Forum: Stop calling it a ‘refugee crisis’

Calling it a crisis suggests that forced migrants have produced an unstable and dangerous situation that now affects the West. It negatively frames those seeking safe haven as burdensome — as a burden the West, Europe now in particular, cannot bear. Yet, the West has the capacity — but not the will — to provide safe haven for all of those in search of it. It is a state of affairs produced by the opulent West that understands itself as a magnanimous savior to the Global South while it sets the terms of entry and of the debate.

This is not a crisis because it is not surprising. It is the tragic but natural consequence of the historical and contemporary violent enforcement of Western hegemony around the globe.

The West produces refugees and yet has the audacity to call it crisis without naming its hand in the situation’s very production. For example, there are roughly 5 million Palestinian refugees, and they make up the single largest refugee group in the world. The West created the conditions by which the Palestinian refugee situation was born. The collaboration between British colonial powers and Zionist organizations, for example, helped lead to the forced displacement of hundreds of thousands with the founding of the settler colonial state of Israel in 1948. In 1967, U.S. military support to Israel helped produce roughly 300,000 more Palestinian refugees. The West creates refugee crises through its colonial and postcolonial meddlings — tragically, sometimes, in the very name of humanitarian assistance and intervention.

The West is not even the primary destination of refugees and asylum seekers. Developing countries receive close to 86 percent of the refugees in the world, while wealthy countries receive only 14 percent. Yet the West dominates our understanding of who is bearing the “burden” — as it is discursively constructed to be — of forced migration. The vast majority of refugees never come to places such as Europe or the United States. Of the top 10 refugee receiving countries, only one is in the West. The West is not magnanimous; the Global South is.

Finally, refugees are more than refugees. They are not a homogenous mass. They are doctors, taxi drivers, art history professors, artisans, line cooks, mothers, engineers and children who demonstrate mind-boggling ingenuity and determination to migrate. “Refugee” is a juridical identity that is not chosen but applied, and that comes to supplant and erase all that they are. By naming them as refugees and nothing more, we inaccurately produce them as passive victims. Such a stance is what leads to the idea of a “crisis.” Those in search of safe haven are not victims that burden us. We should welcome as many that want to come.

Jensen is a sociology graduate student and Student Government Graduate Student Representative. She is a member of the Palestine Solidarity Committee.