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“Our Country is Full” But Our Cities Are Open

Janet Polasky—

For centuries, refugees have been cast adrift, caught between nations. From the American, French, and Haitian Revolutions that scattered political foes across oceans at the end of the eighteenth century to climate change-intensified civil unrest today, individuals and families have been forced to flee their homes in search of asylum. In response to their pleas for shelter, national leaders have routinely shut their borders, declaring: “Our country is full.”1 Policy makers at the national level and international human rights activists are running out of solutions to their plight.

Following the Second World War, confronted by yet another refugee crisis, world leaders resolved that if nation states had created the crisis, then international institutions might offer the solution. In 1948, fifty-eight nations ratified the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guaranteeing “the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.”2 Theirs was a testament to the shared conscience of the world. Articles 13 and 14 of the Universal Declaration recognized the right to freedom of movement of all people, acknowledging that “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” However, the right of persons to flee one nation was not matched by a reciprocal requirement of other nations to take them in.  The United Nations statues effectively stranded refugees in between nations and without rights.

The convener of this United Nations Commission on Human Rights, Eleanor Roosevelt offered a glimmer of an alternative to the stalemate. Instead of looking larger, she suggested, that we might seek to protect human rights “in small places, close to home,” in neighborhoods where “the displaced” could establish new lives. 3

This grounded alternative is rooted in the centuries-old propositions of the enlightened philosopher, Immanuel Kant. In 1795, he contended: all people have a right, as inhabitants of the globe, “to offer themselves as potential members of any society.”4 Peaceful newcomers had the right to hospitality. In the waning years of the twentieth century, Algerian-born French philosopher, Jacques Derrida echoed the call to secure locally what Hannah Arendt defined as “the right to have rights.” Rather than expecting to discover an elusive solution to the age-old dilemma of refugees, Derrida suggested, “Perhaps…it has already arrived, but one has just not yet recognised it.”6

Through history, small spaces have persistently risen to the challenge of offering hospitality to refugees seeking asylum in between nation states. Cities and the neighborhoods within them have extended the “right to claim rights” for centuries. Why not look to cites to offer a more effective, immediately realizable solution to the dilemma of refugees amassed along the southern border of the United States and intercepted in leaky, overcrowded unseaworthy rafts and boats along the rocky coasts of Europe?

In the midst of the turmoil of the revolutionary 1790s, Loyalists, Black and white, fled the newly independent United States and, moderate merchants and counter-revolutionary aristocrats escaped the French revolutionary guillotine. Together with countless other families who took to the roads and waterways, they constituted what contemporaries pointed to as the first migration crisis of modern history. Two port cities on the River Elbe just down from the North Sea, the independent German city-state of Hamburg and its smaller neighbor, the Danish municipality of Altona opened their doors to thousands of these refugees seeking asylum. Word on the streets was that a living could be secured there.

In 1796, an aspiring young German lawyer, Ferdinand Beneke marveled as he arrived in Hamburg at the “countless rows of ships…thronging this cosmopolitan port.”7 Most of the two thousand ships unloading sugar to be refined and then distributed with coffee, spices, and cotton across Europe. They took on luxury goods and armaments destined for the Americas belonged to foreigners. Free trade, bolstered by a fair amount of illicit activity, assured these neutral ports sizeable profits in an age roiled by warfare and naval blockades.

Newcomers assimilated readily. The governing circles of Hamburg and Altona took pride in their outward-facing civic identity. Guests at the Sunday evening suppers hosted by the merchant Georg Heinrich Sieveking and his wife Johanna remembered the harmony of languages blending together as “the last descendent of the house of Gonzaga” sat across from “two rich Dutch women…an Englishman from Liverpool next to a republican from Bordeaux…a Swedish Consul returning from Morocco talking to a pair of English Jews from Santo Domingo, and an American from New Jersey.”8

Over the next half century, even with the introduction of regulations governing travel across national borders, small spaces wedged between jostling, security-conscious neighbors extended a welcome to refugees. First the Swiss cantons and then the newly independent Belgian nation kept their doors open as another wave of revolution overtook Europe. For its part, the Belgian Constitution of 1831 guaranteed rights to all who resided on their territory. Only political rights were restricted to citizens. Between 1846 and 1856, twenty thousand foreigners arrived in Brussels, more per capita than any other European capital.9

Among the many German, Italian, Polish, and Portuguese refugees signing residence registers in Belgian town halls were Karl Marx and his family, who settled for three years in Brussels. Belgian national security forces, pressured by anxious diplomats from surrounding states, asked Brussels to expel this dangerous journalist. The Brussels police relayed the reassuring response they had received from professors at the university, themselves refugees: “He’s just a philosopher.”10 Although the rights of immigrants were defined by parliament at the national level, they were enforced locally.

The Belgian capital’s reputation as a radical hotbed was well deserved.  The municipal police rarely disrupted French republicans publishing anti-clerical tracts, Polish revolutionaries in regular contact with their comrades in Warsaw, individual Italian anarchists, or circles of German communists around Marx and Engels. Brussels proved the perfect site for imagining a world-wide proletarian revolution; Marx wrote The Communist Manifesto in Brussels. Significantly, in addition to his clandestine Communist League, Marx publicly joined the Democratic Association, which he described as a “a small cosmopolitan-democratic community,” meeting in a café in the shadow of the monumental Palais de Justice.11      

In February 1848, as the French king abdicated his throne in the wake of the republican revolution, he dispatched a loyal aide to warn his son-in-law, Belgian king Leopold I. From the palace, the aide proceeded to call on his own lawyer. That happened to be Lucien Jottrand, president of the Democratic Association who summoned his vice president, Karl Marx to strategize. As the Revolution of 1848 spread from Paris across Europe, it leapfrogged over Belgium. The small monarchy, with its open borders and vibrant political discussions, escaped revolution. With much hand wringing, however, it expelled Marx. What, Belgian progressives asked, would happen to refugees, if everyone shut their doors?

Has their fear become our reality?  Or alternatively, as Derrida mused: “Could the City, equipped with new rights and greater sovereignty, open up new horizons of possibility previously undreamt of by international law?”12 Might a robust network of sanctuary cities modeled on Altona, Hamburg, and Brussels, or the Cities of Sanctuary of the United Kingdom offer hope to the escalating numbers of refugees forced to flee across borders in search of asylum?

  1. Donald Trump cited by Editorial Board, ”In a New Term, Trump would further seal the Gates of a Fortress America,” The Washington Post, 11 September 2020.
  2. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, https://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/.
  3. Eleanor Roosevelt, “Where Do Human Rights Begin?” in Courage in a Dangerous World, ed. Allida M. Black (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 190.
  4. Immanuel Kant, “Toward Perpetual Peace,” ed. Jonathan Betnnett (Early Modern Texts, 2011, 11. htpps//www.early moderntexts.com/assets/pdf/kant1795.pdf; and Georg Cavallar, Kant’s Embedded Cosmopolitanism. History , Philosophy, and Education for World Citizens (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2015).
  5. Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Meridian Books, 1958), 296. See also Alison Kesby, The Right to Have Rights: Citizenship, Humanity, and International Law (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 3.
  6. Jacques Derrida Cosmopolites de tous les pays, encore un effort! (Paris: Galilée, 1997), 23.
  7. Ferdinand Beneke, 14 February 1796, in Die Tagebücher, 1,2, 1796 bis 1798, ed. Frank Hatje and Ariane Smith et al. (Hamburg: Wallstein Verlag, n.d.), 21.
  8. Karl August Böttinger cited  by Inge Stephan and Hans-Gerd Winter Stephen, Hamburg in Zeitalter der Aufklärung (Hamburg: Reimer, 1989), 292-93.
  9. Alexander Coppens, Tussen Beleid en Administratieve Praktijk. De Implementatie van het Belgisch Migratie beleid in Negentiende-eeuws Brussel Thesis (Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Letteren & Wijsbegeerte, 2016-1017), 69-70; and Sophie de Schaepdrijver, Elites for the Capital? Foreign Migration to Mid-Nineteenth-Century Brussels (Amsterdam: Thesis Publishers, 1990), 49.
  10. Dossier Karl Marx, Ministère de la Justice, Police des Etrangers. Dossiers Individuels, 073946, Archives générales du Royaume/Algemene Rijksarchief, Brussels.
  11. ”Adresse der Fraternal Democrats an die Association Démocratique,” London, 6 December, 1847, in. Association démocratique ayant pour but l’union et la fraternité de tous les peuples: Eine fruhe demokratische Vereingung in Brussel 1847-1848, ed. Bert Andréas,(Trier: Karl-Marx-Haus, 2004), 422
  12. Jacques Derrida, Cosmopolites de tous les pays, encore un effort! (Paris: Éditions Galilé

Janet Polasky is Presidential Professor of History at the University of New Hampshire. She teaches an Honors Discovery Seminar in Global Citizenship. She is the author of six books, including Revolutions without Borders: The Call to Liberty in the Atlantic World. She lives in Portsmouth, NH, where she is involved in groups advocating for change in immigration policies and supporting refugees locally.

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