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  • The Refugee as Invasive Other
  • Michael Ignatieff (bio)

after the mass displacements of populations following world War II, refugees earned a legal and moral status as persons with a justified claim on the protection of a state if they could demonstrate a well-founded fear of persecution. Thanks to the Refugee Convention of 1951, refugees acquired a newfound moral identity sanctioned in international law.

Sixty years later, the structure of international law remains intact, but new metaphors have entered the democratic body politic, categorizing the refugee not as an individual with rights and a moral claim, but as the invasive other. A few examples from Eastern Europe will make this evident. In September 2015, Czech and Slovak politicians and medical professionals supported closure of the Czech and Slovak borders on the grounds that refugees would bring in disease. The claim had no substance, of course, but it was not an empirical claim at all. It was a pure exercise in malicious political metaphor, a not-so-subtle trope intended to construe refugees as a collective threat to the nation. As a result, neither the Czech Republic nor the Slovak Republic was prepared to grant the refugees any of the rights sanctioned by the 1951 convention.

In the same period, the autumn of 2015, the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, justified the closing of his country's border on the grounds that the refugees were a threat to "Christian civilization." This metaphorical terrain was already available before the refugees arrived; Hungary as a "Christian guardian" of Europe was a trope of Hungarian nationalism throughout the twentieth century. [End Page 223] Mr. Orbán is a master of this metaphorical terrain: he has built political power on an adept use of such tropes, in which history is reconfigured as biology and Islamic faith is re-envisaged as disease. Islam, a faith that has been present in Europe and part of its history since the eighth century, is recategorized as the invasive other.

When politics enters this metaphorical zone, the results are always perilous for vulnerable human beings. Through malign use of these metaphors, populist politicians in Europe, primarily of the right, have managed an extraordinarily ingenious inversion of reality. Refugees in flight from chaos, bombardment, and fear are described as an invading force. People fleeing ISIS terrorists in Iraq and Syria are viewed as terrorist threats. When victims are forced into this metaphorical terrain, the legal and humanitarian duties that states and their citizens once took for granted are reinvented as burdens to be sloughed off. Victims' claims are regarded either as moral blackmail or as duplicitous exploitation of our generous impulses.

The political consequences of treating refugees as the invasive other are immediate. Encampment, detention, forced repatriation, razor wire, searchlights, guard patrols, and dogs all quickly follow. Populist politicians of the right—and some on the left—construct these metaphors for a purpose: to collapse the political space for public consent to the generous and humane treatment of the desperate. The collapse of this space is evident everywhere. The United States had prided itself on responding generously to surges in refugees and forced migrants. During the Syrian civil war, which has displaced nearly 10 million people, this tradition lost its power to inspire public support and guide policy. Since 2012, the United States has taken in no more than fifteen thousand Syrian refugees, and the newly elected president wants to bar the door to any refugees from countries that have a majority of Muslim citizens.

While populist politicians and ideologues bear the responsibility for the collapse of the space for generosity and compassion, they claim that they are giving voice to the voiceless majority, whose fears were ignored or condescended to by liberal elites. Populism's moral [End Page 224] claim is always that it gives democratic utterance to preferences ignored by the privileged few.

This democratic claim acquires a certain plausibility in a time of fear. Terrorist attacks—such as those that occurred in San Bernardino, Orlando, Brussels, Paris, and Istanbul—create a background condition of anxiety that makes it easy for populist politics to "other" the stranger. Fear, in turn, then makes people indifferent to facts. The facts...


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pp. 223-231
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