Standing Up for Human Dignity: A Joyful Challenge

Published: 14 June 2023

In a country where the right to seek asylum is rendered inadmissible and people seeking refuge are locked in barges, it can be easy to feel hopeless and helpless...

By Dr Hyab Yohannes

In a country where the right to seek asylum is rendered inadmissible and people seeking refuge are locked in barges, it can be easy to feel hopeless and helpless. The stories of people fleeing their homes due to persecution, war, violence, and other forms of oppression, and then being warehoused in barges in the sea can be haunting. It is understandable to feel overwhelmed, like there is nothing one can do to help. The burden of speaking up without a voice is challenging.

Despite the overwhelming challenges, however, there are still ordinary people who refuse to give up. These are the people who stand up and say, "We welcome refugees". These are the ones who see refugees not as “problems to be solved”, but as human beings with dignity and the right to have equal rights. These ordinary people believe that it is their responsibility to uphold the value of human dignity. They have organised and mobilised communities to welcome refugees with open arms, providing people seeking refuge with resources and support they need to rebuild their lives. They defend people seeking refuge as their "our neighbours" when the state attempts to detain and deport them swiftly. This work is a decolonial work, and it is grounded in recognition of one's own dignity in the humanity of others. It is a work of joy, of receiving new friends, of seeing people as people, of coming together to build humanity anew. It is the celebration of knowing that you are making a difference in the lives of others, that you are helping to create a non-exclusive humanity in the ruins of coloniality. It is the joy of recognising that we are all part of a human family.

But this decolonial work of standing up for human dignity is also challenging. It is not easy to say, "Refugees Welcome", when the state and so many others are saying, "We don't want them here". It is not easy to open your doors when so many are closing their doors and their hearts. It is not easy to stand up for human dignity when so many others are willing to sacrifice it for their own political agendas. The question then becomes one that requires profound thinking, as the American philosopher Judith Butler invites us to do: “If we stay with the sense of loss, are we left feeling only passive and powerless, as some might fear? Or are we, rather, returned a sense of human vulnerability, to our collective responsibility for the physical lives of one another?” Those who uphold human dignity have no hesitation about their choice; they choose the latter.

This is why it is important to acknowledge and appreciate those who are doing this work of upholding human dignity. It is important to recognise that those who stand up for the dignity of others are not doing it out of a sense of charity but out of a profound responsibility of upholding the value of human life. This profound responsibility of foregrounding human dignity required of us “divine violence”, as Walter Benjamin famously argued. Divine violence, according to Benjamin, is fundamentally the opposite of state violence. While state violence is deployed to uphold the violent law, divine violence seeks to annihilate it. State creates violent regimes of (b)ordering, while divine violence destroys them without limit. State violence “kills” some to redeem others, while divine violence forgives everyone. Sovereign power threatens to obliterate life, but divine violence "strikes" the threat and defends life. Sovereign power is violent, but divine violence is destitutive of violence. Essentially, divine violence is the courage and dignity of standing up to racialised injustice, of ordinary people saying that we will not stand idly by while their fellow human beings suffer. It is the violence of creating something new, of challenging raciality and coloniality. And it is the divine violence of love, of resignation, of saying that we will not let violence and fear destroy our humanity.

In conclusion, I invite us to recognise the human dignity of people seeking refuge, not fear their presence. I invite us to join in this work of recognising others, to create communities that welcome refugees with open arms and open doors. I invite us to uphold human dignity, to stand up for what is right, and to make the lives of people seeking refuge worth living. To those who have been fighting against the indignity, violability and bestiality of life, I express my immense gratitude.

First published: 14 June 2023