Toward Refugee and Migrant Justice (Conference Paper)

Originally presented at the University of Toronto History Students’ Association Research Colloquium, University of Toronto, March 2017

Toward Refugee and Migrant Justice: Addressing the Boundaries of Humanitarian Organizing in the Nation-State


Entering 2017, as numbers of forcibly displaced peoples reaches an all-time high for the first time since World War II, policy makers and development practitioners alike are reflecting on the ongoing impacts and consequences of the “refugee crisis.” Exploring the framing of the current refugee crisis paves the way for critical questions on how borders shape humanitarian development interventions for refugees and, in turn, how structures of power operate in spaces of forced migration development work. Ayesha Siddiqi argues that “every border implies the violence of its maintenance”, my work extends this understanding of violence, illuminating the way in which every border also implies the violence of its formation. By interrogating the interlocked nature of forced displacement in relation to geographic and historical processes across time and space, this research explores the systems and assumptions that underpin much of mainstream humanitarian work seeking to address “statelessness.” By drawing on academic literature and grassroots publications, this paper seeks to explore the impacts these underpinnings have both on refugee narratives and demands, highlighting the boundaries of humanitarian organizing within the nation state. With a specified focus on the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) humanitarian work in Tanzania, my research traces the interplay of relations between refugees, humanitarian organizers, and the state. While a vast scholarly literature on migration has addressed injustices surrounding clandestine migratory flows, this paper seeks to focus on both the obstacles and possibilities for migrant and refugee justice that transcends twenty-first century border regimes.

Introduction: Addressing the Boundaries of Humanitarian Organizing

The 2010 United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) publication of the strategy note on Action to Address Statelessness reflects a broader expanding humanitarian movement attempting to work towards newer interpretations of migrant and refugee justice. In line with the United Nations’ (UN) 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, the strategy note outlines the implementation and development of interventions for persons who are not recognized as nationals by any state under the operation of its law. Their definition of “statelessness” extends to encompass and include those who have limited access to birth registration, identity documentation, education, health care, legal employment, property ownership, political participation, and freedom of movement. While the strategy note suggests the importance of addressing statelessness is primarily linked to the concern that statelessness acts as an obstacle for creating and maintaining economic and social development within states, a critical reading of this document suggests the importance of recognizing how power structures operate in spaces of migration and displacement. With a specified focus on the UNHCR in relation to state workings in Tanzania, this paper traces the interplay of power relations between refugees, humanitarian organizers, and the state.

By drawing on Liisa Malkki’s work on refugees and “humanitarianism” in Tanzania, this paper seeks to provide context to help better situate processes of forced displacement in histories and geographies of violence across time and space. In the first section I discuss key terms and the importance of recognizing my own positionality in the context of this research. Following this, I examine border imperialism and the way in which it transcends state boundaries, operating in a way that renders “illegality” and processes of migration as profitable. Furthermore, I explore humanitarianism and the framing of humanitarian interventions in the context of state violence, specifically in regards to the UNHCR strategy note’s erasures that project “statelessness” as apolitical and ahistorical. This includes an exploration of who is and who isn’t officially “classified” as a refugee or an asylum seeker by both the UNHCR as well as the nation-state. Lastly, I examine refugee narratives and the spaces that refugees create to organize demands and navigate a multiplicity of identities. Linking this research to the UNHCR strategy note highlights a facet of UNHCR work that, in part, operates in line with mainstream humanitarianism as it continues to address statelessness and present refugee and migrant claims as detached from broader political and historical processes of violence across time and space.  Examining the boundaries of humanitarian organizing within the nation-state thus presents possibilities for the future of refugee and migrant justice.


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