In some ancient cultures, human sacrifice was a tool to enforce social cohesion, executed by a select few responsible for maintaining balance in the world. The victims served to cement power structures and bolster social stratification. It was only much later that modernity understood the brutal absurdity of this strategy. Social order can indeed be maintained, but only through justice administered by the state.
Now, globalization is reviving the ancient tradition of sacrificial lambs. Refugees are the new scapegoats. Their sacrifice bottles the anxiety of a world ruled by uncertainty, grasping to maintain balance a little longer. As the main characters and the ultimate pawns of the globalization chess game, their identity is both defined and circumscribed by cross-border movement.
Refugees know what is happening around them, yet as a nomadic force they have no power to push for reform. Meanwhile, their sedentary hosts construct policy based on perceptions filtered through media representations of them. Are they refugees or economic migrants? Freedom seekers or terrorists?
Ahmed, a 26-year-old Syrian, has endured these questions first hand. He is one of over a million young Syrians who moved to Lebanon in 2015 to avoid conscription in the Syrian Army. “They asked me for $800 in exchange for not going to fight,” he says. “Do you see? I have to pay to not kill or be killed.”
Whether it was for ethics or fear, he realized that abandoning Syria was not a decision; he was driven out. The promise of the new millennium—a flourishing of choices—was a lie. Options are a privilege off limits to many. And Ahmed is one of them.
In the beginning, he didn’t even take a side in the conflict. During the streets protests in 2011, he remained a passive spectator. “I am an artist. I do not care about politics,” he kept saying to family and friends. His reluctance to engage, however, would not last long. It is said that war happens to you, and you don’t get to choose how. After leaving, Ahmed volunteered to help child refugees in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. The children would all wet the bed. They were traumatized. That’s when he realized that even if you’re not physically in Syria, there was still no escape. Ahmed began to have nightmares brought on, he believes, by survivor’s guilt.
Ahmed, like the rest of his generation, is tormented by multiple identities that he struggles to disentangle. He is indeed a refugee from his homeland, but he hopes to become another experienced traveller of the globalized world.
In Lebanon, where he now lives, few understand that. Many consider him a jihadist, a former fighter, a desperate migrant willing to do anything. This is mainly because of his physical features. With tension rising in Lebanon between the six million locals and 1.5 million refugees, the beard of a young Syrian man can easily be mistaken for a sign of radicalization.
“I am an artist,” he tells the police officers who ask for his ID.
“I do sketches,” he explains to local men who inquire about his religious sect.
“I am a hipster, not terrorist,” he says, chuckling to girls who look at him suspiciously.
His real struggle, however, remains in his inner self. He knows he will always look too wealthy to receive compassion, too Syrian to enjoy carefree liberty.
This is the tragedy for a whole generation of youth, branded with their country’s sins. Globalization might have brought TV series set in New York to the most conservative villages of a war-torn country, but it fails to make them feel included in the fluidity of the world. “How could you possibly not love How I Met Your Mother?” a Syrian friend asked me while travelling from Kilis to Gaziantep, in Turkey, near the Syrian border.
Refugees flee prosperity, too, not just famine. But their struggle isn’t less valid.
People in host countries complain: “Why are they dressed so fancy?” “Why do they own the latest smartphones?” What disturbs them most is that not all refugees feel like lucky guests, indebted to their saviors. Refugees don’t want to live like second-class citizens. They have skills to employ and dreams to accomplish. They are tired of being grateful for being alive. By leaving home for a foreign country, they left more than ruins and blood. They left a loved one, a decent job and the dignity of living in a place where people understand them. They want to be equal members of the world, not its marginalized victims. Normality is a right not a blessing. Solidarity should be based on an understanding of this.
The case of migrant street sweepers in Rome is salient. This spring, a groups of strangers, identifying themselves as refugees, began cleaning dirty streets, neglected by the municipality, for free. “Finally, they’re doing something useful,” I heard a passer-by say. “Those are welcome refugees,” others commented on social media, calling for greater involvement of refugees in serving their local community.
This kind of arrogant attitude—that integration requires submission—is only possible because of the legitimizing power of citizenship. Place of birth is not a special virtue, but Europe wields legal status as a gift for the purposes of leverage and domination.
Thank you so much, refugees might say. I’m so grateful to be here. Their existence is encumbered by a supposedly eternal debt to their host country, as if the international community had no debt to them.
This is happening especially in the peripheral ghettos of European capitals, where the newcomers’ desire for integration mixes with existing frustrations. No one wants to share the little available in the urban outskirts. To be welcomed, refugees must be less educated, more desperate and less civilized—certainly not threatening locals with higher qualifications and skills.
It’s never really been about a clash of cultures, as vote-seeking politicians like to claim, but a clash of marginalized classes over inadequate resources.
For instance, the Turks angry at Syrians are mainly those suffering from the new economic challenges they brought. “It is not that we do not like Syrians because they are refugees. It is because between us and the Arabs there is history,” a taxi driver told me in Gaziantep, a southern city where many Syrians now live.
But there is also another truth. International organizations based in Gaziantep are becoming increasingly more active in the local economy and in the needs of Arabic- and English-speaking workers. Even restaurants find it more useful to hire Syrians because they can communicate with the large communities of foreigners living there.
Because of this, local society has put up barriers against the integration of Syrian refugees into the Turkish economy. Refugees are welcome, but only in refugee camps and as manual laborers. Thus, regardless of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s (now rescinded) open border policy, inspired by the Muslim Ummah, Syrians in Turkey have always benefited from few if any civil rights.
Whether in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Europe or Iran, refugees are forced to live in permanently precarious status, from which few are able to escape. For young people stuck in the limbo of refugee bureaucracy, it can feel worse even than war.
“Oh, the good times of war!” someone told me once on a rooftop in the Middle East. “People thought they would die tomorrow and everyone lived free of worries.” I am still not sure whether he was joking.
Civilization—characterized by society in which not only the strong survive—has never seemed so far from reach. The Western values of liberalism, secularism and social equality were abandoned as soon as the price of these objectives seemed too high.
Insurgent anti-establishment movements have emerged in all their bigotry. The great European democracies began to speak the language of security, forgetting social values. Scholars warned about these risks at the turn of the millennium. Greater connectivity might have facilitated the rise of a more interdependent world, but it also created an opening for unpredictable scenarios. As the sociologist Ulrich Beck anticipated, globalization is leading to a “risk society,” in which a privileged status does not provide escape or protection. Already, living within the framework of a national state or a single culture is now impossible. War and violence can be contained, but not ignored. For this reason, international security is closely related to our ability to maintain social solidarity.
It is in this context that the philosopher Zygmunt Bauman described what he called “globalizing wars.” Contrary to traditional warfare, this new form of war is conducted by fluid actors with flexible objectives. The results are never-ending conflict, a blending of domestic and international affairs, and the politicization of international justice. Even the language used to represent reality changes: The intervention in Bosnia-Herzegovina? Humanitarian. The invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq? Counterterrorism. The Libyan involvement? Defense of freedom.
Globalizing wars have globalizing side effects. From the internally displaced to the marginalized of Europe’s suburbs, the refugee’s struggle is no longer personal; it is a political act in the service of a political game.
While it’s true that in 2015 the number of asylum requests in E.U. member countries reached unprecedented heights, what has really changed is the complexity of their patterns and how the movement of refugees and asylum seekers defines policy.
The images of capsizing boats reinforce the perception of a perpetual emergency instead of preparing citizens for a new normal, which would require the engagement of new solutions and policies.
What the world has failed to understand is that within the mass of people in need are members of the millennial generation who have already redefined the dynamics of the new world. These young people—educated, tech-savvy and active on social media—have the right to determine a future for themselves, not merely to survive, just like their peers from stable countries. Supporting them throughout this journey is a duty, not an act of generosity.