Stateless refugees and the calculus of human worth

World Refugee Day is a good day to talk about how our world deals with statelessness. But maybe the conversation ought to start with the state.

Naushad Ali Husein

Naushad Ali Husein

The Daily Star


The way the international community has responded to the Ukraine crisis proves that this world has humanity and compassion in it. But this compassion is selective. PHOTO: REUTERS

June 20, 2022

DHAKA – We depend on oversimplified narratives to help us come to terms with our existence. That we are the most developed living organism on Earth. That this is the result of a linear evolution from the simplest, insentient, single-cell amoeba to the intelligent and cultured beings we now are. That this linear progress continues as societies grow more advanced and sophisticated.

And we believe in our modern global political system of nation-states. But we pledge allegiance to our country, and we feel bound to be loyal to the squiggly lines that define them. We ignore how arbitrarily that border was drawn out.

Certainly, that border is an undeniable truth, an irreversible sleight of history. But this neat and simple narrative of belonging complicates our humanity grossly. It leaves long complex equations in a murky calculus determining which lives matter and how much.

It starts off simple enough: Our own above others’. Our state shall value its citizens, language, heritage, etc. above any other citizens, language or heritage. Each person’s dignity and rights shall be protected by the state of which they are a citizen.

But no country is homogenous, and the nationalist sentiment has to make choices and compromises. The constitution privileges all citizens, regardless of the language they speak – but clearly positions Bangla as the state language, not Kokborok or Hajong (“Coke Studio Bangla” notwithstanding).

Then there are citizens whose ancestors are straight-up immigrants. Foreign people with a Bangladeshi passport. The worth of this breed is not dependent on any one variable. Melanin, for example, seems to be inversely related to worth. The level of exoticism of their origin is directly related to their worth. If they speak the “enemy language,” Urdu, their worth is automatically negative.

Then there’s religion. Islam has a special place in our state and constitution, and even that is a bit inconvenient to everybody who isn’t a Muslim. But Muslims get plenty of flack elsewhere in the world. You add a little on one side of the equation, subtract a little on the other, and it all balances out, no? Positive humanity versus negative humanity.

And let’s not forget money and influence. These are the most important determinants of a person’s worth.

Then there are… well, the aliens. The “forcibly displaced,” rendered stateless by a genocidal regime, with no squiggly lines to safely call their own, therefore permanently seeking temporary refuge within ours. What value do we assign their lives, as opposed to our own? And how do we calculate this value? And who is responsible for appreciating it? Must it be the country of “first arrival”? But then what responsibility does the global community have?

In the last four months, six million Ukrainians have been accepted with open arms into Europe. There are reasons why other refugees are not accepted as openly.

Naushad Ali Husein

Yes, the calculus of human worth gets super convoluted the moment we start talking about stateless refugees. Take the Rohingya people, whom Bangladesh has been absorbing for decades. Many Rohingya people who arrived as early as in the 1970s became naturalised. Then there were those who used to cross the border at will – after all, it’s just a river that they had to cross – and never bothered to make the papers. So now we have more variables in our equation: Who arrived when, and who has what papers.

This year, for the first time in human history, there are more than 100 million people around the world forcibly displaced by war, persecution, and disaster. Of these, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine accounts for 14 million.

The way the international community has responded to the Ukraine crisis proves beyond doubt that the people of this world have humanity and compassion in them. But this compassion is selective. On the Polish border, African students and non-white refugees reported being made to wait in freezing temperatures while busloads of white Ukrainians were let in ahead of them.

Ukrainian refugees who look like Ukrainians – to put it crassly – have been welcomed all over Europe and the developed world. The EU, which has spent decades trying to repel refugees from all over the world, often in inhuman and lethal ways, moved quickly to adopt a Temporary Protection Directive to allow Ukrainian refugees to access healthcare and jobs.

The UK launched the Homes for Ukraine scheme to settle Ukrainian refugees, while simultaneously making arrangements to ship all other asylum-seekers to offshore detention centres. The US is hand-picking Ukrainians to cross into its territory from Mexico, leaving behind the Mexicans trying to escape drug wars. It’s also writing the EU a billion-dollar cheque to absorb Ukrainian refugees. (And let’s not forget the weapons.)

There’s a whole calculus about good refugees and bad refugees, and how many of which must be welcomed where. In 2015, with the ISIS crisis raging, it took the picture of a dead five-year-old washed up on a beach to provoke sympathy for Syrian refugees. That year, 1.3 million refugees entered the EU. In the past several years, hundreds of thousands have entered the EU, but with plenty of fuss.

In the last four months, six million Ukrainians have been accepted with open arms into Europe. There are reasons why other refugees are not accepted as openly.

Bangladeshis attempting to cross the Mediterranean into Italy weren’t even considered refugees, because escaping hopelessness doesn’t count as fleeing anything. Then the problem with these “economic” migrants is that they don’t integrate or embrace the European lifestyle. It’s rumoured they have plenty of children to maximise welfare payments. They lack sophistication. Let’s be honest, we all use this variable in our human worth calculations.

When talking about progress, we like to think we have evolved. That, unlike times past, the modern world is one where everyone agrees on and believes in the sanctity and dignity of human life, and all the leaders of the world have signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) to this effect:

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

This is an incredibly radical statement, and I’m surprised so many important people agreed to it. There’s nothing here that says our brotherhood should be reserved for our countrymen, or that the less sophisticated are less equal. There’s nothing here about belonging to any arbitrarily drawn lines. “All human beings are born free and equal”? Lofty ideal.

It’s not a natural tendency for human beings to unconditionally love each other. “Love thy neighbour” was a radical message and not without reason. If we loved them all equally, we probably wouldn’t survive long. But tying our identities and loyalties to the nation-state means that our love and respect for fellow humans (and other life forms) are subject to a complex calculus full of arbitrary variables – complexion, documentation, wealth, language, sophistication.

Love and respect for the entire human family, and for all life on the planet, is behaviour that must be learned. Can you imagine it as the next step in human progress?

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