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Refugees and Right Relationships

Kammy's picture

To preface this paper, I would like to note that for the past six months I have been volunteering at an organization which processes newly arrived refugees. It is after a lengthy legal processing and waiting abroad that refugees finally arrive here, where a number of social services are provided. Such services include cultural orientation, health screening, as well as help with welfare, housing, and employment. The organization’s function is not only to help make the initial transition into American life as smooth as possible, but also to help the newly arrived refugees assimilate and become self sufficient in the long term. My particular role at this organization (and what will evolve into the focus of this paper) is the delivery of a health orientation. This orientation is meant to introduce the American health care system and prepare refugees for their health screening. Although it is both helpful and indispensable, it also brings to light structural problems in the refugee/healthcare system which I would like to address:

To provide some more background, the majority of refugees processed by this center are either Burmese or Bhutanese. Transcripts from the Hearing Before Subcommittee on International Relations and Human Rights (1997) describe the conditions from which Burmese refugees have departed. Typically, these refugees have been living within the margins of Thailand's border. They are of typically Karen ethnicity and Christian religion, and they have been driven from the country by Burma's illegal military government in the pursuit of ethnic and religious purity (1997: 2). Similarly, in a Humans Rights Watch publication, Ridderbos (2007) describes the plight of Bhutanese refugees in Nepal and India. Ethnic Nepalis living in Bhutan were forced out of the state, often under the guise of willing migration, due to their ethnic and religious differences. It is thus that the refugees we cater to have found their way here.

I could tackle the issue of ethnic cleansing and what “right relationship” would be possible within such a dilemma, but instead I want to talk about what comes after. I want to address an issue that is relatively understated, at least compared to the international attention that ethnic cleansing and displaced refugees garners. It seems as if once refugees are relocated, their precarity is subsequently overlooked in the presumption that their problem of displacement has been solved. As Welch (2000) writes, “respect is not primarily sympathy for the other, but acknowledgement of the equality, dignity, and independence of others”, because “we work with, not for, others” (2000: 15). As a group, refugees are in a position of very little power – and because of this, it is so easy to merely sympathize. Based upon our own standing and our position of power, we feel morally obligated to help. And of course, we are obligated to help, but that obligation isn't derived from any discrepancy in power between us and them. The position of power that we have enables us to help, but the obligation itself precedes our situation within structures of power. Judith Butler (2004) writes the following:

“Although I am insisting on referring to a common human vulnerability, one that emerges with life itself, I also insist that we cannot recover the source of this vulnerability: it precedes the formation of 'I'. This condition, a condition of being laid bare from the start and with which we cannot argue.” (2004: 51)

The obligation that we have comes from our mutual humanity, thus we need to stop working for refugees and instead with them. We need to recognize their state of precarity, one that exists even after we do things for them: after we give them a place to live, welfare, jobs, and legal assistance. Instead, there needs to be more of a dialogue, one that situates us and them as equals.

When I give a health orientation, I must acquaint a group of refugees with the basics of insurance, tell them that they will be poked and prodded, show them how to fill a prescription, and then tell them that their insurance expires in eight months (with the exception of children, the disabled, and the elderly). I give them a health orientation that is condensed into 45 minutes, because the organization is billed for every minute with the interpreter – it is an orientation that doesn't even begin to cover how insurance actually works. When I tell them that their insurance will eventually expire, I also give them a piece of paper listing all the local community health centers – but where will that piece of paper be in eight months, and what will it mean to the person holding it? What happens after these refugees leave the office?

I would like to contend that this program does have “right relationship” in mind, but also that the scope of its effectiveness is limited by broader issues of funding and legislature. In this light, I want to go over what is being done right, and what theoretical changes could be made. First, I want to acknowledge that such a program exists in giving aid to newly arrived refugees, and I commend their goal of long term self-sufficiency. The combination of welfare, housing, health, employment, and education is crucial, for in providing these things in conjunction with one another, there is the understanding that precarity rests at an intersection of many different factors and there is an attempt to reduce precarity. Here, there is an open door policy, wherein refugees are welcome to come in and ask questions should they require any form of assistance. At this point it might not be much, but it is at least the very beginning of dialogue and an attempt to work with the refugees. I believe that not only does this organization have the “right relationship” in mind, but so too do the individuals who work there. Of all the people who work there, only a handful are under full time employment, the rest are interns and volunteers. These are people who answer emergency calls in the middle of the night, and will be there at the emergency room if something happens. They are case workers who make home visits, schedule appointments, answer all manner of questions. These sorts of things might seem trivial, but they are not, because maintaing a “right relationship” requires action at both the personal and the broader social level – which brings us to where the “right relationship” is missing.

It is at the broader social level, within the sphere of legislation, funding, and even general social discourse, that the “right relationship” is missing – and despite what “right relationships” may exist at the level of NGOs and between individuals, the overarching lack of “right relationship” trickles down in a cascading manner. At this level, it can be said that there are “rules about rights” as opposed to “right relationships”. Humbach (2001) categorizes such rules as declarative knowledge, as opposed to the procedural knowledge of “right relationship” (2001: 11). Although these rules exist, they are not made with full understanding. An example would be the mandate that all refugees are to be immunized upon arrival. These immunizations are important for both personal and public health, and they are covered by the temporary insurance afforded to new refugees. However positive this regulation is though, it fails to take into account how difficult getting those immunizations might be in reality. Refugees must make several visits to the doctor's office in order to complete the vaccinations: this implies the act of transportation (which might be foreign for those from non-industrialized countries), the cost of transportation, the time required, the program appointed escort, and even the arrangement of childcare for families. The regulation exists, but it doesn't lend to the reality of enactment. It seems as refugee rights are codified in law, but that law doesn't necessarily have the ability to improve the embodied experience of refugees.

Finally, I would like to propose an alliance: one between America's own precarious working class, and the immigrants who are here. When it comes to the issue of funding, there is always the sentiment that there isn't enough, or that it is being unfairly distributed. It is often that immigrants are antagonized by those natives who are themselves in a precarious situation, and who believe that an immigrant presence will advance their own precarity. However, it ought to be seen that natives and immigrants alike face many similar forms of precarity. A “right relationship” between these two communities would be one wherein each recognized the other as struggling for and against the same things; it would be a relationship that jointly fostered activism, and one that ultimately pushed for a “right relationship” between themselves and the government...which is perhaps the most difficult “right relationship” to establish within this scheme of things.


Works Cited.

Butler, Judith. "Chapter 2: Violence, Mourning, Politics." In Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. 19-49. New York: Verso, 2004.

Humbach, John. "Towards a Natural Justice of Right Relationships." Human Rights in Philosophy and Practice (2001): 1-18.

Ridderbos, Katinka, and Human Rights Watch (Organization). Last Hope : The Need for Durable Solutions for Bhutanese Refugees in Nepal and India. Human Rights Watch. New York, NY: Human Rights Watch, 2007.

United States. Congress. House. Committee on International Relations. Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights. Burmese Refugees in Thailand : Hearing before the Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights of the Committee on International Relations, House of Representatives, One Hundred Fifth Congress, First Session, April 16, 1997. Washington: U.S. G.P.O. : For sale by the U.S. G.P.O., Supt. of Docs., Congressional Sales Office, 1998.
Welch, Sharon. "The Ethic of Control." In
A Feminist Ethic of Rist. 13-37. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000.


Anne Dalke's picture

surprising alliance

this is a compelling story that you tell here, one that really puts to the test the usefulness of Humbach's theory about right relationships. Can such a thing exist, in the context of the sorts of overwhelming legal wrongs, and social inequities, which you describe? If they are not anchored in the guarantee of rights, but in what you call "the overarching lack of right relationship," then what we get "trickles down in a cascading manner."

Given the complexities here, I was very surprised by the "turn" your essay takes @ the end, when you propose an alliance between the precarious U.S. working class and immigrants to this country. It is of course a truism in social justice work that those just-above the most precarious stages are those who discriminate most against those just-below them; the threat there is immediate, and well guarded against. Granting the shared forms of precarity that both groups face, how to build such an alliance, one that might work for a better relationship between both populations and the government? What might be some first steps in that direction? Do you plan to pursue them for your final project? I look forward to hearing....