We Refugees

This morning’s New York Times carried a report from United Nations refugee agency. António Guterres, head of the agency, noted with alarm that “the number of people displaced by violent conflict hit the highest level since World War II at the end of 2013.”The number reached more than 51 million by the end of last year. Peace, Guterres argued, is in peril.

Many displaced persons are refugees in their own countries, fleeing conflict in one area; others move across the border to a neighboring country. Yet, in both cases, they remain vulnerable to becoming “superfluous,” since the response of both individual countries and the international community remains inadequate to the task. Complicating the matter is the fact that many refugees are children. “ ‘There is no humanitarian response able to solve the problems of so many people,” [Guterres] warned. ‘It’s becoming more and more difficult to find the capacity and resources to deal with so many people in such tragic circumstances.’ ” Moreover, the overwhelming majority of those displaced by conflict are residents of the so-called developing world, whose resources to manage crises are woefully thin.

Such conditions as these were among the factors that Hannah Arendt identified as the events that crystallized into the phenomenon of modern totalitarianism, which she discussed in her monumental work, The Origins of Totalitarianism. The first World War , Arendt wrote, “exploded the European comity of nations beyond repair….Civil wars which ushered in and spread over the twenty years of uneasy peace were not only bloodier and more cruel than all their predecessors; they were followed by migrations of groups who, unlike their happier predecessors in the religious wars, were welcomed nowhere and could be assimilated nowhere. Once they left their homeland they remained homeless, once they left their state they became stateless; once they were deprived of their human rights they were rightless, the scum of the earth.” (OT (2004 edition), p. 341).

What will be the consequences of this rising number of refugees around the globe? As nations in the Northern hemisphere move to increase restrictions on immigration, how will this affect the search for a global solution to those living in exile, either within or outside the boundary of their home countries? What insights in Arendt’s own writing might be relevant to thinking about these questions?

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