Who is a refugee?

Gayatri Jayaraman
Gayatri JayaramanFeb 04, 2016 | 11:21

Who is a refugee?

Who gets to be defined as a refugee? Who is worthy of aid? Should it matter if someone is a Dalit or not, if they have taken their life out of a sense of oppression? Who is deserving of our empathy and relief?

My flight delayed by a snowstorm, I sat at dinner with four volunteers, one current and former Oxfam, and one with a medical organisation, with some refugee humour “imperfect night for the planes to land is the perfect night for the boats to come in, under cover of those who would stop them”) as we debated the larger questions of the refugee status.


I had quoted my favourite Khalil Gibran lines to the group, hard-nosed, hands wet from the boat trio:

“You often say, "I would give, but only to the deserving."

The trees in your orchard say not so, nor the flocks in your pasture.

They give that they may live, for to withhold is to perish.

Surely he who is worthy to receive his days and his nights, is worthy of all else from you.”

They said we needed more practical people, people who understood the socio-political realities of relocation, migration, food, accommodation, integration amongst adoptive societies, cultural differences, and a realisation that the solution to end the wars was coming from people who had started them. “We don’t know who the enemy is anymore” we concluded.  

It is a question I had put to Ai Weiwei earlier that day.

We were passing a line of queued up refugees and I heard someone, a group of men, none the worse for wear, speak in Hindi.

I immediately turned around and asked them where they were from. AWW urged me to translate.

At first they were wary that I had understood them. They had been leering at the legs of women such as myself in tights beneath a skirt. Oh, I understood them alright. They are refugees and facing culture shock, I told myself.


Then they replied: “Pakistan”.

Where in Pakistan I asked, assuming one of the Taliban-hit highlands, my tone a bit more accusatory than I would have liked.

“Karachi” they replied. My expression must have said it all.

“Our wives and children are starving there, we need a better life” they insisted. I didn’t look like I believed them anymore than I would believed that someone out of Mumbai’s undeniable dens of poverty and vice needed refugee status in Europe. They were young, hardy, able-bodied, and capable of work and clearly infused with dollops of attitude. I was skeptical.

AWW nudged me to ask how they had arrived here. Valid visa and passport to Tehran, smuggled over the border to Turkey via an agent and on the boat for a passage.

This was a scam I thought to myself as they hugged him saying ‘China-India best friends” and posed for pictures.

I put the question to AWW: why are some people deserving of aid? Who gets to define who is a refugee? Shouldn’t some people be called out, I asked.

AWW’s response humbled me. “Who a refugee is is defined by the United Nations Refugee Convention 1951. So it is very clear, that whosoever, irrespective of their geographical location fears their homeland, is a refugee. There are funds and there is political direction made very clear in that convention that is not being used how it should.”


The convention states:

“A refugee, according to the Convention, is someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.”

AWW explained: “We underestimate how much bravery it takes to make that journey. For a man to say I will leave behind my family, change my food, my language, my homeland, and undertake a journey of uncertainty that he does not know leads to what at the other end. It is a brave and a risky thing they do.”

Then he went on to define it for me, and I remembered Dr Homi Bhabha saying a similar thing at the vernissage of artist Jitish Kallat’s work in  Mumbai the week before (I paraphrase from memory, his exact text may have differed slightly): “The minority is not one who is merely a minority in numbers but one who has been *minoritised* by the agency of the state and is thus left feeling vulnerable”...

AWW’s definition was thus: “It is not the motive of the man who has abandoned his homeland but the very act of coming to a state of abandoning it, the feeling that I have no choice but to leave this behind, or to send my children ahead, and the holding on to a hope of a better life elsewhere for himself or them, that makes that man a refugee. It is not a journey that can be undertaken lightly, it is one that puts oneself at the mercy of the world. And it is that spirit that we must honour and not question.”

As ex-Oxfam worker Isa Jolil put it to us over dinner, ‘the wars being fought in the world today are not all the physical dropping of bombs. War has come to mean many things for the persecuted on personal fronts”.

Irrespective of whether your journey originates from a war zone or not, the overwhelming sense of persecution should ideally make you eligible for aid. The world must hear your cry and offer you a hand.

But there we all go spouting Gibran again. And aid is doled out on a more practical basis. 

Last updated: February 04, 2016 | 13:13
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