Societies can help refugees become citizens if they are aware of the plights they face, Clemson University professor Todd May said Thursday.
Speaking in front of mostly students in the North Court Reception Room, May said that while it was easier for refugees to remain "in the cracks" of a society and not assert themselves, those that did demand rights were often rewarded with citizenship.
May described the plight of approximately 1,000 Algerian refugees in Canada who fled their native land because of a civil war ravaging the nation. The Algerian government, ruling without an electoral mandate, had been massacring opponents to its rule since the war began in 1992, he said.
Algerians chose Canada as a sanctuary because it was far from Algeria, a French-speaking country, and because it was easy to obtain refugee status in Canada. But in 2002 the Canadian government lifted a moratorium on those who were initially refused asylum or immigrant status.
The Algerian refugees convened May 12, 2002, when they expressed their "demand for regularization" and a desire to be recognized as Canadian citizens, May said. They argued that although they were living in Canada and contributing to society, the legal system prevented them from achieving full equality, he said.
"Papers are papers, but we are human," a refugee said to May.
Some refugees left Canada shortly thereafter, while others waited until they were deported by the government, May said. But some fought the institutional structures until the government eventually established a path to citizenship for them, May said.
The refugees' victory centered on their belief that they were inherently equal to Canadian citizens, May said. Their belief mirrored the theory of "presupposition of equality," as was set forth by French philosopher Jacques Ranciere, he said.
Ranciere argued that equality was a characterization of how people might act, and that those that act did so because they believed they were equal.
The case study May set forth can be applied to refugees in other countries as well. Governments act in their own interests, not in the interest of refugees, he said. Refugees are often among the most vulnerable members of society, and they often lack institutional support, he said.
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The Algerian refugee case showed that if refugees took action, they could overcome the barriers to freedom and could use existing political structures to enact change, May said.
Contact reporter Jimmy Young at email@example.com
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