Great Britain Frances Stonor Saunders

Frances Stonor Saunders
Photo: Sophia Spring

What does the term refugee mean to you?

It means someone who is seeking refuge, and is, or should be, protected by ancient and modern covenants of the offer of shelter and protection from danger. Homer’s Odyssey, the founding epic of tragic homelessness, situates the rights of the suppliant as sacred: Zeus is the ‘protector of strangers’, patron of a universal code of conduct in which altruism is essentially a matter of self-interest – you feed and clothe and house the outsider because one day you may need the same assistance. Thus, exceptionalism, or contracting out of this mutual law of hospitality, is ultimately a form of self-harm.

Is flight from poverty less legitimate than flight from war or political oppression?

It’s not less legitimate, but it is legally distinct. The refugee’s status is defined by an urgent, immediate need for sanctuary: you become a refugee to save your life, whereas the economic migrant is considered to be voluntarily on the move with the aim of improving his or her life. It’s striking how contradictory attitudes are to economic migrants: on the one hand, they’re depicted as opportunists, self-seekers, and thus to be debarred from the privileges and rights of other self-seekers (those of us who live in incomparably richer circumstances). On the other hand, they’re actively recruited as spare parts for our labour machine, as extra shifts to prop up economies threatened by stagnation or shrinking birth rates.

However, any distinction between the refugee and the economic migrant collapses at the same time as the rubber dinghies on which they both travel. The current scenario, in which so many people are clambering into their own hearses before they are actually dead, signals the moment that globalisation hits the buffers of its own hype, according to which the limits of geography would no longer be the limits of our lives. Globalisation seems instead to have delivered a world of barricades and partition, in which entire populations seem to be living – and dying – in a different history to mine. The radical shift in the policing of territorial access in the past decade is most evident in the United States and the European Union, whose cherished liberal principles of openness and mobility are now being walled in behind a policy of exclusion. This is the liberalism of possession, defended by ever-thickening borders, sharply rising enforcement budgets, new and more invasive surveillance technologies, and other mechanisms of rejection. People may be stopped at the border, but their grievances will cross it.

And what about flight as a result of environmental problems?

Globalisation has collided with and exacerbated the environmental conditions that cause great dispersions of people. So, the beneficiaries of global capitalism must be implicated in the disastrous consequences of the failure to safeguard the environment. And yet we respond to this reality with an act of collective mental emigration, a process Max Frisch described as ‘push[ing] our recognition of guilt into some immeasurable region where we ourselves can cease to believe in it. This is of course flight into a sublimation, which can never bring about change’. The newly-elected Pope Francis, on his first official trip outside Rome in July 2013 – to the island of Lampedusa – pursued this theme of the escape into denial. Delivering his homily on the plight of migrants (from an altar constructed out of an old boat), he asked: ‘Where is your brother? Who is responsible for this blood? In Spanish literature we have a comedy of Lope de Vega which tells how the people of the town of Fuente Ovejuna kill their governor because he is a tyrant. They do it in such a way that no one knows who the actual killer is. So when the royal judge asks: “Who killed the governor?”, they all reply: “Fuente Ovejuna, sir.” Everybody and nobody! Today too, the question has to be asked: Who is responsible for the blood of these brothers and sisters of ours? Nobody! […] the globalisation of indifference makes us all ‘unnamed’; responsible, yet nameless and faceless.’

When does one cease to be a refugee?

The Latin etymology incorporates the desire to return: ‘re’, ‘back’, ‘fugere’, ‘flee’ or ‘escape’. Homer’s Odysseus is not a refugee when he goes to fight at Troy, he’s a self-seeker. But he becomes a refugee when he attempts to find his way home and is beset for ten years by ‘twists and turns’, lashed by the sea, shipwrecked, stripped down to his bones. He narrowly escapes the Cyclops, who invert the rights of strangers by eating them rather than offering them something to eat. ‘You barbarian’, Odysseus rails at his morally dyslexic host, ‘how can any man on earth come visit you after this?’ Today, Odysseus would be celebrated for his direction of travel because the refugee who desires to return home is always more welcome than the one who accepts that home is lost and seeks to make good the deficit by building a new life in a new place.

Perhaps a refugee stops being a refugee only when he or she is able to offer hospitality to the host, when the suppliant’s right to receive is translated into the right to give?

Is there a natural right to asylum?

All so-called natural rights are human values, and values change depending on who is doing the valuing and when. The ideal of the equal value of liberty is enshrined in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This is the most comprehensive international law document in the world, and it states in Article 14 (1) that ‘Everyone has the right to seek and enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.’ It further states that ‘Everyone has the right to a nationality’, and ‘No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality’ (Art.15, 1, 2). Problematically, while presenting the right to asylum as a natural law, the Declaration is silent on how it is to be secured in positive law. There is nothing about states’ obligations, which means these rights have no specific addressees. Thus, the right to emigrate is recognised, but not the right to immigrate, presenting the asylum seeker with what 17th-century philosophers termed an ‘impossible reality’ (example: ‘darkness visible’; or, ‘immaterial substance’).

Bizarrely, a felon in medieval England enjoyed a greater privilege of common sanctuary than today’s (law-abiding) refugee. A felon who gained the boundaries of a church or other designated zone of immunity had the right to asylum, sometimes indefinitely.

If yes: is this right unconditional, or can it be forfeited?

It is not unconditional because one person’s right entails another person’s obligation. All rights are a negotiation. Murderers or perpetrators of war crimes, for example, cannot hide behind the asylum process. For Homer’s Cyclops, it is Odysseus and his men who are guilty of abusing the rights of strangers, running the sea lanes ‘like pirates,/sea-wolves raiding at will, who risk their lives/to plunder other men’.

Do you think that the number of refugees a society can absorb is limited?

Ah, the numbers question, with its constant but disingenuous (false?) appeal for an answer. Ten? Ten thousand? A hundred thousand, as former shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper suggested for the UK, a figure that translates into ten families for each local council in the country? A Merkel Million? How to arrive at the awkward fractions by which human lives are calculated? Why do we even try? Max Frisch again: ‘Every human answer, as we well know, is open to attack the moment it goes beyond the personal and claims to be generally valid, and the satisfaction we get from contradicting the answers of others is due to the fact that it enables us at least to forget the question that is vexing us. In other words: we do not really want an answer, we just want to forget the question. In order to rid ourselves of the responsibility.’

If yes: where do you draw the line, and why?

A thought: would Yvette Cooper’s suggestion have been accepted if the hundred thousand were all Einsteins?

Are there privileged refugees in your country, i.e. refugees that are more welcome than others? If yes: why?

We like celebrity refugees. When Malala Yousafzai was still in a coma after being shot by the Taliban, she became a prize to be won: her family received offers from across the world, originally agreeing that she would be flown to Germany, then finally accepting the British government’s offer to bring her to the UK. Thereafter, the extraordinary enlargement of one girl’s story gathers pace, with layer upon layer of constructed meaning and iconography, until she is forged into a universal symbol. ‘Her life is a miracle,’ says her father. ‘I think I’m not the only person who owns her as a daughter. She’s owned by everybody. She’s the daughter of the world.’

Other celebrity refugees whose exfiltration satisfied the western saviour complex: Einstein, Freud, Heinrich and Golo Mann, Hannah Arendt, Anna Seghers, Simone Weil, Victor Serge, Walter Benjamin (died en route), Franz Werfel and his wife Alma Mahler, Lion Feuchtwanger, Marc Chagall, Jacques Lipchitz, Moïse Kisling, the young Claude Lévi-Strauss, Max Ernst, André Breton.

Do refugees in your country receive fair treatment?

Fairness is very unevenly distributed in the UK, and not just for refugees. As nobody can come up with a better explanation for this unfairness, outsiders often take the flak (bloody foreigners).

Would cuts in the social security system in your country be acceptable to you if they were to facilitate the absorption of more refugees?

No, that would be a race to the bottom for everyone. How about cuts to the bloated budgets of the huge surveillance-security establishment that is currently changing the physical and mental landscape into a medieval-modern siege? You can’t have security if you don’t know what it looks like.

What are the requirements for successful integration?

- on the part of the refugees?
- on the part of the citizens of the host country?


In winter 2015, while making a radio documentary on refugees in Austria, I came across a booklet just published by the city of Salzburg. The booklet, which is handed out to refugees as they arrive, deals with core values – gender equality, neutrality of the state towards religion, etc. – but it also advises against making too much noise on a Sunday (such as mowing the lawn), not respecting ‘personal space’, being late for an appointment. It’s a kind of cultural highway code, full of give-way signs requesting the outsider to accede to the flow of oncoming traffic which is the Austrian way of life. What it expresses, very politely, is a country’s nervous hope that those who seek a new life there will enter into its social contract. It’s not an assimilationist, ‘fit in or fuck off’ warning, but a primer in well-being as a corporate, mutual affair, an insurance policy in which everybody – host and guest, visited and visitor – must invest.

Is it possible today to have a core identity without some willingness to complicate that identity? Why do we fear this as a shattering? Can we imagine identity instead of just inheriting it?

Do you know any refugees personally?

I know many people who have been refugees, but very few current refugees.

Do you actively support any refugees?

Yes, but it falls far short of the Homeric code.

How will the refugee situation in your country develop

a) over the next two years?
b) over the next two decades?


The Brexit referendum has taught me that prediction is a failed currency. If I had to venture an answer, it would be something between worse or much worse (for the refugee).

Can you imagine a world without refugees?

I wouldn’t want to, it’s like trying to imagine a system ‘so perfect that no one will need to be good’ (T S Eliot). Beware utopia. Paradise, Frisch wrote, is God’s ‘credit note for the poor and oppressed.’ Magical thinking is flight from reality, a fictional device that may bring some relief from the everyday predicament of being human, but it has no power to solve that predicament. If we start from a false premise, we’ll end up with a false outcome. There will always be refugees.

Have you or your family ever been refugee?

My father and his family were refugees from Romania during the Second World War. When they fled, Greater Romania was no longer great but an ever-decreasing zone of possibility, bordered by fear and contingency. They were refugees for five years, between my father’s late childhood and early adolescence. The experience taught him more about leaving than arriving.

Do you think you will ever be a one?

I sometimes imagine what it would be like to have to bundle up my life hastily and leave. What would I take? A map of the world (I don’t have a smartphone with GPS, maybe I’d get one, and a battery charger), walking boots, my bicycle plus pump and puncture repair kit, a panier bag on the back with waterproof clothing, socks, a toothbrush, food, water, a lighter, rolling tobacco, a torch, basic medical kit, multi-purpose tool. Money (hidden). Oh, my spectacles, without which I would be lost (or loster), although not being able to see everything going on around me might be an advantage. Can I fit a tent? Sleeping bag? What do refugees do with their house keys? Do I take ID, or not?

Einstein took his violin. Freud took his couch. Béla Zsolt, fleeing Budapest for Paris a day before the outbreak of war, took nine suitcases – ‘all my possessions, my clothes and my wife’s clothes and all the necessities and small luxuries we had collected in our lives: the objects, the fetishes.’ During the course of the war, the nine suitcases become a napsack, the napsack becomes a shoe box, the shoe box becomes a box of biscuits given to him by an acquaintance. This, Zsolt says, is ‘all the luggage I have.’

Which way do you go when you have a promising future behind you? In Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, a character walks away from the plague: he strides north because the sun won’t be in his face and that’s his only reason.

How much “home” do you need?*

As Frisch was probably aware, the same question was posed by Jean Améry, in his philosophical memoir of Auschwitz, Jenseits von Schuld und Sühne (‘Beyond Guilt and Atonement’), first published in 1964. I could never do justice to Améry’s profound, acutely conscientious enquiry into exile and homelessness – the loss of everything that has filled one’s consciousness, ‘the hectic search for identity’, the hollowness of a life forcibly detached from the context of home and the particular reality it provides. Améry, cast out of his home by his fellow citizens, found himself in a ‘totally impossible, neurotic condition’, in which the homeland he was bound to hate continued to demand his longing.

The early meaning of the German word for misery implies exile. In short, Améry concludes, ‘ it is not good to have no home’.

*This question was taken from Max Frisch’s questionnaire concerning “heimat”.

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