“The conception of human rights, based upon the assumed existence of a human being as such, broke down the very moment when those who professed to believe in it were for the first time confronted with people who had indeed lost all other qualities and specific relationships—except that they were still human” (The Origins of Totalitarianism). Refugees and other stateless people embodied this condition of loss for Hannah Arendt, and she regarded them as “the most symptomatic group in contemporary politics.” But is the loss of all qualities and relationships an irrevocable outcome for those who experience it? How might refugees contest their status as stateless people? How, if at all, might they work to recover rights that make them something other than merely human beings? These questions have recently arisen in Germany, where hundreds of refugees have established “protest camps” in Berlin, Munich, and Hamburg to demand the right to free movement and legal employment.
The camps in question are makeshift tent complexes that the protesters and their supporters have assembled from found and donated materials.
They provide a base of operations from which the refugees can assert their demands to policymakers and the public at large. By deciding to live in these camps, stateless people from every corner of Germany have abandoned the asylum homes to which they were assigned by bureaucratic agencies at the state and federal level. They thereby violate the legal terms of their refugee status, which stipulate that they may not (except with express permission) step foot outside the local jurisdiction in which they have been registered.
The protesters demand that these restrictions on their mobility be lifted so that they might travel in Germany in a manner comparable to other residents and citizens. They also seek the right to work legally and, when feasible, secure their own housing. These provisions might conceivably result in better material conditions for some refugees. But the protesters do not justify their activism on such narrow grounds.
Instead, they argue that rights of mobility and employment are necessary requirements for a dignified life (ein menschenwürdiges Leben). These rights would recognize them as autonomous beings with distinctive capacities, desires, and aspirations. They would also minimize, if not necessarily eliminate, their dependence on state institutions and social service agencies. Such dependence is particularly acute in the provision of food, clothing, and other material needs. At the moment, refugees in Germany are entitled to a modicum of basic care that falls short of the welfare provisions available to other residents and citizens. They are also largely if not entirely reliant on non-cash, in-kind benefits with little access to money they might spend at their own discretion. Mobility and employment, these refugees insist, would allow them to exert greater influence and control over the fundamental conditions of their lives.
Hannah Arendt was herself a refugee during a pivotal stretch of her life, and her experiences in France and the U.S. left a deep imprint on her later thought. Her most mature insights into the fate of stateless people were formulated in “The Decline of the Nation-State and the End of the Rights of Man,” perhaps the pivotal chapter in The Origins of Totalitarianism. But she also offered a series of earlier, more immediate and polemical reflections in “We Refugees,” an article that initially appeared in The Menorah Journal in 1943. Although these two essays are now more than fifty years old, they still offer important tools for thinking through both the implications and the limits of the current protests.
On the one hand, these texts help us to read the protesters’ efforts as a sharp rejection of their current treatment as refugees. Through their words and deeds, the protesters draw attention to the restrictions that German authorities have placed on their activities, restrictions that do not apply to other residents and citizens. The protesters thereby expose their positioning as, to paraphrase Arendt, “anomalies for whom the general law does not provide.”
Moreover, the protesters’ rejection of their present treatment is evident not simply in their explicitly articulated demands, but in the very ways they inhabit the space of the nation-state. By leaving their assigned jurisdictions and living in provisional camps, they offer a pointed rebuttal to governmental efforts to isolate them as human beings who may receive exceptional aid but who do not, in the end, rightfully belong to the state, its people, and its territory. In response to such containment efforts, the protesters’ actions convey a pointed message: we will not remain in our designated place. Indeed, we would rather be homeless, for all intents and purposes, than interned in asylum homes.
But the current protests do not simply constitute a refusal to abide by the current terms of their refugee status. They also aim to fashion a different, more constructive relationship between stateless people and the German nation-state. Arendt’s writings are once again helpful here. For in demanding rights of mobility and employment, the protesters also articulate a desire for “a place in the world which makes opinions significant and actions effective.” They seek social and legal conditions where they might have “the confidence that [they] are of some use in this world”, where they might be acknowledged—and judged—as freely acting people who “carry their dignity within themselves.”
Such confidence, acknowledgement, and judgment can only emerge, however, within a larger nexus of social and political relations. On this count, Arendt suggests that the protesters and other refugees have a right to belonging in an organized and self-determining political community. According to her analysis in Origins, it is precisely such belonging to which supposedly “inalienable” human rights have been historically tied, and it is precisely such belonging that stateless people lose when they are expelled from their countries of origin.
Here, of course, lies the rub. Many German state agencies and “ordinary” citizens continue to regard refugees as aliens who threaten the nation-state’s presumed homogeneity and territorial rootedness. They accordingly object to any expansion of refugees’ civil rights and any improvement of their prospects for inclusion. In fact, as cultural studies scholar Fatima El-Tayeb has recently noted, refugees with “an exceptional leave to remain” (a Duldung, in German legal parlance) may spend decades in the country without gaining anything more than the “right” to be present at the state’s discretion.
Furthermore, official and popular opposition is likely to grow more entrenched as the size of the refugee population increases. While the number of asylum applications in Germany decreased steadily after the constitutional right to asylum was restricted in 1993, it jumped dramatically in 2012 and the first half of 2013. Given ongoing suppression in Russia, Syria, Chechnya, and other global “hot spots,” this upward trend seems set to continue in the years ahead.
Arendt’s writing anticipates many of these recent developments. Her analysis of the state’s colonization by “national interest” is as relevant today as it was in the years after World War II, as is her account of the corrosive effect of large numbers of stateless people on legal provisions like asylum and naturalization. Given the arc of refugee administration in Germany over the past few decades, Arendt’s work on the perplexities of human rights remains timely and incisive.
I can only imagine that Arendt would have applauded the current protests in Germany if she had lived to see them. As “We Refugees” makes clear, she found comparable determination and courage sorely lacking among Jewish refugees in Europe in the 1930s and early 1940s. Most, to her mind, were deeply misguided in their willingness to accept the treatment they received (and, not coincidentally, to deny their individual and collective existence as Jews).
But I also worry that Arendt diagnosed the very forces that seem poised, slowly but surely, to undermine the protesting refugees’ efforts. At least at the moment, the refugees’ camps generate both vocal solidarity and pointed opposition. But I doubt that this level of public engagement can be sustained over the long term. The more time passes, the more pressure the refugees will face to accept a cosmetic compromise or abandon their protest entirely. The more time passes, the more likely they are to lose a battle of attrition and inertia.