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The Refugee: the Commodified Human
DFID-supported camps for refugees from DRC in Uganda. Andy Wheatley/DFID. April 2013

During a summer immersion course on immigration and refugees, we had the honor to be visited by Yousif, a Sudanese refugee “living” in Paris after a nearly four-month torturous journey. He shared his story, which started from the moment he left his home up until arriving in Paris. Yousif’s story began with him and his younger brother in North Sudan, fleeing from the ranks of the military after refusing orders to shoot innocent people.
After managing to cross into Ajdabiya, Libya, and a move into the coastal Tripoli area, they connected with the second stage of the regularized human-trafficking network that transports commodified human cargo to the shores of Europe. Currently, Libya is in the throngs of a prolonged civil war that was ushered in by the Arab Spring and the intervention of European, American and Gulf States powers to prevent an emergence of a unified and independent stable state that is not beholden to expressed interests of global powers.

For Yousif, the journey through Libya with its ongoing civil war was the only open route and an effort to collect the payment  required by the smugglers for spots on one of the boats departing daily from the chaotic and uncontrollable coast. The  simple task of getting food became a difficult act of survival in a war setting — a war that neither Yousif nor his brother had anything to do with but simply were caught in the middle of during the long trek to Europe. The tragedy of leaving home was compounded for Yousif in Libya after losing  his younger brother in the war. Yousif can understand dying for a cause or a war that one has a vested role — possibly defending a homeland, family and society — but losing his brother in Libya was a devastating blow that will be with him for the rest of his life.

The smugglers are running a thriving business as loads of people from across the global South are making their way into the North African coast for an appointment with a hazardous journey across the Mediterranean Sea. According to Yousif, “it costs almost 700 Euro and sometimes more. To get that much, people sell their homes, some sell their kidney or anything that can get them such an amount.”

More importantly, the relationship between the smugglers and local authorities is well structured and the local police in many parts of the human-trafficking routes are paid to look the other way or provide logistical protection for a handsome fee. The first part of the journey was to cross the desert in a 4×4 truck that is overloaded beyond capacity with the already-commodified human cargo. One can “add the desert, the thirst, the speed” to the trek, and after days of using off-road passageways, the smugglers arrived to the “delivery point at the Libyan border, Al Kufra district.” Yousif recalled:

“I remember that time clearly because we lost many people, there was no water (we drunk our own pee), they left us for many days without any food or water.”

Arriving in Al-kufa was only the first leg in a long, commodified journey through various parts of Libya and witnessing and experiencing abuse, racism and dehumanization at every turn. The human on this long road and on this journey is reduced to a mere biological material and commodified in exactly the same way merchandise on a truck or cargo ship is conceptualized. Indeed, not all refugees are fleeing war and for sure some are desperate to improve their economic conditions considering the total collapse of the postcolonial order in the global South and the destructive effects of the neoliberal economic order that has been set in place over the past three decades.

Fleeing war is easy to explain but deciphering the compounded impacts of colonialism, post colonialism, the throngs of the Cold War which was anything but cold in the global South, followed by privatization, a shock-and-awe debt IMF and World Bank strategies, equity swaps to benefit banks and economic policies that require a Ph.D. in multiple fields to begin to simply understand is a challenge. Today, we can say that a sound intellect is missing because it is very difficult to find one that is not polluted by pernicious capitalism, militarism and a distorted imperial religious discourse that posits God commanding exploitation as the highest “spiritual” purpose for the human being on Earth. What are we to do when those that are supposed to act and speak from a moral and ethical grounding are themselves polluted by the setting at the gates of power and wealth ready at a moment notice to express support for it at every turn?

The movement of commodified human cargo from the global South to the North has been a feature of the modern world since the arrival of Europeans into the shores of the Americas. Making a distinction between refugees and economic immigrants is an easy way to flatten the argument and rationalize the building of walls of exclusion that end up preventing all types of human movement from the South to the North. Could anyone argue that refugees and economic immigrants from Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Libya, Sudan, Pakistan, Nigeria, Eretria, Ethiopia, Chad, Mail, Central African Republic, Palestine, Lebanon and Yemen don’t have a right to seek a safe place to live and earn a living?

My argument is the following: If any western country sells weapons to the armies that are fighting whatever type of war or are engaged in extending U.S. and European economic interests in the form of oil, natural resources and market share, then their minimum responsibility is addressing the flood of human misery caused by it. Furthermore, if a country has been colonized in the past or bombed by European and American forces in the present, then the human flood fleeing from these conflicts belong to the West, and the leaders who caused the flood of refugees must own the problem and its consequences.

Yousif is one of those that are part of the human flood that has paid the price and will continue to do so for political and economic policies that have been underway for generations. Yousif is the direct outcome of the commodification of a large swath of humanity and transforming it into a mere rate of return on investment. Selling weapons and having a military industrial economy has its consequences which goes beyond the basic rate of return on investment. We must consider the flood of refugees fleeing the global South into cities and towns in the North as the moral rate of return for being merchants of death!