Essay: The Wreckage of the Nation State in an Age of Global Migration


Translation: F. Graham

When I was growing up in a neighbourhood of Greater Stockholm with one half-way decent pizzeria, where the odd car would be set on fire from time to time, there was an anecdote – most likely apocryphal – that circulated among our immigrant parents: some acquaintance’s child had told their parents that they should ring the NGO ‘Children’s Rights in Society’ at the least threat of a smacking. Underlying that anecdote was the fear that Swedish schools were teaching us things that turned obedient children into the sort of bolshie kids who would threaten to ring social services every time they felt disinclined to do something. In our parents’ paranoia, there was a distorted mirror image of one of Sweden’s fundamental principles: this was a country where it was unacceptable to hit children – under any circumstances. That was not something on which there was a consensus in the ‘civilised’ western world and which the ‘uncivilised’ world (the Muslim world in this case) needed to learn. Sweden was the first country to outlaw the physical chastisement of children.

We need to recall the longstanding Swedish attitude to violence against minors in order to grasp the extent to which ‘Swedishness’ has been misappropriated when over fifty men can attack children in Stockholm because they look as though they don’t belong here; in order to grasp that there has been so rapid and radical a change that the defence of Swedish norms can take the form of street violence targeting children, and that the police initially described events as the outcome of a ‘rowdy Friday night’, while the quality daily Svenska Dagbladet called them ‘a disturbance in central Stockholm.’ There are many reasons why it is now apparently socially acceptable to foment violence against minors, but they all come down to dehumanising people seen as different. They aren’t children, but ‘kids with beards’, ‘so-called refugees’, ‘feral so-called street children’ and ‘guest criminals’ (as opposed to ‘guest workers’), to quote just a few expressions from different sections of the commentariat. Over half of Syria’s children have been forced to leave their homes in the course of the last five years, a tragedy so monumental that it is perhaps easier not to view them as ordinary children. And one of the most effective ways of dehumanising people, as we shall see, is the distinction we draw between different types of borders, with certain kinds of migration being viewed as positive, indeed natural, while another type is viewed as destructive, even harmful to our civilisation.

There is arguably no better example of how we in today’s Europe view borders than the ongoing dialogue in Great Britain over its membership of the European Union. In advance of the British referendum on whether the country should remain in the EU, David Cameron, who favours staying in, engaged in negotiations with the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk. In a seven-page letter to the European Council, Cameron wrote that Britain believes in the free flow of capital, whereas the free movement of people must be subject to some sort of control. He went on to propose that ‘when new countries are admitted to the EU in the future, free movement will not apply to those new members until their economies have converged much more closely with existing Member States.’ In other words, by all means let more countries into the EU, so we can export goods and services to new markets and make money out of people, but for goodness’ sake let’s be sure to protect our borders from what these countries have to offer – cheap labour.

State borders are supposed to protect us on this side, but not to apply to us whenever we want to cross over to the other side. This is the same logic that leads us in Sweden to talk seriously about closing bridges and bringing in temporary border controls for those who look as if they don’t belong here, while at the same time assuming that we can continue to benefit from free movement within the Schengen area. The European Union is giving Turkey €3 billion (£2.3 billion) to keep refugees out of the EU – when all the rhetoric around asylum seekers asserts that there is no money available – while promising in return that Turkish citizens can travel to the EU without a visa. The same logic can be seen in the United States, where Donald Trump talks about building a wall between the US and Mexico – which, for some reason, is to be paid for by Mexico, just to add insult to injury. Over the past year, the western world has made use of all the means available to the nation state to keep people out, while its inhabitants keep all the promised benefits of globalisation to themselves. Thus a Swede relocating to China to make more money than in Sweden is called an ‘expat’, a word that has nothing but positive connotations, whereas Romanians moving to Britain for exactly the same reason are referred to as ‘migrants’.

To give one last example, under the new US law, H.R. 158, Europeans who have travelled to Iraq, Iran, Syria or Sudan within the last five years, or who are nationals of one of these countries in addition to being European citizens, now need a visa to enter the US. In principle, this law has created a set of second-class European citizens, those who can’t be trusted. Naturally, US citizens can continue to travel to European countries without a visa. The funny thing about this law is that it is supposed to make it more difficult for terrorists, especially those who have fought with IS in Iraq and Syria, to enter the US (Iran and Sudan are the only two countries apart from Syria that the US deems to be ‘state sponsors of terrorism’, and so get to join in the fun). Yet hardly anyone who wants to enter Syria to join IS flies to that country; instead, they go to Turkey and cross the border there. Naturally, Turkey is not listed (and nor is Saudi Arabia).

Since the concept of the nation state is a western invention, it is the parameters of the nation state that are taken as a basis for presenting solutions to cross-border conflicts. Consequently, countries such as Norway and the Vatican State are invited to the peace conference in Geneva to find solutions to the war in Syria, whereas the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), which administers an autonomous region in northern Syria and battles against IS every day, is not. At the same time as Britain prepares for a referendum on whether to stay in the EU, it is are sending delegations to Iraqi Kurdistan to announce that it is quite out of the question for the Kurds to gain their independence, it being ‘in the region’s best interests’ for Iraq, an artificial country whose invented borders are a consequence of colonialism, to stay together. As the world has opened up for some, it has proven important to maintain the notion of borders as something real, something that has always been there and must be defended. According to the sociologist Jörg Dürrschmidt, borders have been transformed into mechanisms for exercising control over people’s mobility, rather than over territory. The researcher Mahmoud Keshavarz notes that borders are being ‘outsourced’ to natural geographical features (such as rivers and mountains), to give a sense of their being ‘natural’.

So now some of us have to have a visa to visit a country for which other Swedes do not need one. A visa that costs money, of course, a tax on the fact that we are not Swedish enough for our Swedish passports. All this because I’m ‘really’ from Iraq, a country that I couldn’t even visit legally before 2003.

The words for those who try to cross a border from the ‘wrong’ direction or in the ‘wrong’ way are always the same: Mexicans travelling illegally to the USA are pollos (chickens), while the smugglers are ‘coyotes’. Iranian Baluchis travelling to Pakistan are ‘sheep’, while the British media have called migrants everything from ‘novoviruses’ to ‘cockroaches’. People simply cease to be human. It is no coincidence that both IS and the Kurds are claiming regions that are not confined within existing borders. The borders of the nation state cannot contain a world in flux, the wars taking place now are not wars between countries, and if we cannot grasp that a century-old notion of what constitutes a state cannot help us solve today’s conflicts, then things will not get any better, and there will be more and more refugees.

And, as there are many who benefit from this old system at other people’s expense, these refugees have to be disparaged in some way. In the language of the far-right Sweden Democrats, refugees are now dismissed as ‘luxury refugees’, having been able to afford to escape their terrible situation. This changes the definition of refugees and asylum applicants from people who have a legal right to support to ‘benefit scroungers’. At the same time, westerners can become expats in the Gulf States or south-east Asia, where they are under no pressure whatsoever to learn Arabic, Chinese or Tagalog, as their British, French or Swedish identity is more important than ‘assimilation’ or ‘integration’.

The counter-argument could be made that these expats are not moving permanently to Dubai, Guangzhou or Luanda; they are only going there to make money, after which they will move back home. The prevailing view of non-European migration to Europe is that migrants will want to stay here forever, that migration is always unidirectional, from the Middle East and Africa to us. The US President, Barack Obama, also expressed this in his State of the Union address in January, in which he described Syria as a region of conflicts going back thousands of years, eternal conflicts that underpin the ongoing war. Such a revision of history, depicting the Middle East as a region prey to endless war, without any prospect of improvement, creates an image of its people as being more or less incapable of living in peace. The Syrians, who, until five years ago, were living in a society that, though totalitarian, functioned smoothly and had a high level of education, are transformed by this discourse into an illiterate, barely human people who have no place in our civilised countries.

What this view ignores is the numbers of first-generation immigrants who return to their countries of origin when peace is restored. Iraq, for example, was one of the ten countries receiving most immigrants from Sweden during 2012, 2013 and 2014, after many years of economic growth, particularly in the Kurdish region (the Kurds are not doing too well at the moment, precisely because of that whole IS thing). Overall emigration from Sweden is at its highest level ‘since the peak years of emigration to America in the 1880s’, according to the Swedish Statistical Office. Of those who emigrated in 2014, over half re-emigrated to the country of their birth. But we understand only what we see; we do not see all the millions who are not here, and it is no coincidence that we do not.

According to the philosopher Seyla Benhabib, human rights have been demolished in the name of the new right of ‘humanitarian intervention’, which comes down to the right to invade a country for its people’s own good. We won’t accept your refugees, but we will bomb your country to pieces: that seems to be the logic. The causal link between ‘humanitarian intervention’ and growing numbers of refugees seems to go unrecognised.

Recently, a UKIP supporter in Britain tweeted that the floods that have hit the country have nothing to do with climate change; rather, the whole island is sinking as a result of over-population. The mantra that we lack space is particularly absurd if you know that 90% of refugees are granted asylum in developing countries, while the United States, a country with a population of over 350 million, has accepted a mere 1500 refugees from Syria since the beginning of the war, and constantly argues that that is far too many. To quote that horseman of the apocalypse Donald Trump, ‘they could be Isis … They are all men and they are all strong (…).’ In his view, the ongoing refugee crisis ‘could be one of the great tactical ploys of all time.’ There are between 2.5 and 3 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, one million in Lebanon, 1.5 million in Jordan and 300 000 in Iraq, whilst Britain is having a nervous breakdown over 5000 people, and the US would rather embrace Trump’s fascism than accept 1500 Syrian refugees.

The most frightening aspect of what is happening today is that it is merely a test for the real crisis yet to come. There are a number of essays on how the war in Syria is largely a result of the climate crisis; after several years of poor harvests, the regime was no longer able to provide food for its people. We already have a sinking island, Vanuatu, which will soon cease to exist. The climate crisis will make what we today call ‘the refugee crisis’ look nothing short of idyllic by comparison. This has been just a test to see how we, as human beings, will tackle a monumental refugee catastrophe, how we conceive of the role of the nation state when the territory of many nation states becomes uninhabitable. And if our current response is any guide to our future behaviour, the only possible conclusion, sadly, is that we will fail.

Agri Ismaïl

About Agri Ismaïl

Agri Ismaïl is an Iraq and Swedish-based writer of fiction, legalese and criticism. Co-founder of Ludwig Salon in Dubai, former columnist for Soma Magazine in Iraqi Kurdistan, co-editor of Abstract Modem .

Agri Ismaïl is an Iraq and Swedish-based writer of fiction, legalese and criticism. Co-founder of Ludwig Salon in Dubai, former columnist for Soma Magazine in Iraqi Kurdistan, co-editor of Abstract Modem .

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