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Arendt's writing on statelessness is more relevant than ever


Writing for the website Public Seminar, Siobhan Kattago pays homage to a remarkable and nearly forgotten essay by Hannah Arendt called “We Refugees.” Originally published in 1943, the essay reflects poignantly on the dislocation and tragedy endured by countless European Jews in the first half of the twentieth century. It also obliquely touches on Arendt’s own experience with statelessness, which lasted from 1933 to 1951. In Kattago’s appreciation of the essay, she highlights how Arendt’s insights help us understand the struggles of refugees today. Here’s an excerpt:

Whether pariah or parvenu, once Jews lost their citizenship and political rights during the Third Reich, they lost their own distinct place in the world. “The pariah Jew and the parvenu Jew are in the same boat, rowing desperately in the same angry sea. Both are branded with the same mark; both alike are outlaws.” Can we not say the same about today’s refugees, who are “rowing desperately” to avoid war and violence, but who are regarded as “outlaws” when they reach the borders? At the end of “We Refugees,” Arendt outlines a way to overcome the stigma of being refugee, pariah or outlaw. By becoming a “conscious pariah,” she was able to speak for those in her generation and maintain her identity. “Refugees driven from country to country represent the vanguard of their people — if they keep their identity.”

The stateless, as an unwanted and superfluous product of the international order, are a fact that can neither be ignored nor wished away. Today, more than seventy years after the publication of “We Refugees,” we face a similar problem. There are approximately 60 million refugees in the world, half of them children, who will spend much of their childhood in a refugee camp. What is, of course, different about the refugees then and now, is that today’s refugee is not European, and often Muslim. And yet the question remains: how should we respond? Arendt reminds us that patterns of exclusion, the proliferation of refugee camps and masses of people seeking refuge, bear more than a passing family resemblance to 20th century statelessness. “We Refugees” is more than an early essay outlining her later analysis of rights and the nation-state. It speaks both to the refugee crisis of the 20th century and to ours.

Image via Public Seminar.


Here are two links to Arendt’s essay:

  1. online at

    “Greek refugees in Aleppo in the course of the population exchange between Greece and Turkey, 1923, undated Black and White Photography” (source: same link, translation: my own)

  1. pdf-download at

The second link I found in another text on the topic, which was published four months before Siobhan Kattago’s on “We refugees” by Daniel Loick.

To me the strength of Kattago’s text is her elaboration^^ on Arendt’s and her fellow newcomers’ fates. Enabling us to comprehend their struggle from a personal (human) perspective and realizing that not only newcomers presently go through much the same. But maybe even more that by lacking a personal attachement to them (which Kattago’s/ Arendt’s texts provide through identification) “we” fail in acknowledging them as persons (humanely).

Loick’s emphasis I’d say is more closely examining the current crises in light of Arendt’s writing and Agamben’s continuation of Arendt’s thoughts and thus provides an additional perspective that, referring to @e_flux’s intro to the topic, can already be seen as a more direct application of Arendt’s (and Agamben’s) thoughts to “understand the struggles of refugees [/newcomers, author’s note] today”.

An excerpt:

The German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared that Germany would take a ‘leading role’ in dealing with those seeking shelter, and the President of the EU Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, emphasized the fundamental historical significance of the right of asylum to European identity. These reactions were quite rightly treated as an expression of direct sympathy that countered the increase of racism and nationalism. However, if we take seriously Arendt’s insight and its actualization by Agamben, then the answer to exclusion can never simply be inclusion. Seeking to solve the current “refugee crisis” (a term that mistakenly ascribes the crisis to the fleeing human beings rather than to anachronistic political institutions) through the inclusion of those seeking protection in existing states still adheres to the fiction of a necessary connection between citizenship and territoriality. From this perspective, Merkel’s and Juncker’s talk of “admission” and “integration” – thereby always also implying the existence of a “limit of burden” – turns out to be just one side of a coin, on the other side of which there is Viktor Orbán’s and Frontex’s policy of fortification and internment. Equally inadequate is the idea of “fighting the causes for flight”, a notion that is especially widespread among leftists. While it is true enough that the political and economic misery of large parts of the world has been brought about by the actions of Europe and the USA – through arms exports and military intervention, the work of the World Bank and free trade agreements, ecological asset-stripping and the destruction of living conditions – the implication is that everything would be for the best if everyone stayed in their “own country".

All of these proposals, however critical and compassionate they might be intended, reproduce the problem to which Arendt first drew attention in questioning the aim of assimilation: the status of the refugee is understood as a deficiency that has to be overcome. “Refugees” should once more become “normal” citizens. By unquestioningly accepting the conventional conception of citizenship the latent catastrophic structure of the sovereign state is being reproduced on several different levels. The division of the globe into different nations, and the division of humanity into different peoples, is based upon establishing borders designed to hinder the autonomous global mobility of individuals. Nationhood, by definition, makes people illegal. Furthermore, it is only with the monopolization of force in modern state apparatuses that hitherto unheard of technologies of national fortification on the one hand, on the other the supervision, channelling and internment of refugees have become possible. The defense of Fortress Europe with warships, submarines, drones, helicopters, satellites and communications centers, as decided by the EU Council of Ministers, represents a vain attempt to deny the fact of global mobility through the restoration of conventional state forms. This strategy is simply futile because globalization cannot be reversed; all goods already freely circulate through the whole world, except the commodity of human labour […]."


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“We have to think beyond conventional conceptions of inclusion and integration. It is not the refugees that must adapt to states and their power apparatuses; instead, states must be reorganized to adapt to universal aterritoriality as the prime human condition: “normal” citizens must become refugees. This does not imply a romanticization of the real sufferings of refugees, but a recognition that statelessness rather than conventional citizenship corresponds to the way in which human beings actually cohabit in the world. It is the refugee, not the citizen, who has renounced the violent temptations of the territorial form of community. Thus, the diasporic mode of existence inspires us to think of bonds of our communities other than blood or soil.”