We look on in condemnatory horror as refugees crowd into camps on the islands off the coast of Greece, wondering why “they” cannot “manage” their resources, wondering what the visible squalor says about a society that cannot solve the evident problems festering and boiling up in these encampments.
We look on in judgement as people seeking assistance and asylum come to our borders, wondering why “they” cannot “manage” to feed their children at home, wondering what the visible squalor says about a society that cannot solve the evident problems streaming toward our borders and shores.
1. a person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster.
This framing of refugee status allows us to distance ourselves from the conditions producing refugees, from the desperate human need that drives people from their homes and forces them to ask others for assistance and asylum.
Yet, at the most basic level, a refugee is a person seeking refuge. And refuge encompasses shelter, food, and care. When thinking about refugees in this way, we must ask ourselves about the millions of people in our own society who have no place to call their own. People who live on the streets, people who live in tent encampments, people who live in their cars or on someone else’s sofa.
The hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children who live on our streets, in our doorways, and in our parks are- at the most basic level- refugees from the ravages of capitalism. They are refugees from the hollowing out of social services, refugees from the inequities of housing access, refugees from a job market that privileges skills not all can attain, refugees in a country with no real public health system, and refugees in a country that—no matter its motto—does not really believe in second chances.
We fail to see these people as refugees because we cannot believe that our country produces the conditions that give rise to leaving. We are, after all, the destination of so many dreams and desires. Our imagination cannot fathom that we have become the country that, indeed, wages war, persecutes, and succumbs to natural disasters.
We wage war, not only abroad, but on our own citizens. Police killings of young black men and mass arrests alone constitute a war waged on the populace.
We persecute our people, poor people, people who are ill, and people who cannot work by leaving them in poverty.
We stumble from disaster to disaster, leaving people at the mercy of private insurance companies, inept federal assistance, and uneven volunteer services.
And the people who pay the price for these wars, this persecution, and these natural disasters are those cast adrift in our society.
Those cast adrift are refugees: indeed, they are internal refugees who are the visible reminders of our societal failures.
Thus, we recoil from them and see them as the vectors of disease and danger. We worry about groups of unaccompanied, unoccupied men, men who are not laboring, men who are not fulfilling their obligations.
Thus, we work assiduously to remove them from view: in Salem we have “allowed” camping in parks outside of the city center, where they are no longer visible and the squalor in which they live is no longer in the public eye.
Thus, we do everything we can to distance ourselves from them. We want to see them as responsible for their own failures. We do not want to see them as refugees, as then we would have to ask ourselves what their existence says about our own society. What does it say about a society that cannot solve the evident problems festering in our country?