The word “refugee” is one of those teetering and uncertain words in the language, sitting on the precipice of our politics, capable of falling to one side or the other. For some the word evokes pity and sadness and a desire to open your heart. That side sees human misery and attempts, in a staggered and incomplete way, to imagine what it would be like to be driven from one’s home, set adrift by violence in a violent world, and to plunge into the uncertainty of every day.
Then there is the other side, who sees refugees as some kind of inhuman horde, swarming across borders, straining the limitis of deceny. The word has nasally connotations, a certain smell to it, a whiff of something low and ragged, bloody and violent and fecal. Like a rat with babies clinging to her matted-fur sides.
The world is seeing a refugee crisis unlike any it has seen since at least WWII, and possibly in human history. According to the UNHCR, at the beginning of 2017 (the last year for total numbers), there are over 65 million displaced people in the world. Many of them of internally-displaced people, like the miserable Rohingya, but many more are spread out in countries not their own.
The Syrian refugee crisis is probably the most remarkable and devastating and impactful one in the world, as it is not only reshaping the Middle East, but the reverberating effects are changing European politics, yanking it to the right, and have had a measurable impact on US politics, despite the paltry number of Syrians we allow in our borders.
That’s the secondary impact of the refugee crisis: it allows the very worst, those who see refugees as inhuman, to gain power by stoking fears. It’s remaking the world. It has further empowered Viktor Orban in Hungary, even though very few Syrians or Iraqis have matriculated to Hungary, which should be enough to prove a level of intelligence. It’s boosted far-right parties in France and Italy and Germany, and of course was a key factor in Brexit. Right-wing politicians were able to exploit fears and xenophobia by rushing to borders and declaring them an inviolable line of defense against the mongrelizing hordes.
And, well…we weren’t exactly immune to it in America.
Donald Trump has built most of his political career on hatred of the other, especially refugees. He talked in no uncertain terms about their lack of basic humanity, not even pretending to care that their lives were torn apart and they only wanted a place to live in peace. Other Republicans would at least acknowledge that Syria was a tragedy, but there was nothing they could do. Trump didn’t bother. This probably wasnt political calculation; he is entirely unable to see anyone else as having human agency other than to propitiate his fathomless ego. Certainly some Assyrians or whatever don’t matter.
But his real bile, of course, is directed south, toward Mexico and Central America (though it is doubtful he could tell you which countries belong where). He saw on Fox and Friends over the weekend that migrants from the Central American crisis were marching through Mexico in protest, supposedly to the US border, in a “caravan”. For Trump, this word–caravan–became an evil signifier, something he could latch onto and make grotesque.
Even though the march was a protest, he treated it like a coming invasion. It’s almost certainly because he doesn’t know better, and also doesn’t care (even though he’s the President of the United States and he could find out from literally anyone other than the grinning idiots on TV and I will never get over this, my god).
Yesterday, in West Virginia, in what was to be a speech on taxes, he tripled down.
“They’re not putting their good ones,” Trump said. “And remember my opening remarks at Trump Tower when I opened. Everybody said, ‘Oh, he was so tough.’ And I used the word ‘rape.’ And yesterday it came out where, this journey coming up, women are raped at levels that nobody has ever seen before. They don’t want to mention that.”
This is pretty classic Trump. “Yesterday it came out”- reying on unsourced news (which could be made up by him) instead of, you know, his intelligence briefings. The ridiculous self-aggrandizing and talking incessantly about his campaign and his press. And congratulating himself for using the word “rape”.
Suffice it to say that Trump, an admitted sexual assaulter who doesn’t give a good goddamn about women except as objects of his frumpish desire, doesn’t actually care about women being raped. But he loves using the word, because it is lurid and exploitative and, ultimately, makes the refugees seem terrifying.
When he talks about “rape”, he is talking explicitly to white fears of the minority sexualization, a persistent and deadly theme throughout American history. He isn’t saying “it’s a tragedy what’s happening to these poor El Salvadoran women”, but rather “These Mexicans are coming to rape you.”
While that is quintessential Trump, and the essence of race relations in America, it is also essentially how all right-wing politicians talk about refugees.
Trump’s language matters, and all language matters, because when it comes to refugees, language and borders go hand in hand. Language creates and sustains borders, because borders, after all, are a human creation.
While tribes and nations and kingdoms and countries have been a feature of human existence for thousands of years, and maybe more, they are distinctly unnatural. The delineation between “Americans” and “Mexicans” or “Hungarians” and “Syrians” is entirely made-up, a human idea and a product of our politics.
It’s a weird notion, really, the idea that your birthplace should determine entirely your fate, but that it isn’t a matter of luck. By treating refugees as less-deserving of help, we essentially say that their birthplace isn’t a matter of chance but of fate. That, in a way, they deserve it. If they didn’t want to be Syrians, then they shouldn’t have been born in Syria.
If that myth didn’t hold, then the whole idea that they shouldn’t be here wouldn’t hold. The whole idea of turning back refugees is that they don’t deserve to be in, say, America. And the only way to make that obviously absurd idea work is to say that they deserve to have their fate thrust upon them.
That’s why refugees need to be dehumanized, and that’s where language comes in. That’s why we use words like “horde” and “caravan”, to say nothing of “rapist.” It conjures up something less than human and inherently violent. It assumes that those that are fleeing violence themselves have nothing but violent intent, because, if they weren’t violent people, why would they be where they are from?
What this does, then, is create the “need” for stronger borders, for more intense opposition to other human, and the desire to fall in line with stifling and wholly-modern notions of sovereignty. So they are turned away, and they are stateless.
In other words, through language, through politics, and through the most brute aspects of human nature, we see that refugees don’t create the need for borders. The very idea of borders create refugees. One day, maybe, we’ll learn that they are humans.