Sartre on Refugees

The French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre has claimed that his philosophy is optimistic, and that it encourages men to act despite the harshness of reality and the complexities of human actions. Taking a further step from my previous article, I would like to use his philosophy in explaining and encouraging human action in the current refugee crisis.

Article 14(1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has the right to seek and enjoy asylum, but he or she does not necessarily have the right to receive it. To get asylum according to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention you have to prove a well-founded fear of persecution,  because of your race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. This is in accordance with Human Rights law, and is aimed at the protection of the physical safety and human dignity of the individual.

Sartre argues in his book What is Literature that the protection and safety of human beings should not be limited by legal boundaries, it is the moral duty of countries and ordinary citizens to take a stand in face of political and humanitarian conflicts. This includes responsibility-sharing, as granting asylum may place a burden on certain countries, which implies the need for international cooperation, and for countries to open up their borders to those in need of safety and protection. The importance of these instruments have been heavily highlighted in addressing the surge of asylum seekers crossing the Mediterranean, where EU states in particular have been criticized for not shouldering a heavier burden in responsibility sharing.

According to Sartre, it should be the State’s, both, legal and moral responsibility to respect, protect and fulfill human rights. Sartre further argues that a refugee is often seen as a body for others and in the hands of others. By this, he means that as a refugee your destiny is often dependent upon decisions made by people not in your presence, behind the hidden curtains of power, and legal interpretation of international and national law, creating boundaries of inclusion or exclusion.Like Norways immigration appeal board UNE case from February 2015 on rejecting vulnerable Afghan familys request for asylum, and deporting them back to Afghanistan. According to Norwegian police, a total of 7,259 people were deported in 2014, including 438 to Afghanistan. The government’s goal for 2015 is to forcibly return 7,800 people.  These families cannot do anything but wait and hope they qualify for a residence permit on humanitarian grounds.

If a refugee’s case gets rejected, he or she can get deported. Before the case gets rejected states shall examine the text of the Resolution on Minimum Guarantees which reveals several references to the principle of non-refoulement, reaffirming its importance, notably concerning fair and effective asylum procedures.  Nonrefoulement has been defined in a number of international refugee instruments, both at the universal and regional levels. The principle states that no state shall expel or return a refugee where his life or freedom is threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.

Thus, the asylum seeker has to prove that his life is threatened, usually during an oral testimony, and clarify that he or she has a well-founded fear to be persecuted in the case of a return. Sartre argues that, in this process, the refugee is an object others are looking at and judging. He explains this through his concept of ‘disciplinary gaze’, wherein the subject loses a degree of autonomy upon realizing that he or she is a visible object. In his book Being and Nothingness he illustrates this relationship as the master/slave, where the refugee is the slave, and typically the border officer the master. It is to be mentioned that Sartre sees all human relations as variations of master and slave, I will not analyze this relation as a defensible worldview, but only as an illustration of Sartre’s view on refugees hopelessness.

Zaatari camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan (WikiMedia)

The state is obligated to receive and process asylum claims, assess the merits of these claims, provide protection while pending desirable solution, and in the end provide a durable solution. In addition to the oral testimonies initiated in the asylum processes, asylum seeker also have to show documents of citizenship. Most of them, however, do not have the privilege of such documents. The entire point of asylum, in the words of law professor Musalo, is that “people fleeing persecution don’t have the luxury of obtaining legal documents.”

There are several cases of asylum seekers not obtaining legal documents, the UNHCR recently documented the case about Elida, one of six children born in Costa Rica without a birth certificate. Elida faced great difficulties accessing her rights while growing up, as she was deprived of documents proving her Costa Rican origins, which also put her in risk of statelessness..

Another case is 19 years old Olga Khutsishvili from Georgia, who grew up without a birth certificate as her Russian mother lost all her documents, and her marriage to Olga’s Georgian father could not be registered. The largest group without documents is the Syrian refugees, some living in neighboring countries such as Lebanon without certificates, or passports, like 21-year-old Abdullah, who, as a consequence, can neither stay in Lebanon nor leave the country.. Abdullah did not bring his passport as he would not need it in Lebanon, but now with the ongoing war it is a great barrier to be without it. Like Sartre notes: ‘’a mountain is only a barrier if the individual wants to get on the other side but cannot’.’

Refugees without documents can only rely on their stories for potential asylum, but it is very difficult for a border patrol to lay eyes on someone and tell whether they have legitimate claim to asylum or whether he’s coming for economic reasons (which would just make him an unauthorized migrant). The UNHCR handbook is calling upon all states to give the refugees the benefit of doubt, meaning, they should be granted asylum if they provide enough proof of reasonable and rational fear of prosecution, and also, that children’s testimonies should be viewed in the best interest.

The balance of probabilities often fails to correspond with good grounds to believe a refugee has the fear to be persecuted. This sometimes occurs as a consequence of the disciplinary gaze Sartre mentions, the anxious state that comes with the awareness that one can be viewed, or the lack of official documents.

Sartre further states the difference in how law defines the refugee, and what characterizes the refugee’s sense and experience of self, trough the eyes of others. A case in point, is the growing xenophobia in Hungary, where the UNHCR expressed concerns with the government’s increasing vilification of people who have fled war zones like Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq and who desperately need the safety and protection Hungary can offer. The Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, is sending out a questionnaire on migration issues to Hungarians that links migration with terrorism. According to Sartre, modern xenophobia is the product of complex cultural phenomena. We need to stop portraying the different as a treat.

Sartre is still relevant today, and we have a lot to learn from his philosophy, most mentionable in this article has been our moral obligations, despite our geographical and cultural barriers, especially in case of international crisis.

Samina Ansari

Samina Ansari

Editor, Middle East at InPRA
Samina Ansari is a human rights advocate currently doing a second Masters at Sciences Po, Paris. She has worked in SF, DC, Afghanistan and many European countries on issues related to human rights abuses mainly in context of Women, Peace and Security. She is also interested in questions related to "home" and "integrity".
Samina Ansari

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