Space: The hidden dimension of asylum

June 1, 2016

Syria’s six-year civil war has precipitated the largest refugee crisis since WWII. Joined by asylum-seekers from Africa and Afghanistan, Syrians are fleeing terror, only to swamp the Mediterranean and Southeastern European economies. Recipient countries are anxious to have their richer neighbors shoulder the burden, while richer countries face a dilemma between obeying international law and doing the right thing, versus economic and cultural disruption.

Sweden, population 9.5 million, will take in 190,000 refugees in 2016—two percent of the Swedish population. Germany, population 80.62 million, took in 1.1 million asylum seekers in 2015, and will process 500,000 new claims in 2016—1.9 percent of the German population. The Danish Parliament passed a law in January to seize asylum-seekers’ assets in excess of $1,450.

1951’s Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees defines a refugee as someone “outside his or her country of nationality or habitual residence who is unable or unwilling to return, due to a well-founded fear of persecution based on his or her race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.” The convention obliges states not to “refoule,” or return a refugee to “the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened.”

States don’t have to provide asylum if there are “reasonable grounds” to believe the seekers are a threat to national security or if they have criminal histories that suggest they would be a threat to their hosts.


 As the 21st century unfolds, there will be more refugees, many coming to America to escape kleptocratic dictators, control of failed states by terrorists like ISIL and Boko Haram, resource wars, and elimination of territory due to climate change. Commentators like Evo Morales and Pope Francis have made persuasive arguments that wealthy countries have a debt to the countries we have used for inexpensive labor or resources.

But the potential for disruption is great. The sudden arrival of a group equal to one or two percent of a country’s population—with different customs, many not speaking the local language and requiring subsidy—might be construed as a threat in itself, or at least an irritant.

In Germany, politician Klaus Bouillon reported immigrants crashing queues and insulting female aid workers, refusing food served by women. There is a movement to insist that asylum seekers accept training in “German values” (probably more along the lines of learning to take turns than eugenics).

Norway offers behavior classes, in which immigrants from more conservative countries learn that revealing clothing, consumption of alcohol, and public displays of affection aren’t solicitation, and that raping one’s own spouse is not allowed. We should watch Germany and Norway as Syrian immigrants settle in, and consider something like their cultural training for our own future adventures in hospitality.

But Norway’s strategy seems too specific and Germany’s too vague. The briefest, but most explicit, mention should make it known that practices like rape, clitoridectomy, and honor killing are forbidden, and terrorism is a punishable or refoulement offense.

Anthropologists have studied culture for more than a century and should be able to contribute to the introduction of newcomers to the world of WEIRD—Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich, and Democratic.

Edward T. Hall was an anthropologist specializing in a field called “Proxemics,” the study of how we relate to each other in space. In his book The Hidden Dimension, Hall wrote, “In the context of international relations, it is also important to know that the language of space is just as important as the spoken language.”

Space is a language that can be taught. Hall tells of one gaffe the occupying forces made in postwar Germany. After the damage from Allied bombardment, there was a shortage of useful plumbing. Germans were instructed to share kitchens and baths, but the German sense of privacy resulted in killings, and the Allies rescinded the order.

Arab public behavior involves crowding and jostling, yet Arabs think of Westerners as pushy. Hall describes an experience in which he chose a seat in an empty hotel lobby, only to have an Arab man stand right next to him—close enough that Hall could hear the man breathing. Later, Hall’s Arab friends dismissed his umbrage, saying, “After all, it’s a public space, isn’t it?”

Strangers of good will, thrown together, can get into trouble. Each of us can only be responsible for our own salvation, and accidentals like color and dress can be overlooked. It’s the way people move in relation to us that can irritate—for instance, in driving or customer service. In a world of refugees using different spatial languages, we’re going to need translators and tutors.

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