Skip to ContentSkip to Navigation
About us Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies Research CRCG
Header image The Religion Factor

Globalization, Religion and Humanity Beyond the Nation-State

Date:05 November 2013
Author:Religion Factor
Flykninger til Lampedusa, original work by Jonskonline. Obtained from Wikimedia Commons. Reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License
Flykninger til Lampedusa, original work by Jonskonline. Obtained from Wikimedia Commons. Reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License

Recent tragic drownings on migration routes to both Europe and Australia highlight more than ever the paradoxes of globalization – more open borders when it comes to trade and finance, tighter restrictions when it comes to people; immense wealth, privilege and security in some parts of the world and immense poverty, inequality and insecurity in others. Both continents face similar challenges in trying to prevent deaths at sea, yet both are adopting policies based on restriction and deterrence to try and keep people out, rather than opening up safe pathways to protection and resettlement, and all this in the context of the Syrian refugee crisis and the highest number of displaced people globally in 18 years (1). In today’s post, Erin Wilson suggests that globalization is contributing to the uneven emergence of transnational consciousness that makes us more aware of these disparities and inequalities. Yet arguably, this transnational consciousness has existed long before, in the form of religious communities. Both globalization and religion offer potentially useful resources for rethinking our approaches to rights, belonging and protection that go beyond current state-centric frameworks, a rethink that is necessary if we are to adequately address the emerging displacement crisis (2).

There’s been much fuss made in recent years over the phenomenon of globalization and its impact on “opening up” state borders. It has been described as the defining feature of the contemporary age (3), with governments reducing restrictions on the free flow of goods and finance and increasing technological advances enabling greater communication, leading to tighter interconnections across the globe. Where people are concerned however, there is a different story to tell. If anything, the era of globalization, where state borders are supposedly becoming more porous, has seen a tightening of immigration restrictions and increasingly harsh and limited responses to the plight of refugees and asylum seekers

The Syrian refugee crisis makes this acutely obvious. Western countries have been quick to condemn the violence, with US Secretary of State John Kerry, UK Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Francois Hollande all making strong cases for the need for military intervention following the chemical weapons attack (4) (though notably without the support of the majority of their parliaments and populations). But other than Sweden, which has offered residency to all Syrian refugees (5), the response to the refugee crisis has been largely conspicuous by its absence within Western countries (6). In the Netherlands, after some disagreement between the Cabinet and the Tweede Kamer, the Dutch parliament voted to increase their annual intake from 500 to 750 to include an additional 250 Syrian refugees (7). The Australian government agreed to take 500 Syrian refugees as part of its annual intake, which the Abbott government plans to cut from 20,000 down to 13,750 (8). Yet with 5,000 Syrians crossing the country’s border every day in search of protection (9), much more is needed in terms of a response to the crisis.

Why have governments become so reluctant to accept refugees? There is no clear answer to this question, though there are many identifiable contributing factors. One is globalization and the loss of control states have experienced over their borders and what comes in and out of their country. As states have ceded sovereignty to regional and international bodies in some areas, it has become increasingly important to strengthen their sovereignty and authority in others. Migration has become the main area where this reassertion of sovereignty is occurring. Former Australian Prime Minister John Howard expressed it thus: “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.” (10) This sentiment has become something of a political mantra for governments of left and right in most industrialized countries. This sense of an increasing insecurity of borders, real or imagined, contributes to a rising fear of the “other”, known and unknown, lurking somewhere beyond, but close to, our national borders, threatening our security, our prosperity and our way of life.

Another factor contributing to stricter refugee and asylum seeker policies is the global financial crisis (arguably brought on, at least in part, by policies related to neoliberal globalization) and ongoing fiscal uncertainty. Governments are reluctant to share resources at the possible expense of their own populations, largely fearing a negative backlash when voting time comes around. A third factor is the post-9/11 security environment, where some within government and media have depicted asylum seekers, particularly those from majority Muslim regions, as “potential terrorists” (11).

There is also a strong misperception that somehow the experience of displacement and seeking refuge is orderly and peaceful. Asylum seekers who do not come through the so-called “proper channels” are referred to by some politicians and media commentators in both Europe and Australia as “queue jumpers”, “illegal immigrants” and are subsequently considered potential criminals. There is a view that these people should “wait their turn”, like other “good refugees” who patiently wait in refugee camps.

But this view is far from the reality. Displacement is chaotic. People are literally running for their lives. There is no such thing as a queue and more often that not, they cannot apply for protection and resettlement through UN and state-sanctioned channels because they simply do not have access to those channels. The average length of time an individual spends in a refugee camp if they do use UN and state-sanctioned channels is 17 years (12), and refugee camps are highly insecure environments, with rape, violence, disease and food and water shortages a daily reality. Seeking asylum anywhere is a human right, not an illegal action, regardless of whether it is done through the UNHCR or on a country’s doorstep, by boat or by plane. Yet it does not seem to matter how many times refugee advocates repeat these facts, the view persists that asylum processes are, or at least should be, calm and well-organized.

Part of the problem is that we still see the state as the main community to which people belong in world politics and citizenship as the primary way in which people are able to claim “a right to have rights” in Hannah Arendt’s words (13). If someone is not a citizen of a state or their own state refuses to protect them or honour their human rights, it becomes very difficult for them to access protection and claim their human rights elsewhere. On a day-to-day basis, this privileging of the state and citizenship leads to millions of people existing in a kind of legal and political no-man’s-land with few possibilities available to them to live a fulfilled, dignified life.

It is here that globalization can make a positive contribution. Aside from the collapsing of boundaries of time and space, globalization has also contributed to the emergence of identities and communities that go beyond the boundaries of the nation-state. Manfred Steger has called these “global imaginaries” (14), connecting people from different countries and different regions together around a shared set of values. Some of these global imaginaries are restrictive and imperial, seeking to establish the dominance of one economic system or political ideology over all others with little consideration for human rights, justice and equality. Others, however, seek to promote the emergence of a global community united by cosmopolitan values. The global justice movement is one example of this. Rather than dismissing such movements as “pie-in-the-sky”, perhaps it is time for us to seriously consider how such transnational interconnections could contribute to resolving the current crisis of displacement and asylum.

Yet arguably, such transnational identities have existed long before the contemporary era of globalization, in the form of religious communities. Religions connect their followers together through identities that go beyond the boundaries of the nation-state and beyond the boundaries of the natural realm to a transcendent reality. While such identities can contribute to exclusion and intolerance, it must also be remembered that these connections to the transcendent contribute to traditions of compassion, generosity and hospitality towards the vulnerable stranger.

The ancient principle of sanctuary practiced by many religious communities was in many ways the precursor for the contemporary political practice of asylum (15). Feminist theologian Letty Russell has argued that, for Christians, welcoming the vulnerable stranger becomes possible because they recognize that all are separated from God by sin and yet at the same time, God’s radical act of reconciliation on the cross means that all are welcome. The same grace with which God welcomes all sinners should enable all sinners to welcome one another (16). Vicky Squire and Jonathan Darling have noted that contemporary multi-faith sanctuary movements such as Cities of Sanctuary in the UK go beyond the idea of hospitality and operate from an assumption of “rightful presence” (17) – that asylum seekers and refugees have a right to be in the UK, regardless of how they arrived or whether they arrived with a visa or not, because they are people in need, because the UK has committed through the Refugee Convention to provide protection for those who need it, because they share a common humanity, because it is purely a matter of chance that they were born in an area of violence, poverty and instability and we were born in an area of wealth, peace and political freedom.

If we are to meaningfully address the displacement crisis of the 21stcentury, we must begin to think beyond the boundaries of the nation-state and citizenship as the primary ways in which we acknowledge the rights and humanity of one another. Doing this is going to require creative thinking, hard thinking, beyond politics as usual and doing more of the same, which to date has been the main response of governments in Europe, Australia and North America. Both globalization and religion push us towards ideas of humanity and belonging that extend beyond the nation-state and citizenship, towards more transnational, intergenerational and maybe even eternal concepts of community and identity. While we must always remain aware of who is being included and excluded and why in the creation of such communities, we should not completely abandon the potentially rich resources that exist in the world’s religions and emerging global imaginaries that open up alternative ways of thinking about rights, humanity and belonging beyond the nation-state.

Erin K. Wilson is the Director of the Centre for Religion, Conflict and the Public Domain


(1) United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). 2013a. “Displacement: The New 21st Century Challenge” Global Trends 2012. Geneva: UNHCR. Available at 25 June 2013

(2) An earlier version of this article was previously published in Dei Facto, the magazine of the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies, University of Groningen

(3) Scholte, J. 2005. Globalization: A Critical Introduction, 2nd edition. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

(4) ; ;







(11) Adamson, Fiona B., Triadafilos Triadafilopoulos and Aristide R. Zolberg. 2011. ‘The Limits of the Liberal State: Migration, Identity and Belonging in Europe’ Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 37(6): 843-859


(13) Arendt, H. 1958. The Origins of Totalitarianism. London: Allen and Unwin, p295

(14) Steger, M. 2008. The Rise of the Global Imaginary. Oxford: Oxford University Press

(15) Marfleet, Philip. 2011. “Understanding Sanctuary: Faith and Traditions of Asylum” Journal of Refugee Studies 24(3): 440-455

(16) L.M. Russell, Just Hospitality: God’s Welcome in a World of Difference (Louisville, 
KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009)

(17) Squire, Vicki and Jonathan Darling. 2013. “The ‘Minor’ Politics of Rightful Presence: Justice and Relationality in City of Sanctuary” International Political Sociology 7(1): 59-74



Loading comments...