A Chomskian Approach to Refugee Studies
Robert Barsky
At some point researchers in the social sciences are made to feel blocked by the apparently small number of options available to them either on account of their resources, the limits of their data, or by the institution from which, or for which, the research is being presented. At the present time, for example, refugee researchers throughout the First World are facing some formidable challenges from a range of fronts in part because draconian budget cuts on the Federal, State, and Municipal levels have generated an even higher-than-usual degree of anti-immigration sentiment in the media. This tends to fuel the pervading xenophobic tendencies across the political spectrum, from the labor left to the extreme right. As a result, politicians have answered unfounded calls for protectionism against the movement of human beings by proposing and passing a series of draconian laws against a backdrop of ever-lessening restrictions against the movement of capital and goods. For instance, migration legislation throughout the First World has opened the door to the setting up of third country legislation, which effectively prevents people from claiming status if they have stopped in another country deemed by our own authorities as "safe." Condemned by the refugee community when first proposed, these laws are now quietly making their way into the books in the form of agreements signed, or under negotiation between, Canada and the European and the United States and, most recently, in a new document called Not Just Numbers, that is to serve as a template for a new immigration law in Canada. Let me be clear about what I'm talking about here. According to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, adopted by Canada in 1969, a refugee shall apply to any person who: "As a result of events occurring before 1 January 1951 and owing to a well founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside of the country of his nationality and is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it." This Convention was worded originally to protect refugees of WWII; it was changed through a 1967 "Protocol" to include any person who suffered persecution in his/country of origin; Canada legislated on the basis of the Convention, the Protocol and the emerging criteria for adjudicating claims when it passed the 1976 Immigration Act, which is ostensibly still in effect. That's it; it's clear enough. If you are being persecuted for the reasons mentioned above, you are eligible for refugee status.

The First World including the US and Canada have been acting against the tenets of this Convention for years, most recently through efforts to curb the flow of people from the Third to the First World by enacting carrier sanctions, legislation which imposes fines on airlines for transporting undocumented passengers. The effects of these laws and so many others is to transform border patrol guards, coast guard officers and even airline employees into adjudicating bodies for refugee claims, even though this contravenes quite specifically the spirit and the substance of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, the United Nations Convention for refugees, the Protocol which expands the applicability of this Convention, as well as the Canadian Immigration Act. And, since we're talking here about people who are fleeing persecution and in need of asylum, we can conclude that authorities inside and outside of Canada and other countries in the First world are being given the right to decide suffering peoples fate in the face of oppression. So what does the refugee researcher do?

Most refugee advocacy is directed towards reacting to the most recent barrage of laws or barriers set up by various governmental bodies within and outside of national boundaries. As such, they find themselves caught up in complex discussions about numbers of people in flight, the host country's ability to process and administer claims, domestic resistance to the flight of peoples, and the costs of settling, relocating, repatriating or assisting people in the refugee-producing countries of the world. I say this emphasizing that we shouldn't feel to smug in our general approach to these issues because many so-called First World countries, notably the United States, Britain, France and Israel are among these refugee-producing countries. In short, refugee advocates get caught up in a game that they cannot win, because even small victories occur against well-armed opponents and in the face of new and even more draconian legislation which, it seems, is always just waiting to be unearthed by government and legislative bodies. Worse, researchers and activists concerned with the plight of refugees get caught up in a game which is far more nefarious, that of arguing against these laws in terms used by the legislators. This places them on an equal footing with those persons who are proposing the laws by providing some grounds for agreement on general principles about freedom of movement and the legitimacy of those persons empowered to prevent it. And the scholarship to which researchers might refer only reinforces this tendency. No matter how liberal the approach to these problems is, basic assumptions are generally upheld, assumptions which place us in the same arenas as those persons responsible not only for the restrictions, but in some direct or indirect way for the persecution that produced the upheaval in the first place. So where do you go?

One answer is to the work of Noam Chomsky. Chomsky encourages us to recognize that these very complex social issues are dressed up, made to look complicated so as to keep the rabble, you and I, away from recognizing what is actually at stake. And indeed, says Chomsky in regards to this question, discussions about the technicalities of, say, refugee adjudication, keep us off the track of the real issues. This is something that he has reiterated variously in his writings through the years, but is succinctly stated in the introduction to American Power and the New Mandarins, a book that was published over thirty years ago "By entering into the arena of argument and counter-argument, of technical feasibility and tactics, of footnotes and citations, by accepting the presumption of legitimacy of debate on certain issues, one has already lost one's humanity". This, wrote Chomsky in 1967, is the feeling that he finds "almost impossible to repress when going through the motions of building a case against the American war in Vietnam." (9) And this is the feeling that I've had when looking into the administrative technicalities of the treatment of refugees. So here was my own point of entry into his work, roughly a decade ago. And this is what lead me to look further, into what he might have to say about refugee concerns. Sure enough, given the breadth of his work, he had quite a lot to say about them, notably in his discussions of international treaties of which the Convention is one. "Within the state system -- let's forget about the long-term thing -- what would a reasonable US policy be? A reasonable policy, for example, would be to follow the US Constitution. That's a good start. According to the US Constitution, treaties that are duly entered into are the supreme law of the land. And there's a number of treaties that are not unreasonable, like the United Nations Charter, which among other things prevent the use or threat of force in international affairs. That's a good principle. I'd like to see some U.S. government start to abide by domestic U.S law. That would be a good start. That position is considered very radical, so when I say the U.S. government ought to observe U.S. law, that's considered radical. The reason is because we intuitively take it for granted that it's a lawless state and we're a lawless and violent people, so we do anything we feel like. The law is only something that you apply to other people if they get in the way. But if we had the honesty to say that we also ought to follow our own laws, then I think there would be an improvement". I could make the same claim, substituting the 1951 Convention for Refugees for "US Constitution", and the "Canadian Immigration Act" for US law, because both of those legal instruments suggest that if someone is persecuted, they have a right to refugee status in this country. Period. And yet we find all sorts of reasons to refuse torture victims, especially if they happen to be women. So I'd be happy to see Canada follow international and domestic law. But to go further, and again Chomsky's writing insists that we do so, I think that we might ask ourselves whether we should in fact be "accepting" or "refusing" people. Who are we to accept, restrict or hinder, what should be a fundamental human right, the right to free movement?

In fact, the framing of the refugee problem in this manner, in terms of the elimination of all barriers to free movement of people (and NOT goods, as is the case with what we call 'free trade') is the only reasonable solution to the migration problem and, moreover, to the problem of suffering which is so extreme as to make people want to uproot themselves and their families from places where they'd otherwise wish to remain.. These are what Chomsky would call 'truisms' but, as he suggests, these are the very obvious 'truisms' that aren't even presented as options except amongst a tiny so-called radical segment of Western society and, of course, amongst those directly affected by this oppression, those persons, in short, who are never consulted.

Let's say that under the current system, which happens to include the perverse idea of nations and the exclusionist and inherently persecutory system of capitalism, we are compelled to regulate the movement of peoples. A truism that emerges in that system is that we must adjudicate claims of people who'd like to settle in our country and we must determine, according to some criteria, whether or not these potential citizens qualify as refugees. My research shows that this adjudication, carried out in its present manner, doesn't lead us to accept those most in need of assistance, which, once again, international law and domestic law dictates; instead, it leads us to accept people most like ourselves, and to do so in numbers which are strictly limited by government-set quotas, themselves absolutely illegal. This is because refugee claimants must argue their case in very specific ways in the course of the refugee claim, or indeed any claim made before a higher authority, which in turn implies that claimants must constitute themselves as discursive beings. Thus although the claim may based upon physical abuse, for example, the body itself has a say only through recourse to language as uttered by the claimant or the claimant's counsel. This is no small matter, because it indicates that to the degree that the claimant is articulate in giving voice to the persecution, her chances of being accepted increase. Obviously, persecuted persons who don't speak the language of the host country are the first ones to suffer because they are forced to rely upon various mediums in order to transmit their message. And if these persecuted persons also happen to be women, then they're doubly discriminated against in our system because our conception of what a "refugee" is tends to be based upon actions typical of males, not females. So women, who already must present a case that is likely to convince the adjudicators, also find themselves saddled with the difficult task of justifying her presence in the hearing room.

But wait; most law-abiding Canadians would say at this point that we do have an overriding and decent criteria to adjudicate these claims; in our system we uphold "truth" as our guide. Since this is the approach we favour, decisions that refugees make are scrutinised with an eye to examining motives, sources of information, intentions and possible contradictions. This turns out to be quite a bit more problematic that we'd like to think because individual narratives can really only be examined and contextualised with regards to the testimony provided by the refugee claimant herself, on the one hand, and to the expectations that we have forced upon them, on the other. This combination of factors renders our sacred notions of transcendent `truth' ostensibly meaningless (except on certain verifiable matters). Why? Because if persecuted claimants are prudent, logical and well-informed as to the workings of our legal system, they should act in a manner which will maximise their chances for acceptance. In other words, they should simply 'construct a productive other,' which basically suggests that they should say whatever it is that the adjudicators want to hear. Any other behaviour would be irrational in light of the stakes of the outcome, and the constraints of the system as presently construed. Furthermore, if the claimant happens to be a woman, she should be doubly inclined to construct an appropriate "other" because our laws and our system of adjudication are overtly prejudiced against claims made by females.

There are other assumptions that underwrite the present system that Chomsky's radical approach help us unearth. The very subject of discussion, 'the refugee,' is a well-accepted category within the status quo international system. It is my opinion that persons who work to assist these individuals should insist upon the perversity of such a category. Refugees exist because nations, borders, adjudicators and systems of authority and control prevail over more inherently sensible ideas of unfettered migration, liberty and anti-authoritarianism. As soon as we engage in a discussion of how best regulate the flow of peoples from one place to another, or indeed how best regulate any other aspect of other peoples lives, we have already accepted all of the resulting suffering, coercion and abuse. In light of the fundamentally creative nature of the human being and the obvious fact that people thrive in systems of unstructured and limitless potentiality, the very idea that people should be 'regulated' should be discarded. The category is rendered further meaningless by the vast diversity of persons considered to be 'refugees' and the huge amount of experiences that have contributed to them being forced to resort to such a category. It is worth recalling that the decision to claim refugee status is a conscious one, generally taken under duress and, as my own research indicates, often resorted to with great reticence.

The best way to back up my claims is to refer to specific research, so allow me to refer briefly to some of the findings that came out of in-depth interviews with female refugee claimants who arrived in Canada in 1992 from Peru, Pakistan, the former Soviet Union and Israel. First, it is clear that our cherished "hearings" process doesn't offer much in the way of useful information about refugee claimants. Claimants tend to repeat what they've been told to say, somewhere along the way, and they tend to do so with greater success if they have been well-informed as to the workings of our system, ie. if they come from rich or well-connected backgrounds. We do, however, learn a whole lot about Canada, and what the Canadian system favours in its selection process. Second, it is clear from the interviews that certain types of women had better chances of being accepted, and this on account of the way our hearings are set up; unfortunately, acceptance levels are generally unrelated to levels of actual persecution, the supposed criteria for acceptance. For instance, urban claimants are favoured because claimants who have been in contact with individuals and organisations in urban settings have access to a far greater pool of information than those who have spent their lives in rural areas with limited access to alternative methods of living. This is of course suggests that we are more likely to admit people, whatever their level of suffering, if they come from cities, which in fact turns out to be true. Also, we tend to favour those with higher levels of education, both because a higher level implies access to different kinds of documentation, and because frequenting any institution of (higher) learning provides access to useful networks. Third, it is clear by correlating acceptance levels to countries of origin that we don't apply the law itself to each case, but rather tend to favour people from some regions rather than others. This is sometimes because our authorities correctly ascertain that some countries are more dangerous than others, and sometimes for less savoury reasons such as trade agreements between Canada and refugee-producing countries. It is a well-known fact that guessing the probably outcome of a refugee case even when we have all the facts is as successful as long-term weather forecasting, and this is one of the reasons why. Fourth, my research suggests that the prejudices and preconceptions of those persons involved with adjudicating claims is probably the most important factor in determining whether someone is given the chance to even make her claim. The category of female claimants is important to the degree that it is treated as such by the body involved with determining the validity of the claim. It is of course valuable that interviewers enter the hearings with the understanding that women are persecuted on account of their gender, so preconceptions based upon valid information is obviously constructive. But if the persons who interview or who adjudicate the claims believe that structures exist in given countries of origin which limit the female's ability to fully participate in the political process, which in my experience is often one of the beliefs frequently in evidence, for example, then the hearing will unravel in a manner consistent with this belief. There is no reason why an adjudicating officer who believes that Pakistani women cannot themselves participate in political opposition should ask if the female claimant was persecuted for her political beliefs. If she makes a claim on those grounds, it is quite likely that the appropriate questions to deal with her claim will not be asked, or if the questions are asked they will be done so within a limited structure of presumed answers. Deviations from the 'norm' may, therefore, quite simply not be 'heard' or understood. By the same token, if limitations on the female's ability to actively participate in certain processes in the country of origin are not accounted for, then questions asked may be irrelevant or wrong-headed. The effect of this is to reinforce our own stereotypes about who should and who shouldn't be admitted, rather than offering any reasonable or even legal criteria upon which to adjudicate claims. Fifth, there are a series of systemic impediments to appropriate adjudication, including variations in the competence of translators, the personalities of persons involved in the adjudication system, changes to national governments, lobbying, and so forth. Sixth, it is clear from having spent 5 years on this project that the vast majority of people who have made the sometimes insane effort to travel to our country deserve our protection. They have left behind whole lives to live at the very bottom of our social strata which, incidentally, is in many cases worse than what they'd been enjoying in their country of origin, at least in terms of social standing and resources. We're misled to believing that refugees come to pick the ripe fruits from our abundant trees, and we're even more misled into believing that by stemming the flow of people that we're in fact saving these trees from disease. The contrary is true. Finally, my research shows that conscious efforts have been underway for decades to ensure that our system remain inaccessible to the suffering peoples of the world or, to be more legalistic about it, that we find ways of circumventing international law. The greatest threat to refugees is the massive wall we're building around the first world, a wall of visas, travel restrictions, guarded airports and incredible differences between First and Third World economic conditions which ensure that we have access to them, but they don't have access to us. We aren't doing charity when we admit refugees, we are paying the price of our capitalist practices which tends to rob Third world countries of their resources, or we are living up to international law to which we are signatories, or we are practising that perverse action of deciding who has the right to move, and in which capacity.

So what does the picture I'm now painting of what is considered to be one of the best refugee adjudication systems in the world look like? Not flattering; it favours people like us, it favours the rich, it cannot really account for suffering, it has a massive range of biases and, on account of things like budget shortfalls, neo-liberal agendas and the like, and, it isn't improving. Furthermore, it relies upon a hearing process that is quite literally designed to fail in terms of its own objectives, partly because it doesn't want to meet them, and, partly because of problems associated with translation, psychological issues relating to persecution, cross-cultural variations and so forth, it simply cannot. So day after day, our system refuses admission to people who, according to international law, should be admitted into this country, and yet we continue to feel good about ourselves. That's a problem. For some people, though, this is not a problem because they believe, even in spite of the massive amount of government-sponsored but little known research to the contrary, that immigrants and refugees steal jobs, undermine our national character, or cause crime. None of this is true; research consistently demonstrates that we would benefit from even massive immigration, that immigrants and refugees make better Canadian citizens than Canadian citizens do, by any criteria you wish to name; but even if some people are convinced to the contrary, for whatever reason, then we could nevertheless return to the opening point; whatever we might think about refugee or immigration policy, the fact is that there exists a body of international law to which we at least theoretically abide, and the present system is not doing so. Again, I still believe that the idea of regulating the movement of peoples is perverse, but I'd settle for the time being at least for our abiding by international law. When Chomsky responds to people's questions regarding his political affiliation by saying that he's an anarchist or, if you prefer, a conservative, this is what he means. Open borders are the only way to resolve the problem of human suffering, as long as it's coupled with other radical changes; in the meantime, we should at least rely upon instruments of international human rights like the Convention, the Declaration of Rights and Freedoms, the Charter, and so forth.


Refugee studies must be grounded in analyses concerning the discourse of the persecuted because ultimately this is the criteria for determining the claim and the only means available to the individual to express suffering specific to herself. There is no doubt that such research is complemented in important ways through discussion of contextual details; but relying too heavily upon political, sociological or historical data often leads researchers to forget the situatedness of the individual within the larger movements of societies. Furthermore, playing down the role that women play in all aspects of society, and refusing to admit gender persecution as grounds for admittance, means that female claimants are doubly marginalised. The sinking feeling that researchers get when they learn that the female claimants were not given a chance to explain their situations during the actual hearings because of preconceptions made about them on the basis of sex is the feeling that the system is not only inadequate in light of the problems, but failing at its own minuscule objectives. In terms of policymaking, my research once again points to the urgent need for free and unfettered movement of peoples across all borders. The myth that huge flows towards the North will result from such openness pre-supposes that people are willing to pick up and start again with ease. The testimony recorded for my research suggests the contrary, that people are willing to endure even great hardships in order to remain close to family, friends, and the setting in which they feel comfortable. In terms of the present context, and of female claimants specifically, the research suggests the importance of recognising persecution on the basis of gender both because it is of a violent and unacceptable nature and because such would improve the chances that persons responsible for conducting refugee hearings will at least ask appropriate questions and listen for relevant testimony. These women have in all cases abandoned the familiarity of the country of origin, and if we are not yet willing to abandon all systems that restrict free movement, we must at least listen to those who have; each and every one offers the reasons why we should.

The World of Noam Chomsky