations tended to accept anyone fleeing the Soviet sphere as a refugee. The western nations did not insist on a case-by-case evaluation of the asylum seekers. They also accepted refugees fleeing economic hardship, reasoning that the economic conditions in Soviet bloc countries were politically imposed. Xenos points out that in present times, "would-be refugees from Third World countries who are deemed to be escaping economic deprivation are rejected, which is a reflection of the view that market economies are natural, not political arrangements."[p. 422] Nations have agreed to accept refugees in exchange for economic assistance, and have used the outward flow of refugees as a threat to coerce increased financial aid. Attempts to create a right to asylum on the part of refugees have foundered against claims of state sovereignty. "All states treat absolute control of territory as an essential element to the claim to sovereignty, so although governments are willing to consider agreements setting out the normative terms for the treatment of persons fleeing the jurisdiction of other states, few are willing to consider norms that would compromise their own territorial control."[p. 422] While individuals have the right to flee their own nations, they do not have the corresponding right to be taken in by any other nation.
Xenos argues that, in recent centuries, refugees have been the result of the formation of modern nation-states. Nation-states form around not only a territory, but around a particular national identity. Consolidating that national identity sometimes results in the expulsion of dissenting or divergent populations. The process of ethnic cleansing is a particularly horrible example of this process.
The author describes the refugee's condition as a type of homelessness. He argues that, by the logic of the nation-state, people must leave their homes in order to come home; they must sever their connection with whatever other community or communities to which they belong in order to become members of the only community that counts the nation within its own state."[p. 424]. Identification with the nation-state takes precedence over membership in one's historical community of residence. Sometimes this means that people are forced out of their homes and communities, in the name of being "returned" to their homeland. The exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey, India and Pakistan, and Croatia and Bosnia are examples of this process. Peoples without a nation-state homeland, such as the Gypsies or the Palestinians, are in constant danger of being rendered homeless.
Xenos argues that the problem of refugees "is a phenomena of the era of nation-states and of the international political economy, and is a problem not insofar as the refugee is denied a homeland but insofar as he or she is denied the possibility of establishing a home."[p.427] Drawing on the works of other political theorists, Xenos argues that individuals must have a home in order to take effective action in the world. Having a home, that is, being rooted in a particular community, "makes action meaningful through shared understandings and a shared interpretation of action."[p. 427] Homes do not necessarily require a homeland to exist, and can be rebuilt when lost. However, the present political equation between a home and a homeland does serve to deny those who are stateless the ability to put down roots and build a home, and so denies them the ability to be effective actors in the world.
Xenos concludes then that the problem of refugees is that they are denied the possibility of building homes and establishing roots. He also points out that this problem has a political cause. The problem does not stem from a shortage of land. Instead the problem arises from certain modern notions of sovereignty and of the priority of the nation-state, which deny refugees the political space to rebuild their homes.