This essay is based on Schiocchet, Leonardo. 2019. Outcasts among Undesirables: 117 Palestinian Refugees in Brazil in-between Humanitarianism and Nationalism. Latin American Perspectives, 46(3), pp. 84-101.The full article can be found here. A slightly different version of this post was published on the ROR-n blog.
In 2007, a group of 117 Palestinian refugees moved from Iraq to Brazil following a resettlement plan involving the UNHCR, the Brazilian government, and civil society, including a number of international NGOs. In what follows, I highlight some of the experiences of the Palestinian refugees and established diaspora involved in this plan, and I use an analysis of these experiences to explore. This, in turn, enables us to access the way the Brazilian nation-state navigated its political meanders and questions about broader assumptions within the humanitarianism discourse.
The Brazilian Political Context
From 2003 until President Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment in 2016, the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party, hereafter referred to as PT) government in Brazil strove to diminish Brazil’s enormous class, gender, and economic inequalities with varying success. Looking back with today’s hindsight perspective, however,,and in light of the ongoing systematic dismantling, it may be said that social policies of inclusion reached their apex during the PT) era.
“While there is a heated debate in Brazil about the country’s indigenous minority policies, much less is known about Brazil’s policies regarding non-indigenous minorities, particularly refugees.”
An important component of the Brazilian developmental project during the PT years had been to increase visibility in international politics. This new international orientation, in turn, demanded humanitarian action. The resettlement plan discussed here unfolded within this larger context, and more specifically, as part of a Brazilian drive to secure a permanent seat in the UN Security Council, which calls for positive actions addressing the world’s refugee crises.
While there is a heated debate in Brazil about the country’s indigenous minority policies, much less is known about Brazil’s policies regarding non-indigenous minorities, particularly refugees. I will argue that the country generally treated the refugees as migrants, and expected them to integrate just as previous Arab migrants had in the early twentieth century. In the following analysis, I will examine refugee policies during the PT government and relate them to the assumption concerning the integration of migrants that is part of a broader national myth that has influenced state practices under both PT and non-PT administrations.
Michel Agier in his On the Margins of the World: The Refugee Experience Today, notes that the world’s refugees are “undesirable.” He writes, “They are at the end of the day undesirable, kept apart from the world, far from the city… They are the very figure of a detestable liminality” (Agier 2008, 62). Yet, the following story concerns a slightly different category of people, for the group coming from Iraq was branded as outcast even among such undesirables. The resettled Palestinians were a group of 117 refugees who left Iraq for Brazil in 2007 due to the war. Among them were men, women, and children of all ages.
“The resettled Palestinians were a group of 117 refugees who left Iraq for Brazil in 2007 due to the war. Among them were men, women, and children of all ages.”Many of the adults had previously worked for the Iraqi government bureaucracy in some capacity. Prior to coming to Brazil, almost all of the refugees were temporarily lodged in Rwayshed, a refugee camp in the Jordanian desert close to Jordan’s border with Iraq. There, they had already recieved a reputation for being “undesirable” and unfit for refuge elsewhere, even in comparison to other local refugees. They were among the last to find refuge prior to the camp’s closure. Once in Brazil, the Palestinian refugees were again labelled undesirable, only this time due primarily to the mythical national narrative explained below. This double rejection of being outcasts among “undesirables” has inhibited these Palestinians’ perceived “integration.” Through the lens of this double rejection, I discuss the principles of integration and tutelage, putting the supposed apolitical character of humanitarianism into perspective and showing how mythical-ideological notions of Brazilianness also helped to reinforce and reproduce stereotypes associated with Palestinians.
After the fall of Saddam Hussein, a number of refugee camps were established in the region to resettle a growing refugee populationin Iraq. These camps received refugee groups of diverse ethnicities and religions – including Sunni, Shi’a and Christian Iraqis, and Iranians, Kurds, Sudanese, and Palestinians among other minorities historically living in Iraq during the war. Most of these were vulnerable because of various political considerations, and all of them were connected to the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003. Rwayshed was located in the Jordanian desert, close to the Iraqi border, and thus under Jordanian jurisdiction. The camp there was created in 2003 specifically to receive refugees from all other camps, and to serve as a transitional point between Iraq and the resettlement countries.
“In 2007, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) sought to finally close Rwayshed and resettle all of its population, which according to the UNHCR definition ‘entails permanent residency in a country other than that of the refugee’ (UNHCR, 2014). The group of originally 117 Palestinians who landed in Brazil was the last to leave Rwayshed before the camp was deactivated.”
In 2007, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) sought to finally close Rwayshed and resettle all of its population, which according to the UNHCR definition “entails permanent residency in a country other than that of the refugee” (UNHCR, 2014). The group of originally 117 Palestinians who landed in Brazil was the last to leave Rwayshed before the camp was deactivated.
The humanitarian agents frequently spoke to me of the resettlement project as a “favor.” The benefit was not initially inclusion through national citizenship, but protraction through tutelage, which in turn implies the a lack of recognition of the autonomy of the subjected, who becomes merely an object of the state’s humanitarian policies. In this model, there are those who are eternally recipients, and those who are eternally “givers.” Consequently, the relationship between these terms remains unilinearly asymmetrical, such that the recipients are always bound to the givers’ favor. Accordingly, once in Brazil, the Rwayshed group discovered that Brazilian citizenship was not unconditional, automatic, and uninterested. It was rather something that they would have to “deserve” in the eyes of the Brazilian government. Far from a gift, the logic was closer to Weberian Protestant ethics: a prize given only to those who were able to demonstrate their successful efforts to “integrate” and overcome inherent difficulties in the integration process. What “integration” means, however, was elusive.
In theory, integration in the Brazilian context loosely meant to be able to “fit” into Brazilian society, and almost every resettlement agent had an opinion on what this speciafically entailedt. In practice, CONARE (Comitê Nacional para os Refugiados [National Committeefor Refugees]), an interministerial commission under the Brazilian Ministry of Justice,, officially decided who would become integrated – and thus who deserved to gain permanent status in Brazil – on an individual basis using relative criteria like personal sympathies and especially the display of non-confrontational behavior towards the ressettlement agents, the project itself, and all levels of Brazilian authority.
“….once in Brazil, the Rwayshed group discovered that Brazilian citizenship was not unconditional, automatic, and uninterested. It was rather something that they would have to ‘deserve’ in the eyes of the Brazilian government.”
Nevertheless, a discourse recognizing the authoritative character of the tutelage did not always accompany the tutelary intervention. In fact, tutelage often came with a critical discourse against the vulnerability of the refugees. The group of Palestinian refugees in question were constructed by CONARE as objects of tutelage because they are restricted not only by extrinsic war impositions (for instance, territorial mobility), but also because they were supposedly incapable of understanding – and thus choosing – what was best for them. Accordingly, what the refugees were incapable of conceiving of in first place is the Brazilian state’s heroic act of saving them from the catastrophe that undercut their lives. These Palestinians were thus incapable of judging that their coming to Brazil was a unique opportunity, given the multicultural tradition of the Brazilian nation, and were also incapable of appreciating the competence of the state in its treatment of “immigrants.” In an interview with one of CONARE’s top representatives, I was told that “in Brazil those who do not integrate are only those who choose not to.” Such integration was related to Brazil’s “long tradition” of “receiving immigrants” and, therefore, the non-integration of the Palestinians was an abnormality that resulted from their own (social, political, ethnic, religious, or cultural) limitations and this failure was dissociated from the resettlement program or from the dynamics of a Brazilian context.
However, the concept of “integration” remained elusive. I could not find the specific criteria in any text of law, or even in any of the institutions’ brochures, websites, or other forms of official discourse. They were not evident in these publications, and the process of measuring integration was not transparent; rather, measurement of which groups had integrated was based in subjective criteria handledonan individual basis and dependent on a CONARE commissary’s judgment. Rwayshed refugees constantly reiterated their unawareness of the conditional character of their Brazilian citizenship. The very move to Brazil and the subsequent “integration” into the Brazilian nation was imposed upon the Rwayshed group. Once in Brazil, each refugee had to tackle the Brazilian context in one way or another, either by trying exile or seeking “integration.” By conditioning citizenship on integration, and by informally associating integration with both civic duties and cultural expectations, the Brazilian state’s integration efforts were often perceived by the refugees as “assimilation” and/or “obedience” to all forms of authority to which they were subjected.
Nations and Humanitarianism
This group of “undesirables” resettled in Brazil because no other country accepted them, and they only went there because that decision was imposed on them. The humanitarian discourse not only qualified these refugees as being incapable of autonomous decision, but also denied them the right to desire (to be sent to another country) and the right to resent the humanitarian agents (for sending them to Brazil). In practice, the refugees could not even choose to remain in Rwayshed, as a few supposedly had preferred. The refugees’ ideas about Brazil contrasted greatly with the state’s official narrative, which was based on a mythical-heroic description of the nation, of its potentialities, its natural riches and its social opportunities.
Among the promises made and not kept by UNHCR and Brazil, the refugees placed one above all others: citizenship, which, in this case, represented more than just a simple chart of common rights and duties. It represented a sense of belonging to the Brazilian nation.
Nationality via citizenship is the only possible avenue of becoming a subject in the contemporary “national order” of the world – to use Liisa Malkki’s words (Malkki 1992; Malkki 1995a; Malkki 1995b). In practice, even the humanitarian agents presuppose that the “human” (in the plenitude of its rights and duties, free from state oftutelage) is only imaginable within the parameters of the nation-state. This view assumes the ineluctable political condition of the subject. However, this is also precisely what the humanitarian discourse denies by upholding the assumption that the disocursse ought to be beyond politics and, thus, beyond ideology. Most commonly, the humanitarian discourse is thought of in terms of an ideological liberal notion of universal human rights associated with a politics of commitment to the just protection of those rights. However, the claim to transcend politics, or the particular interests of nation-states and other political actors, constitutes the very substance of humanitarian politics. By claiming universality, the humanitarian discourse also claims to be beyond ideology. This universal pretension serves to legitimize humanitarianism in both ideological and political terms.
The perlocutionary effects of this denial of particularism (political and ideological agenda) are vast and manifest. For instance, it precludes the possibility of self-criticism and of being put in perspective: being beyond politics and ideology essentially entails an ontologically aloof position above other perspectives. Consequently, “problems” – whenever they exist – are always located elsewhere, usually in the object of tutelage or in the not-so-partial host institutions.
National Mythologies through an Asymmetrical Encounter
The UNHCR outsourced its administrative responsibilities to local humanitarian NGOs, who themselves were influenced by Brazilian laws and shared nationalistic myths about the country’s cosmopolitan potential that did not always correspond to reality. For instance, while the resettlement agents assumed that the locals closest to the refugees would naturally be other Palestinians and Arabs, in reality the relationship between these various groups proved to be less than harmonious. In addition, the UNHCR entrusted its responsibility to local humanitarian NGOs, who responded directly to Brazilian laws and shared nationalistic myths about the country’s cosmopolitan potential. Such myths suggested that any difficulty of integration should be justified as resulting from an intrinsic limitation of the ward – and not of the state or nation. The resettlement agents often ascribed such limitations to the “Palestinian culture” – also commonly referred to as “Arab culture” – in general. They also pointed to the“problematic” condition of these “undesirables,” and usually in the confluence between these two factors. Authorities involved in the resettlement argued that since history had shown that everyone else integrated well in Brazil, the unruliness of the Palestinian group had to be attributed to their “culture” and problematic character. The latter characteristic was part of a narrative that had been transmitted from the UNHCR to the NGOs they hired in Brazil, and to the Brazilian government, which was aware that the refugees were outcasts among undesirables.
“The resettlement agents often ascribed such limitations to the ‘Palestinian culture’ – also commonly referred to as ‘Arab culture’ – in general. They also pointed to the ‘problematic’ condition of these ‘undesirables,’ and usually in the confluence between these two factors.”
The Brazilian official discourse concerning the refugees borrowed elements from the jargon of humanitarian vernacular, investing the government with morality as it omitted the political character of the decision to receive the refugees, of the resettlement process, and of the actual legal and symbolic status bestowed upon the refugees vis-à-vis the Brazilian nation. Such supposed (apolitical) morality, besides yielding corporality to the nation, in turn justifies a civilizatory mission – as stated by Hamid (Hamid 2013). In my opinion, it is this civilizatory mission that motivates a priori the disposition and the disciplinary practices that the resettlement projects’ agents bring to bear upon the objects of tutelage.
The Rwayshed refugees resettled in Brazil were affected by scenarios as diverse as those of war-torn Iraq, the ideology of global humanitarianism, and Brazilian developmentalist policies. Finding legitimacy through the tutelary regime, the resettlement agents re-incorporated and in part unconsciously managed disciplinary practices upon the refugees.
The shortcommings of humanitarian tutelage are hardly ever problematized beyond the accepted consensus. In the case presented above, tutelage-based policies assumed the refugees were temporarily incapable of governing their lives on their own, evoking the transference of biopower (Foucault, 1998), or the power over subjects’ lives, from the refugees to the UN and then to the Brazilian state. Tutelage was supposed to be transitory, ending upon complete integration. It was thus a counterpart to integration. While integration mobilized a mythical-ideological view of the host (Brazilian) nation, tutelage mobilized a bureaucratic regulatory apparatus in line with this view.
The mythical-ideological view of the Brazilian nation was based on the assumption that Brazil is a prejudice-free melting-pot, evidenced especially by how all immigrants there had supposedly “integrated” to form one coherent Brazilian nation, beyond ethnic, racial, religious, and cultural differences (Lesser 2000: 130-133; Karam 2007, 157). As such, the Brazilian government expected that the refugees should emulate the supposed behavior of the immigrants of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, generational, contextual, and legal gaps notwithstanding. The conceptual place of the immigrant, and thus of the refugee, was in turn supported by heroic narratives and representations about the history of the immigrants in Brazil, upheld by the state as much as by the immigrants themselves and their descendants. Moreover, it was by dealing with undesirable refugees that the nation maintained its ideals about the Brazilian citizen. Failure to properly “integrate” was then to be solely attributed to the refugees themselves, rather than to the resettlement progam or any of its actors. Thus, when these refugees’ integration proved difficult, the rhetoric of the outcasts among undesirables evoked stereotypes of Palestinians as bellicose, unruly, and backward, this being the sole cause of the resettlement plan’s failures.
“Neither the Brazilian government nor the UN and its NGOs acknowledged the contradiction between humanitarianism and the nation, which I suggest are tacit counterparts.”
Neither the Brazilian government nor the UN and its NGOs acknowledged the contradiction between humanitarianism and the nation, which I suggest are tacit counterparts. Yet, the disciplinary practices of the resettlement project departed from representations of the Palestinian and especially the Brazilian nation, and about the place of the refugee in what Malkki (1995b) calls the national order of the world. Thus, a humanitarian vernacular was embedded in the Brazilian rhetoric and policies towards the refugees, informing expectations about the refugees’ so-called integration.
Refugees are not simply immigrants. On the one hand, in the case above, they were expected to conform to an idealized view of those earlier immigrants who left their countries voluntarily to live in Brazil many decades ago. On the other hand, they were kept under tutelary control, their voices rarely heard. Rather than treating the refugees as active subjects of their own lives, the resettlement process muted the refugees’ voices. While this paradox was evidenced by the Brazilian case, it is by no means solely a Brazilian problem. Rather, it is a broader issue relating to the encounter between the national order of the world and humanitarianism at large.
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