India Aman Sethi

Aman Sethi
Photo: Aman Sethi

What does the term refugee mean to you?

“Refugee” is a mechanism, rooted in geo-politics and ratified by nation states, to regulate the free movement of individuals and communities by declaring the circumstances of flight either legitimate or illegitimate. It is also one of the few forms of working class mobility grudgingly accepted by nation states. To understand the power behind words, it is often useful to consider all that is left out the narrow confines of its meaning and definition. If a “refugee” is an alien presence with a legitimate right to be in a country other than her own, where does that leave everyone else? Must we all be prisoners of our nations forever?

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

The framework of this questionnaire assumes that the natural condition of the human being is to spend her entire life within a tightly circumscribed radius of where she was born. In such a framework the desire for movement or migration is seen as an exceptional circumstance that must somehow be justified – usually through the trope of tragedy, poverty or oppression. The assumption that people only travel when compelled to is a relatively new phenomenon in the long history of human existence. As the anthropologist James Scott points out, in the long arc of our shared history “more than 97 per cent of human experience, in other words, lies outside the grain-based nation-states in which virtually all of us now live.” Questions about the “legitimacy” of movement unthinkingly replicate the stale language of bureaucracies and control – refugee, social security, rights, integration. This is not the language for human beings to speak with or of each other; we must resist the temptation to sound like technocrats and management consultants. So if the question is, “What form of flight is legitimate?” – my answer is “All movement in all circumstances is always legitimate”.

And what about flight as a result of environmental problems?

See the answer above.

When does one cease to be a refugee?

On a recent reporting trip I befriended a group of young Afghan men in Istanbul who told me that the European Union was no longer considering Afghans for asylum. “All the spots are being taken up by Syrians”, an Afghan told me. In Saxony I met a 37-year-old Palestinian who was born in a refugee camp in Lebanon, and had now spent a year waiting in Germany for his asylum papers to be processed. He, too, was worried that the asylum authorities were treating the suffering of the Palestinian people like a merchant confronted by an old coin no longer in circulation; he acknowledges the existence of the coin but is unsure how to value to it. So I suppose one ceases to be a refugee when your country has been bombed for so long that the rest of the world sees your societal tragedy as personal misfortunes and turns its attention to what is deemed a more urgent suffering. This should cause us to pause and consider if the term refugee should be permanently retired. In a correspondence with journalist Georg Diez I had proposed that “refugee” be replaced by “Musafir” – a commonly used word across the middle east and the Indian subcontinent that means traveller, guest, wanderer, visitor.

Is there a natural right to asylum?

It is more pertinent to inquire about our relationship to land and territory in its specific sense: is there such a thing as an ancestral claim on land? How far back does this claim go?
Asylum, after all, assumes – once more – that there is a natural relation between a people and the land they inhabit, and so these ancestral land-holders are in a position to offer newcomers asylum. The assumptions behind such questions appear less certain if we consider the case of the ocean: If someone swims beside you, is she trespassing on your Sea?

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

See above.

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

No. Because society doesn’t have the right to decide who gets to be part of society. We are all part of society, whether society likes it or not. By existing we are integrated / assimilated into the world of the living.

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

I suppose the cosmopolitan young elites who flee the stagnant wages and closed societies of their homes to work for vastly inflated salaries in the “development sector” across Asia and Africa could be considered to be a certain kind of privileged economic refugee. But as I mentioned earlier, I reject the category of the refugee and so, even as I rue the largely farcical nature of the “aid-worker/ International NGO” sector, I celebrate the hustle of young people using the pretext of “development” to flee the boredom of their home towns for the excitement of a life amongst strangers.

Do refugees in your country receive fair treatment?

India doesn’t have a legal framework for supporting refugees. The country has not signed either the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention or the 1967 Protocol, yet hosts a little over 200,000 refugees from Afghanistan, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Tibet, according to the UNHCR. The Indian government has recently tabled legislation to offer refuge to non-Indian Hindus who can prove they are being oppressed by their national governments; but the city police of the national capital, New Delhi, has a special cell to catch and deport undocumented, mostly Muslim, immigrants from Bangladesh. In India, like elsewhere in the world, questions of “fairness” appear largely incidental when it comes to refugee rights.

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

Given the near complete absence of any social security system in India, I doubt anyone would notice any cuts – whatever their reason.

What are the requirements for successful integration?

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

Social life is not defined by integration but by accommodation. Society is characterized by the outcome of the turmoil between contesting groups – farmhands migrating from the countryside to the city; migrant workers returning home after years of working abroad – some have become more liberal, some more conservative; women pushing to make public spaces safer and more liberal; religious demagogues demonizing young people for showing affection in public; multinational capital pushing for land-use changes to accommodate malls, factories, franchise coffee shops. Each group tries out different languages of contestation and accommodation to stake specific claims on public resources. Refugees are no different. The integration conversation assumes that a poor German has more in common with an elite German, than with a poor Syrian. This is not always true.

Do you know any refugees personally?

I come from a family of refugees who – in 1947 – left their homes in what is now Pakistan and crossed over into what is now India.

Do you actively support any refugees?

Not directly, no.

How will the refugee situation in your country develop

a) over the next two years?

It is hard to say, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh are now doing much better than India in providing essential services to their population. So I doubt if India will see a surge in people seeking asylum.

b) over the next two decades?

Climate change and rising seas could inundate coastal Bangladesh and Sri Lanka (and significant parts of India) so the next two decades could be marked by mass migration and social upheaval.

Can you imagine a world without refugees?

I can’t imagine a world without migration and movement, and so – as a corollary – I cannot imagine a world without refugees. Because what is a refugee but a traveler whose travel papers are a bit dodgy?

Have you or your family ever been refugee?

In 1947 the Indian sub-continent was divided into two countries. My grandparents where amongst the hundreds of thousands who moved from present-day Pakistan to what is now India. So, in a sense, I come from a family of refugees.

Do you think you will ever be a one?

- If yes: why?

I think it is entirely possible that I might, one day, be a refugee. Climate change might render large parts of the world  unlivable.

- How do you prepare yourself?

I keep good relations with the Goethe-Institut.

- To which country would you take refuge to?

I don’t know, whichever country would have me – maybe an intellectually vibrant society like South Africa?

How much “home” do you need?*

Home, as Mahfouz says, is not where you were born, but where all your attempts to escape cease. So home is a trap, and we should all try to need as little “home” as we can.

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