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    Refugee Republic

    | 2008-04-25 | 10:08

    There is a state to be discovered, an entire country – a country that exists, so far, only in the intangible dataland of statistics. I call it the Refugee Republic. This is not a metaphor but a construct that has recently started to take hold in the circles of policy makers and scholars. The project, sanctioned to a certain extent by Joseph Beuys’ notion of social sculpture, looks to place the problematic issues of refugees and migration on their feet.

    The Refugee Republic project seeks to establish an experimental, transglobal, supraterritorial state as an instrument for refugees to represent themselves worldwide and to fuse their experiences into a global cooperative. The result would both accommodate investors as well as meet the need for a socioeconomic, political, and ideological avant-garde, and perhaps simultaneously serve as a structural model for the rest of the world.

    We are fed media images of refugees that provoke an overwhelming sense of pity and sympathy. These images, however effective and necessary for mobilizing the donation of money and goods as well as political help, do not reflect the reality in most of the camps, which are characterized more by boredom and desperation than by any immediate physical dangers. Today, a refugee spends an average of five years in a camp. We need to address the situation of the time that remains after the initial chaos – approximately one percent of time spent in the camps – has been managed by such able organizations as Médicin Sans Frontiers, the Red Cross, and other nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

    Refugee = Capital

    Refugees and migrants represent not only a problem but also a solution. If configured as a transglobal net that would inculcate its own form of statehood, the world’s refugee population would become the best candidate for a socioeconomic, political, and ideological avant-garde. The refugee republics of modern history, principally the United States, show that a steady influx of foreigners is an essential ingredient for becoming an economically successful country; nonetheless, public consciousness of this correlation seems to be at an all-time worldwide low. And refugees suffer through crises of identity. At the same time, national borders all over the world have become ever less permeable, as partly revealed by the easy availability of surveillance electronics and passive war machinery – notably land mines. Borders now can be projected at whim. On the other hand, ethnic, national, and geographical zones of tolerance have fallen victim to the transportation and information explosion. Wars are now easily started but are more difficult than ever to end.

    Officially, as recognized and registered by United Nations agencies such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there have been approximately 20 million refugees in the world over the last 20 years – a population larger than that of Australia – the majority of which have been housed in UN camps. Unofficially, as reported through organizations such as the United States Committee on Refugees, the estimate is more than double that figure: unregistered displaced persons now account for one percent of the world population. If it were possible for refugees to pack and carry with them a proportional part of their country’s land (measured at approximately 37 people per square kilometer), they could piece together a state the size of France, Germany, England, and Italy combined. Configured as an intercontinental federation, it would circle the globe.

    The original refugee countries developed partly because there were still large, sparsely inhabited areas to be discovered and conquered. Today all of the world’s territories have been located, charted, and populated. Even in the recent past, traditional refugee republics like the United States, Canada, Australia, and Israel actively sought refugees and competed for the right to absorb them. Today, however, it is industries that are lured from one country to another through tax incentives and other inducements, while refugees are regarded as an economic and social burden and a cultural liability. Recognized as refugees by the UN (and several international conventions), they survive in camps as prisoners of international charity. The simplicity of the generic term refugee does not, however, reveal the wide diversity of this population, which is not just supranational but also multilingual, multicultural, and multireligious. It commands neither territory nor capital. It has neither democratic structure nor any suitable form of political representation, or even any kind of government. A next generation refugee republic then would have to evolve as an experimental supraterritorial state that capable of anticipating socio-ideological and economic challenges. It would both force and enable solutions.

    Refugees from World War II were mostly European and were absorbed relatively quickly into other Western nations. Today’s more heterogeneous refugee population is a global phenomenon comprising widely divergent cultures that resist simple assimilation. In the 1980s, this group was the fastest growing segment of the world’s population, increasing by an average of between ten and twenty percent each year. If represented as a state, it would be ranked within the top ten percent of the world’s most populated countries – immediately above Turkey and just below Italy and England.

    Nation, State, and Territory

    If one is to accept the definition of nation as an integral territory with a common culture and language (and thus identity), then there is hardly a country today that is not multinational. There are, however, nations that exist without country or sovereignty – the Kurds, the Navajo, the Palestinians, and many other groups. In this way, a refugee republic of the next generation does not require the delineation of a traditional, territorial national boundary. Sinti and Roma provide two examples of nations that neither have, nor demand, their own land but whose people have created a nation while circumventing the occupation of an exclusive territory. Singapore, Hong Kong, and Liechtenstein are also highly successful countries, despite the fact that they control negligible territories. Geostrategic position can therefore be more important than size, just as education and communication infrastructures are more important than raw space. The enormous physical territory covered by the former Soviet Union, formerly the largest country on earth, contributed to its ultimate collapse rather than guaranteeing its survival. The only token territory that the Refugee Republic would need could be leased by the UN from larger countries or those which have few opportunities to profit from their land. Alternatively, segments of the electromagnetic spectrum could qualify as a quasiterritorial area. “The Network” could then become a home. Refugees, just like anybody else today, could claim a right to information and to telecommunications access. Such rights could easily be derived from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the UN Mass Media Declaration, and other conventions and treaties. Ironically then, refugees, always the last to have access to network technologies, would as victims of territorial borders benefit most from the borderlessness of these technologies.


    Refugees lack self-representation, and this has always been the problem. Even though this may make them more manageable for those agencies that decide their fate, they end up without democratic exercise – an inevitable liability when being repatriated or admitted for permanent resettlement in a democratic country. An international refugee network would help in developing democratic modalities inside and outside of the camps. In addition, the Refugee Republic’s sphere of influence would be structured by migration routes and communication structures. Conceptually, its “citizenship” would be defined not so much by passports as by a universally acceptable worldwide transit visa and by the ownership of shares in an “owner-operated” country. At a certain point this country could make an Initial Public Offering (IPO) for itself, offering the potential of reaching more than 100 million eyeballs. The Refugee Republic’s stock price would reflect the success of this corporate country.


    Calculating both the existing and potential world refugee economy is more than just a statistical challenge. For example, the income generated by the approximately two million Egyptian migrant workers could serve as a reasonable indicator of the economic potential of the migrant economy – a figure that equals 75 percent of Egypt’s annual exports. Similarly, Bangladesh would not be able to survive without the financial support of its emigrants. Even the emigrants from the former Yugoslavia constitute a significant 30 percent of its country’s export, making them the single largest export “article.” In addition, there are countries profiting directly from the existence of refugees in their territory. For example, in order to house the Cambodian refugees in 1979, the UN was forced to lease land from the Thai government for more than ten years. All relief care for the 300,000 refugees was to be purchased in Thailand, greatly benefiting the Thai economy.

    The Refugee Republic, alternatively, could significantly benefit from, rather than simply reinforce, the advantages of global power. It could develop without a clearly defined territory and currency, but with infrastructural network connections and NGO and UN support; without physical trade but with transnational knowledge and contacts not affected by laws and borders; without historical and political structures but with a strong sense of peace and freedom; without a common language but with common fates, interests, and experiences.

    The Model State

    The United States adopted and benefited from the constitutional and philosophical ideals of Europe, and then reframed these ideals independently, unencumbered by historical baggage, as a model for the rest of the world. Today, Europe is still reaping the fruits of this American perspective, which provides a plausible reflection of Europe’s own present and future. But because those countries that used to accept immigrants have now reached saturation and are no longer capable of representing the global spectrum, America, and indeed the entire world, would actually benefit from a new refugee republic.

    This republic would be a mirror of a world which, to some extent, is partly pre- and partly postpolitical – a world where diverging trends of globalization have led to retribalization (ethnification and regionalization). Geographical isolation has virtually vanished in the fog of the information and transportation explosion. As a hypercultural, hyperlingual, multiethnic, transglobal net-state, the Refugee Republic would present an opportunity to fine-tune international law and ordinances as well as to implement the decisions and ideals embodied by the UN. Above all, it could pioneer a contemporary and overarching understanding of human rights and duties – the state of being human under adverse conditions; a situation that increasingly threatens to become the norm for the multipolar world.


    But will it really happen? The Refugee Republic project was originally intended to have the effect of an advertising campaign for refugees. However, as recent technological developments have outpaced their conceptual use, the project looks less outrageous and less utopian by the day: second and third generation computer systems are waiting to be recycled and can be revitalized with Linux, Berkeley Software Design (BSD), and a host of other free software products that have become available under public license; companies like Xerox are embracing concepts such as “knowledge communities”; long-distance learning and e-commerce are the buzzwords of e-entrepreneurs and e-educators; geographical distance is no longer a significant obstacle to business, education, or social interaction; Internet communities have superseded the populations of many countries (America Online/Compuserve); Microsoft is issuing electronic passports (could the loss or rejection of such a passport constitute exile?); Hong Kong and Singapore have started to export themselves as success packages along with banking laws, civil codes, education systems, and industries; Oracle, the software company noted for database applications, has developed a Government Online/Electronic Management System (“GOLEM”); according to the Economist, illegal immigrants are now the contraband of choice – it is less risky and more profitable to traffic in them than to engage in cross-border drug trades.

    Statistics, technologies, and necessity may all suggest a refugee republic, but the perspectival shift required not only to embrace the idea but to actively pursue it would, it seems, only come natural to members of post-Aristotelian societies – not exactly the typical locale of refugees. The further we move away from an American point of view, the more arcane and outrageous the concept appears. Globalism, I have come to understand, is really a Western, if not American, invention that can be replicated, more or less, by other Western nations – but this replication does not come easily. I have yet to find a culture that has the same total, or indeed global, definition of space and its sphere of action. Using a fixed point at the center, monotheism lends itself to and encourages all-encompassing ventures. Muslims, as observed by the Harvard-based Syrian scholar Bassam Tibi, empowered by a similar monotheistic viewpoint, suffer the most as they watch the West act in, and dominate, what they see as their own domain: the entire world, a totality, a globality. China and Japan, for example, have had throughout their histories designs on their neighbors, but neither of them were ever truly global: former Japanese Premier Nakasone even saw the need to initiate a government-sponsored Kokusaika, or internationalization of Japan. Without this initiative, it was feared, Japan would have remained hopelessly parochial and thus unfit to take on the global marketplace.

    It is no coincidence that the first globe on record was made just over 500 years ago by the Portuguese navigator Martin Behaim. Globalism just does not seem to be one of the default settings in the cosmologies of other cultures, and therefore will be something which can, at best, be simulated by tracing the deep imprints of the West’s footsteps on this globe. The globalist perspective will always be a thing of the West and only imitated by the rest.

    Of course, for the project to be successful, a Refugee Republic would never emerge.

    Ingo Günther © 1992/2001 (revised 7/2001)


    For example, after initially being invited by the Chinese government to help develop the economy in Zhuhou, the Singapore administration was subsequently asked to provide social engineering and establish compatible administrative services.

    The Greater South East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere was to liberate the South East Asian countries from European colonial rule and create a common market under Japanese leadership. The sphere was to cover roughly the territory occupied by the Japanese forces in World War II.


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