COVID-19 and refugees: An opportunity to rethink citizenship?

#escapes2020 online – 26 giugno 2020
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COVID-19 and refugees: An opportunity to rethink citizenship?

Fabio Balducci, University of Bologna

The ongoing pandemic crisis has invited the peoples of the world to undertake two difficult tasks. The first one is related to the existential dimension, since as human beings we have been led to reconsider their way of life; the second one concerns the condition experienced by refugee people, who are forced to live within the boundaries of a state of which they are not citizens, and entails a strong call for immediate action to rethink the notion of citizenship.

The existence revisited

The necessary adoption of lockdown measures has caused a decrease in the national aggregate output for various countries; and several workers have lost their job, which has had negative repercussions for the lowest echelons of the society. However, while people might have reacted differently to these drawbacks according to their social conditions, they have been subject to constraints on their freedom in the same fashion. The months spent in quarantine may have induced the peoples inhabiting the world’s richest countries to realize that the protection of human life prevails over the economy. Following the multiple war metaphors elicited worldwide, it would be apt to quote a passage from a speech delivered by David Lloyd George in 1914, little after the outbreak of World War I:

I see […] a new recognition that the honour of the country does not depend merely on the maintenance of its glory in the stricken field, but also in protecting its homes from distress. It is bringing a new outlook for all classes. The great flood of luxury and sloth which had submerged the land is receding, and a new Britain is appearing. We can see for the first time the fundamental things that matter in life, and that have been obscured from our vision by the tropical growth of prosperity.1

One of the most interesting tropes of this passage regards the hierarchical relationship between the things of life; Lloyd George displays a masterly ability to emphasize it, thus convincing his audience of the necessity of abandoning the old world view and shifting to a new perspective based on the common good and the mutual belonging to a national community.

Though, national communities are not always inclusive; on the contrary, they are often exclusionary and draw classifications between people, as in the case of refugees.

Refugees, pandemic and beyond: rethinking citizenship

Refugee people are those who, as Ruba Salih notes, have been «detached from national belonging and membership», because they had to leave their homeland (watan), «the place of origin, the place where refugees “own the land”»2.

The solution does not (only) consist in conferring citizenship rights on refugees. In fact, as Salih remarks, Palestinian refugees are not simply calling for naturalization (tawtin), because that would mean «being forced to accept another watan, another homeland, and this is unacceptable for Palestinians.»3. The answer might be found outside the framework of the nation-state, given the intrinsic nature of this political formation due to a violent process which achieves completion only if a national ideology emerges through the subjugation of every local identity; as Étienne Balibar puts it,

Everywhere that nations exist nationalism reigns. Any structural combination of state institutions and social forces presupposes an organic ideology […] Every national ideology produces its own symbols, fictions, and myths in its own way and has a “unique” mode of investing in the “sites of memory” that help it to become an “imagined community” […] This does not in the least alter the fact that what is at stake is always the construction of a “national identity” that will win out over all others and arrive at a point where national belonging intersects with and integrates all other forms of belonging.4

Although the very nature of national states renders them incapable of devising inclusive forms of citizenship, the state could play a primary role in alleviating the refugees’ hardship. Drawing on the concept of just membership suggested by Seyla Benhabib (2004), national polities should recognize

the moral claim of refugees and asylees to first admittance; a regime of porous borders for immigrants; an injunction against denationalization and the loss of citizenship rights; and the vindication of the right of every human being “to have rights,” that is, to be a legal person, entitled to certain inalienable rights, regardless of the status of their political membership.5

Therefore, states are challenged to consider the other as a human being entitled to the fundamental right to be a member of an organized political community, while citizens are invited to rethink the very meaning of humanity, which «is exemplified not in fraternity but in friendship»6, thus acknowledging that «friendship is not intimately personal but makes political demands and preserves reference to the world»7.


We do not know whether the COVID-19 crisis will be remembered as a breakthrough point in the history of our century or not. Two of the principal occurrences of recent years, the 9/11 attacks and the 2008 economic crisis, appear to have had a relatively limited impact on the world because they have not determined a radical disruption of pre-existing mainstream interpretive models; the former crystallized the unilateral approach in international relations already embraced by the United States during the 1990s, the latter proved unable to dent the foundations of the global neoliberal order.

Having said that, the need for a revision of the actual paradigm of citizenship is urgent; my hope is that the gravity of this situation will induce both policy-makers and citizens of the developed world not to turn a deaf ear to such plea.

1.Lloyd George David (1914), The Great War (speech delivered at the Queen’s Hall, London, 19 September 1914).
2. Salih Rubah (2013), From Bare Lives to Political Agents: Palestinians Refugees as Avant-Garde, in “Refugee Survey Quarterly”, Vol. 32, No. 2, pp. 66–91, p. 82.
3. Ibidem, p. 83.
4. Balibar Etienne (2004), We, the People of Europe? Reflections on Transnational Citizenship, Princeton, Princeton University Press, p. 23.
5. Benhabib Seyla (2004), The Rights of Others. Aliens, Residents, and Citizens, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, p. 3.
6. Arendt Hannah (1968), Men in Dark Times, New York, Harcourt Brace & Company, p. 25.
7. Ibidem


Per citare questo articolo:
Balducci, Fabio. “COVID-19 and refugees: An opportunity to rethink citizenship?”, in Escapes – Laboratorio di studi critici sulle migrazioni forzate VI Conferenza nazionale – edizione on line 26 giugno 2020,, consultato il GG/MM/AAAA

IMG IMG Licenza Creative CommonsQuesto testo è distribuito con licenza Creative Commons Attribuzione – Non commerciale – Non opere derivate 3.0 Italia

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