Fugitivity: How Black Studies Can Help Us Rethink the Refugee

Fugitivity close up of a globe
Photo by Suzy Hazelwood from Pexels

We are currently undergoing a rapid set of changes as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, and one of the byproducts has been increasing conflict between nations and rising xenophobia in the West. This global crisis follows a period in which we’ve seen an increase in the movement of people due to economic stressors, armed conflict, and government repression. Thus, migration and the reception of migrants in new countries touches most of us. The 21st-century is inherently more integrated and transnational. 

For readers living in diverse societies, this can mean physical proximity to people who have been forced to move in search of refuge, safety, health, belonging, and/or economic security. You or someone you love may be one of those people. Yet, traditional ways of understanding these kinds of movements—made popular by the media and politicians—have reinforced an understanding of the refugee as valuable/worthy of saving solely if they are moving away from danger or oppression.

I want to suggest that this one-dimensional simplification of the identities of marginalized people results in their dehumanization, and that we can and must do better when speaking about refugees. Through a concept known as “fugitivity,” we can counteract the problematic notions of refugees as wretched, potential threats, and/or societal burdens. Doing so will contribute to a more just, humane social order. 

The One-Dimensional Refugee

Recently, I began reading about an important field of Black movement studies which seeks to recontextualise the identities and experiences of refugees/migrants/the exiled/asylum seekers for whom the flight from fear, pain, injustice, violence, and oppression has become the central source of identification. This is particularly important in light of ongoing refugee flows in Europe due to the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, as well as the surges in migration to the U.S. stemming from increasingly violent conditions in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala.  

Dominant mainstream media framings of refugees tend to inspire either feelings of empathy, pity, and righteous anger, or indifference and even contempt. While the latter frame (contempt), has been taken up and discussed ad nauseum in the media, the former (empathy) has not been adequately interrogated for its own limitations. In short,  Westerners fail to see refugees’ identities as separate from the situations of danger and violence in which they find themselves in.

Take media coverage of the tragic circumstances around the deaths of Alan Kurdi, whose body washed up near Bodrum, Turkey after the inflatable boat he and his family were on capsized. Or Óscar Alberto Ramírez and his daughter, whose bodies were found under similar circumstances while trying to cross the Rio Grande. Or the Essex lorry deaths, wherein 39 ostensibly trafficked Vietnamese refugees were found dead in a lorry in Northern Ireland. In each of these cases, the UK media and politicians described the migrants/refugees solely as individuals involved in “tragic,” “heart-breaking,” and/or “shocking” events.   

The Kurdi case received a remarkably high level of media coverage given the shocking nature of the photograph coupled with his young age. Media headlines at the time included those of The Guardian (“Shocking Images of Drowned Syrian Boy Show Tragic Plight of Refugees”) and The New York Times (“Brutal Images of Syrian Boy Drowned Off Turkey Must Be Seen, Activists Say”). Most headlines followed this formula of representing refugees  through the lens of catastrophe and misery. This is particularly galling since, in each of these cases, what the refugees were seeking is precisely what we all desire: freedom, dignity, and happiness. 

To be clear, framing these events as tragic is understandable and necessary in order to help society process them, situate them within our moral frameworks, and spur us to action. Yet, an approach that is limited to processing horror often encourages an overwhelmingly pessimistic and homogenized conception of the refugee as burdensome, Other, potential-less, and unworthy. This tends to harden the attitudes of citizens in receiving countries who often enjoy relative privilege. 

Much of the activist work challenging this narrative involves making up for the limitations of the legal definition of the refugee. This definition requires that they have crossed national borders, been personally persecuted, and face serious danger if sent back. Thus, the conditions under which one can be given refugee status have become more and more narrowly defined. For example, the US government now argues that fear of domestic violence or recruitment by gangs no longer constitutes a serious threat. Also troubling is that when refugee status is finally recognised, recipients aren’t viewed as complex people, but rather, potential costs to the social system, whether in terms of social support (i.e. welfare, health, education, housing) or as criminal threats.

The Multifaceted Refugee

A number of scholars and journalists have argued for the recognition that these new arrivals are complex human beings who inhabit overlapping identities (gender, race, class, sexuality, dis/ability) and form part of families, communities, and networks. I believe we must embrace this more multi-layered discourse about refugees. We must reframe our discourse to recognize refugees’ intrinsic humanity, complexity, and potentiality. As the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas argued,

“Whatever the case may be, he [the refugee] has a very great sense for everything that is part of the landscape; not the artistic landscape, but the place in which man is enrooted…To me, being a migrant is not being a nomad. Nothing is more enrooted than the nomad. But he or she who emigrates is fully human: the migration of man does not destroy, does not demolish the meaning of being.” 

Following Levinas’s lead, I want to encourage discussion of refugees as not solely definable  by their flight from danger, but instead, through the lens of “fugitivity,” also described as “the movement to or movement towards.” Fugitivity provides a way to conceive of the refugee as a potential-laden figure of becoming. 

What is most significant about this frame, as with other contemporary theories about identity—like intersectionality, Afro-pessimism, and Afro-futurism—is that it emerges out of the Black experience of “survival and resistance” post-slavery. Fugitivity also challenges a reductionist understanding of identity, and re-frames the subaltern as complex, subversive, and active. It is important to trace the concept of fugitivity to Black intellectual thought, which, unsurprisingly, has been the source of much of the most innovative and robust thinking about refugee movements. 

Numerous Black thinkers have attempted to account for how the movement towards freedom has often run up against structures of the State in ways that are simultaneously repressive and freeing. Fugitivity captures the act of struggling against borders and oppression with the intention of complexifying the refugee experience and challenging the definition of “refugee” or “migrant” as an all-encompassing identity. In doing so, it makes space for a positive interpretation of the refugee as moving towards a space wherein their socially-rooted personhood can be expressed.

Fugitivity Going Forward

Understanding the mundane activities of everyday life as a space in which fugitivity is produced is one strategy through which nations receiving refugees can begin to challenge their assumptions. Challenging the media and politicians to better understand why refugees respond in the face of repression and economic precarity in the ways that they do, how their overlapping identity positions shape who they are, and how their engagement in social and familial networks provides changes upon arrival, can lead to a deeper understanding of how to create welcoming and more robust societies. 

A salient example of fugitivity is the powerful case of refugee author Behrouz Boochani, whose journey, partially by boat, from Iraq to Australia resulted in a six-year detention on Manus Island by Australian authorities. During his time there, Boochani wrote an award-winning book, primarily through the use of text messages and Whatsapp, that chronicles his acts of fugitivity and meaning-making. Bouchani provides detailed stories about the interned men, their mental health, and their resiliency, thereby challenging accepted stereotypes about refugees. 

The book also allows for the theorizing of resistance as a space through which refugees can be understood as subjective agents, and not as “non-white unspeakable peoples apparently without histories and politics.” Bouchani, in an interview last year, captured the essence of fugitivity perfectly: “I just want to be free of the system, of the process. I just want to be somewhere where I am a person, not just a number, not just a label ‘refugee’.”

Another example of fugitivity in action can be found in a Wired magazine article that details how Somali immigrants used their repressive work environment at a Minnesota-based Amazon warehouse as a site of justice. They collectively walked off the job and reframed themselves through the media as economic agents with families, as embodied agents, and as social justice activists. They also built a proto-union whose motto is “Building East African Worker Power.” 

These two examples represent multiple movements/migrations:  the refugee is both experiencing a “flight to” a new home, as well as building new forms of social organization and self-cultivation. These immigrants are examples of how best to imagine new ways to think about, act, and treat new members of our communities by challenging the stereotyped understanding of the Other propagated by the media and political actors. 

If we are to take the past as a measure of what is likely to come, when this kind of impoverished understanding has been left to fester, the results are nothing short of catastrophic. Unfortunately, intensified global conflicts related to the Covid-19 pandemic have given rise to increased anti-Asian racism, other forms of structural racism—i.e., Black and Latinx people are dying disproportionately from the virus because of their previous economic circumstances—large-scale economic crisis, and isolationism. 

Now, more than ever, Western societies should reframe how we relate to individuals who have uprooted their lives in order to seek peace and security. Perhaps then we can begin to move the conversation away from a politics of demonization to one of hospitality.

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Dr Tina Sikka is a Lecturer in Media and Culture at Newcastle University, UK. Her research interests include intersectional science studies (environmental science and health science), sexuality studies, gender, and culture. Her forthcoming book is titled Sex, Consent and Justice: A New Legal and Feminist Framework published with Edinburgh University Press. Her research can be found at: https://www.ncl.ac.uk/sacs/staff/profile/tinasikka.html