The Black Refugee Tradition     

30.000 hit the streets for a parade of solidarity, unity, dignity and rights for all in Hamburg, Germany (Rasande Tyskar, Flickr)

From October 1, 2019 to September 30, 2020, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) deported over 6,700 people whose country of origin was in Africa or the Caribbean. Those are ICE’s statistics for its fiscal year, and so does not include, for instance, over 1,300 Haitian refugees deported in October – the first four weeks of FY 2021. It does not register several dozen Cameroonian asylum-seekers deported in the final weeks of the Trump administration who have subsequently disappeared in Cameroonian jails as the U.S.-backed government there violently suppresses an Anglophone separatist movement. It also does not count the four or six Black Mauritanians who, on Trump’s last full day as president, were deported back to a country where Black racial slavery persists in defiance of international pressure. It definitely excludes the approximately 900 Haitians who have been deported since Biden took office on January 20, and who have been forcibly returned to the U.S.-backed regime of President Jovenel Moïse, who governs without a legislature and who oversees a nation where 40% of the people face daily food insecurity.

The United States violates multiple international asylum agreements when it detains and deports asylum-seekers. Most seriously, ICE’s deportation of Cameroonians, Haitians, Mauritanians, and others breaks with one of the fundamental guarantees of the Geneva Convention on Refugees: non-refoulement, the right of a refugee to not return to a place where there exists a credible threat to their “life or freedom.” Asylum-seeking thus increasingly drops migrants into transatlantic systems of detention. ICE incarcerates them only to return them to western-backed dictatorships who investigate returnees for ties to internal rebel movements.

The United States’ violation of international law must be understood as anti-Black, in addition to being anti-Latinx and anti-Indigenous. As Carl Lindskoog has shown, current U.S. policies toward asylum-seekers – interdiction (interception and summary return of migrants still en-route), stringent documentation burdens, mandatory detention without bond – have their origins in bipartisan efforts to contain and expel the thousands of Haitians (so-called “boat people”) fleeing the U.S.-backed Duvalier regimes in the 70s and 80s. While anticommunism was at play here, so were racial discourses that framed Black migrants as more likely to be criminal and public charges. More recently, Trump infamously called Haiti and African nations “s***hole countries” as his administration tried to phase out Temporary Protected Status for Haitian refugees and successfully shrunk the cap on refugee emigration (in 2019, Africans made up over half of the legal refugees resettled in the U.S.).

U.S. deportation of undocumented migrants is also anti-Black because it suppresses a Black political practice that can be traced back to the diaspora’s resistance to the transatlantic slave system: The Black Refugee Tradition. Longer than even the struggle for civil rights under domestic law, asylum rights in international law has been the site through which Black women and men have made their freedom. Throughout the eighteenth century, enslaved people in British colonies freed themselves by claiming religious asylum as Catholics in Spanish colonies. In the Age of Revolutions, Black people freed themselves by fleeing to imperial officials as loyalists persecuted by the illegitimate regimes of their enslavers. In the nineteenth century, African captives in the slave trade freed themselves before British-led mixed commission courts meant to suppress illegal slave trafficking. Whatever the state of their “social death” in colonial and national law, they were alive as refugees at treaty tables and in diplomatic correspondence.

In ways not immediately intended by Parliament, British abolition turned enslaved freedom-seekers into activists of international law. Thousands of enslaved people, whether crossing into British Canada from the U.S. or swimming to Royal Navy vessels in the Indian Ocean, had the effect of gradually dragging the British empire toward imposing free soil/waters manumission as a global norm. Through Britain’s treaties with major enslaving empires, from the United States in the 1842 Webster-Ashburton Treaty to the Ottoman Empire in the 1880 Anglo-Ottoman Convention, enslaved people made international refuge-seeking the surest path to freedom. Even the U.S. federal government, while making a point to consistently demand the extradition of fugitive bondpeople, in practice accepted that enslaved people who made it to the Bahamas or Canada would be granted asylum and freedom. Indeed, the fact that emancipation in the U.S. ultimately flowed from the laws of war (and think of General Benjamin Butler’s quip that secession denied Virginians access to the U.S. Fugitive Slave Act), speaks to the ability of Black people as refugees to consistently make their freedom a question of the laws of nations.

The Black Refugee Tradition continued after the Age of Emancipations. As Kendra Field’s research shows, even though “the Exodusters” and the Great Migration are often taught as internal migrations of African Americans, they were intertwined with the self-removal of tens of thousands of people to Indian Territory, Liberia, and elsewhere. Black people made a “geopolitical” response to Jim Crow through transnational migration. Of course, Black emigrationism in the late-nineteenth/twentieth century drew on many political currents – Pan-Africanism, multiple Black nationalisms, – but it was also a conscious refugee politics. From Martin Delany to Marcus Garvey, emigrationists explained the Black experience through the metaphor of the Biblical Israelites and looked at states formed by Black Refugees in Sierra Leone and Liberia as both destinations and models.

International law and the refugee experience continued to be important sites of Black political thought in the civil rights era. The central position of Malcolm X’s Organization for Afro-American Unity (OAAU) was that international human rights, rather than civil rights, was the proper line of struggle for the Black freedom movement. X believed that, as United Nations membership opened up to independent African and Asian nations, U.S. activists could form an international bloc to charge the U.S. with human rights violations before the “world court” (presumably The Hague). To prove this strategy could be effective, X pointed to growing UN momentum on a number of humanitarian issues, especially Apartheid (refugees from which profoundly inspired his thinking), but also multiple refugee crises of the postwar period such as post-1948 Arab refugees and Jewish Soviet citizens seeking emigration.

The OAAU’s international strategy built on multiple genealogies of Pan-African thought. However, their Human Rights/UN focus also owed much to the transnational exiles who constituted its founding membership on both sides of the Atlantic. In Ghana, OAAU organizer Maya Angelou recruited from a whole community of African and African American radicals then taking refuge under Kwame Nkrumah’s government. Back in New York, X relied on organizers like the Afro-Cuban refugee Carlos Moore who worked to make organizational ties to the revolutionary governments in both Cuba and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Black Refugee Tradition has always been informed by a transnational search for justice on the understanding that racism and justice cannot coexist. Like enslaved freedom-seekers in an earlier period, the OAAU sought to advance Black political goals suppressed at home with the help of patron states abroad.

The struggle of undocumented Black migrants today continues the Black Refugee Tradition. From Cameroon to Haiti, they are using internationally recognized rights to asylum to attempt to free themselves from western-supported neocolonial governments only to find those rights ignored at the U.S. border. Organizations such as the UndocuBlack Network and Haitian Bridge Alliance are calling on the Biden administration stop the deportations and open a path to citizenship for migrants, but President Biden so far seems unlikely to substantively reverse Trump’s detention/deportation policies. Refugee liberation will, therefore, require a broad and committed political struggle. It will require greater connection between Black Lives Matter activists and activists who focus on border freedom and the struggle of undocumented migrants. It will require remembering that the Black freedom movement has always been transnational in its scope.

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Sean Gallagher

Sean Gallagher is a PhD Candidate at the University of California, Davis. His research focuses on the lived experiences of enslaved people during the American Revolution. Follow him on Twitter @WhatAboutClass.

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