refuge as protection

On March 3, 1991, more than 150 refugees from the southern Somali town of Kismayo were entombed in a 60-foot boat near Malindi, along Kenya’s Indian Ocean coast. When the Somali refugees drowned, the boat was at capacity; hours before, the boat carried more than 500 additional refugees, who had fled to a small sandbar offshore where their boat “ran aground.” A Malindi diving instructor who spoke to the New York Times soon after the refugees’ arrival described the mass bedlam that preceded their deaths: “[I]t was hell, completely. There were people clinging to dead people to survive.” After the dead were counted, Malindi townspeople exhumed the refugees’ bodies from their seaborne coffin, and placed them “into a mass grave carved out of the sand.”

That was 1991. A gaze at Times stories of the mass deaths of forcibly displaced persons at sea from the ensuing quarter-century offer up a boundless infinity mirror of global suffering. In 1993, the waters of the Congo River swept up 147 Congolese deportees rushing across a ferry gangway in Kinshasa, their onetime capital; in 1998, 200 Bissau-Guineans disappeared into the Atlantic while escaping their country’s civil war. The Congo River; the Atlantic Ocean–these waters, among many others, have become recurring gravesites for people in flight. Back at home, these refugees and their bodies face extreme jeopardy; they might encounter physical torture, as in Eritrea’s prisons, or the encompassing devastation of artillery fire, as in the cities under the Syrian government’s stubborn siege. A sea voyage offers few more protections to these people, sheltered as they are by a well-worn vessel and the slippery assurances of a clandestine courier.

These refugees’ suffering is–has become–a regular testament to moral failure: of the smugglers, who, seeking the slimmest of profit margins, place their desperate clients in conditions of unlivable density; of the violent politics from which these refugees flee, which ensure the suffering of the families and neighbors left behind; of those who benefit from those politics, and who feign ignorance as their fellow countrypeople perish; of the violent politics to which these people flee, seeking refuge, only to find a mass hysteria lying in wait; of the international community, especially its wealthiest members, which offer these refugees few paths to safety beyond the false promise of a half-buoyant dinghy. As is often the case during violent conflict and its other consequences, there is plenty of blame to share.

There is a global refugee crisis–today, it is on Europe’s shores; two months ago, it was on Malaysia’s; one year ago, it was on the southern border of the United States. This is a crisis of no specific moment: it is persistent, because the violence whence it came is persistent. The refugees that violence creates occupy a worldly purgatory. In camps, the ramshackle residence that becomes their home is impermanent by definition, and their new society is governed at once by the formal legal codes of domestic and international humanitarian governance, and an informal assortment of evolutionary bodies. Even when these refugees are resettled–given permanent visas, permanent homes–the societies that host them place them at their margins.

The public politics of human rights–which atrocities public media, officials, and figures choose to discuss, and which they choose to condemn–embraces an implicit ranking of rights, which determine the will and the effort devoted to their protection. Atop this moral pyramid sit life and its absence, death. As I have written here before, the intentional and expansive act of causing death–that is to say, mass killing–provokes particular global sympathy and, rarely, response. (Even more rarely, that response achieves its intended purpose.) The individual act of killing erodes a community’s protective virtue; at scale, that same act is a grave assault on our common humanity. This belief shapes the moral consensus to which we aspire, that notion that both humans and their politics bear responsibility for those whom mass violence threatens most.

The mass deaths of refugees challenge this moral ranking. If the resolution of violence is unlikely, to where must our responsibility turn? If mass death is probable–not by violence, but through flight–does refuge not offer the greatest promise of protection?

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