Refugees as guests in need


Bernhard Waldenfels


Refugees as guests in need


In Europe refugees are on everyone’s lips these days. They are a news item that causes much perplexity and seduces to harsh dichotomies. On the one hand there is a prevailing xenophilia that loves to bask in a ‘culture of welcome’, while on the other hand a new xenophobia is growing that puts the case for closing the borders. There is much in between, which remains vague. ‘Has the Balkan route been shut down or not?’ Officially no, factually yes. There is hope of ‘pan-European solutions’ but who is on board with what? There are demands for ‘upper limits’ to the admission of refugees, but is to happen to the rest? Can you divide people into those worth saving and those that are not? Additionally there are highbrow systems theorists who have declared strangeness and hospitality to be obsolete concepts since everybody is strange in their own way and nobody is at home, allegedly. The cult of peculiarity veers into a fun fair of strangeness. However, we are well-advised to look more closely. Philosophy will not provide effective solutions but is able to supply clarifications whenever the ‘matter in hand’ threatens to slip from our grasp in the maze of questions.


Refugee issues belong to extraordinary events such as wars, revolutions, terrorism, natural disasters and major technological accidents that cause lasting change or devastation to our living environment. They remind us of critical situations like a ship or a mountaineer in distress or a mining accident for which there a designated emergency services. Events that occur at the breaking points of normal orders not only cause breaks but also tremors. Familiar experiences is alienated.[1]


  1. Arrival: the guest in flight


The refugees is a stranger of a special kind. Generally, he can be understood as a newcomer. The arrival of refugees contains important aspects that go beyond the mere change of location. Locals are drawn into a field of social gravitation in which others set the course.


(1) Whoever flees to me heads my way. A place of one’s own, where I find myself, becomes the goal of another’s search. My own place, where I am, acquires the traits of the place of another. The flight of those that seek refuge with me unsettles and affects me, regardless of whether I welcome them or not. Nietzsche said thoughts come unbidden, when they want, not when I want. That is equally valid for the coming of other people. The coming of strangers is not the inverse of one’s own going, as in an alternating coming and going. Instead I am visited in situ by a strange motion. ‘Absence de patrie commune qui fait de l‘Autre – l‘Étranger; l‘Étranger qui trouble le chez soi. Mais Étranger veut aussi dire le libre. Sur lui je ne peux pouvoir. Il échappe à ma prise par un côté essentiel, même si je dispose de lui. Il n‘est pas tout à fait dans mon lieu.’[2]


(2) Whoever approaches me also approaches us. The place of refuge is always a place I more or less share with others. Our environment is a social environment, living means living together, syzēn, syneinai, as the old words have it. Even if you live on a deserted island you will not be completely alone – just as Robinson Crusoe is not safe from visitors. However, the delicate balance of ‘we’ and ‘I’, which sometimes tilts towards a we-identity and sometimes leans towards an I-identity,[3] shapes both the kind of intake and the recently rediscovered culture of welcome. The two traditional self-locations at which refugees are received or turned away are the house (oikos, domus) and the city/state (polis, urbs, civitas). The stranger who comes to us turns out to be homeless (anoikos), stateless and without a city (apolis), in the modern parlance a displaced person. The relation between those that receive them and the newcomers, between the host and his guest, is never purely a private one. Always there is a third party, be it a more or less formal house rules or laws of the city that govern social coexistence. The local commonality becomes significant when the question arises whether refugees are allowed to bring their family members later. Moreover private and public spheres overlap when someone hides people persecuted for political reasons in his house and thus grants them asylum. Germans know this from the time of the persecution of the Jews. The house of Anne Frank on the Prinsengracht in Amsterdam stands as a symbol for far too few private places of refuge and far too many cases of asylum sacrilege. The fact that a paragraph specifically on the issue of asylum was introduced as § 16a into the German constitution in 1949 means that the lesson of this particular part of history have been learnt, even if some would prefer to forget it.


(3) Whoever flees to us flees someone or something else. Being to coerced to take flight distinguishes the refugee from the visitor, whether he be invited or not, or a guest who comes today and leaves tomorrow. Being able to limit the duration of a guest’s stay is part of the oldest rules governing hospitality and guest rights. In the 1950s and 1960s Germans talked about ‘guest workers’ who, on account of a limited work permit, were forced to return to their home countries. Visiting a country can entail the granting of a formal visitor’s visa. Open borders within the EU, which are once again under debate today, mean that we live and work in Europe and not only in a nation state. Refugees differ not only from visitor, however, but also from immigrants who are officially admitted and granted citizenship. Without a residence permit the are held to be intruders. Germany has witnessed repeated debates about a formal immigration law, which is yet to see the light of day and is missed by few today. Besides, there have always been strong domestic migration. For example, the Ruhr region developed into a industrial immigration areas in the 19th century and after World War II millions of refugees from the eastern territories flocked to the rest of Germany. To this day people born outside the Bavaria are often considered ‘newcomers’. The idea of a homogenous population that underlies the rejection of strangers has always been wide of the national, or even the international, mark.


Refugees, however, are not mere migrant, they are fleeing. There are many reasons to flee. One possible reason is a natural disaster. Thus the former inhabitants of the radiation-contaminated, prohibited areas around Fukushima are called refugees. Flight can be the consequence of extreme need, as is the case in the arid regions of Africa that are subject to hunger, unemployment and lack of education. The term ‘economic migrant’ that is used habitually is hardly precise. Is someone seeking a higher degree of prosperity, which no one will begrudge him, or is it a question of sheer survival? Finally we turn to refugees like the ones from Syria, Iraq, Libya or Somalia, who are exposed to violent persecution and displacement. It could be that a civil war breaks out, as it did in former Yugoslavia. It could be ruler make war on their own people like Assad does in Syria today where he indiscriminately declares his political opponents to be terrorists. It could be that a so-called theocracy declares war on apostates and infidels. Or it could be that dissidents are imprisoned unlawfully. That brings us to demographic groups from which the asylum seeker hails. The Geneva Refugee Convention of 1951 describes such a person as ‘threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion’. We can, however, go a step further. Who is to say there is not a potential refugee who would flee but for a lack of money and host countries within reach and willing to take him or her?


(4) Refugees are guests until further notice. Their location is the threshold; they are neither on the outside nor on the inside. There are no longer where they came from and they are not yet here where they fled. Refugees experience a period of waiting, an advent between good hope and bad. As traumatised victims of violence they are fixated on the a past that refuses to go away and hence obscures their future. Camp Föhrenwald near Munich, established after World War II as a reception centre for displaced persons, mostly of Jewish and East European descent, was closed as late as 1957. To this day, commemorative stones along the path mark the route of refugees, which for no small number of them was a route towards death.


(5) Refugees are people seeking help. They emit a cry of help that can be more or less clearly and urgently articulated, but can also be silent and yet noticeable. In Greek help (boētheia) derives from a call (boē), an appeal. The arrival of the refugees is aimed at being received at a strange place. Yet the transition from seeking admittance to being genuinely admitted, the transition from a stranger’s appeal to our own response, does not take place automatically but leads across a chasm. Bridging this chasm constitutes the core of the refugee issue. The stranger’s cry for help is similar to astonishment and fright in the sense that it is a pathos provoking a response but it cannot be solved like a puzzle. The response is not at our discretion; it is somewhat inevitable. Whoever has heard such a plea cannot possibly not answer. Even if we close the door, if we close our minds – if we turn away the newcomer, we have given a reply. Being coerced to respond resembles being coerced to communicate. According to Paul Watzlawick we are not able not to communicate in a social situation – and equally we are not able not to respond. However, we can avoid the response. A tried and tested method is the transformation of the second person into the third person, the transformation of a singular other into a case that is to be handled bureaucratically. The rejection of admittance ‘we cannot take you in here’ is hiding behind the statement ‘No (further) refugees can be admitted’ or behind the provision that surplus refugees are to be ‘deported’ like flotsam. Those referred to disappear behind anonymous measures the execution of which is left to the police or military security services. In the digital age it is conceivable that the personal details of the refugees are collected in a suitable computer programme without time-consuming interviews. Imagine the casualty departments of hospitals took up such a procedure. How can the difference be justified? Is there a fundamental difference here at all? How can we prevent emergency relief from being carried out as a mere administrative act? When we hear the xenophobic slogans we get the impression that thoughtlessness merges with malevolence. We are short on sensitivity rather than knowledge.


  1. Reception: traditional and legal hospitality


If we turn to the modalities of receiving arriving refugees, we will encounter ancient, cross-cultural traditions of hospitality. The strangeness of the stranger, which is all to easily bent towards the hostile, has always been surrounded by an aura of the sacrosanct, touching on the diving. Some textual sample from our occidental history may suffice to demonstrate this. Since Greece is much sought after as a host country these days it seems only too appropriate look at classical Greek sources.[4]


The bible invokes the memory of Jewish exile when it comes to the prescription: ‘Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt.’ (Exodus 22:21). In the Odyssey it is the simple swineherd Eumaios, invoking Zeus, who also carries the epithet Zeus Xenios, the hospitable, receives Ulysses with the words: ‘Stranger, […] it would not be right for me to insult him, for all strangers and beggars are from Jove’ (14, 56-58). The stranger (xeinos) appears twofold: in the vocative of the addressee and in the nominative of the proposition, embraced by ‘all…are’. Behind the respect for the strange guest stands the asylum as the hallowed refuge. Pindar writes in a fragment entitled The Asylums: „Themis, the order-loving, has born the asylums of man, the silent resting places to which nothing foreign came because in them works and life of nature was concentrated’.[5] Finally, the law-givers in Plato’s Nomoi rule the traffic between the cities through a tiered guest right that distinguishes between travelling salesmen, spectators attending festivals, emissaries with public errands and the educational traveller interested in philosophy, who, as an infrequent visitor deserves particular attention (Nomoi XI, 949e-953e). However, suppliants play an special role: ‘of offences against either Strangers or natives, that which touches suppliants is in every case the most grave’ (Nomoi V, 730a). Suppliants, Hiketides in Greek, are protagonists in tragedies by Aeschylus and Euripides. Literally, the term means ‘those who come (to us)’. They are the embodiment of arrival.


If we take a leap into the Enlightenment period that sees the law take on a secular, rationalist form, we will only see a spark of strangeness. In the dispute between the philosophical and the theological faculty the ‘pure moral religion, having abandoned all old doctrinal posits’ is presented as the ‘euthanasia of Judaism’ (Kant, Werke VI, 321).[6] The strange is considered but only within the bounds of pure reason, which is itself ‘not mixed with anything alien’. Thus the philosophical outline Towards perpetual peace contains an additional article that has always gained much attention. The article treats of the ‘conditions of universal hospitality’ distinguishes between a right to visit, which is granted all men and only excludes to be treated with hostility, from a formal right to be received as a guest, which not everybody can demand because it would presuppose a different contract. Regarding the right to visit Kant invokes the spherical shape of the Earth, which by virtue of its finite nature requires all people to suffer each other. The exception is an individual claim to a place since ‘originally no-one had more right than anyone else to any particular part of the earth’. (Werke VI, 213f.). World citizenship poses a limit on individual property-owning citizenship as well as the addiction to conquest. Untouched by the geographical pressure to socialise is a third kind of right that we can call emergency law. Refugees would be dependent on it. Could there be such a thing? Can there be a law in the absence of a treaty and a symmetric distribution of rights and obligations? In his works on jurisprudence Kant concedes that a particular kind of ‘law of necessity’ true to the old maxim ‘necessity has no law (necessitas non habet legem)’. However, the latter deals with one’s own necessity or need, not that of a stranger. To take the life of another in order to save one’s own is generally held to be ‘unpunishable (impunibile)’. That is because the fear of risking capital punishment is powerless against the imminent mortal peril of drowning (Werke IV, 343). The example is part of the moral casuistry. In the case of a shipwreck one person pushes another away from the life-saving plank that does not have room for two. If in doubt, self-preservation carries the day. This textbook case can easily be transposed to the refugee situation: our house, our country is full and cannot take in anyone else, even if it was prepared to do so. The application of guest right reaches its limit, if collective self-preservation is at risk. Add to that the rigorous control of the departures from Kant’s version of the authoritarian state. The subject has a right to emigrate. Inversely, the sovereign possesses the right to ban and expel his citizens. He can send anyone to ‘misery’ and turn them into outlaws within his territory (Werke IV, 460 f.). It is conspicuous that ancient democracy instituted ostracism (ostrakismos) in the case of an individual growing beyond the standards of equality (Aristotle, Politics III, 13). Did the birth of the famed polis suffer from a congenital defect?


  1. Conditional or unconditional hospitality?


If there is hospitality at all, then it is granted to strangers who do not belong to us as either family members or friends or fellow citizens. In the traditional phrasing strangers are neither household members nor compatriots. A stranger is not one of us. But are strangers not human beings? Do they not live under the same sun?[7] Are they not part of God’s creation? Do they not command the same faculty of reason? If we conceived the ‘we’ that determines membership and non-membership as some kind of unified humanity then that would entail the ‘we’ to be purely inclusive. Everybody else would be included.[8] Apart from the question of who counts as a human beings and who does not the question of the refugees is therefore answered before it arises. Yet such a response proves fragile when refugees turn up unbidden on our doorstep, at our border, on threshold between what is our own and what is foreign, and request admittance. May humanity take all these humans! The remarks sounds cynical. We all know that the admission of specifically these fleeing persons is predicated on countless practical, technical, financial, spiritual and material conditions. Aristotle remarks in his Metaphysics that the doctor heals Callicles or Socrates but not the man, unless he does so incidentally. Something very similar is true of helping refugees. If we, therefore, stick to situations of political or common sense pragmatism we are necessarily faced with the question: and what happens to those who fail the selection criteria – and who makes these criteria? Do we not have to enquire further whether the strange cry for help that we perceive nolens volens reveals something unconditional (or absolute), something which is out of our hands, unlike a judgement we pass or a decision we take? The unconditional touches on the inevitable mentioned earlier.


Emmanuel Levinas, whose ethics of the other finds its standard and its inspiration in the face of the other that talks to us relentlessly, combines hospitality with an opening of the house, with a gift that breaks through economic self-interest. Hospitality means the ‘gathering in a house that is open to the other’. The essence of language, by which the self turns outwards, is ‘friendship and hospitality’ (Levinas, ibid., p. 147, 282). In his book Of hospitality[9] Jacques Derrida tackles the ethos of hospitality by opening the spectrum of strangeness as wide as possible form the very beginning. He tries not to exclude anyone and to offer the ‘newcomer (arrivant)’ unconditional hospitality: ‘Let us tell the newcomer, before any determination, any anticipation, any identification, whether it is a stranger, an immigrant, an invited guest, an unexpected visitor or not, whether the newcomer is a citizen of another country or not, whether he is a human being, alive or dead, male or female’ (p. 60). Thus we turn our gaze up to an absolute, unconditional hospitality, of which it is said that she breaks with the laws of the conditional hospitality that is governed by law. Hospitality is therefore differentiating itself from the guest right Kant is speaking of and advancing from the social status of a particular stranger to the ‘unknown, anonymous, absolute other’ (p. 27f.). However, the question arises how this could generate concrete ethical, political or legal forms to respond to new challenges and not only work like a regulative idea in Kant’s sense but ‘intervene in the name of the absolute in the actual conditions of hospitality’ (p. 105). The question is then: is this transition not obtained by objectionable means as it was obtained it a similar manner by Levinas when he suggests that every social relation could be derived from the epiphany of the strange face through which humanity turns its gaze on us?[10]


Conditional or unconditional hospitality? If ‘unconditional hospitality’ is not to get bogged down in the unattainable remoteness of a ‘negative social ethics’, which would approximate to a certain variant of negative theology, then this un-conditionality would have to be hyphenated like the im-mediacy of the strange face in Levinas. Therefore it would be an unconditionality in the conditionality which changes with the conditions. A ‘hyperbolic order’, of which Derrida speaks in the context of hospitality (p. 97), would imply that the factual, contingent order point beyond themselves. This would release ethical excesses within, not beyond, political-juridical order which would certainly be under threat of being drowned out by the stream of images and information, of boundless interpretations and regulations that inundates us.


  1. Responsive politics of the other


The inevitability of the foreign claim is part of the primal scenario of the strange. That also affects the refugee on our doorstep. The door that turns on its hinges can become a wall deflecting strange requests like a look of rejection. While it depends on our resourcefulness what our answer will be and how we will respond, it does not depend on us whether we respond. No answer would also be an answer, like looking away is a way of looking, like not listening involves hearing and like displacing manifests itself in the displaced.[11]


By responsive politics I mean politics that comes up with ways and means to meet challenges, requests and claims. It requires ethical impulses, but does not exhaust itself in those. An ingenious politics constantly moves between the orderly and the extraordinary, between the normal, the regular and the anomalous, the irregular, between what is conditional and what is at free disposal. It stumbles into a stalemate whenever one isolates itself against the other, when proponents of the norm and extremists, pragmatists and moralists compete in the same field. Regarding the refugee issue that means that one group, full of good intentions, announces: Come here, all those who are fleeing, while the other group, obdurately, stave off: we do not take in any more refugees, stay where you are. The achievable opposes the desirable, one’s own well-being stands against someone else’s well-being, so that resisting the other often leads to aggressive hostility against everything foreign. We are witnessing how fronts form up in most European countries. A way out of this dilemma would be more nuanced approach that does not deny the difficulties but does not prevaricate or equivocate. Much would need to be reconsidered, day by day. It may suffice to name a number of aspects and mark up a few blind spots.


(1) ‘We are taking in refugees’, ‘we will succeed’. Just who is this we? If politicians say ‘we’ then it is not a we that speaks but a representative speaks in our name, such as members of parliament. If someone speaks on behalf of ‘us Germans’, then he is also speaking in the name of those who live on the poverty line in this country and have little to spare. The ‘we’ that conceals heterogeneous positions starts to crack. Is anyone speaking on behalf of ‘us Europeans’? The desirable ‘European solution’ runs into trouble when politicians elected in national elections speak on behalf of all of Europe. There is a Europe tinged German, French or Polish and there is an English almost-Europe. Clearly, therefore, a lot of agreements are called for. It also needs spokespeople and instigators for initiatives cannot be generalised like habits and customs. When Nietzsche creates the slogan of ‘we good Europeans’ in Beyond Good and Evil in 1886 and Husserl takes up the cry in a Viennese lecture to fight against ‘Europe’s fatigue’ in 1935, then they are talking about Europe by speaking for Europe at the same time. This kind of we-talk does not suspend Europe’s polyphony. A collectively framed declaration of intent cannot be a substitute for political decisions and agreements.[12]


(2) The reception of refugees is a reception of several, separate roles. Admission officials, police officers, teachers and educators, medical personnel, consultants, neighbours, volunteers among others are part of the process in a variety of ways and to various degrees. To coordinate the sheer number of these people resembles the formation of a choir or an orchestra. If someone who is not actually involved in the process uttered the word ‘we’ without further qualification that would seem like giving away someone else’s property. Moreover there is an atmosphere of admittance and an atmosphere of rejection that consist of many, often indirect, factors. This begins with everyday gestures and behaviour generating a certain atmosphere. How ‘one’ conducts oneself is highly significant for an anonymous newcomer. If you had the chance to observe the scenes at the stations during the height of the refugee influx, you would be reluctant to voice pessimistic stereotypes, even if burning refugee centres laid down terrible markers.


(3) What about the registration, identification and sorting of refugees? Derrida is certainly correct in insisting that we miss the peculiar status of the guest, if we reduce his foreignness to a bundle of features, qualities, affiliations and status symbols, measuring what is our own against what is alien to us. Derrida, reflecting on hospitality, raises the question: Does hospitality not begin ‘by receiving someone without question, by a double deletion, by deleting both the name and the question’? Is hospitality not ‘granted to the other, given to him, before he identifies himself […]’? (ibid., p. 29). This ‘before’ is not to be understood in the sense of a temporal sequence, as if first there was the strange appeal and later one’s own response to it and as if the guest came to us out of the blue. Instead, this ‘before’ should be read as a temporal deferment, in which the unassailable priority of the strange claim encounters the inevitable retrospectivity of my response, leaving both elements of this double-event are both separate and connected.[13] The response does not owe its determinacy to an retrospective identification but to the fact that the other appears as somebody and thus seeks our help and proximity. In the same way that we perceive or understand something only by understanding or grasping it as something we only respond to somebody by facing him or her as somebody. Without this ‘as’ – which is already relevant for the gender differentiation of the gender-neutral ‘you’ and continues to play the role in age, state of health, social and ethnic background – the stranger incarnate would vanish into someone else entirely. The indeterminacy is an indeterminacy in the determinacy, a determinate indeterminacy.[14] If the question ‘Where are you from?’ is suspended, then the question of the refugee’s status remains unanswered, too. The question whether someone can claim asylum would never arise in the first place. The all too vague talk of ‘refugees’ entails that distinctions like those between a person who has been granted proper asylum, a refugee from a country declared safe, a foreigner who has entered the country and a national with an ‘immigration background’ become blurred. A haze of strangeness spreads, admitting diffuse sentiments and dubious prejudices. For example the writer Rafik Schami, who fled Syria in 1971 and has found a new home in Germany since, but still regularly speaks to his family in Damascus over the phone, remarks: ‘Now the stream of refugees is equalised, everyone is the same, they are all Muslims, they are all foreign. Here the word ‘all’ is a defamation because it is blind towards the individual, wilfully’.[15] Non-identity should not be played off against identity and vice versa. Whoever is more than and different from what he is, is still also that which he is. That is precisely what distinguishes the embodied self in all its colourfulness and vulnerability.


(4) Identification also concerns the power of names. When Ulysses adopts the name ‘outis’ he is laying claim to the namelessness of a nobody (outis), which actually belongs to the named somebody (tis). The name is a sign of recognition, used in the vocative similar to ‘you’. Let us hear the first words of Sophocles’ Antigone: ‘Ismene, dear sister, you would think that we had already suffered enough for the curse on Oedipus: I cannot imagine any grief that you and I have not gone through. And now – have they told you of the new decree of our King Creon?’ Or lets bring to mind the search for a place at the beginning of Oedipus at Colonos: ‘Child of an old blind sire, Antigone, what region, say, whose city have we reached? Who will provide today with scanted dole this wanderer?’[16] (ton planētēn: literally: he who wanders about) A little later it says: Let us discover where we have come, for strangers (xenoi) must inquire of denizens (astōn)’. Even later, in a dialogue between strangers the denizen, who is addressed by the fugitive stranger as a stranger himself (ō xein‘), replies with the place name ‘Colonos’. Thus the exiled Oedipus hears the name of place where he finds refuge in the end from the lips of a stranger. Names are not only lifelines; they can also turn out to be snares. That is true of the civil names assigned to Jews, often to reveal their origins. It is true of many immigrants to the Ruhr area who Germanise or change their names.[17] It also applies to the French regulation to anonymise applicants in order to forestall the disqualification of candidates on the basis of their Arabic descent. However, it would have been more receptive to let the name stand as it was. Walter Benjamin, for example, defends Platonic love as an ‘inclination to distances’, as a ‘love that not only atones for her lust in the name but loves the lover in the name’.[18]


(5) The integration of refugees takes time, in many cases a very long time and even way too much time. It may be that the asylum seeker ‘unlearns to hope’, as one of them has said resignedly. The waiting itself takes place in a period of transition and at place of transition, sometimes also known as ‘waiting areas’. The temporary measure raises questions of its own. In the discussions of the refugees’ accommodation we repeatedly hear of concerns that with increasing numbers of refugees the crime figures in the host country will rise, too. Current statistics for Germany do by no means show a level of crime with refugees that exceeds the usual mean – and that despite difficult circumstances.[19] But even if we do not give in to such exaggerated suspicions we will still discover states of affairs that argue against a separation of a radical hospitality from the conditions of guest right.


On the one hand Derrida is right when he, like Kant before him, resists reducing hospitality to a contract. If such a contract existed, the refugee would no longer be a refugee. Those who admit and those who are admitted would meet on common ground, even if specific details remained to be negotiated. We may disregard paying guests, who come and go in a so-called guest house. The get nothing for free; they get what they pay for. Guests in the original sense are always somewhat extraordinary because they are not part of the distribution cycle of a community or society. The same is true of refugees. On the other hand, even a temporary admission cannot imply that the guest is under no obligations whatever. If the newcomers would disregard the current house rules or laws in their conduct, they would become intruders and cease to be guests. Implicit hospitality reaches a limit here, not because the host subjects the guest to one-sided conditions, but because he ‘attempts commerce’ and ‘offers company’, as Kant writes. Even below the level of official contracts such commerce is inconceivable without conditions that are based on an implicit, unspoken contract. One crucial aspect in this is linguistic communication that takes place in the interstice of not just verbal exchanges but also in bodily gestures. To talk means eo ipso to submit to certain conditions and to enter into certain obligations. The interlinguistic factor is not diminished, if immigrants strive to learn the language of the host country. As a secondary language it will always retain something of a foreign language.[20] Up to certain extent this is also true of the native language, the mother tongue, which a child receives from others. We have to be wary of regarding strangeness as a deficiency, as if were sure of what is our own. Nobody is altogether comfortable in his own skin.


(6) With the effective recognition of the local and national customs and regulations the process of integration has already begun, which may eventually lead to formal affiliation or association. In order to be able to describe integration as an open process, the result of which is not predetermined, we would need to consider official channels of transition. What I am thinking of here are, mutatis mutandis, the part object, part personal transition objects in Winnicott’s sense, such as cuddly toys or a wooden spool as in the Gone/There-game invented by Freud’s grandson, which enable the child to cope with the absence of the mother or other person of reference.[21] In the case of refugees we are dealing with a change of self. In the case of the fleeing children it is additionally about becoming a self. The waiting time that threatens to spread a void could temporarily be filled with impressions, contacts, games and activities that in themselves do not generate a future but still intimate and initiate it. The point would be to save the threshold space and the threshold time from the void of a no-man’s-land.[22] Organising the transition is moreover dependent on figures of transition who not only teach the stranger something but functions as a third party, stand up for the stranger and assert the stranger’s claims in the context of normal order. This kind of speaking up for others is not reducible to speaking with others or about others. Among the transitional figures are interpreters, translators, lawyers, therapists and fieldworkers, but also the helpers and consultants needed for the admission of refugees.[23]


(7) The kind of admittance refugees get is measured among other things by the various types of future prospects. If an admission facility is designed as a temporary measure, then this will make a difference to the question whether refugees see themselves as potential immigrants or as potential returnees. It is certainly presumptuous to believe that people around the world aspire to nothing more than to live in a Western industrialised country. Increasing mobility and multilocality turns denizens into temporary strangers, rendering the above distinction less clear-cut than in previous eras. The desire for dual nationality and citizenship should not be interpreted as a lack of loyalty. Rather, it opens possibilities for a fertile international and intercultural interrelationship.


(8) Exploring possible prospects cannot be divorced from the question of the reasons and causes for the flight. Taking flight is in many cases a helpless and rash response to circumstances and situations that are experienced as intolerable. Being intolerable, in turn, comes with a certain amount of latitude. The Geneva Convention consider beyond the factual persecution also the ‘justified fear of persecution’. Countries classified as safe are excluded from the claim to asylum. This leads to much hardship which would have to be examined carefully on a case-by-case basis. However, the ‘emergency law’, which refers to persecution as a specific social predicament, cannot be extended to any form of poverty, exploitation or destitution without causing problems of distribution that go far beyond the protecting basic rights and would presuppose a kind of world welfare state.


All this does not mean that the politics of strangers must end at the limits of the law. Even refugees who do not fall under the strict asylum law can claim help. That is even more valid if we consider that the potential host countries of Europe have in many cases destroyed local structures and blocked development through their erstwhile colonial policies and if we consider further that Dies market strategies and weapon exports all across the world contribute to the current plight of entire continents. Meanwhile Europe has taken responsibility, but the propensity to flee the collective responsibility is clear to see. At any rate, treating asylum seekers as a separate case is justified and should not promote a spurious distinction between ‘genuine’ and ‘fake’ refugees. Both the wealth gap and the weapons trade generate a global pressure that has made a neat separation of internal and external affairs obsolete long ago. A refugee policy which disregards these developments would resemble a medical science which confined itself to palliative care.

[1]            The background of what follows here is provided by my work of many years on a phenomenology of the strange; see my Der Stachel des Fremden, Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp 1990, 5 2012 and Topographie des Fremden, Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp 1997, 6 2013.

[2]            Emmanuel Levinas, Totalité et Infini, The Hague: Nijhoff 1961, p. 9. ‘It is the lack of a common homeland that turns others into strangers, into a stranger who disturbs the here-at-my-home. But strangers also means free. My capacity has nothing on him. One of his essential aspects eludes my grasp, even if he is at my disposal. He is not totally at my place.’ This quote translated from the German: Totalität und Unendlichkeit, Freiburg, Munich: Alber 1987, p. 44.

[3]            Cf. Norbert Elias, Die Gesellschaft der Individuen, Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp 1987, p. 238f.; English: The Society of Individuals, ed. by Robert van Krieken, Dublin: UCD Press, 2010.

[4]            On the traditional and current view of hospitality see my Hyperphänomene, Berlin: Suhrkamp 2012, chapter 10: ‘Fremdheit, Gasfreundschaft und Feindschaft’, and the survey of the literature by Burkhard Liebsch: ‘Spielräume einer Kultur der Gastlichkeit’, in: Philosophische Rundschau 62 (2015), p. 101–124, 243–260.

[5]            G. P. Goold (ed.), Pindar II, Loeb Classical Library No. 485, Cambridge/Mass., London: Harvard University Press 1997.

[6]            For the original German quotes see Immanuel Kant, Werke (in sechs Bänden), ed. by W. Weischedel, Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft 1956-1966. The English quotes are to be found in Kant’s Political Writings, ed. by Hans Reiss, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1970.

[7]            The Polish video artist Anna Konik presents a number of refugee stories under the suggestive title Under the same city, under the same sky (Warsaw: Ujazdowski Castle 2015) narrated by refugees and spoken by locals. They show how different people live together under the same sky in the same city.

[8]            Jürgen Habermas, using Kantian terminology, calls the purely inclusive form of conviviality a ‘moral community’. Cf. Einbeziehung des Anderen, Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp 1996. A critical review of Habermas can be found in B. Waldenfels, Vielstimmigkeit der Rede, Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp 1999, p. 93-96.

[9]            De l‘hospitalité, Paris: Calmann-Lévy 1997. English: Of Hospitality, Stanford: Stanford University Press 2000.

[10]            Levinas, ibid., p. 188. On this problem see my Sozialität und Alterität, Berlin: Suhrkamp 2015, chp. 1.: ‘Das Dilemma einer ungeselligen Geselligkeit’.

[11]            Cf. Sigmund Freud, Negation (1925), German: Die Verneinung (GW XIV), London 1948, p. 9-15. On the inevitability of the response and on the intertwining of affirmation and negation as a feature of responsive logic, see my Antwortregister, Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp 1994, p. 348-376.

[12]            See my ‘Mehrstimmiges Europa’, a version of which I presented at a conference in Ljubljana on the situation in Europe in 2008, which was printed in Phainomena 68-69 (2009) and reprinted as an epilogue to the above-mentioned monograph Sozialität und Alterität.

[13]            For this figure of time I use the term, which can be found in Plotinus as well as Levinas, diastasis, literally a separation of experience. Cf. Antwortregister, ibid., p. 266.

[14]            If this determinacy is withheld, then, as with Jean-Luc Marion, what remains is only a ‘pure form of the appeal’: Réduction et donation, Paris: P. U. F 1989, p. 296.

[15]            Süddeutsche Zeitung of March 19/20, 2016, p. 58.

[16]            Translations of the quotes from Sophocles by F. Storr, Loeb Classical Library, Boston: Harvard 1912.

[17]            The irony: in times of nationalistic fervour Nietzsche wanted to reduce his name to a Slavonic Niče; research into his ancestry has not been able to confirm the origin, but it is nicely invented.

[18]            Quoted after Walter Benjamin, Kurze Schatten (Gesammelte Schriften IV. 1), Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp 1972, p. 368.

[19]            The constant threat of transitioning into terrorist activities presents a separate problem, which I disregard here. Nothing would be more calamitous than confusing the refugee issue with the issue of resisting terrorism.

[20]            The fact today there is a subject called ‘German as a foreign language’ demonstrates that people seek to widen their one-sided internal perspective.

[21]            See D. M. Winnicott, Vom Spiel zur Imagination, Stuttgart: Klett 112006, and Freud, Jenseits des Lustprinzips, (GW XIII), London 1940, p. 11-15.

[22]            The so-called ‘transit zones’ put up for debate in Germany met with disapproval partly because this would create a detention-like nowhere-place that would downright exclude the idea of hospitality.

[23]            Cf. Hyperphänomene, ibid., p. 244-245: ‘Figuren der Stellvertretung’.