Nyers, Peter. Rethinking Refugees: Beyond States of Emergency. 2006. Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group. New York, USA, and London UK.

“When refugees take flight from violence and persecution, their human life is stripped bare, with all political qualifiers (presence, voice, agency) erased from their identity.” P.124

This rarely questioned truism is where Nyers begins his intense and challenging text on the political reality and the real people whom we label as Refugees. The challenge starts with the cover: a seemly traditional photograph of young females from an unidentified African or Asian region. But a second look at the classic pose of the central figure with a baby on her lap reveals her gaze firmly fixed down the sights of a gun instead of looking soulfully into the camera. The refugee has become an agent of her own destiny, not just an object of our pity.

Rethinking Refugees by Peter Nyers: A Book Review by Theresa Wolfwood.

“The refugee is an aberration only when people accept as a matter of common sense that citizenship is the only authentic political identity of modern life.” P.17

The concept of the Refugee Warrior, described in Chapter 5, is one of an active, politicized, militarized agent with an agenda we seldom consider belonging to any but states. These refugees see themselves as engaged and empowered to choose a role in defining their destiny “ a far cry from the classic mother with a limp baby on her breast. Nyers provides many examples; the Kurds in Iraq and Iran who are in conflict with Turkey, the Kerens who fight against the military regime of Myanmar from Thai refugee camps and even the Cubans who dream from Florida of overthrowing the government of their homeland. None of these appear passive; some have support and recognition from governments, others act independently. This concept contradicts the common definition of a refugee and it goes against our comfortable illusions of humanitarian kindness being bestowed on (preferably grateful) inactive recipients.

Because, in order to be an authentic refugee as defined by the UN Refugee Convention, the refugee must have a well-founded fear of persecution, we think right away we are dealing with a fearful person whom we are rescuing; already by accepting this definition we have disempowered her. It is certainly easier to be charitable to people without speech, security or place, than those who seize and act through a sense of full humanity. Nyers explains that we are encouraged to see refugees as less than human; in fact we assign them the position of animals, captive in our perceived free societies; a position Nyers says even a dog does not deserve.

Nyers uses a poem by a refugee, Agustin Nsanzineza Gus, to illustrate the contradictions of refugee definition, political restriction and human connectedness.

‘…We all belong to the family of humans Did I say humans? No, sorry The world of potential refugees Or better than that The world of refugees to be….’ Quoted on P.65

This is a leap in conventional thinking; that all people are in a state of being or becoming refugees, unless we revise our definition of refugee-ism. We might have to see that we all have times when we are or feel we are insecure, even fearful, unwelcome, pushed out, marginalized or excluded, including economically. These are unrecognized states of being that the cold war based official definition of Refugee does not include. Nyers says that this poem suggests we have obligations to humanity that are greater than our obligation to the sovereign state.

In Chapter 2, provocatively titled, ‘On Humanitarian Violence’, Nyers exposes the fallacy that humanitarianism is neutral and separated from politics. He writes that ‘…my position is that humanitarianism has always been an inherently political concept.’ The structures that cause and promote violence and generate refugees are not opposed or revealed. Thus the refugee phenomenon is seen as a non-political occurrence; yet to even operate in a limited way, agencies must recognize and cooperate with sovereign states, including those whose violence results in refugees. This humanitarian aid can be seen as violent if it is seen as legitimizing and supporting violent regimes and appearing to maybe seemingly cynical observers that so-called humanitarianism is just another hierarchical business opportunity. In his current writings Nyers discusses the new concept of “Responsibility to Protect” a new definition of state intervention into the territory and politics of other states by the powerful under the aegis of ‘protecting’ those who again are presented as fearful, voiceless and powerless. This is an incredibly complex issue leading to Nyers’ questioning of a set of opposing, but related constructs; coercion and altruism, violence and morality, the political and the ethical. He tells us to ask ourselves the question “what relation of universality and particularity allows me to express my humanitarian vision?”

As Jenny Edkins argued, “The relationship between humanitarianism and either violent militarism or politics is not an oxymoron. Humanitarianism is essential to both: it is deeply implicated in the production of a sovereign power that claims monopoly of the legitimate use of force.” Quoted on p.42

In its most profound essence this work is telling us that we somehow think that those who lack a nation-state, a paramount construct of our globalized world view, are somehow lesser humans than we are. Thus we can shuffle these people around in ways that both suit our political purposes and also enhance our own self-image as humanitarians taking care of victims. This works until the victims, showing less than subservient gratitude, find their own voices and follow their own agendas. This concept is being challenged more and more, politicians as well as society are recognizing a different reality. Refugees won’t play the victim any longer. Also being challenged and recognized is that private persecution, mainly against women in a state that supports patriarchal values, must, as feminists insist, be recognized as persecution that gives women that right to claim asylum. It is just beginning to happen. The importance of humanity is gradually being recognized as states, institutions and agencies fail to serve people and instead reinforce the violence of the status quo of powerful elites.

“Through their resistance and their imagination, they powerfully help us give [politics] a new life. We owe them this recognition, and to say it, and to commit ourselves even more numerously at their side, until right and justice are repaid them.” Etienne Balibar quoted on P.123

Nyers has written a fine scholarly, well-documented work, achieving his purpose of providing new insights and information while forcing us to think and rethink in vastly new and different ways about a previously well packaged and controlled group of people. Nyers is an academic; he is also a political activist working with refugees in central Canada. His book is an admirable blend of scholarship and an impassioned call to action.

Filed under Book Reviews, Peter Nyers