Directors take pains to ensure that the play will not be interrupted by what goes on backstage: they drape the stage with curtains to hide the bustle and chaos backstage, so that when a soft amber light filters down across the boards, the audience can take it for sunlight without having to think about the hundreds of pounds of metal, wire, and glass that were meticulously arranged in order for it to fall just so. So many thousands of hours can go into carefully crafting and presenting a few square feet of stage that the audience can believe in. The last thing a director wants is for the illusion of the world on stage to be shattered by an intrusion or mistake from behind the scenes.
There is a stark and permanent difference in visibility, and means of participation in the production, between those who build the stage and those who stand upon it.
Jaques in Shakespeare’s As You Like It tells us that “all the world’s a stage,” and that all the men and women who inhabit it are merely players. The analogy is particularly compelling when we consider the political idea of the ‘world’s stage:’ the projected and widely visible performance that occurs between entities such as countries, governments, citizens, inhabitants, and politicians. Like any performance, these characters adhere to their prescribed entrances and exits. Some characters dominate the stage, while others only flit across it for a moment. Some are only ever voices overheard from the wings. There are designers and builders and workers who are never meant to be seen at all. There is a stark and permanent difference in visibility, and means of participation in the production, between those who build the stage and those who stand upon it.
The United States and the United Kingdom and other global powers have perfected the separation of their stages from the impossibly massive and convoluted processes and suffering that enable their production. They have exported that suffering “backstage,” to areas that are geographically, politically, or socially remote. To areas — and people — that are separable from what they have deemed the performance space. On stage: political stability, economic prosperity, light-colored faces, close-cropped and lush green lawns. Backstage: exploitative wages and unsafe working conditions, slave labor, racism, environmental devastation. There is a profound geographic, mental, and temporal disconnect between the world’s stage and the mines, factory farms, war zones, and sweatshops that sustain it. Centuries of colonial expansion, enslavement, warfare, political manipulation, and economic exploitation stand testament to this, but they stand primarily in the wings, just slightly off-stage, in the half-heartedly apologetic pages of history textbooks.
The truth is, no matter how appealing the comparison, the world is not a stage.
A Turkish soldier carries the body of Alan Kurdi | Source: © Reuters/TIME
We in the West are used to death occurring offstage. In the Greek theatrical tradition, deaths occur offstage so that audiences do not get to indulge in — or be appalled by — the gore, but instead experience the consequences, whether positive or negative, of such an action, and elicit some sort of catharsis. Here, although we regularly wear clothing, eat food, and fuel our cars using that have been produced in appalling conditions and an astonishing human cost, we do not have to engage those facts. There is no blood on the stage. The deaths occur in order to tell the story. But what happens when an offstage death, from an area that we have learned to associate with loss and violence, appears on the stage, as when three-year-old Syrian migrant Alan Kurdi’s body washed ashore on a beach in Turkey?
The truth is, no matter how appealing the comparison, the world is not a stage. There is no single performance, there are no actors: there are people, living on both sides of whatever curtained perspectives those in power try to maintain. The performance of the world-stage is a delusion that allows certain groups of people to comfortably reap the benefits of someone else’s labor and life, and the sufferings of those who labored to produce those benefits to be dismissed. We justify the labor of those behind the stage with the beauty of the particular performance it enables. We understand that people die off-stage, that there are lives at stake in the manufacture of the clothing we wear, but for the most part these realities are only visible for a moment, and fade when the headlines peter out.
Syrian refugees cross into Hungary through the Hungary-Serbia border fence | Source: Gémes Sándor/SzomSzed/Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA-3.0)
But the refugee crisis will not peter out. Economists and human rights organizations predict not only that the refugee crisis will continue, but that it will intensify. There are over 65 million displaced people worldwide today, over 19.5 million of whom have so far been recognized as refugees because they were forced to flee their homes because of a change in their environment that compromised their safety and well-being, or for fear of persecution and violence from which their government cannot — or will not — protect them. Despite their historical and ongoing indebtedness to these populations set adrift by wars, conflict, poverty, and environmental degradation, the United States and other global powers have still largely refused to allow them to step onto the stage, or to acknowledge their connection to the ‘performance.’ They are still segregated from the population, they are still obscured behind a curtain. Alan Kurdi is only one of thousands of people who will die each year attempting to cross the Mediterranean.
The performance of the world-stage is a delusion that allows certain groups of people to comfortably reap the benefits of someone else’s labor and life, and the sufferings of those who labored to produce those benefits to be dismissed.
When a population is on the move — fleeing violence, lack of economic opportunity, or famine — it is separated from every aspect of the means to sustain itself. Refugees are not only cut off from life-sustaining environmental resources, but also from any social infrastructure, political protection, or means of supporting themselves, and are often in danger of immediate bodily harm. Organizations like the UN attempt to provide necessary aid through refugee camps and emergency resources. However, a refugee camp is only designed to address the immediate needs of some of the world’s most vulnerable until they can return to their homes. One makes a camp by bringing what is necessary to survive — food, water, shelter, or means of obtaining them — to a place that would be otherwise inhospitable, inappropriate, or uncomfortable.
The Za’atri refugee camp in Jordan for Syrian refugees | Source: U.S. Department of State/Wikimedia Commons
Camps are not designed to be permanent solutions, but they are being treated as such, and so become another means of keeping people ‘backstage,’ keeping them separated from the rest of the population.
Camps are also uniquely unsustainable both for the immediate environment and for those who live inside them. Built in urgent haste, these camps are often disorganized, inadequate, and dangerous for both the inhabitants and the host countries. In a crisis situation there often is not the money or the time available for the intricate organizational acrobatics necessary to plan out many smaller camps. Instead, camps tend to be ad-hoc, massive, wasteful, and wildly overpopulated. They sprawl across immediately convenient and remote stretches of land, frequently near parks or bodies of water. Because a camping population cannot sustain itself, it taxes the environment: improperly contained waste contaminates groundwater and can carry disease, food sources are overtaxed, and surrounding forests are felled for firewood and tent-poles. Environmental stress causes frustration, conflict, and smuggling — and further compromises the inhabitants’ quality of life and the possibility of survival. As more and more people are displaced in the wake of colonialism and by the practice of neocolonialism, the refugee crisis has become a human rights nightmare.
Syrian refugee camp on the Turkish border for displaced people of the Syrian civil war | Source: VOA News/Wikimedia Commons
Despite being a temporary necessity, these camps always outlive their intended life span. Ultimately, due to poor planning, intensifying global conflicts, political bureaucracy, and resistance on the part of host-country citizens to relocation programs, these camps that were meant as a half-way point for people on the move become places of permanent residence. Tarps and tents fray under the weight of months and years, facilities fail, food becomes scarce. People do not need very much to survive, but they do need more than a camp to live. Camps are not designed to be permanent solutions, but they are being treated as such, and so become another means of keeping people ‘backstage,’ keeping them separated from the rest of the population.
Cuban refugees arrives in Key West, Florida, during the 1980 Mariel Boatlift | Source: U.S. Department of Homeland Security/Wikimedia Commons
But some are able to leave. If a refugee cannot return in the foreseeable future, needs legal or physical protection, faces persecution because of their gender or sexual orientation, has serious medical needs, has survived or faces torture and serious violence, then they qualify for resettlement in a community that can sustain them — an action that is universally supported by human rights organizations, and is also legally required. The rights of migrants who seek asylum from persecution, regardless of their reasons, are internationally recognized and universally protected by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 14), and the UN Refugee Convention.
Some of them are resettled and — after undergoing a vetting process by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees that takes from 18 to 24 months — are admitted into the world that their suffering has enabled: the United States intends to admit 85,000 refugees this fiscal year, including 10,000 of the most vulnerable Syrian refugees, and plans to expand the number of refugees it will resettle next year to 100,000.
But a number of states in the U.S. have refused to acknowledge their responsibility, both in terms of human rights law and in terms of their own complicity in creating the instability that is pushing people to flee. When the U.S. government announced its resettlement plans in 2015, 31 state governors said that they would oppose any efforts to resettle refugees. Some have offered creative solutions to resettlement programs, which, though superficially appealing, reveal themselves to be creative ways of continuing to keep these populations backstage: treating the problem as a purely logistical one. “Let Syrians settle Detroit,” suggested David Laitin and Marc Jahr in an op-ed for The New York Times last year.
The cold calculation of how one population’s trauma could be turned to financial gain is uncannily repetitive of the colonial neocolonial system of oppression.
While it is tempting to consider the possibility of housing Syrian refugees in the estimated 70,000 abandoned buildings and 90,000 vacant lots left behind in Detroit’s economic meltdown, it is also telling that we are sending those we’ve ‘settled’ to ‘resettle’ areas we have exhausted. There was already a mass exodus of economic refugees from the city. There are practical and safety concerns with inserting a population into an area where huge swaths are without power and running water. “Realizing that something is currently uninhabited does not mean that you can just fill it with human beings and expect a new society to take root,” observes Geoff Manaugh on BLDGBLOG. “This is a geometric exercise — an experiment in space-packing — not a humanitarian plan.”
Such solutions are a continuation of the problem of outsourced suffering, and operate on the same logic that enabled these populations to be economically, geographically, and politically marginalized. Sending refugees from a war zone to the rust belt is not resettlement, it is reshuffling the deck in order to play the same game. In keeping with the theme, Laitin and Jahr couch the incoming refugee population as a resource, a way to revitalize a neighborhood. Resettlement becomes more than a humanitarian gesture, it becomes an economic opportunity.
Ugandan children displaced by the LRA | Source: USAID/Wikimedia Commons
“What confidence can we have that traumatized war refugees can be transformed into budding American entrepreneurs?” ask the writers. “We cannot know for sure. But recent evidence of recaptured children from the clutches of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda and victims of violent crime across five continents reveals that they become more active citizens than similar compatriots who have not suffered from these traumatic events.”
The cold calculation of how one population’s trauma could be turned to financial gain is uncannily repetitive of the colonial neocolonial system of oppression. The labor and suffering of others can add value to the lives of those in power. Laitin and Jahr’s suggestion turns the serious psychological damage of child soldiers into an asset. This perverse logic echoes throughout all of the most creative solutions to resettlement that seek to — again — outsource and exploit the impact of accepting the responsibility for those people on the move rather than actually resettling the refugees who need resettlement in an existing community that has sustainable economic, social, and political infrastructure. Another example, the Green Party in Norway suggested sending the refugees to Svalbard, a remote arctic archipelago famous for its polar bear population. When asked what, exactly, the traumatized populations of refugees from the Middle East would be able to do there, coal mining was suggested.
Sending refugees from a war zone to the rust belt is not resettlement, it is reshuffling the deck in order to play the same game.
Source: Every Campus A Refuge/Facebook
At its best, resettlement looks like Professor Diya Abdo’s “Every Campus a Refuge” project, which offers refugees access to the physical and social infrastructure of a university campus. It incorporates them into a community. Unlike remote arctic islands, college campuses can provide housing, kitchens, health clinics, and other resources as well as opportunities for cultural and economic support. It offers an exploited population a chance to take part in the wealth and opportunities their losses have enabled. It offers people resources, rather than treating people as resources. It takes a step towards eliminating the division between the producers and the production. But resettlement is an opportunity available — and viable — only for the most vulnerable refugees who cannot return to their homes.
The refugee crisis has geographically and physically challenged the idea of privileging certain areas in terms of their visibility, and has challenged the possibility of exporting crisis, destruction, and extraction. There is no offstage space in a world as small and as enclosed as ours, and particularly not in an ecosystem as fragile. In the context of global climate change, exploitative economic and political intervention at the expense of specific regions and populations has non-region-specific repercussions. As sea levels rise all over the world, more and more environments will be unable to sustain their inhabitants. More people will be displaced. In January 2016, the Department of Housing and Urban Development officially recognized the first refugees due to climate change, announcing $48 million in funding to move the members of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw and the United Houma Nation residing on the Isle de Jean Charles — whose island has lost more than 99% of its landmass after being irreversibly damaged by more than 10,000 miles of canals dug by oil companies — to higher, and then in the future, even higher ground.
There is no offstage space in a world as small and as enclosed as ours, and particularly not in an ecosystem as fragile.
Sustainably and adequately addressing the current and future refugee crisis involves admitting that our own ‘stages’ are not the only stage, and acknowledging that no one performance is worth the sacrifice of others. Resettling refugee populations does not mean just reshuffling the most vulnerable from one undesirable location to another, or providing different means for them to be exploited. It means incorporating them into a sustainable environment, and it means taking responsibility for the global environment where others are still at risk. Rather than searching for short-term and unsustainable solutions, off-stage, it means asking, as Diya Abdo did, “How can I use where I am, what I am, more deeply?” It means understanding that the lives sacrificed for the sake of the show are just as important as those on stage, are more important than the show itself. It means compromise and contact. Resettlement means, perhaps, taking down the stage entirely.