‘Nation state’ suppresses migration: Phannenhour

(Photo: World Vision Canada)
(Photo: World Vision Canada)

BY DANIEL PHANNENHOUR

The image of a little boy, dead on a Mediterranean beach, finally brought the tragedy of Syrian refugees into our collective consciousness but the crisis had been developing for years. That visual restored to us a level of sympathy and nobility of purpose that had been diminished in our public life for many years. Our governments, social agencies, and faith communities are now working together to offer refuge to at least 25,000 of these people in need of resettlement.

Such enormous efforts in generosity and hospitality, however, while making all the difference for those whom we will welcome, only lessen by an unfortunate miniscule amount the severity of a global condition that remains persistently dire. There are 42.8 million refugees and displaced people in the world today, of whom the Syrians are currently the most visible minority. Many are fleeing conflict in central East African countries such as Eritrea, Sudan, and South Sudan. Muslims are fleeing threats and persecution in Myanmar. Salvadorian children and youth are fleeing renewed gang violence in that impoverished and struggling Central American nation.
On the other hand, human migration often generates some of our greatest and most resilient cultural and spiritual traditions. For example, the migration of the Hebrew people from the Fertile Crescent in Iraq to the Nile Valley in Egypt is the formative event of the Hebrew Bible and all of its subsequent commentaries, including the Christian New Testament. Humans, it seems, have a tendency to migrate, and when they do, they usually bring with them equal measures of oppression and creativity, suspicion and progress.Our current social and political organization, however, with its emphasis on preserving order, stability, and coherence within a nation state, suppresses migration, and makes it an unusual, onerous, and dangerous undertaking. The modern nation state that arose after the French Revolution is designed to further the accumulation of capital investment necessary for industrialization. Nations were constructed on the basis of language and ethnicity to allow people who shared in the same cultural values to also share in the wealth and progress that their collective efforts and investments would produce. Nation states could make rules and order societies so that wealth might accumulate and be employed in a productive and orderly basis. Every nation established, or aspired to establish, a state of its own so that it could develop and benefit from a national economy.

This promise of prosperity, though, came with a cost. The nation state locked everyone into a certain identity, and bound them to residency in a certain place, whether they identified with their particular nation or not. Many conflicts today continue to fester because nations and states are not properly aligned.

Technological and organizational advances in the late 20th century have undermined the coherence of national economies in favour of one global interconnected economy. The accumulation of capital in one nation does not necessarily serve the interests of that state or of its citizens. Each new trade deal that has been signed has gained ever greater freedom for investment capital to roam the world in search of the best possible returns. Capital is free to exploit any attractive investment opportunity with little concern for the consequences of social well-being that was once guaranteed, if imperfectly, by the nation state.

This imbalance between the opportunities for capital and the needs of people makes migration a necessity of survival for many people. People who possess specific skills required by capital can find migration to be relatively effortless and rewarding while those marginalized by the process of global capital accumulation often find migration to be difficult, disorganized, and disruptive. It is discouraged and suppressed by nation states that resort to lining their borders with physical as well as bureaucratic walls and barriers. Most people, therefore, are forced to migrate illegally or out of dire necessity. Charitable, religious, and social service agencies can mitigate the most difficult and dangerous consequences of this haphazard and irresponsible approach to migration, but suppressing migration and making it into a never-ending series of crises is not serving the development of our collective humanity.

Is it time for us to reconceptualize our shared human identity beyond the cultural, linguistic, and religious restrictions of the nation state? Can we find a new order that would allow people to move about in this world in a freedom equal to that enjoyed by investment capital? Would such an order enable us to identify more fully with each other across our differences, and work together to ensure our global collective survival and prosperity? How do we get to where each of us belongs?


Daniel Phannenhour (Pastor Dan) is an unretired Lutheran pastor and father to three lovely young women. He currently lives with his wife in the Oakville parsonage, and is exploring new ways of embodying the Christian faith while celebrating the multicultural and multifaith diversity of our community and nation.

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