Blog post by Matthew Zagor (ANU) who will present on the ‘Resettlement: Legal and Political Visions’ panel at the upcoming RLI 3rd Annual Conference. The draft conference programme is online and registration for the event is now open.
In his notorious first telephone call with President Trump on 28 January 2017, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull not only praised the freshly signed Executive Order on immigration, but took direct credit for its inspiration. Australian officials, Turnbull put to the President, had discussed Australia’s policy of prioritising Syrian Christian refugees for resettlement with their American counterparts. The latter had clearly taken note, and were now emulating the Australian scheme.
Yet a close look at the genesis of the US ‘Muslim Ban’ and its original exemption for those from ‘minority religions‘ reveals not the hand of Australian norm entrepreneurs so much as the Christian nationalist arm of the evangelical movement whose support the Trump campaign so meticulous and successfully courted. If anything, the Australian policy of prioritising Syrian and Iraqi Christian refugees for resettlement can be traced to this same movement’s politicised mission: to save ‘martyrs’ in the ‘persecuted church’ from the existential threat posed by Islam, and through their redemptive stories revive a religion weakened by a century of secularism in the West in time for the end of days.
My paper to be presented at the upcoming RLI Annual Conference explores the background to these discriminatory policies through the lens of political theology. In this context, it unpacks the ways in which ‘reputational entrepreneurs‘ leverage the images and stories of the embodied martyr for particularist political purposes while working within the otherwise universalist humanitarian space – an unresolved tension in evangelical Christianity’s engagement with humanitarianism more generally. Its main focus are the ways in which resettlement programs, nestled within what Didier Fassin has described as a humanitarian rationality of ‘bearing witness‘ to suffering, are apposite vehicles for promoting an eschatological politics of redemption that marries with certain political interests in the Middle East, and populist Islamophobia at home.
UNHCR has long struggled to prevent resettlement being abused by states cherry-picking refugees to meet a domestic or geopolitical agenda. Taking its cue from Australia’s 2015 policy of prioritizing Syrian and Iraq Christian refugees on the basis of their ‘most vulnerable’ status, the paper questions whether UNHCR’s adoption of vulnerability as an organising principle for identifying ‘categories of need’ might be a weak spot for a non-discriminatory resettlement program. More broadly, it asks whether this potential weakness sheds critical light on increasingly popular theories promoting vulnerability as a touchstone principle in human rights law. Alternatively, it may be that this otherwise valuable principle is distorted through its use in distributing the scarce resource of resettlement places amongst already vulnerable forcibly displaced persons.
An inquiry into the political theology of resettlement inevitably raises a host of other questions that need answering. How, for instance, does it relate to national narratives of ‘generosity’ and unimpeded sovereign power around which resettlement programs frequently revolve, powerful political tropes which are classic examples of what Schmitt called ‘secularized theological concepts‘? And, crucially, do these concepts distort and undermine both the legal obligations to protect refugees arriving within a state’s jurisdiction, and the deservingness of those demanding recognition of their rights?
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