Can Europe Make It?

“The refugee problem is a presage of the great migrations of the twenty first century.”

This is an interview with Michel Foucault conducted by H.Uno, translated by R Nakamura for Shûkan posuto and published in August, 1979. In October, this timely if not prophetic text was translated from the French for openDemocracy by Colin Gordon.  

Michel Foucault
13 November 2015

Original title: “Nanmin mondai ha 21 seku minzoku daiidô no zenchô da”. Interview with H Uno; translated by R Nakamura, Shûkan posuto, 17 August 1979, pp. 34-35.


Dits et écrits III 798 (271) pp 798-800, translated by Ryóji Nakamura. Translated from the French by Colin Gordon, 2015.

35 Vietnamese refugees wait to be taken aboard the amphibious command ship USS BLUE RIDGE (LCC-19). Wikicommons/ PH2 Phil Eggman. Some rights reserved.

Shûkan posuto: What, in your view, is the origin of the Vietnamese refugee problem?

Michel Foucault: Vietnam has been continuously occupied for a century by military powers including France, Japan and the USA. And today the former South Vietnam is occupied by the former North Vietnam. To be sure, this occupation of the South by the North differs from those which preceded it, but one should not forget that the power in place in South Vietnam is that of the North. During this century of occupations, deep hostilities have been created within the population. Many people collaborated with the occupying power, including merchants who did business with colonists, and regional officials who worked under the occupation. Because of these historic antagonisms, part of the population now finds itself accused and rejected.

Many people are feeling this contradiction: previously one needed to support the unification of Vietnam, now we face the problem of refugees, which is its consequence.

MF: A state should not exercise an unconditional right of life and death, either over its own people or over those of another country. Refusing the state this right of life and death was a reason to oppose the bombing of Vietnam by the USA, in our present time it is a reason for helping the refugees.

It seems that the Cambodian refugee problem is different from the Vietnamese one. What do you think about this?

MF: What happened in Cambodia is unprecedented in modern history: the government massacred its own people on a scale never previously perpetrated. And the rest of the population which survived has indeed been saved, but finds itself under the domination of an army exercising violent and destructive power. So the situation there is different from in Vietnam.

It is noticeable however that, in the movements of solidarity which are being organised across the world to support the South East Asian refugees, people are not taking account of the difference in the historical and political situations. One should not remain indifferent to historical and political analyses of the refugee problems, but what needs doing urgently is to save the people who are in danger.

Because at the moment forty thousand Vietnamese people are adrift in the South China Sea, or else washed up on islands where they are on the verge of death. Forty thousand Cambodians have been excluded from Thailand, and they are in danger of dying. At least eighty thousand people are close to death, day by day. No discussion about the global distribution of responsibilities, no argument about the political and economic difficulties of refugee aid can justify states in abandoning these human beings who are at death’s door.

In 1938 and 1939, Jews fled from Germany and central Europe, but because no one would accept them, some of them died. Forty years later, are we again going to send 100,000 people to their death?

For a global solution to the refugee problem, the states which create refugees, notably Vietnam, will have to change their policy. But how do you think we can achieve this global solution?

MF: In the case of Cambodia the situation is much graver than in Vietnam, but there is hope of a solution in the near future. One can imagine that the formation of a government acceptable to the Cambodian people will open the way to a solution. But in Vietnam the problem is much more complex. The political power there is already established: but this power rejects a part of the population, and in any case the people excluded don’t want to stay. The state has created a situation where people are obliged to take the chance of survival through exodus by sea, rather than stay in Vietnam. So it is clear that pressure must be put on Vietnam to change this situation. But what does “putting pressure” mean?

In Geneva at the UN conference on refugees, the member states put pressure on Vietnam, in the form of recommendations and advice. The government of Vietnam then made a few concessions. Rather than abandoning the people who want to leave in uncertain conditions and risking their lives, the Vietnam government is proposing to construct transit centres for the people who want to leave: they will stay there for weeks, months or years, until they find a country that accepts them… But this plan sounds strangely like a system of concentration camps.

The refugee problem has arisen several times in the past, but do you see a novel historical aspect in the Vietnamese situation?

MF: In the twentieth century there have frequently been genocides and ethnic persecutions. I think that in the near future these problems and phenomena will recur in new forms. Because firstly, in recent years the number of dictatorships has risen rather than fallen. Since political expression is impossible in their own country and they lack the strength to resist, people who are being repressed by dictatorships will choose to escape from their hell.

Secondly, post-colonial States have been created within arbitrary borders dating from the colonial period, with the result that ethnic, linguistic and religious groups are mixed together. This leads to serious tensions. In these countries, hostilities within populations are liable to explode and lead to massive population displacements and collapse of the state apparatus.

Thirdly, the developed economic powers which needed labour from the Third world and other developing countries have recruited migrants from Portugal, Algeria or Africa. But now these same countries, which no longer need to import labour because of technological progress, are trying to send these migrants back.

All these problems lead to migrations involving hundreds of thousands, or millions of people. And migrations inevitably tend to become painful and tragic, accompanied by deaths and murders. I am afraid that what is happening in Vietnam is not just a sequel of the past, but a presage of the future.

Translated from the French by Colin Gordon, October 2015.

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