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Refugees, Rights, and Ukraine: an interview with Professor Nadia El-Shaarawi

Professor Nadia El-Shaarawi is an Assistant Professor Global Studies at Colby College. Her research focuses on refugees and refugee health, and she teaches classes on refugees, global health, and humanitarianism. Nadia is currently working on a book addressing issues of imperial unknowing and the production of ignorance during the Iraq War and its impact on Iraqi refugees. She is interviewed by Conall Butchart ’22 in a discussion centered on both refugees in the context of the Ukraine war and refugee treatment more widely.

Conall Butchart

If you had to explain international refugee law in three sentences to someone who had never heard of it before, what are the very essential elements?

Nadia El-Shaarawi

The general kind of architecture of international refugee law is governed by the 1951 refugee convention, and its 1967 protocol that’s the most important document under international law. There’s all kinds of other agreements and treaties, and of course, national law that govern how refugees are defined in particular circumstances, but a lot of them draw on and relate to the 1951 convention. And the 1951 convention defines a refugee as a person who has crossed a border, so they have left their country of habitual residence, because of a well-founded fear of persecution on the basis of five grounds — in US law, we call those like “nexus” grounds. And those are race, religion, national nationality, political opinion, either actual or imputed and membership in a particular social group. And that last one is kind of a fuzzy sounding; that’s probably the hardest [to define], [and] every single one of these categories has been adjudicated through huge amounts of case law.

So they’re all really contested categories, and also categories that have been agreed on in various kinds of legal ways. But membership in a particular social group is the one that I think is the hardest to understand as a regular sort of person. And what that’s been understood to mean is that it’s some kind of immutable characteristic of something about you, that you cannot change and that you shouldn’t, or you shouldn’t be asked to change. That’s been interpreted in the law as persecution on the basis of occupation, persecution on the basis of gender and sexual identity. Sometimes people are persecuted because of the family they belong to or particular social groups that have been interpreted in that way.

The next part of it is that they are unwilling or unable to return safely. So that’s the definition that was agreed upon in the aftermath of the massive refugee crisis in Europe in the aftermath of the Second World War, when there were millions of displaced people. And countries came together trying to figure out, “Well, what do we do?” There’s been scholarship recently pointing out, and I raised this because I think one of the kind of key themes that is really important right now is this double standard that we see between European refugees and refugees from other places, but there’s a ton of literature coming out right now there’s talking about the colonial origins of the Refugee Convention, and how we think of the Refugee Convention as being so fundamental to understanding displacement and how it comes out of this European moment, but during the moment at which it was defined, and the moment at which it was signed into law, there was, of course, displacement happening all over the world and other in other places. Displacement then wasn’t just a European problem, even though we imagined it as being a European problem.

So, the 1951 convention, when it gets signed in the aftermath of World War Two, it’s restricted only to refugees in Europe, and only to refugees displaced prior to 1951. So then, in 1967, there’s a protocol that gets signed, which is basically an amendment to the 1951 convention that expands it to the rest of the world and also removes the temporal limitation. So it can be refugees who are displaced at any time. And the convention lays out a whole number of rights that state signatories are supposed to give to refugees by virtue of signing this convention. The most foundational one is something called non-refoulement, which is basically this idea that the most important right that refugees have is the right to not be sent back to the place that they fled from; the right not to be returned to persecution.

So what we see now is that we have this international framework that’s not perfect, but does offer some protections to refugees. But we see that states all over the world, including in Europe, are violating those agreements that they themselves have signed. Just kind of constantly, at this moment, there’s been this real global erosion of asylum, and what’s happening with displaced Ukrainians right now is actually pretty heartwarming. It’s horrific, what they’re going through, but there has been this real groundswell of support for them from just, you know, regular people as well as from states that is certainly not the norm that we see for refugees from other places at this moment.

Conall Butchart  

What do you see as the defining differences between this Ukrainian case and the, like you said, the general of erosion of state responsibility toward refugees? Why does this moment in particular seem to be very different than other recent moments?

Nadia El-Shaarawi

That’s a really good question. I think there are a couple of ways that we see the response being different — I would say in terms of the displacement itself, what’s happening to the Ukrainians, which is absolutely devastating, is in and of itself not that different — we see people fleeing to neighboring countries hoping they’re going to be able to return, and we are in this very initial  first three weeks of the invasion phase, where I think that is often how displacement looks at this initial. There’s lots of questions about what’s going to happen as this continues. But this, the displacement itself, really doesn’t look that different.

What is so different is the response to it. And I’d say that the response both in terms of state responses, and in terms of mutual aid, grassroots solidarity responses, and media discourse has been really different. There’s been a ton of critiques of the ways in which mainstream media has talked about this crisis — there’s a really good statement by the Arab and Middle Eastern Journalists Association where they cataloged a number of different instances of this [double-standard] and put out a statement condemning it — these examples on CNN and Al Jazeera and all kinds of really mainstream media outlets talking about how “it’s so shocking to see this in Europe. It’s so shocking.” The Ukrainians they look just like us, you know, they are quote-unquote, these middle-class civilized people with their suitcases in their cars. This kind of language has been really devastating, I think, to people who are not, white Europeans who have had to flee.

It implies right that there’s this idea of certain people and certain places where we as a world are comfortable with seeing war and comfortable with people being displaced, and who get understood as being properly migrants or refugees, right? And other places where we think that shouldn’t happen which emanates from all kinds of civilizational-colonial ideas. What’s happening to the Ukrainians right now is absolutely devastating, right? It necessitates this response. It deserves this response. But I think  we do need to ask the question, why doesn’t every person who’s displaced get this same kind of support? Some of the countries that people are fleeing to — Hungary and Poland, particularly come to mind — these are countries that as recently as last year, Poland was talking about massing troops on the border to try and keep refugees out and was militarizing their border. And they still are: we’ve seen lots of stories, there’s a really good New York Times piece about the differential experiences of a white Ukrainian family and refugee from Sudan, both trying to cross into Poland. And the ways in which the Sudanese man was really violently stopped by Polish border guards and the Ukrainian family was welcomed in and a family took them in and let them stay as long as they wanted.

And so you see, the double standard isn’t only discourse, it’s very much in terms of how people are actually being treated. Same thing for Hungary, which has become infamous recently for Viktor Orban’s incredibly tough anti-migration policies, policies that really echo the ones that we saw President Trump implement in the United States. He’s used awful, awful language about refugees and migrants calling them invaders, calling them invading armies, but also militarizing the border, building walls and fences, [and] installing military. And [Orban] went so far as to say we need to stop migration entirely and using really, violent Islamophobic rhetoric, like this idea of Muslim hordes invading Hungary, a very white, Christian ethno-nationalist kind of discourse. And Hungary’s borders are open to Ukrainians, right? Ukrainians can fly for free on a Hungarian airline, and he’s using this language now of “we can manage it, we can do it.” But he’s making these very clear distinctions. He’s saying the Ukrainians are refugees, but all of these other people who have tried to either transit through or seek asylum in Hungary. They’re migrants, and we can tell the difference between refugees and migrants. I think it’s heavily racialized. And we’ve seen that in the experiences of African students and Indian students fleeing Ukraine, Roma people trying to flee Ukraine and having trouble because they haven’t had documents. But, you know, it’s not entirely only racialized. I do think there’s something, particularly in terms of the way in which we think about it and talk about it here in the US, that is also geopolitical and has to do with our imaginations of Europe and our understandings of Russia. Russia has been this geopolitical enemy of the US, which I think plays into it as well. But it’s also truly horrific, right? What’s happening to the Ukrainians right now and what Russia is doing. So, I think, you know, there’s also an element of “this response is appropriate.” It’s just the question of why it hasn’t happened for other people and why it doesn’t happen for other people.

Conall Butchart  

Okay, next question. Obviously, being a refugee is not so simple as just “I was here, now I’m there and I have a new life.” There’s tons of different implications about health, job opportunities, education, opportunities, language and cultural barriers which, at least as far as I’m aware, have not been very prominent in the news about the experience itself. And I was wondering if you could trace out the broad common themes about the ways that being a refugee affects a person, if that makes sense?

Nadia El-Shaarawi

You know, it really depends. It really depends. There are certainly some common experiences of loss and uncertainty and insecurity that refugees experience. But beyond that, the way the experience actually plays out for people, and what it means for people, I think, really depends on the structures in place, the policies in place, the ways in which they are either are welcomed or not. And then also, of course, what they fled from. We tend to think that these are people who have been through war or been through violence of some kind, persecution of some kind that they experienced. Certainly, if you think of just the mental health side of it, they experienced something traumatic, and then they fled, and then they’re safe. And we don’t tend to think about what happens to them afterwards. But one of the things that there’s literature about, that I have also seen in my own work, is that a lot of how displacement affects people’s lives, happens in the place of exile.

So, if people can work, if people can send their kids to school, if people have support learning languages, if they have access to safe, stable housing, if they are integrated within local populations, if they have access to health care and mental health care. All of those things can make a real difference. These experiences are always going to be painful. I think displacement is, you know, it’s inherently a painful experience. But there are ways to make it more painful and ways to make it less painful. And it feels like a lot of states have, in recent history, found ways to make it more painful. And it seems like in the case of the Ukrainians right now local people are trying to make it less painful in ways that are really kind of lovely.

But of course, one of the one of the things that’s really been important in my own work is, and this I learned from refugees, when I was working with Iraqi refugees, and I had started out interested in their health, and asked them about health. And what they said to me over and over again when asked about their health was what they were most worried about their uncertain future. And I think that is something that is also often common to refugees. And when you see people being given temporary protected status (TPS), like, for instance, the US government just offered TPS to Ukrainians here in the United States, which gives you the status and the ability to work for 18 months, and then you can renew it, or like the temporary protection that they just got in the EU for Ukrainians, which is three years, which, again, is amazing. But when you think about what it’s like to live with that uncertainty, I think that is something that is quite common to the refugee experience, and is really, really difficult for people — how do you kind of plan for your life? How do you really nurture life when you feel like that status is going to be taken away from you potentially at any time?

~ Conall Butchart `22

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