Blog post by Dr Gerhard Hoffstaedter, an Associate Professor in Anthropology at the University of Queensland, and Dr Antje Missbach, a Senior Research Fellow at the Arnold Bergstraesser Institute at the University of Freiburg.*
Hardly a day goes by without a panicky reminder of the so-called global refugee crisis. Whether it is the UNHCR statistics on the rising numbers of forcibly displaced people crossing borders or internally displaced people coupled with shrinking numbers of resettlement places, or the images of drowned, suffocated or dehydrated bodies in a desert, fears of losing control over mass people movements are everywhere, but particularly powerful in the Global North. Right-wing populists and the media like to add fuel to the flames and predict invasion-like scenarios of large uncivilised hordes who either come to steal our jobs or dredge our welfare system or both at the same time.
Fantasies of mighty shielding devices, such as Trump’s border wall between the USA and Mexico, and ever more robust deterrence mechanisms on sea, land and in the air are turned into action and materialise in many different corners of the world. Stopping refugees in their home countries or at least some place else before they reach the Global North, is a priority task for many politicians. While the EU has managed to pay off Turkey to keep 3 million refugees at bay, for now, other holes in fortress Europe are exploited. Meanwhile Australia’s active and de-activated politicians tour the world to promote their three-component success model: off-shore detention, forced returns of asylum seeker boats and ample ignorance of international law.
With this backdrop of a cacophony of panicking voices on the ‘global refugee crisis’, a few senior scholars have pressed ahead and suggested potential solutions. These solutions are outside the political mainstream, which has hitherto either opted for interventionist policies in conflict areas and/or to provide more financial support to international agencies tasked with helping refugees (UNRWA/UNHCR). On the one hand we have been dished up pragmatic-utilitarian solutions, such as by Collier and Betts who gave their blessings to building sweat-shops in refugees camps to make hosting those people more palatable to their hosts. On the other hand, there is the impractical-utopian suggestions by Cohen and van Hear for establishing transnational but de-territorialised spheres of belonging and self-governance called “Refugia”, where refugees are issued with “super-smart, biometric cards that open up and connect all the nodes and zones” of the global refugee archipelago.
The first, offers a largely economic argument to make refugees work for protection in Special Economic Zones and include them in the economy of the host society. In principle this is an important aspect of providing livelihoods, especially for urban refugees who often work in dangerous, dirty and demeaning jobs in informal sectors. There are many obstacles for such economic solutions, as the pandemic made abundantly clear. Whenever an economic downturn occurs, refugees, migrants and ‘others’ are quickly singled out and excluded from economic activity precisely at the moment they need it the most.
The second appeals to modern technology, which is increasingly expected to mitigate crucial refugee challenges if not help solve the global crisis. While modern technology might not be able to tackle the root causes of forced migration, it is seen as the enabler to provide refugees access to rights and information; health; education; employment; and foster social inclusion. In any case, both propositions more or less rely on the immobilisation of asylum seekers and their spatial containment in the places they are already stuck.
We note the increased technological responses to these crises, including the refugee crisis. The World Food Program and the UNHCR are experimenting with blockchain to solve identity and registration issues and refugees themselves can see the internet as a valuable information source of and for self- and group identity. Blockchain is one example of addressing the lack of identity documents and safeguarding the integrity of the refugee registration process. Yet, can we trust our biometric data to ever new forms of databases that become the target of both state and non-state actors for hacking? Should we experiment with these new technologies on the most vulnerable people when many in the Global North baulk at the idea of any form of identity card?
We know that technology is not neutral and is in fact political. Its proponents have often been naïve about the uses and abuses of any technological advance until abuses become evident and require regulatory frameworks to contain them. The recent effects largely unregulated entities like facebook and other social media platforms have had on elections and in stoking domestic conflict have shown the downsides of our increased everyday dependence on technology. Nonetheless, our dependence on and belief in technological advances and solutions continues unabated.
While these technocratic proposals and computer-based solutions are far-reaching, one could also say that they are not going far enough. And if we say far, we precisely mean 384.400 km, the distance to the moon. While the space race was briefly declared over when the Cold War came to a close, interest in flying to earth’s closest neighbour is now in full swing once again.
Elon Musk is already working on colonising mars with moon as an important stopover and who better to send ahead for this pioneering mission than those deemed entrepreneurial, willing to make new places their home and those adept at dealing with a wide array of challenges in difficult terrain. There, refugees cannot just rebuild their lives, but radically reshape how we govern, order and make society work. They will have opportunities beyond our imagination in shaping the first lunar colony in their image. They can transcend the ethnic/national squabbles and conflicts that have marred their lives and forced them to flee in order to dwell in utopian forms of governance of their making. The UNHCR may facilitate or be involved as a service provider for basic lunar services, such as housing, livelihoods and medical services, but not the governance of such a new de-territorialised community.
Some critics, and we acknowledge all such proposals always invite criticism, may deem this solution as outlandish and akin to sending refugees away from earth so as to diminish their visibility to us. Well to those, we say that the moon would only be in a long line of such ‘faraway places’ we have exiled people to. Nauru, Manus Island, two of the most recent in our region, but Javanese sent to Suriname or South Africa as political exiles by colonial powers faced the same tyranny of distance and went on to form functioning and important communities. Also, we would not send the most vulnerable people on such missions, at least not at the start, as we would require the most able bodied, educated and entrepreneurial of all refugees to form the avantgarde, to make a way for the rest once a colony is successfully established and functioning.
Again, detractors may argue that we would deprive refugee communities of their leaders by recruiting them for such a mission. To this we would retort that the refugee resettlement program does that already, so we would merely offer a way off-planet, rather than to the US or Australia. No, this plan is simply a logical next step, not an outlandish scheme.
The cost? Yes, this is where things get sticky and we appeal to Mr Musk and his humanitarian streak to offer some free flights to get refugees to their colony. Once their economy gets going, tourism takes off, we are sure there will be many opportunities to recoup initial outlay for the establishment of the refugee colony. However, there will be a cost, financial and social. Most pioneers will likely not see their families again for some time as shuttle costs will remain high for the foreseeable future. However, again history tells us that this is no hinderance, a mere complication that technology can and will help with. Social media and video conferencing tools will connect our lunar refugees with earth.
Sure, this is a polemic, but also a cautionary tale. Technology will not save us. Nor will purely economic reasoning for including refugees in a host society. We do need to rethink how and why people move and not find so-called solutions for them that further sideline, hide or displace them into long-term marginality and other spaces that are of no other use to us. Instead, take our polemic seriously and let refugees pioneer their solutions for a new world here on earth.
* Author bios:
Dr Gerhard Hoffstaedter is associate professor in anthropology in the School of Social Sciences at the University of Queensland. He works with refugees in Southeast Asia and Australia.
Dr Antje Missbach is Senior Research Fellow at the Arnold Bergstraesser Institute at the University of Freiburg. Her main research interests include informal refugee protection, the facilitation of irregular border crossings and migratory decision-making.
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