Vagabonds and Tourists: reflections on the refugee crisis

Vagabonds and Tourists: reflections on the refugee crisis

14 January 2016 by Dr Ruth Valerio in Refugee & Asylum.

Zygmunt Baurman

There is one person who has been coming to mind night after night as I have watched in despair the refugee crisis unfolding over recent weeks. That person is the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman.

Why Bauman? Because one of his most memorable metaphors that he uses to describe our global society is that of vagabonds and tourists.

Bauman, now in his eighties, was one of the leading sociologists of the last century. An unrelenting critic of modern society, he was himself a refugee, forced to flee Poland in 1971 by a Communist anti-semitic movement. He took refuge in the UK and became Professor of Sociology at the University of Leeds, where he has been ever since (it is a strange coincidence that I have actually written this on the train to Leeds).

His genius lay partly in his ability to capture his thoughts in a series of metaphors: solid to liquid as metaphors of society; from game-keeping to gardening to hunting as metaphors of utopia (The Hunger Games exemplifies the hunting metaphor more than he could ever have foreseen), and then vagabonds and tourists as metaphors of people.

For Bauman, the world is divided into two types of people. The vagabonds are those who have no choice but to move: forced from their homes by environmental and social dislocation, needing to find work and the means of sustenance. The tourists are those who move by choice, free to move and take good jobs, moving around the world on holiday.

As I have watched the scenes of death, panic, desperation and heartache that have been relayed to us through our various screens – in Greece, Hungary, Croatia… – I have realised just how prescient Bauman was in his use of these metaphors. Nowhere has this been brought home to me more forcibly than on the islands of Kos and Lesvos where literal tourists are finding themselves mingling unintentionally with literal vagabonds, washed up on the shores from Syria.

Bauman’s metaphors are, of course, polemical: designed to create a forceful response, not too dissimilar to Jesus’ parables, and there are many nuances that need to be brought out (you’ll have to wait till next March to read those though because I explore them in my new book, due out then!).

In the meantime I am reminded that probably all of us reading this would fall into the category of tourist. When we travel it is out of choice. We can choose whether we move or stay.

The question I am left with then is how, as a tourist, will I respond to the vagabonds? Will I notice them and get involved, through praying… giving… speaking out… offering hospitality…. or will I turn a blind eye as I live my life and walk by on the other side?

Dr Ruth Valerio

Ruth Valerio

Environmentalist and theologian, social activist and author. Ruth is Global Advocacy and Influencing Director for Tearfund and carry a vision to inspire and equip Christians to a whole-life response to poverty, helping build a movement that brings about lasting change on the issues that impact the poorest and most vulnerable.

View all posts by Dr Ruth Valerio

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