Viewpoint: How the exclusion of people is hollowing out our democracy

Viewpoint: How the exclusion of people is hollowing out our democracy

Stefan Jonsson

How many have been displaced? Over sixty million, suggests the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR. If they formed a state, a Refugee State, it would be the world’s twenty-fourth largest. Now they are scattered, at the mercy of hospitality, exposed to hostility and left to dwell in appalling conditions. Afghan boys move back and forth along the Öresund Bridge, refused entry to both Sweden and Denmark. They are imprisoned in the strip between the two borders. Their only recourse is to swim to shore.

Is that how we want it? That people be forced to sink below the surface so that Swedes and Danes don’t have to see them or take responsibility.


Our horizons are shrinking just as our historical consciousness is being severed. I decide to turn to an ancient play, the oldest text we have on refugee and asylum law. If the dating is correct, Aeschylus’ The Suppliants was played at the Theatre of Dionysus in Athens exactly 2479 years ago. The Athens of Aeschylus’ time was under direct threat from the Persians. The aristocratic government was replaced by a democratic polity, in which decisions were taken following debate between free male citizens.

Of the hundred or so dramas Aeschylus wrote, only seven remain. From them, we can see how concerned he was in his work with society and politics. Political scientist Mark Chou (2012) claims that Aeschylus inventoried and enacted the advantages and disadvantages of the democratic system, and trained his audience to deal with political difficulties and social pressures in a democratic manner.

A free society presupposes an egalitarian decision-making process, Aeschylus seems to have believed. This assumes, in turn, that all citizens regard each other as people equipped with equivalent powers of reasoning and the same obligations towards the public and the divine. Democracy, in other words, requires the idea of ​​human dignity, a kind of universalism. At the heart of Aeschylus’ tragedy lies the question of how far this dignity extends, who should be included in this community and who can be eliminated. Intrigues are driven by the mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion.

In The Suppliants, a boatload of refugees travels across the Mediterranean to the city of Argos. They are Danaus and his fifty daughters, who have fled Egypt to escape forced marriage to Aegyptus’ fifty sons. Like today’s refugees, they seek protection in temples, where they are under the patronage of the gods. Danaus gives his daughters some fatherly advice, the oldest existing description of how refugees should conduct themselves:

And in our hands aloft we bear –
Sole weapon for a suppliant’s wear –
The olive-shoot, with wool enwound! (…)
To those that question you, words meek and low
And piteous, as beseems your stranger state,
Clearly avowing of this flight of yours
The bloodless cause; (…)
Let chastity look forth; nor, when ye speak,
Be voluble nor eager – they that dwell
Within this land are sternly swift to chide.
And be in your words submissive: heed this well;
For weak ye are, outcasts on stranger lands,
And forward talk beseems not strengthless hands.

Next the King of Argos hurries onto the scene. His name is Pelasgus and his attention is immediately caught by the refugees’ appearance: they are of “no Grecian band” and instead dressed in “Eastern robes”. You resemble more African women than the daughters of my own country, he says, reflecting on how strange they look. He compares them to camel-riding Indians and warring Amazons. When Danaus’ daughters explain that they are in fact of the same flesh and blood as he, the same kind of people with the same roots, Pelasgus is dumbfounded.

The olive branch bound in wool was called “hiketéria” in ancient Greek, which in turn became the word for a plea or prayer, a supplication. It was a symbol of the vulnerability of the refugees and constituted their application for asylum.


Politicians and opinion leaders today make distinctions that some years ago were unthinkable. It is often argued, emphatically, that the limit has been reached for how many people can be accommodated or dealt with by the Swedish welfare system. There is no more room. In this situation, it is clear that the welfare of Swedish citizens should take precedence over that of the refugees. Why? Well, because Swedish citizens are Swedish citizens. Because they have lived here a long time.

Historians, sociologists and commentators who call themselves democrats argue that citizenship, which is mostly inherited, is the criterion by which a person’s human rights are secured. Do they notice that this argument is closer to the fascist idea that ​​the nation state is superior to the individual than liberalism’s emphasis on universal rights? In today’s political discourse, it is assumed self-evident, necessary even, that Swedes and Europeans should have more rights and wealth than men, women and children from Syria.

Without ourselves noticing it, we strip ourselves in this way of what we otherwise happily emphasise as Western culture’s inviolable universalism: the recognition that a person’s worth doesn’t depend on the colour of their skin, their origins or beliefs.

Or do we notice it – and support it? I sense relief among many. Finally, we may avoid responsibility for the universal and in this crisis turn inwards, to celebrate our own tribalism and safeguard our own welfare.

European history is largely the history of a violent dialectic. On the one hand, the universalism that Europeans claimed as the means by which they would save the rest of the world. On the other, the protectionism in whose name Europeans have shut their borders to save themselves from the rest of the world.

But other elements of European culture have served as countermeasures against both. These include above all the arts, literature, criticism and an historical consciousness: a public sphere that stubbornly works through the contradictions, conflicts and violence of Europe’s history and holds this legacy like a mirror to the present. Without this self-reflection, Europe becomes deadly for anyone not white and Christian.

And today, this is what Europe is becoming. A Europe that adapts its laws and its history according to the self-image of the ruling ethnic or religious majority. A Europe that restricts critical and creative thinking. A Europe where minorities, ambiguities, impurities, conflicts and actually existing multiculturalism are all retouched and deleted from the media and the textbooks.


Aeschylus’ tragedy revolves around the choices of the head of state. The refugees set before Pelasgus a dilemma that he would rather wriggle out of. If he receives them, he might be accused of shouldering the city with an unreasonable burden to support them. Worse than that, he also exposes Argos to the danger of war, because surely the Egyptian suitors would come to claim their women. Pelasgus fears the judgment of the afterworld: “In aid of strangers thou the State hast slain.”

But if Pelasgus doesn’t take in the refugees, he breaks a higher law. Whosoever saw a wool-bound olive branch in ancient Hellas was bound to grant the supplicant protection. Or else the man would subject himself and his people to the retribution of the gods.

Ruin threatens, no matter what Pelasgus does. He stalls for time but the refugee women put pressure on him. They emphasise that they are sprung from the same people as he. They point to the ancient rule of asylum: “Yea, stern the wrath of Zeus, the suppliants’ lord.”

Pelasgus is perplexed. I am the ruler of this land, but such a decision should be taken by the people, he says. “And if the city bear a common stain, be it the common toil to cleanse the same.” Difficult decisions require the broadest possible support; therefore, democracy is necessary. So reasons Pelasgus.

Now, the refugees are desperate: “Betray not me, the timorous maid, whom far beyond the brine a godless violence cast forth forlorn.” Pelasgus must hear their final arguments. They point to the chest straps and girdles that keep their garments up.

Yes, women often wear such clothes… “What can thy girdles’ craft achieve for thee?” asks the king. “Swiftly to hang me on these sculptured gods!” the women cry. They will hang themselves in the temple if they are denied protection.

Pelasgus is horrified and along with Danaus, hurries away to confer with the city’s citizens. While the refugees wait in the temple, singing out their plaints about the desperate fate of women under the brutality of the marriage yoke, trying out their nooses and dreaming of a time before patriarchy, the citizens of Argos convene to determine their fate.


The figure that sets the current political landscape aquiver is exactly the same now as then: strangers, people from Asia and Africa who with urgency cross borders in search of safety. The future of democracy now hangs, just as it did 2479 years ago, on how society treats those seeking shelter.

But, in Europe, attitudes to immigration and emigration are schizophrenic. Migration is considered to be the most natural thing so long as it is undertaken by Westerners, circling the globe to live or holiday. But when it involves people from other parts of the world who immigrate to Europe, it is considered, at best, a necessary evil.

This is in part due to global inequality. And it is also due to a history that has made it impossible for us to imagine society without taking citizenship and territorial sovereignty for granted. As Aeschylus’ play shows, territorial sovereignty and citizenship are exclusive and exclusionary phenomena, as well as privileges of the powerful. Both involve the sharp distinction between inclusion and exclusion. Immigration makes the residents uncomfortable because it forces them to reconsider the borders that surround community, marked by citizenship and territory, and thus also challenges their identity.

Put simply: the migrant is someone who defies boundaries. The migrant is, therefore, an easy metaphor for menace, for a breach.

Pelasgus holds a blistering speech on the square in Argos in favour of the right to asylum. Then the people vote. Shortly after, Danaus returns to his daughters on the temple hill to report the outcome:

With one assent the Argives spake their will, (…)
The very sky was thrilled when high in air
The concourse raised right hands and swore their oath:-
Free shall the maidens sojourn in this land.
Unharried, undespoiled by mortal wight:
No native hand, no hand of foreigner
Shall drag them hence.

The migrant is the one that defies boundaries. The migrant is, therefore, also an easy metaphor for promise, for a breach. European literature bears witness to cross-border movements and encounters between strangers. It records the testimonies of how each community, with varying success, handled its inevitable vulnerability – equally a possibility – that is the result of bordering an alien world. Argos is an example.


In her analysis of The Suppliants, Julia Kristeva (1991) focuses on the role that befell the ’proxenus’. He had the task of defending the refugees, the strangers, to the citizens. Proxeny developed into a kind of office in ancient Athens. One must imagine the proxenus as a middleman, as a refugee ombudsman or a mouthpiece for the immigrants who lived and worked in the city.

The king undertakes the role himself, once he has overcome his doubts. He represents the refugees and argues that they should be given residence permits. At the end of the drama, when he turns away the fifty betrayed men of Egypt (who will, however, return), he tells the refugees to “enter the city”:

Therein are many dwellings for such guests
As the State honours; (…)

There dwell ye, if ye will to lodge at ease
In halls well-thronged: yet, if your soul prefer,
Tarry secluded in a separate home.
Choose ye and cull, from these our proffered gifts,
Whiche’er is best and sweetest to your will:
And I and all these citizens whose vote
Stands thus decreed, will your protectors be

Aeschylus portrays asylum and integration patterns in both their totality and in detail. How much has changed? Perhaps the right to asylum has since been eroded. But the right to asylum has also been repeatedly renewed, if only first after genocide or war, when its necessity is made clear.

The right to asylum is not something we can choose to reject, unless we are also prepared to choose who we treat as humans and who we will, with a quick wave of the hand, send to their death. As I write, this decision is being made all along Europe’s borders. It could point to the fact that the era of democracy is soon behind us.

Mark Chou, Mark (2012) Greek Tragedy and Contemporary Democracy (Bloomsbury).
Kristeva. Julia (1991) Strangers to Ourselves (Columbia University Press).


Stefan Jonsson is Professor of Ethnic Studies at Linköping University. The present article first appeared in Swedish in Dagens Nyheter and is reproduced here with permission (translated by Anna Holmwood; the translation of text from The Suppliants is by E.D.A. Morshead).

Image: Refugees beneath the statue of liberty on Lesbos by Moodhacker.