The Refugee Settler Condition: Vietnamese Diasporas In Guåhan And Palestine


This interview with Evyn Lê Espiritu Gandhi was recorded on April 13, 2022, to be featured in The Funambulist podcast. We publish its revised transcript here as the concept of “refugee settler” coined by Evyn appeared to us as a generative idea to discuss the political implications of settler colonial relocation of exiled communities (in this case, Vietnamese) on Indigenous land (in this case Guåhan and Palestine) and its imperial instrumentalization.

LÉOPOLD LAMBERT: One absolutely central concept of your book, Archipelago of Resettlement: Vietnamese Refugee Settlers and Decolonization across Guam and Israel-Palestine (University of California Press, 2022) is the concept of “refugee settler.” In my own experience, the settler colony where this notion would already resonate the most in people’s positionality may be Australia. People organizing in solidarity with the Aboriginal struggle for sovereignty are resolutely using the concept of settler to designate their political condition on this land, including people of refugee families. Beyond the performativity of saying “I, too, am a settler,” what forms of operational politics do you think that this concept facilitates? I ask this question while keeping in mind Indigenous activists in Australia or in Turtle Island, fighting against the carceral archipelago built against refugees, or against the so-called “Muslim ban” (“No ban on Stolen Land!” as Melanie Yazzie and Nick Estes told us!). Formerly enslaved people in the Caribbean and the Americas could not possibly be considered as settlers, so what does it produce politically to insist that refugees should be considered as such?

EVYN LÊ ESPIRITU GANDHI: Maybe I’ll just start by talking a little bit about this concept of refugee settlers, or the refugee settler condition, and how I came to find this concept really helpful for thinking about refugees’ implication and complicated positionality in relation to Indigenous peoples when they resettle in settler colonial states. I want to think about the refugee settler, or what I call the refugee settler condition, to grapple with this fraught positionality of refugee subjects whose resettlement in a settler colonial state is predicated on an unjust dispossession of Indigenous subjects. This entails examining the ways the settler colonial state puts refugees in a structurally antagonistic relationship to Indigenous decolonization struggles. In what ways are refugees implicated in the settler colonial policies of the state in which they’re resettled? But also, what happens when refugees encounter Indigenous sovereignty struggles in these spaces and sites of resettlement?

Before proceeding, I want to talk a little bit about my positionality and how I came to this question, because I think it’s a political question but it’s also a personal question too, in a lot of ways. My mom and grandmother were Vietnamese refugees, who left Saigon, South Vietnam in 1975. They passed through Guåhan, or Guam, and were eventually resettled in southern California. I really wanted to think about our positionality, then, in relation to Native struggles and critiques of settler colonialism—not only in California, but broadly in Turtle Island, as you said. And I think that this question is really building off of a lot of the work that’s coming out of Asian settler colonialism studies, which is distinct from white settler colonial politics.

I gotta give a shout out to the late Patrick Wolfe here as well, who is writing in the Australian Aboriginal context that you invoked in your question. I draw from his critique of settlers and settler colonialism and ongoing forms of dispossession of Aboriginal and Native peoples. As for Asian settler colonial critique, it came out of the Hawaiian context, in particular, trying to think about immigrant subjects from Asia who, due to issues of labor migration, were recruited to work in the sugar plantations in Hawai‘i. They came with a different form of sovereignty than the white settlers; they were implicated in settler colonialism and occupation in Hawai‘i in very different ways. However, post-1950s, a lot of Asian American subjects gained key positions of power in Hawai‘i, and were very much implicated in the structures and the policies that continue to dispossess Kanaka Maoli in Hawai‘i.

At the same time, I really wanted to think about the specificity of refugees, who, unlike some immigrant populations, don’t have a choice in where they end up and didn’t have a choice regarding leaving their homeland. I wanted to study the specificity of the condition of forced displacement. How does that structure refugees’ relationship to the lands of their resettlement? I want to be really clear that, in this project, the goal is not to point fingers or administer blame on refugees. These conditions of forced displacement are very real, and very material for folks.

I want to say that at the same time that we need to have a politics of resettlement and embracing refugees who have been displaced, we also need to attend to the spaces to which they are displaced and think about the land contestation struggles that are occurring there.

You mentioned Melanie K. Yazzie and Nick Estes’ concept or politics of “No ban on stolen land!”, which is a huge source of inspiration for my work as well and helps me to think about not only how refugees but also Indigenous scholars and activists are reframing the conversation, to think about a welcome of refugee subjects on Indigenous terms, rather than on the terms of the settler colonial state.