States, sovereignties and refugees: a view from the margins?
On Wednesday 6 June, the Refugee Studies Centre welcomed Professor Alessandro Monsutti to speak at the annual Elizabeth Colson Lecture at the Oxford Museum of Natural History.
Drawing from his research with Afghan refugees living in the diaspora, Monsutti outlined a world witnessing shifting sovereignties in which the lines between the nation-state and transnational actors were blurred, and displaced people could increasingly be viewed as agents of their own lives rather than the passive victims seen from a state-centric perspective.
Are we facing the ultimate crisis of the nation-state?
In the first part of the lecture, Monsutti argued that this question arises from a narrow conception of state and sovereignty in which the state is viewed as having unequivocal authority over territory and population, which has a shared language and common culture.
In reality concepts such as ‘state’ and ‘sovereignty’ must be historicised and contextualised; the model of the Westphalian state is a bureaucratic ideal that has probably never been fully achieved or realised. Monsutti emphasised that the global importance of the nation-state has far from faded in the last decade. Afghanistan was given as a salient example of a formal democratic state that depends almost entirely on foreign presence for the delivery of welfare services and for its security.
Monsutti highlighted the increased role of the military as a global actor contributing to the reshaping of power structure and sovereignty. He cited the example of the US Army Commanders Emergency Response Program (CERP), which funds many non-government organisations (NGOs) in Afghanistan and whose budget has jumped dramatically in the last decade, and asked the audience to question the idea that certain political power has become dislodged from the state and invested in transnational actors.
Another aspect of this changing dynamic touched upon by Monsutti, was the interference by networks of international and NGOs on the domestic scenes of many states: questioning policies, promoting democracy and human rights, empowering women, protecting minority populations, and raising environmental issues. In some cases he argued that they can even be viewed as allies of the state, serving as soft power to their foreign policy.
Reconsidering the agency of refugees: the case of Afghanistan
Beginning the second part of the lecture, Monsutti referenced the work of the RSC’s Professor Roger Zetter, which described how people become labelled as refugees within the context of specific public policy practices and demonstrated both the extreme vulnerability of refugees to pre-determined labels, and how the bureaucratic process itself can be very alienating.
Although careful not to negate the specificity of ‘refugee’ in legal terms or minimise the hardship they often face, Monsutti provocatively argued that many potential refugees around the world increasingly understand the alienating dimension of the refugee label and do not want such a regime of protection and assistance.
Political affiliation, identity and mobility were identified as three core social strategies used by the most successful migrants to diversify their assets and options. As an example of the diversification of political alliances, Monsutti cited three brothers in the Afghan province of Ghazni who explicitly decided to each back a different political faction with the aim of securing a winner in the family.
He also described how the status of ‘refugee’ coexists with other labels that are often more valorising such as that of a Mohajerin, repeating the migration of Prophet Mohammed and his followers from a country ruled by an impious government to Muslim lands, or the Pashtun who are simply taking refuge among fellow tribesmen and do not conceive borders as cultural and social boundaries.
Finally, mobility was placed at the core of strategies developed by many Afghans and other refugee and migrant communities, including irregular activities such as crossing borders by utilising the services of people smugglers, remitting money through unregistered channels and paying bribes for identity documents.
Blurred boundaries and inventive responses
In his concluding remarks Monsutti contrasted the social strategies of mobility and multiple identities of forced migrants against the state-centric solutions of repatriation, integration and resettlement promoted by UNHCR, which are based on the notion that solutions are found only when movement stops. He called upon the audience to recognise this disconnect and appealed for a more comprehensive framework that takes into account the full range of strategies and responses developed by the Afghan population.
For Monsutti, these blurred boundaries, exemplified by his study of Afghanistan, constitute a vision of the future: one in which power is often nebulous, the boundaries of state and citizenship are less certain and in which refugees can provide some of the most inventive responses. He ended with a quotation from Antonio Gramsci – 'pessimist of the intellect, optimist of the will' – exactly what Global South, here represented by Afghan refugees, teaches us.
Image: Alessandro Monsutti speaking at the annual Elizabeth Colson Lecture