World on the Move: A Discussion with Kathryn Abrams and Mark Terkessidis

Right now, over 110 million people are experiencing displacement from their homes, surpassing all previous records of refugeedom. In the latest virtual event in our “Humanities for Humans” series, legal scholar Dr. Kathryn Abrams and migration researcher Dr. Mark Terkessidis discuss the pressing questions about a world on the move.

Is there a human right to move? What defines an individual as an immigrant, as opposed to a refugee? What is the “birthright lottery”, and how should wealthier countries compensate for their unearned advantages?

In the most recent virtual event for “Humanities for Humans”, a discussion series launched by the non-profit organization 1014 – space for ideas  and the Walter de Gruyter Foundation, Dr. Kathryn Abrams and Dr. Mark Terkessidis addressed these questions and many more. Dr. Abrams is a legal scholar at the University of California in Berkeley, while Dr. Terkessidis is a migration and racism expert and independent scholar based in Berlin, Germany.

After introducing the topic, moderator Dr. Irene Kacandes gave the floor to the two experts to share their thoughts. The discussion is available in full on Youtube and as a text excerpt below.

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Irene Kacandes

As I speak these words, more individuals have been forcibly displaced from their homes than at any other time since records of refugeedom began to be kept. In 2023, that’s more than 110 million people according to the United Nations. Persecution, human rights violations, environmental degradation, and of course, armed conflicts, small and large, have turned mostly would-be-homebodies into not-would-be-refugees.

Learn more about the lecture series “Humanities for Humans” in this interview with Irene Kacandes.

The most recent eruption of violence in the Middle East has internally displaced 1.8 million Gazans (as of today), approximately 80% of the entire population. We should also think of the almost 5 million people displaced this year alone by the conflict in the Sudan, and the 5 million Ukrainians who left their country, along with 7 million Ukrainians who are believed by the United Nations to have been internally displaced since Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022. In the spirit of the humanities, however, I have asked our experts to focus not so much on the quantitative, though they’re welcome to bring that up when it seems relevant, but rather to help us folks who are not experts, to understand frameworks for thinking about displaced individuals, whether we are calling them refugees, asylum seekers, or would-be-immigrants. So with that, Dr. Abrams and Dr. Terkessidis, I want to throw out a few questions. You can use my framing, or as I just suggested, reject my framing and offer a different one.

What should we citizens of what are sometimes referred to as “receiving countries” be thinking of as the source of our obligation to people on the move? Or perhaps, to reframe my own question, if you could snap your fingers and transform current discussions in the public sphere about migration, what would you change? How would you wish these related topics to be framed differently?  Dr. Abrams, do you mind starting us off?

Kathryn Abrams

Happy to start us off, and I’m delighted to be here with both of you. If I could snap my fingers, I would propose a very different way of thinking about migration. We in the West, or in the Global North, are accustomed to thinking about our citizenship in wealthy countries and correlatively our ability to deny entry to others as a kind of natural endowment. This concept stems, I think, from the notion of the sovereign state as having territorial control over its borders and as having the ability to determine who lives within those borders and who doesn’t. But if we ask what puts citizens in the United States or in other wealthier countries in the position to be making these decisions about the material conditions under which so many people wind up living, the answer is what my colleague Ayelet Shachar in a book by this name has brilliantly called “The Birthright Lottery”. Prospects for your survival and every aspect of your mental and physical wellbeing, that of your children, and that of their children depend almost exclusively on the accident of where you were born and who your parents were. And to make matters worse, this lottery outcome is then passed from generation to generation, like the most regressive kind of inherited property.

“It seems only fair that we in wealthier countries should be willing to face challenges, endure change, inconvenience, diminution of our comfort to compensate for the windfall of having enjoyed this immeasurable, totally unearned advantage.”

So, if we look at the question of membership in wealthier, more privileged countries, not through the eyes of the sovereign state’s right to exclude, but through the eyes of this random inequitable, undeserved lottery that’s passed through generations, we might be inclined to approach migration differently. Now, Shachar has had two ideas about how we would approach things differently. One more novel, and one which is joined by a variety of migration scholars, including myself. The novel idea is that we might think about taxing the intergenerational transmission of citizenship property in the wealthy countries, the same way that we tax inheritances that we also don’t want to privilege. You could use the proceeds to fund infrastructure programs and other kinds of programs that provide for life necessities in countries where the inherited benefits of citizenship are a lot more meager. Now, I might amend this by saying that since we’re unlikely to be able to fund change in “sending countries” soon enough to be able to stem the tide of migration – Shachar’s is a very utopian kind of solution – it seems only fair that we in wealthier countries should be willing to face challenges, endure change, inconvenience, diminution of our comfort to compensate for the windfall of having enjoyed this immeasurable, totally unearned advantage.

A second idea is that instead of this notion of blood, that is, who your parents are, or soil – where you were born – and its intergenerational transmission being the basis for establishing citizenship, we think about creating new bases for recognizing membership. One that many scholars have suggested has to do with connection: the extent to which you as a new member of society participate in reciprocal exchange with your new country – through the economy, through the political system, through civil society. Now, I should say this lens is not likely to be adopted overnight. But it points to the need that I feel, and I think many feel today, [to confront] the tired and recursive ways we tend to talk about migration, to displace ways of thinking about migration that are causing us to fortify our borders and our psyches unnecessarily and, I think, inevitably unsuccessfully.

Irene Kacandes

That is so very helpful and a great way to start off. Dr. Terkessidis would you respond to some of that or just give us your own framing right away, and then we’ll go back and forth?

Mark Terkessidis

Yes, and thanks for the invitation too. I support a lot of points that Kathryn has raised, but we can talk about that later. Actually, I would like to talk about the numbers first, although we were going off somewhere else, because there’s a record number of people on the move. But we also have a record number of people on earth right now. So, if you put it in absolute numbers, it sounds like so much. But, nevertheless, there have been conflicts all along the way. And if we talk about 110 million refugees right now – that is the number the UN HCR provides us with – we have to say that most of these refugees are not coming to the West, but most of these refugees are fleeing to neighboring countries. This is quite decisive, because if we raise that number of 110 million refugees, in Europe for example, there is this picture that they are all waiting at the border to come to Europe. And that is actually not true. Most of the people who came as refugees to Europe in the last 10 years came from neighboring countries, from Syria and from Ukraine.

“We have to differentiate a lot when it comes to immigration.”

When we talk about migrants or immigrants, I have my problems with this notion too. Here in Berlin-Kreuzberg, when I go outside, there are so many expats who expect you to speak English to them because they’re wealthy, they’re often arrogant, and they think they have the right to be in Germany and to expect other people to speak their language. Then you have people who are living in a central accommodation in Berlin, coming from Syria or other war-torn places. There is such a huge difference between those two groups of people that it doesn’t make sense to speak of immigrants. There are expats, and there are refugees. Even when you talk about refugees, there’s a huge difference if you’re a refugee from Syria or if you’re a refugee from Ukraine, because the federal government in Germany but also governments all over Europe, decided that Ukrainians have the right to work immediately, while other refugees have to stay away from the labor market for one year, often living in central placements and so on. So, we have to differentiate a lot when it comes to immigration.

There is a certain hysteria about people taking refuge in Europe right now. There is literally this picture of 110 million people at the border. All the countries in Europe are very much concerned with people fleeing to Europe. If we look at the numbers for Germany, for example, there are 280,000 applications for asylum right now. That is not average, but not that high actually. And if you look at where these people are coming from, you can see that two thirds of them are coming from three places: Syria, Turkey, and Afghanistan. With Syria, this is network immigration; people have come from Syria to Germany in the past, and now more people are coming from Syria to Germany. Same for Turkey. When it comes to Afghanistan, this is a country which we invaded with our military, and we didn’t take the people who helped us with us. We went there to overthrow the government, and then we went away without overthrowing the government and left these people there. It’s no wonder that they are coming to Germany.

So, these numbers do actually matter because migration is generally seen as a problem. It is reduced to people who come to Europe as refugees. There’s no broad picture. There is this narrative, which we have to deal with, so we can talk about solutions, but which is actually always about the problems migration causes.

I was never a friend of the idea of open borders, or I don’t think that it is very realistic, because in all the European countries, we are very proud of the so-called welfare state. And if you have a welfare state, you can’t distribute it to just anybody. So, you have to define membership to get the resources of the welfare state. So, there’s always a border. But how do we deal with this border? The propositions Kathryn mentioned are actually propositions about how we can democratize the border, how we can make the border a topic of our discourse inside and not outside of democracy. The border is not a case for the executive. The border, or the definition of membership, is very much at the core of democracy.

My second point is, I have been preaching to politicians in Germany for 20 years that we need some kind of transparency in Europe for immigration. That means legal immigration, a framework for people who come as refugees to Europe. And we basically have no transparency. That is a problem of the European Union because migration still is part of the so-called sovereignty of the nation state. You can make a lot of noise about this topic if you are in the government, but nevertheless there is not enough transparency. There is sometimes no transparency at all about immigration. That is a very big problem for people who are coming to Europe, who want to come to Europe, and sometimes for those who live in Europe.

Check out the rest of the interview here!

[Title image by Ruslanshug/iStock/Getty Images Plus]

The Editors

Articles signed by the editors were written in a collective effort.

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