We Are All Refugees

All is not calm on the Mediterranean Sea. It is 22:00 and there is radio chatter between the Maritime Rescue Coordination Center and Italian coast guards about a suspicious boat nearing restricted waters. At 23:00 a distress signal is dispatched.

Like many NGO boats patrolling the territorial waters, the Iuventa (pronounced YEW-venta) sputters into action and the captain lurches the vessel 15 nautical miles southward towards the Libyan border.

William, a 25-year-old American with a healthy croft of brunt-blond hair, is one of the crew members onboard. Tonight he will steer the auxiliary boat craned off the side of the Iuventa. Nimble enough to maneuver next to boat in distress, but large enough to be deployed with an accompanying swimmer and deckhand to pass out lifejackets, it is the perfect size to secure and maintain passengers, as well as triage the sick and injured, until a sanctioned vessel arrives to transport persons to the mainland.

At full speed, it takes nearly 4 hours for the Iuventa to arrive on the scene. It is about 02:00. Crew members have spotted the reason for the distress signal: an inflatable rubber dinghy the size of two SUVs cramped with approximately 150 people. Other dinghies are sighted. It’s expected that groups of migrants would make the voyage at the same time. The problem is that there are no other NGO rescue boats in sight. Suddenly, the Iuventa crew is charged with a more difficult operation: making sure a turquoise sea doesn’t become a mass grave. It also doesn’t help that almost all of the dinghies are smuggler-fashioned with insufficient fuel; so, if not rescued, the refugees would drown. “Fortunately, despite being alone for 13 boats, two of which sank while we interacted,” William says later. “Not a single person was lost.”

Approximately 2,000 refugees reached Italian shores over the next two days. Most will never reunite with their family members, get a job, or absolve themselves of the stigma of “refugee.” Instead, they will find themselves stuck in a Red Cross camp awaiting asylum papers granting stay in Italy or permission to migrate further inland into Europe or across the Atlantic to resettle in the Americas.

The swell of newcomers has forced conversations about immigration, jobs, and national security. Politicians squirm. The United Nations’ 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 protocol forbids returning refugees back to their homelands, meaning that by international law, it is mandated that countries provide immediate sanctuary to those within their borders who are fleeing from persecution.

This leaves politicians with two legal options and a loophole. The options are to either integrate refugees into the country that offered asylum or support resettlement into another country. The loophole is to leave refugees intentionally unclaimed in grey zones along international borders. Politicians are increasingly choosing the loophole as public tolerance for sound and compassionate policy wanes. The United Nations and its partner agencies have stepped in as surrogate states but, chronically underfunded and increasingly irrelevant, these entities only enable political ambivalence.

The refugee crisis is not only political, but existential. I mean, what is a country anyway? Is it not a construct to protect human rights? Well, the concept of human rights was fashioned to work within geographic regions of well-defined sovereignty. Blurred borderlands and murky seas have multiple sources of sovereignty, which allows countries to play a game of hot potato with human rights.

We would like to think that our basic human rights are secured by countries, but as we fumble our way into a more globalized, transnational world, rights become more like benefits issued by a government to people it deems fit. And as benefits, they can be ignored or taken away. Refugees have found a chink in the armor of Western neoliberalism.

It is unnerving to think that the “inalienable” rights we enjoy can be undermined by the very institutions created to protect them. It means that there is little difference between you, me, and the refugee. It means that we are suddenly implicated and the seemingly distant crisis of the refugee becomes our own. It means that we could lose our country and then our rights and then ourselves. “As long as mankind is nationally and territorially organized in states, a stateless person is not simply expelled from one country, native or adopted, but from all countries … he is actually expelled from humanity,” writes Hannah Arendt, who fled Germany and migrated to the U.S. as a refugee in 1933.

The avoidance of refugees by our governments is a warning signal that the system of protection for human rights is broken. The future only knows how we will navigate these uncharted waters. The present fear is that we will continue to draw arbitrary lines that only divide and obfuscate responsibility. The counterbalancing hope is the realization that we are all refugees.