In Search of Transnational Sanctuaries

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In Search of Transnational Sanctuaries

  • May 27, 2021
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In Search of Transnational Sanctuaries     

By Abdulkadir Osman Farah, PhD

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The “possible abuse[s]” of colonialism “cannot annul the right of citizens of the world to try to establish community with all, and to this end, to visit all regions of the earth”                                                                                                                                                              Immanuel Kant (1795) 1996 “Toward Perpetual Peace”, translated and edited by Mary J. Gregor, 311–52. New York: Cambridge University Press

“It is not for speculative or ethical reasons that I am interested in unconditional hospitality, but in order to transform what is going on today in our world”                                                                                                                                                                                            Jacques Derrida, in an interview with Kearney and Dooley 1999, 70

Beyond the question of the appropriate scope of territorial rights- the very idea of territorial zones might suggest that the world can be neatly divided into homogeneous sharply divided communities. State boundaries do not and cannot match the variegated nature of the political communities that they govern; and there are many people who have relationships of various kinds with people across territories, across zones and seek to deepen them. Perhaps what is needed is not a political theory of territory, but a theory beyond territory, a sketch of normatively attractive, institutionally visible de-territorialized world”                                                                                             Moore, M. (2015) A political theory of territory. Oxford University Press

“Sunsets in the city where I have gown up all my life and been raised just hits differently. Nowhere are these moments most precious than here in NYC and back home in Bangladesh. My two sanctuaries on this glorious earth, the beauty of being transnational being”      Thahitum Mariam, Poet and Community Organizer (2019)  

Installing and avoiding transnational sanctuary abandonment  

Successive Australian governments had for some time denied sanctuaries for migrants and refugees. This was particularly the case for Africans and Asians[i]. By demonstrating commitment, Australian authorities constructed military bases in isolated remote oceanic islands, designed for displacement and seclusion targeting actual and potential sanctuary seekers[ii]. Other western countries have since implemented or shown interest in such extraterritorial relocations and encampments[iii].

The latest scheme into the sequence includes states abandoning sanctuary obligations for their own transnational citizens[iv]. With the contradictory proclamations of rejecting own citizens, Australia justifies its decisions with the priority of protecting its mainland public from potential risks. Keeping citizens from returning to their own country might seem a temporary precaution for security reasons or otherwise. Overtime though such actions might drag longer, create disparities and eventually lead to unintended consequences[v].

For the involved citizens, often considering their homeland as a kind of permanent sanctuary bastion, even a momentary transitional sense of foreignness might result not just immediate panic but also potentially long-term alienation from the society and nation. For the transnationals, lessons herewith learned might include that sanctuaries, whether national or transnational, remain temporary and unstable- influenced and formed by various more or less emerging unpredictable developments- triggering routine emotional and physical uncertainties. The traumatic experience leaves behind a sense of disempowerment and lack of belonging.

In somewhat similar, but from an agency-oriented perspective, transnational communities also abandon their states and nations by fleeing to some other parts of the world[vi]. The case of transnational Indians represents the most recent. As a nation, India often boasts of having one of the world’s largest transnational community population in overseas territories. Such transnational scattering has both historic, sociological and developmental reasoning and explanations. Through mainly transnational trade, social ties and the formations of diverse global empires, Indians moved and settled in different parts of the world. Surprisingly, though, over the centuries, Indians largely integrated into host societies while simultaneously maintaining their distinct culture and ways of living intact[vii]. The same is also the potentialities of continuing linkage and association with the homeland. Consequently, overseas Indians remain powerful not just in socio-political and economic terms but also in cultural formations. Often aspirants of higher politics, hereunder the Indian prime minster, participate and mobilize election campaigns and other fundraising activities in foreign countries among occasionally enthusiastic transnational Indian communities. While the state and power-eager politicians act transnationally for political and economic interests, communities also operate transnationally by creating multiple transnational spaces and connections. In this regard, they consequently balance the benefits and risks emanating from- or associated with-such connections. If risks, for instance, arise in one location, communities often seek potential sanctuaries in alternative locations.

In precaution though, most Indians do not qualify as privileged. While some remain affluent and mobile through transnational mobility, most Indians remain immobile and underprivileged. During the current pandemic, the better offs hasten in search of alterative sanctuaries with multi-direction movements. For instance, earlier when the pandemic was severe in Britain, communities preferred moving to India, at the time with lesser infections than the US and UK. When conditions reversed and India began suffering from the pandemic spread, communities started abandoning India and flying back among other places to the Gulf and to the west.

Similar developments occurred among transnational African communities. While the West initially struggled with the pandemic, many sought sanctuaries in their original homelands, and when conditions improved in the west, and Africa began struggling, people gradually returned.

One of the most extravagant transnational sanctuary seeking episodes include the cases of celebrities escaping from their homelands to host societies such as Maldives, Mauritius or in other remotely isolated inlands- with the purpose of staying away from pandemic troubles[viii]. The better offs often justify their decisions for relaxation, with reunion and protection of families, a move usually considered temporary- but might often last longer.

The practicality of transnational sanctuaries 

The dynamics of accessing or non-accessing to potential sanctuaries- whether transnational or national- suggests the existence of relative power relations between the diverse involved nations and in relation to the particularly impacted social groups. The process also concerns whether people belong to the searching (demand side), to the accommodating side (supply side) or both. Often authorities can and do restrict and expand both the searching and the accommodating sides. Meanwhile groups of people, whether formally or informally organized, also engage collectively or individually in perpetuating accessibility or non-accessibility to particular spaces or territories. If authorities end up excluding, then the excluded groups with partners mobilize against such restrictions- seeking alternatives. Often exempted from such struggles include the socially and politically privileged, particularly those groups dominant authorities might profile as belonging to or supporting conventional interests. From such relationships, for instance, emerges the favourable status of the so-called transnational class- which Fraser argued mostly operate almost troubleless transnationalism with lesser movement and territorial restrictions[ix].

For C. Wright Mills the national power-elite share certain origin of social upbringing combined with preserved political outlook’[x]. Similarly, but rather proactively, members of the corporate transnational elite jointly also develop a special sense of ‘we-ness’ in sharing a ‘worldview, manners as well as preferably social background’ [xi]. Sklair adds that members of the transnational capitalist class ‘have outward-oriented global rather than inward-oriented national perspectives on a variety of issues- enabling people from many countries to consider themselves as “citizens of the world”… by sharing similar lifestyles and patterns of education’[xii].

The history of sanctuary seeking/giving 

In ancient periods with lesser mobilities, people sought sanctuaries within the proximity of local environments and regions. People often fled from situations of natural, social and political upheavals[xiii]. In some other societies, it has been the norm for people undertaking seasonal circular migrations depending on the prevailing social and climatic conditions[xiv]. For the current more trans-nationalized world, movement seems increasingly trans-nationalized and complicated. Nowadays people seek sanctuaries in multiple transnational spaces. Obviously, it will depend on the conditions, political and social transnational contexts, that sustain or constrain such movements. It will also depend on the level of institutionalization and the kind of support people might attain from multiple authorities and structures.

People seek sanctuaries with differences on approaches, forms and content. For instance, recently, we saw members of the transnational class or super-class rushing for transnational sanctuaries[xv]; transnational military states repatriating personnel from exhausted transnational war zones[xvi]; transnational communities mobilizing sanctuaries for people trapped in their hostlands/homelands[xvii]; transnational communities denied residence in one country exploring alternative transnational sanctuaries[xviii].

Historically, sanctuary seeking was associated with criminal fugitives fleeing from justices. Transnational criminal cartels, transnational rebels and transnational trafficking groups all seek and form sanctuaries in their own ways[xix]. In Greek and Roman societies, sanctuary seeking and giving was part of the power struggle between diverse faith groups and city-state authorities[xx]. Later it became a kind of designation agreed upon by conflicting parties of refraining from launching attacks in particular periods and zones[xxi].  More recently it concerned people mainly escaping from injustices. In this regard, not only countries but also cities became engaged in sanctuaries for the mobilization of diverse transnational groups:

“We can identify this practice [as] ”a strategy of scale-switching”, that [cities] might undermine (but do not transform) federal immigration laws and policies by enacting contradictory municipal laws and policies’, not only in sanctuary cities in North America but also in the development of solidarity cities or Refuge Cities in Europe. At other times, though, we see community defined at other scales as, for instance, with the Welcoming Refugee movements finding a space between established civil society and authorities on both local and national scales. Formations of alliances are situated in history and space and must be analyzed with respect to the multi-scalar forms of organizing”.

Agustín, Ó. G., & Jørgensen, M. B. (2018) Solidarity and the ‘refugee Crisis’ in Europe. Springer

While those enduring with sanctuary traps often complain of the existence of risks, lack of security and protection, from their perspective, authorities consider sanctuary denying decisions as necessary political steps for the protection of the people and the country. In addition, people transnationally trapped consider the policies of authorities abandoning their own citizens as drastic and illogic. Not least that ethnic minorities often constitute significant share of the transnationally trapped. These are citizens who already confront numerous citizenship and adjustment challenges, with or without national or global emergencies.

How does sanctuary seeking occur? 

In concrete terms, transnational sanctuary seeking starts with people, individually or collectively, seeking protection from natural calamity, from states or from other people, who could be in more or less authoritative position. Such sanctuary seeking results from the interactions with multiple actors and groups. At least two main groups of sanctuary seeking peoples exist. The first group might seek alternative personal, lifestyle, business or familial transnational sanctuaries. This is a form of optional sanctuary- referring to people who might already have a place to live, stay and thereby get protection from. Such alternative sanctuary is often reserved for potentialities. This is particularly the case when unexpected sudden emergencies arise from the transnational positions and locations people find themselves or are connected to. In a way, this is also a kind of a privileged sanctuary position. Such sanctuary seeking form has been on the rise in recent years. This has probably to do with that, on one hand, the existence of opportunities for building up alternative sanctuaries increased following  globalization and glocalization. Strategically there is also a sense of realisation that belonging or sticking to one specific country might represent a risk factor[xxii].

The second group seeks sanctuary in response to unexpected structural transformation in their native societies. Such peoples include people migrating from oppression, for instance, the current Burma. Among them also include people fleeing from raging pandemics.

Though the two groups differ substantively, the option of seeking sanctuaries itself seems favouring the better offs. The case of the wealthy Indian transnationals shows when challenges arise in a particular sanctuary, the privileged constituents relocate into more favourable sanctuaries. While the privileged transnational class chooses and interchanges optional sanctuaries, the underprivileged might find themselves with no sanctuaries, some even ending up as the so-called “fleeting people” in higher seas with nowhere to go[xxiii]. People also get sanctuaries not just from formal state structures and societies, but also from informal civic organizations whose activists provide shelters for humanitarian reasons.

In recent years, states often provide and restrain sanctuaries randomly. In the past it was the issue of proving sanctuaries to foreigners and to other external actors somehow associated with particular group of people from outside seeking opportunities or protection. Recently states also began speculating on whether to provide sanctuaries for their own citizens. During the pandemic and in relation to also other cases, states were not willing to take risks of taking their potentially infected citizens back home.


Transnational sanctuary seeking is neither a recent nor a rare development. It happened in the past and continues to do so. Such actions depart from complex processes with multiply converging and diverging aspects involving network of interrelated structures as well as, more or less organized, social and political groups. Some of the involved people demonstrate positive progressive tendencies, while others maintain negative oppressive trajectories. The most optimal transnational sanctuary equilibrium might occur If balance exists on what people can or cannot access from particular actual or potential sanctuaries. With such balance people may then pursue and maintain transnational stability. If people, on the other, experience recurring imbalances such as the abovementioned cases and outright state rejections, then people seek imagining and pursuing alternative transnational sanctuaries.


[i] Udah, H., & Singh, P. (2019) Identity, Othering and belonging: toward an understanding of difference and the experiences of African immigrants to Australia. Social Identities, 25(6), 843-859.

[ii] Sharples, R. (2021). Disrupting State Spaces: Asylum Seekers in Australia’s Offshore Detention Centres. Social Sciences, 10(3), 82.



[v] Järv, O., Tominga, A., Müürisepp, K., & Silm, S. (2021). The impact of COVID-19 on daily lives of transnational people based on smartphone data: Estonians in Finland. Journal of Location Based Services, 1-29.


[vii] Radhakrishnan, S. (2011). Appropriately Indian: Gender and culture in a new transnational class. Duke University Press.


[ix] Fraser, N. (2007) Transnational public sphere: Transnationalizing the public sphere: On the legitimacy and efficacy of public opinion in a post-Westphalian world. Theory, culture & society, 24(4), 7-30.

[x] Mills, C. W. (1956) The power elite, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[xi] Carroll, W. K. (2013). The making of a transnational capitalist class: Corporate power in the 21st century. Zed Books Ltd..

[xii] Sklair, L. (2001) The transnational capitalist class, Oxford: Blackwell.

[xiii] Bellwood, P. (2014) First migrants: ancient migration in global perspective. John Wiley & Sons.

[xiv] Vertovec, S. (2006) Is circular migration the way forward in global policy?. Around the globe, 3(2), 38-44.





[xix] Salehyan, I. (2008) No shelter here: Rebel sanctuaries and international conflict. The Journal of Politics, 70(1), 54-66.

[xx] Scott, M. (2012) Space and society in the Greek and Roman worlds. Cambridge University Press.

[xxi] Beardsley, K. (2011) Peacekeeping and the contagion of armed conflict. The Journal of Politics, 73(4), 1051-1064.

[xxii] Beck, U., & Levy, D. (2013) Cosmopolitanized nations: re-imagining collectivity in world risk society. Theory, Culture & Society, 30(2), 3-31.

[xxiii] Sassen, S. (2014) Expulsions. Harvard University Press.