Refugees in International Relations

By Alexander Betts; Gil Loescher | Go to book overview

6
Beyond ‘Bare Life’: Refugees and
the ‘Right to Have Rights’

Patricia Owens1


ABSTRACT

This chapter critically assesses Giorgio Agamben’s claims regarding the signifi-
cance of refugees for international political thought. Agamben argues that refu-
gees are the ultimate ‘biopolitical’ subjects, those who can be regulated and
governed at the level of population in a permanent ‘state of exception’. Refugees
are reduced to ‘bare life’, humans as animals in nature without political freedom.
While a welcome alternative to the flawed rationalist and weak constructivism
of much international theory, it will nonetheless be argued here that Agamben’s
‘figure of the refugee’ falls short. While much of the literature on so-called
‘biopolitics’ is illuminating and productive, we need not accept all aspects of
Agamben’s view of what happens when ‘life’ is placed at the centre of politics.
The first part of the chapter sets out in more detail Agamben’s claims regarding
sovereignty and the political significance of ‘naked’ or ‘bare life’ for refugees.
The second section suggests that while the breakdown of the distinction between
human and citizen is at the heart of the problem faced by refugees (and poten-
tially all bearers of ‘human rights’), the ‘abstract nakedness’ of human beings is
politically irrelevant. The argument is made by returning to Hannah Arendt
whose writing has been enormously influential for Agamben but whose effort to
rethink the ‘right to have rights’ he implicitly rejects. Arendt warned that there
is no such thing as an inborn human dignity. If refugee populations are not to
face some inexorable trend towards a rule of ‘exception’, then it will not be
through reclaiming ‘bare life’. It will be wholly dependent on the ability to forge
a public realm grounded on the appropriate distinction between nature and
political artifice, between human life and the political world.

The concept of human rights can… never be dependent upon some inborn human dignity which de facto, aside from its guarantee by fellow-men… does not exist.

(Hannah Arendt, The Burden of Our Time, p. 439)

Preoccupied with the sovereign nation-state, the discipline of International Relations (IR) tends to present refugees as exceptions to—rather than exemplars

-133-

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