“We Are Almost Dead”: The Politics of Migrants and Refugees in an Unequal World

By Jonathan BlakeFebruary 21, 2018

“We Are Almost Dead”: The Politics of Migrants and Refugees in an Unequal World

City of Thorns by Ben Rawlence
Cast Away by Charlotte McDonald-Gibson
The Cosmopolites by Atossa Araxia Abrahamian
The New Odyssey by Patrick Kingsley
Migrant, Refugee, Smuggler, Savior by Tuesday Reitano and Peter Tinti

WHEN ALAN KURDI washed up on Turkey’s western shore in September 2015, he immediately became the symbol of the global refugee crisis. The image of the lifeless three-year-old in a red T-shirt face down in the sand sparked international grief and outrage, and his brief life and watery death came to represent the horror of Syrian Civil War, the callousness of Europe, and the growing plight of all refugees today.

Life moved on, and the world forgot. Donations to aid groups and Google searches for “refugee,” both of which had surged in response to the photograph, plummeted within weeks. Charitable giving was never going to solve the situation anyway. As several excellent new books make clear, the global migration crisis is, at heart, a political problem. The political leaders who were so touched by the toddler’s photo failed to act decisively or compassionately. One year after Kurdi’s death, the boy’s father lamented, “The politicians said after the deaths in my family: Never again! […] But what is happening now? People are still dying and nobody is doing anything about it.”


In 2016, there were over 65 million people who had fled their homes due to “persecution, conflict, violence, or human rights violations.” That figure, roughly the same as the entire population of the United Kingdom, is the highest ever recorded, and means that one in every 113 people worldwide is currently forcibly displaced.

Half of all refugees are children and 10 million people were newly displaced during the year — that’s 28,300 people fleeing their homes per day, or nearly 20 every minute. Two-thirds of the refugees under the UN Refugee Agency’s mandate — 11.6 million people — are in protracted situations, meaning their community has been in exile for five or more consecutive years. And yet, only 189,300 refugees were resettled in 37 countries.

As a rule, people live and die in their country of birth. In an equal world, this would not much matter. But our world is not equal: some countries are wealthy, free, and stable; others are poor, repressive, and violent. Thus the accident of birth behind certain lines on the map determines not only where you live and die, but how you live and die. The natal lottery that sets the course of your life is not a natural development, but the result of political decisions in the past and present. In the modern global system, goods and capital cross borders with ease. People do not. The immobility regime has created a catastrophe.

Yet, at the same time that the world’s poor are immobilized by the rules of state sovereignty, the world’s rich are greeted at the airport with champagne and residency papers to sign. This inequity between rich and poor migrants is most starkly illustrated by Atossa Araxia Abrahamian in her superb book, The Cosmopolites: The Coming of the Global Citizen, which focuses on the buying and selling of citizenship and the 21st-century truth that people are still arranged according to their nation of birth, antiquated as that might seem.

“There’s a motto in the citizenship industry: You can never be too rich, be too thin, or have too many passports,” she writes. But superfluous citizenships are not merely status symbols, they are completely legal and above-board ways to protect assets, avoid taxes, and ease international travel, work, and education. The pitch of passport brokerage firms to the 0.1-percenters is: “In the modern world, borders are still very much erect — but they can be flattened, for a price.” And many governments are happy to oblige. For a price, one can become a legitimate citizen of at least eight countries, including Grenada, Antigua and Barbuda, Bulgaria, and Austria. Passports are now St. Kitts and Nevis’s largest export and generate one-quarter of the country’s GDP.

At the other end of the international citizenship bazaar are the bidoon, the stateless people of the Middle East who lack citizenship in any country. Abrahamian recounts the tragic, absurd tale of the United Arab Emirates’s quest to end their bidoon problem, not by granting citizenship to their residents — many of whom have been non-citizen residents for several generations — but by purchasing citizenship for them from the Comoro Islands, a tiny, impoverished, sovereign state in the waters between Mozambique and Madagascar. With the stroke of a pen and a large wire transfer, the UAE got rid of its problem.

Now the Emirates host thousands of “Comorians,” who just happen to have lived their entire lives in the Emirates and have never stepped foot in Comoros. In fact, the deal stipulated that they couldn’t vote or even live permanently in Comoros. It was a technical fix that, at $6,000 to $8,000 a head, solved the Emirates’s human rights public relations problem, funneled much needed money to Comoros, and provided very little to the new Comorians marooned in their homes in the Gulf.

By juxtaposing billionaires with multiple passports and stateless bidoons, Abrahamian deftly displays the interrelation between the seemingly insurmountable obstacles facing poor migrants and the gilded world of private jets, tax havens, and citizenship for sale. The shared story is one of politics. The barriers to entry that states erect are not natural; they are a political choice.

The Cosmopolites reveals the creative and flexible migration policies that materialize when there is political will. Given that countless thousands of people are dying to reach the safety of wealthy countries, the policy of selling citizenship to the ultra-rich is an egregious abdication of any state’s moral responsibility.  


The image of refugees huddled on a small, barely seaworthy boat is a powerful one — which is why we find it on the cover of both The New Odyssey: The Story of the Twenty-First Century Refugee Crisis by Patrick Kingsley and Charlotte McDonald-Gibson’s Cast Away: True Stories of Survival from Europe’s Refugee Crisis. Both books aim to describe the experiences of the people trying to cross the Mediterranean and explain why we have seen so many of them since 2011. The central argument of the books is that ordinary people faced with terrible circumstances will do whatever it takes to survive. Denied legal, orderly means to reach Europe, people are forced to take unsafe voyages aboard skiffs, dinghies, and rafts to reach safety. With my American passport, I can book a flight to France right now and be under the Eiffel Tower by the time the sun rises tomorrow. A Syrian seeking refuge in France must enlist the help of a smuggler and endure a perilous journey across land and sea. The only difference between us is a matter of politics: I am deemed worthy to travel by the relevant governments, the Syrian is not.

Kingsley follows the harrowing journey of the civil servant Hashem al-Souki as he flees from Syria. He had been tortured six months in secret government dungeons, along with 11,000 other detained compatriots. He doesn’t even know why. Upon his arbitrary release, Souki decided to flee his home with his wife, Hayam, and their three sons.

The Soukis sell all they have and escape to Egypt, which is its own nightmare. Work is hard to come by and the family is regularly harassed by the police. Finally a friend offers to pay the $7,000 needed to smuggle them on a boat across the Mediterranean. After months of waiting and several aborted attempts to travel with the whole family, Souki embarked alone and survived six days at sea before the Italian coast guard rescued his boat. “It’s over,” Souki thinks. “The journey is over.”

Except that it’s not. According to an EU law called the Dublin Regulation, asylum seekers must claim asylum in the first EU country they arrive in. But Souki, like most other refugees arriving in Europe, did not want to register in Italy (or Greece), which offered very little for them. His goal was Germany or, better yet, Sweden. So Souki had to make it north, by land, without getting caught.

Souki’s European rail adventure has the twists and turns of a spy film. Three years and one week to the day after his abduction by the Syrian government, having survived a “journey of epic heroism — a kind of latter-day Homeric odyssey,” Hashem al-Souki’s train glides into Sweden.

But, yet again, it’s not over. His arrival marks the beginning of a bureaucratic odyssey, as he waits in “purgatory” for a decision on his asylum application in a dormitory for refugees in a remote village. The pleasantness of the village only heightens the loneliness and despair, and the state of limbo wears heavily on him.

Interspersed between the legs of Souki’s saga, Kingsley tells the wider story of the refugee crisis. His sharp reporting from 17 countries gives him the scope to cover the issue’s grand trends and dynamics and its tales of loss and redemption. His reporting from aboard the Bourbon Argos, a ship Médicines San Frontières uses for rescue missions in the Mediterranean, is especially rich, and unique from the other books. In just one morning, off the coast of Libya, Kingsley witnesses the noble crew of the Argos rescue 350 Eritreans and Somalis off a wooden skiff and then, as the Eritreans sit on the deck singing hosannas to the glory of God, rush to retrieve another 650 souls “crammed onto every last plank of the deck, and into every last space in the hold” of a boat 40 minutes away.

Charlotte McDonald-Gibson’s Cast Away is a similarly exquisite braid of tragic, heroic stories. Sina Habte and her adoring husband Dani ran from the oppressive dictatorship in Eritrea to give the child she was carrying the chance for a free life, and four days past her due date took a treacherous crossing over the Aegean. Majid Hussain sought refuge in Libya after watching his father get murdered in an eruption of sectarian violence in Nigeria, only to find himself forced at gunpoint onto a boat in the Mediterranean by the Libyan military — a flotilla of human flotsam that Muammar Gaddafi hoped would frighten Europe into ending its bombing campaign against him. Nart Bajoi, a young Syrian lawyer and Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert involved in the anti-Assad movement, decided to flee after all of his friends either joined the armed resistance or disappeared. Mohammed Kazkji, who aimed “to be the world’s best electrician,” escaped to Cairo to avoid conscription into the Syrian military to fight his neighbors and countrymen yearning for freedom. And Hanan al-Hasan, a mother seeking nothing but safety for her four children as life fell apart in the midst of Syria’s civil war, “pulled down the shutters, watered the plants, and locked the doors of the family home” before setting out.

By skillfully weaving together the details of these lives as they trudge toward the promise of Europe, McDonald-Gibson also recounts the crisis from multiple lenses. The suspenseful tales of personal trials portray the humanitarian emergency from a ground-level view.

Both books heavily feature pointed criticism of European leaders and media. They repeatedly call out politicians for giving up values they so long proselytized to the very people they now deny entry. Fearing the influx of black, brown, and often Muslim migrants, fearing terrorism (particularly after the Paris attacks), and fearing the rise of xenophobic rightwing parties, most of the leaders of Europe crumpled before the challenge. “While politicians have felt able to lament the nameless dead,” writes McDonald-Gibson, “they have shown less empathy toward the nameless living seeking refuge on European soil.” The so-called tidal wave of people represents only 0.2 percent of the EU’s 500 million citizens, and, Kingsley argues, “the world’s richest continent” certainly can make room for them easily, if they cared to try.

Not only have European politicians failed to implement their values, their actions and inactions have made the crisis worse and led to more suffering and more deaths. For instance, in October 2014, the Italian government ended Operation Mare Nostrum, the naval search-and-rescue campaign that saved over 100,000 migrants in its year-long mission. In its place, the EU launched a much smaller naval mission mandated merely to patrol Europe’s nautical boundaries, not to perform search and rescue. The policy was based on the convenient assumption that rescue missions only encourage migrants to take to the sea, leading to more tragedies. Ending Mare Nostrum did just the opposite. In the months after the mission ended, even more people tried to cross to Europe, and many more died. “The decision to let people drown in the Mediterranean had not convinced people to stay put,” Kingsley finds. “Instead, it had led to more deaths than ever before.”

The European Union is clear in its ideals: “[T]he values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights.” It’s beautiful and, for millions of migrants, meaningless. As McDonald-Gibson asks, “What use would that scrap of paper be in the middle of the Mediterranean?”


Hannah Arendt, herself a refugee from Germany, argued that people without a state are deprived of “the right to have rights.”

These rightless refugees “no longer belong to any community whatsoever. Their plight is not that they are not equal before the law, but that no law exists for them.” Outside any political community, refugees and other stateless people are left completely unprotected and vulnerable to those who seek to exploit them. The multi-billion-dollar global human smuggling industry that thrives in this space “outside the pale of the law,” in Arendt’s words, is brilliantly described and explained by Peter Tinti and Tuesday Reitano in Migrant, Refugee, Smuggler, Savior (MRSS). With keen eyes for human details and impersonal global systems, Tinti and Reitano are able to explain seemingly unexplainable abuses.

The pivotal insight in MRSS is that human smugglers are “service providers in an era of unprecedented demand.” Millions of people are desperate for safety, safe countries are unwilling to institute legal means to reach it, and so smugglers fill a capitalistic gap. By shifting the perspective to the individuals and organizations that move migrants, Tinti and Reitano reveal a logical, profit-maximizing underworld of double-entry bookkeeping, supply chain management, and ruthless violence. Human smuggling is just like any other competitive industry: it operates according to the laws of supply and demand; buyers and sellers respond to incentives; firms seek opportunities to expand and professionalize; multiple business models have emerged and prosper. Stripped of the sensationalism, human smuggling involves an enterprise providing a service to a client for a price.

Often refugees themselves working to fund the next leg of their journey, the smugglers are a diverse cast who evince the complexities of this business. Take Ibrahim, who drives migrants from Agadez, Niger, to the Libyan border. He knows that once his passengers — who paid $200 to $300 — cross into Libya, anything could happen to them: robbery, extortion, forced prostitution, sexual violence. “They have no morals,” he says of the armed bandits who prey on the travelers. But what Ibrahim really wants to tell his interviewers about are his own struggles at the bleak edges of the world economy. Ibrahim and his friends “see themselves on the raw end of a deal that they never agreed to.”

Barka, on the other hand, loves his job. A Chadian with fake Nigérien papers, Barka also moves people through the vast Sahel desert between Niger and Libya. The money is good — certainly better than any other option — but more importantly, smuggling is exciting. It gives Barka the opportunity to be the fast-driving, gunslinging, swashbuckling hero of his own adventure. “If you ask Barka,” they write, “he will tell you that his current lifestyle is the best he has ever lived.”

And smugglers aren’t the only ones making money. “Many are eating off these migrants,” explains a municipal official in Agadez. “The drivers, the fixers, the landlords […] Police are eating, too.” In fact, bribes from migrants are one of the few things keeping Niger’s security forces afloat. In Izmir, Turkey, an employee of a hotel that is overbooked by Syrians confesses, “It’s difficult, but it’s good business.” Elsewhere in Izmir, Ghaith, a Syrian refugee who found himself stuck in Turkey after a smuggler ripped him off, is doing well as a life vest salesman. Though he left home with his mind set on Europe, Turkey is working out fine enough, and Ghaith says he has no reason to risk death on the sea to Greece.

Each life vest sale, each forged passport, each bus journey, each sea voyage adds up. The illicit movement of people is a big business. Precise calculations are impossible, but estimates put it in the billions per year, and its profits now outpace those made trafficking drugs. In 2015, the human smuggling industry in the Aegean alone was making at least $2 million each day.

As is true of the rest of the global economy, a privileged few are making a killing (often with the implicit blessing or explicit protection of powerful state actors). But unlike most licit world markets, the underground smuggling economy actually trickles down to some of the poorest places on Earth. In the slums of megacities and remote desert outposts, smuggling neighbors and strangers has created jobs for people seemingly forgotten by the rest of the world. It’s globalization that can work for the poor.

One of the great strengths of MRSS is how it plumbs the interconnections of the global economy’s centers and peripheries. Tinti and Reitano trace how decisions in European capitals reverberate in smuggler caravans traversing the Sahara, almost always incentivizing danger and harm.

In portraying smugglers as value-neutral service providers, Tinti and Reitano are able to reveal another, perhaps surprising facet of the industry: for many migrants, their smuggler is their savior, even as he profits from their trouble. He (and it’s almost always he) is the one who unlocks the door to safety, freedom, and the chance to just live life. The media may “highlight tales of suffering and hardship,” but “many of the pictures and posts that populate social media within migrant and refugee communities are those of people joyously posing together, having successfully reached Europe.”

This, too, is part of the ongoing story of mass human movement. When we only view smugglers as villains and fail to take in why many see them as heroes, we foster “bad policies that put migrants at risk while at the same time empowering criminal organizations.”


The middle of the Mediterranean, despite all the attention it attracts, is nowhere near the epicenter of the crisis. Westerners may only have started to care when refugees started washing up on the sun-drenched beaches of idyllic Italian and Greek isles, but Europe is just a sideshow in a global catastrophe in which 84 percent of refugees are hosted by poor countries, and the 40.3 million internally displaced people are somewhere within their native land. Turkey leads the world in most refugees hosted for the third year in a row, followed by Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran, Uganda, and Ethiopia. That it only became a “crisis” when Europeans felt directly threatened tells us a lot about the mindset and political incentives of the world leaders now trying to tackle the problem.

Ben Rawlence’s City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp offers a glimpse of life for this majority of refugees, who are far from both home and stability. In this haunting book, Rawlence follows the lives of nine Somali refugees living in Dadaab refugee camp in northeast Kenya. Though “camp” doesn’t capture the reality of this place. Dadaab is a 25-year-old quasi-city, home, at the time of Rawlence’s writing, to nearly half a million people. Ten thousand babies have been born in the camp to parents who were born in the camp — third-generation Dadaab refugees. Though “unmarked on any official map,” it is the largest settlement for hundreds of miles.

Dadaab and its residents have a liminal existence, caught between war and peace, Kenyan sovereignty and foreign aid, international assistance and international indifference, between a rock and a hard place. (In etymology that is a bit too on the nose, Dadaab, in the local language, means “the rocky hard place,” a reference to the layer of rock just beneath the sand.) In this difficult setting, refugees endeavor to live their lives. Based on five months of research in the camp, Rawlence tells us how they fared during a particularly difficult period that saw renewed war and famine, the rise of al-Shabaab, and Kenya’s invasion of Somalia.

Overcrowded, without adequate water or shelter, and a “public health emergency,” Dadaab “was a groaning, filthy disease-riddled slum heaving with traumatized people without enough to eat.” Crime and violence were endemic; “rape was routine.” It is illegal for refugees to work in Kenya, so the entire economy in Dadaab — which accounts for one-quarter of its province’s economic output — is a black market. This further exposes the population to exploitation by the police and others with the means to do so.

Western aid dumped in the camps and the wider region often didn’t help, as the intentions of donor countries do not always match the needs of the refugees. White House officials saw the camp as nothing more than a terrorist recruitment ground — never mind the fact that the refugees are the ones who have actually suffered from terrorism.

About once a week, illegal convoys of trucks took people back to Somalia. The civil war there was still raging, but at least “it’s only the bullets that are the problem back home,” according to one refugee. Still others decide to gamble it all and travel over land to the Mediterranean and then across the sea to Europe. But for the hundreds of thousands left languishing in Dadaab, the least-bad option was to try to imagine a life outside the camp, to mentally escape what they physically could not. The refugees coined their own word for this condition: buufis, “the longing for resettlement out of the refugee camps. It is a kind of depression rooted in an inextinguishable hope for a life elsewhere that simultaneously casts the present into shadow.” This despair, City of Thorns insists, is the product of politics — the result of political choices made in Nairobi, Washington, and Brussels. Dadaab is a purgatory hosting populations exiled by a civil war at home and “a world unwilling to welcome them.”

After years of poverty and war, of torture and degradation, of rejection by those who could help, people lose themselves in despair. As Sina says in Cast Away, “We are almost dead.” It is a feeling that pushes people onto rickety boats with their children to give their fate to the swell of the sea. People who “consider themselves dead,” as a Syrian in The New Odyssey puts it, will not be stopped by walls, warnings, stormy waves, or even military attacks against their boats (something Europe has considered). They will keep going because, as each book demonstrates again and again, human beings all seek the same basic things: we seek to live with freedom and dignity and to live without fear. We seek safety and quiet comforts. We seek better lives for our children. And to achieve them, we will push ourselves to our limits, and then push further. Because when you already feel dead, you have nothing to lose.

And yet, even at this point, the migrants remain active sculptors of their own lives. When war comes to town, or there simply is no food, or the fundamental elements of one’s being — God, sex, politics — invites violence, options are limited. But the books are keen to show that even in these dire circumstances, people make choices. Some choose to flee, but others to fight, hide, collaborate, or die at home. Some even do all of them, and more. Through it all, as McDonald-Gibson maintains, they are “not a passive mass.” Casting migrants as victims in a morality play strips them of their agency, and provides an incomplete analysis. Amid the constant slander of migrants and refugees spewed by politicians and aped by the press, these books provide a refreshing reminder that migrants are not a mindless horde, but thinking and thoughtful, caring and careful, utterly normal, all-too-human human beings. For this alone all of these books are worth reading.


Seven decades before the current deluge, my grandmother boarded the Nieuw Amsterdam in the Port of Rotterdam and sailed to the United States. The date of her escape — June 2, 1938 — means that my 13-year-old grandmother, Eva, her older brother Walter, and my great-grandparents, Hans and Irma Monasch, missed the worst of it. Five years after Hitler came to power, and nearly three years after being stripped of their German citizenship by the Nuremberg Laws, the United States granted the four of them visas, sponsored by one I. Hilb, of Denver, Colorado. Upon arriving in New York after the seven-day voyage, my grandmother, or one of her parents, must have handed an American agent her passport — the two official swastikas stamped in blue ink over the corners of her photograph giving a rough outline of her fate had she remained at home.

Five months after their flight, during Kristallnacht, the synagogue in their hometown of Stettin, where the family celebrated Walter’s bar mitzvah two year earlier, was burned down, along with 42 other Jewish-owned shops and buildings in town. The next day, my great-grandfather — after whom I am named — would have likely been rounded up along with most Jewish men in town and taken to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, about 85 miles away, where they were held for several weeks before being allowed to return home. Fifteen months later, over the night of February 11–12, 1940, Jewish life in Stettin ended.

In the Nazi government’s first experiment with deportations from the Third Reich, “the Jews of Stettin […] were roused from their beds, forced to sign away all their property except one suitcase, a watch, and a wedding ring, and taken to the freight station by SS and SA men,” according to Christopher Browning’s authoritative The Origins of the Final Solution. Had my family still been there, there would have been four more Jews added to the 1,114 sent to occupied Poland, where most were eventually murdered in the camps at Bełżec, Treblinka, and Auschwitz. But my grandmother, great-uncle, and great-grandparents were in Chicago, safe across the sea.

My grandmother’s story is, of course, not unique. It is little different that Hashem al-Souki’s — except that my grandmother’s journey was far easier. People move, and always have moved, in search of better lives for themselves and their children. Why else would someone leave everything behind and brave the seas? What else is worth the risk?

But in the final analysis, the sentimentality of heritage should not matter. Hazy memories of ancestral exoduses — memories that so many repress, and that too easily relieves the responsibility of citizens with pedigrees unblemished by persecution — are a poor guide for policy. All that should matter — regardless of your ancestry — is that people need refuge today. The books covered here make this need visible for any who wish to see.


Jonathan Blake is an associate political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. He is the author of Contentious Rituals: Parading the Nation in Northern Ireland, which is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

LARB Contributor

Jonathan Blake is an associate political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. He is the author of Contentious Rituals: Parading the Nation in Northern Ireland, which is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.


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