Saskia Sassen, Nunu Kidane, Leena Odeh, Abraham Ramirez, Nadia Barhoum

Refugees, Borders, and Placelessness

By: Affiong Faith Ibok

A common theme among the speakers in the panel “Refugees, Borders, Placelessness” was a need for greater collective understanding of what causes of migration. During her presentation, renowned globalization scholar Saskia Sassen asked the audience “Why do people migrate?” Sassen expressed that a “racialized analysis” of migration exists because the political classes have failed to educate the “suffering classes.” She stressed that, while the refugee population is growing, migrants are a minority and that “migrations happen inside systems.”

 UC Berkeley Ph.D candidate Abraham Ramirez’s presentation approached migration from a historical perspective. He talked about how the physical expulsion of a population always follows an epistemic expulsion. In order to justify colonization, colonists must first delegitimize indigenous peoples’ knowledge creation. In order to discuss migration, Ramirez states that people have to understand the history of stripping populations of their humanity to justify colonization. If that is ignored, people will continue to look to solutions in the very same systems that constructed the problems. Instead of looking towards the nation-state for solutions, Ramirez argued we need to look at the communities that have resisted for centuries.

 Organizer Leena Odeh’s presentation went on to challenge the rhetorical use of the term “refugee crisis.” According to Odeh, the term “refugee crisis” implies that this situation is natural, instead of the result of geopolitical attacks. Furthermore, Odeh argued that refugees’ existences are politicized while the issues that affect them are decontextualized.

 The final panelist, Nunu Kidane of Priority African Network, centered her presentation on controlling and expanding the narratives for migrants. Migrants are made secondary to their own narratives, she said, and people’s perceptions of migrants are controlled by the images they see. The narratives of migrants are complex, she said, but migrants are often characterized as victims or perpetrators of violence.

 At the end of the breakout session audience members were invited to join in a Q&A session. One audience member asked if the panelists could expand on the idea of refugees “Othering” each other. Ramirez answered that communities of color who are not colonized subjects are attracted to whiteness because of the false promises it offers. He asked, “How can we convince people to not reproduce these systems?” He told a story about traveling to Spain and finding out that being Mexican in Spain was different than being Mexican in the United States. While he did not experience discrimination, people of other ethnicities did. Instead of accepting this new privilege, Ramirez rejected it. He used this anecdote to express how important it is for communities to not reproduce oppression. Fundamentally, he said, communities of color must resist the temptation to “Other” eachother.

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