The United Nations defines a refugee as follows:
The 1951 Refugee Convention spells out that a refugee is someone who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”
The definition also ought to include refugees of war, famine, and the complex and varying reasons one may choose to leave a country to flee persecution – to maintain one’s dignity, and to stay alive.
There are words and entire concepts one has to consider in the context of leaving a place in search of a better life other than refugee. Migrant, economic migrant, immigrant, expatriate, etc. All those words problematic in different ways and depending on context, are socially located in one important one – foreigner. Foreigner is a term to remind the individual who bears it that wherever they find themselves, they do not entirely belong.
I have never been a refugee but I have been a foreigner. I am a foreigner. Even in the place that I’m supposed to call home (Nigeria), I am foreign due to not growing up there. I have written about the freedom of being foreign. The greatest freedom is the notion of patriotism to a place that is an accident of birth – escapes you. At least for the most part. Although I am not patriotic to places, I am loyal to certain ideals.
And one of the ideas I am loyal to is the recognized dignity of all persons, who by virtue of their humanity, ought to have freedom of movement. I believe in a world without borders.
I understand this is a radical belief to some people. I also understand that it is one that would be entirely difficult to enforce because of history and culture and politics and economics; because of differences and ideology. I have often said it and I say it here again: God made the world, and people made countries.
To the refugee however, I have a special love for in advocating for their plight. To leave the place one calls home is not easy for any person, regardless of circumstance and even in the face of dire threats. Warsan Shire put it best: No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark.
I have not been a refugee but I am the daughter of a man who wrote against a dictatorship government, and who would have to live in exile because of it. I am the daughter of a man who knows what it is when your home does indeed become the mouth of a shark – you seek ‘home’ elsewhere.
It is a privilege to consider any place on this earth a home. People who have patriotic attachments to lands of their accidents of birth, often call this a right. Despite my understanding of the function of the nation-state and its political consequences in the modern world, I still choose to call this a privilege instead of a right. Language matters.
The refugee seems to have lost the privilege to call any place home. Being a refugee seems to mean being a person who not only doesn’t belong, but also has to beg for the privilege of not belonging wherever they may go – to maintain their dignity; to stay alive. How do we call ourselves human and not look after those who are looking for a place where they might be human too?
The idealist in me wants to contend that if any of us don’t belong, then none of us belong; we are all just foreigners on this earth. Politics and social constructs argue otherwise. But still I contend that refugees should be welcomed everywhere because they remind us of our ultimate humanity, of the fragility of circumstance, and the unpredictable reality of the human condition.
As we see the images of refugees from Syria, from Eritrea, from Libya, from the many parts of the world, do we see their humanity, and do we see ours by seeing us in them, and them in us? If we stand idly by as someone – as many someones – ask for a place to call home to retain their humanity, how can we possibly retain our own?
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