This World Politics in a Time of Populist Nationalism (WPTPN) guest post is written by Dr Cynthia Banham, a University of Queensland Post-Doctoral Fellow at the School of Political Science and International Studies. She is also a Visitor at the School of Regulation and Global Governance (RegNet) at the Australian National University. Her forthcoming book, Liberal Democracies and the Torture of Their Citizens, will be published by Hart Publishing in 2017. She can be reached via e-mail and Twitter. Cynthia would like to thank Professor Susan Sell for her comments on an earlier version of this blog post.
Political accountability, we are taught to believe, is a defining feature of liberal democracies. A basic relationship of accountability lies at the heart of democratic government: citizens elect their political representatives, and these representatives become accountable to voters. Yet political accountability, as we have traditionally understood it to exist in liberal democracy, is under stress.
In early September, the circulation of the now iconic picture of Alan Kurdi, the little Syrian Kurdish boy who drowned along with his mother and brother in the attempt to cross the Aegean Sea, prompted me to write a post reflecting on what ‘we’ as academics might do. I argued that we could, possibly, use “our knowledge of global affairs to connect the dots and lay bare how Alan’s story” is emblematic of so many themes we touch upon in our research – and indeed, the moment created by the (ethically difficult) circulation of the picture became an opening to provide depth and nuance for those willing to listen.
I suggested that, if academics wanted to do ‘something’ in response, this something might include telling “the stories of all the children who died crossing the Mediterranean – and their parents and grandparents, and aunts, and uncles.” Now, it would be presumptuous to think that Anne Barnard of the New York Times read my post (and she is not an academic either), but imagine my delight to see her piece on the Kurdi family’s journeys published yesterday.
* Please note: I absolutely oppose publishing the image of Aylan Kardi on this website*
Since my name is mentioned- and our short twitter exchange highlighted in Annick’s previous post as potentially the inspiration point for her piece- I feel I need say something.
First, I’ll acknowledge that the image we are debating hit me somewhere deep because the boy is the same size and age as my son. Those points of connection made me look at the image differently and that difference in how I saw the image made me feel embarrassed, upset, and unsure what it meant about how I saw the whole ‘package’ of asylum seeker images. So I’ve thought a lot about the image, the ethics around the image, and why some of us care about this image more than the hundreds of- arguably- equally harrowing images of asylum seekers (not just the people trying to get out of Syria or into Europe, but also the people in boats trying to get into Australia or held indefinitely in detention centers by the Australian government).
My point about ‘doing’ something was not merely some liberal notion of ‘activism’ or just giving some money to an organization. It includes deep reflection on our own role in the asylum seeker crises today. Of course, that might include sharing a narrative- but, for me, sharing the narrative is only helpful if it is driven by a desire to make ourselves uncomfortable, to reflect on our complicity and role in global politics, and a commitment to move forward with different steps than led us to the story.
As I just said in a FB post- there is a FINE line between 1) Witnessing and sharing stories 2) Making ourselves feel good: ie looking and listening so that we ‘feel aware’/politically active and- overall- better about ourselves (this bleeds into comments people seem to be making about ‘thanking god’ and ‘hugging kids more tonight’). Such statements are well meaning but really don’t help asylum seekers AT ALL. They are practices/sayings that make us feel good about where we are in the world, what side of history we are on, and how privileged we are. Such comments make me wonder ‘do we need such shocking images in order to care about asylum seekers or do we need them to make ourselves feel better?’ 3) Simple voyeurism and trauma porn. An image is trauma porn when we look at ‘terrible’ images so that we can shock ourselves, and then enjoy the feeling that washes over us as we look away and get back to our lives.
I would rather people- quite frankly- do nothing, than circulate an image or share a story of Alyan or any asylum seeker for their own personal gratification. To ‘do’ something political requires 1) engaging/reflecting on the politics of the image, the family and community it represents, and where we are positioned in relation to that family and community 2) asking ourselves how we benefit from borders, immigration quotas, policies that strip asylum seekers and relabel them ‘unskilled’ migrants or refugees + seeking ways that we can change our behaviors (not just our taxable donations). Continue reading
Yesterday the picture of little Alan (previously identified as Aylan), lying dead in the sand on the shores of the Mediterranean, circled the world. It provoked strong reactions from those who ‘witnessed’ his death in this manner and, not unlike the debates following some of the images shared after 9/11 (I wrote about that then), people questioned the ethics of sharing the images particularly without warning (see replies by some who shared here, here & here and note that his father wants the image to be shared if it can provoke action).
Indeed, it was this tweet from fellow Duck Megan MacKenzie that prompted today’s post (you can read our full exchange here). Her concerns are echoed, and expanded, in this piece (which also links to issues I discuss in a previous post on the #BBOG campaign). Of course there are things that we can do, even from the comfort of our own homes: We can sign petitions, such as this one from Avaaz or this one to force a debate in the UK parliament. We can share lists of things to do such as this one – and maybe get involved locally in Greece, Germany, or Italy (no matter where you are you can get involved locally – there are needs in San Francisco, where I am, and Sydney, where Megan is. If you have information for your local area, feel free to share them in the comments).
We are witnessing the horror of war. We see it every day, with fresh pictures of refugees risking their lives on the sea, rather than risking death by shrapnel, bombs, assassination or enslavement. For the past four years, over 11 million Syrians have left their homes; 4 million of them have left Syria altogether. Each day thousands attempt to get to a safer place, a better life for themselves and their children. Each day, the politics of resettlement and the fear of terrorism play their part.
The last major resettlement campaign in the US came after the Vietnam War. Over a 20-year period 2 million people from Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam were resettled into the US. The overall number of resettled refugees from this period is roughly about 3 million. Since the beginning of the civil war in Syria in 2011, Turkey alone has taken 2 million Syrian refugees within its borders. In short, Turkey has absorbed the same amount of war refugees in a four-year period that the US absorbed in five times the amount of time.
Turning to the Syrian case, which has produced the most refugees in any war in the past 70 years, we find a very dismal record of other than near neighbor resettlement. The Syrian conflict began in early 2011, and while the violence quickly escalated, I am taking the numbers of admitted Syrian refugees to the US starting in 2012. In 2012, the US admitted 35 Syrian refugees. In 2013, it admitted 48; in 2014, it admitted 1307. For 2015, the US is estimating admitting somewhere between 1000-2000 refugees. Even Canada, who tends to be more open with regard to resettlement and aid, has only admitted about 1300 refugees, pledging to admit 10,000 more by 2017. In short, since the beginning of this war, one of the most powerful countries in the world, with ample space and the economic capacity to admit more people, has admitted an estimated total of 2400 people, and its neighbor, a defender of human rights, has admitted about half that. Thinking the other way around, the US has agreed to take in .0006 % of the current population of Syrian refugees, and this number does not does not take into consideration the 7 million internally displaced people of Syria, or the simple fact that one country (Turkey) has absorbed 45%.
Samer Abdelnour and Akbar Saeed have published a terrific article in International Political Sociology. “Technologizing Humanitarian Space: Darfur Advocacy and the Rape-Stove Panacea” critically traces the emergence of fuel-efficient cook-stoves as a global “solution” to sexual violence in refugee camps.
Here’s the abstract:
We examine how an unassuming domestic technology—the fuel-efficient stove—came to be construed as an effective tool for reducing sexual violence globally. Highlighting the process of problematization, the linking of problems with actionable solutions, we show how US-based humanitarian advocacy organizations drew upon spatial, gender, perpetrator, racial, and interventionist representations to advance the notion that “stoves reduce rape” in Darfur. Though their effectiveness in Darfur remains questionable, efficient stoves were consequently adopted as a universal technical panacea for sexual violence in any conflict or refugee camp context. By examining the emergence and global diffusion of the rape-stove problematization, our study documents an important example of the technologizing of humanitarian space. We postulate fuel-efficient stoves to be a technology of Othering able to simplify, combine, decontextualize, and transform problematizations from their originating contexts elsewhere. When humanitarian advocates construe immensely complex crises as “manageable problems,” the promotion of simple technical panaceas may inadvertently increase the burden of poverty for user-beneficiaries and silence the voices of those they claim to champion and serve.
I remember teaching about the firewood/rape nexus in refugee settings during my days at GSPIA, but I was not aware of how the technology had proliferated since then or of many of the pernicious side effects of this technocratic solution to a multi-dimensional problem (here is an op-ed version by Abdelnour). It was nice to read a detailed critical assessment of such a policy, and to think about how many other globalized practices are doing more harm than good (or maybe some good and some harm) in places where well-meaning agents are struggling to deal with so much nastiness. Fuel-efficient cook-stoves to reduce rape are a band-aid, but so are refugee settings themselves: technocratic efforts to cordon off nastiness from vulnerable populations, and cordon off vulnerable populations from their host societies. The takeaway is that looking below the rug of humanitarian policy leads to some pessimistic conclusions. Continue reading