I am in Lesvos to take part in the “Crossing Borders” conference, involving both activists and intellectuals, and dealing with the refugee crisis in the Middle East and Europe. The conference is organized by the Cooperative Institute for Transnational Studies in conjunction with the University of the Aegean.
It is impossible to sit at a portside café in Lesvos without being surrounded by begging refugee children aged 7 or 8 years in tattered clothes, who cup their hands in front of you saying “money, pita (i.e. bread)”, “money, pita”, “money, pita”, over and over again, until they are driven off by the irate waiters. They vie with the hovering pigeons and sparrows for food left uneaten on the café tables.
Today a refugee with an 18 month-old in a stroller came up to our lunchtime table as I was on my smart phone reading the Guardian’s latest coverage of the Chilcot report’s highly critical verdict on the UK’s role in the Iraq war. Eyeing the chips/French fries we had put to the side of the table because we were too full to eat them all, the refugee in his early 30s asked if he could have our leftovers. He took them away in serviette shaped into a cup with a flicker of gratitude on his face, and shared the makeshift cup of chips with his infant son. It was impossible for one to weep, only deep shame at being able to afford a proper meal whenever desired could be registered there and then.
The violence done to these malheureux begins with language.
They are depicted by xenophobic western politicians and their media accomplices as opportunistic “economic migrants”, as opposed to people cruelly displaced, in the main, by the military interventions of countries with the most powerful economies in the world, that have for decades destabilized the regions from which these refugees and asylum seekers are fleeing.
These interventions have had spill-over effects that extend beyond war, such as collapsed infrastructure, ruined health and education systems, exacerbated religious and ethnic tensions, violence against women, human trafficking, breakaway separatisms and nationalisms, and so on.
The rhetoric employed by the UK’s right-wing Brexiters in the recent referendum on the EU and Trump’s presidential campaign reverberates with calls to halt the entry of refugees into the UK and US. Tapping into the zeitgeist seized by these racist Brexiters and Trump, the US and UK– their instrumental role in these regional destabilizations notwithstanding– now squirm and prevaricate shamelessly when asked to take in a few thousand refugees.
(Lebanon, a country the size of Connecticut, has by contrast taken in over a million refugees in the current crisis.)
How then to find a language somehow descriptive of the predicament of these refugees and displaced persons?
Some aspects of Agamben’s homo sacer apply to the refugees and displaced persons, but his definition of homo sacer (“human life…included in the juridical order solely in the form of its exclusion”) precludes the characterization of these unfortunate beings as homo sacer.
For, if anything, the refugees are ensnared in a legal labyrinth which effectively withholds humanitarian assistance from them (while professing to do otherwise), and which detaches them from asylum procedures that actually are in the statute books, to the chagrin of lawyers trying to help asylum seekers– one of the conference papers was given by a lawyer who titled his paper “The madness of working as a human rights lawyer in times where rights (are treated as) useless”.
This legal-bureaucratic behemoth expels volunteers providing basic services like sanitation and the distribution of food in the refugee camps, on the alleged grounds that the volunteers “get in the way” of governmental organizations purporting to help refugees (but in reality barely scratching the surface of privation and hardship). Several relief workers at the conference who worked at the Calais camp said harassment of the workers there by the French police was widespread— “questioning”, bag searches, and demands for identity papers took place constantly.
The behemoth also disrupts sustained treatment of life-threatening conditions such as epilepsy and diabetes, as well as psychological trauma triggered by the experience of torture and by the stress undergone by victims of indiscriminate shelling and bombing. Traumatized refugees are especially likely to have their treatment curtailed when their “unofficial” camps consisting of cardboard boxes and plastic sheets, are demolished by the authorities, on the grounds that these rough-and-ready shelters are “unhygienic”.
The behemoth likewise deliberately withholds from the inhabitants of the camps and detention centres vital information about their future destinations once they are “processed”. Especially vulnerable here are tens of thousands of unaccompanied children, whose emotional and informational needs, understandably often unarticulated, require special provision that is lacking in nearly every case.
The EU has even made a deal with Turkey to send back to Turkey migrants and refugees who have travelled from Turkey to Greece since March 20. This deal caused an appalled Médecins Sans Frontieres to reject EU funding for its work in Turkey. Anyone who doubts any of this should go on Google and type the words “Turkey” or “Greece” and “Médecins Sans Frontieres”.
When I was in Istanbul in 2014 the city was already teeming with refugees sleeping rough on the streets. A Turkish friend who is a university professor told me it was official policy, though of course none of this was stated publicly, to make the camps such pits of misery that the inhabitants would flee their Turkish camps for central and western Europe in the hope of being received more sympathetically there.
Despite the valiant efforts of some voluntary organizations, for a good number of refugees finding a better place has been a forlorn hope– swapping an utterly wretched Turkish or Greek refugee camp for the abomination that passes for one in the Calais “jungle” is the equivalent of jumping from the proverbial frying pan into the fire.
When the ancient Romans banished homo sacer they did not appeal meretriciously to any kind of humanitarianism or plead that they were only trying to be “hygienic”!
So perhaps not so much Agamben in this case, but instead something merging Kafka’s sense of the preposterous with Dostoevsky’s insights into casual (and not so casual) malevolence?
The European countries do not view the refugee crisis as one of urgent humanitarian need requiring the provision of adequate resources to address that need. For them this is a crisis of governmentality, of their neoliberal structures and strategies, to which their overwhelming response has been the assertion of control.
This in turn has generated, predictably, a crisis of control. Violent clashes between refugees and police are common. A British relief worker said over lunch that it was difficult for them to find hotel accommodation in Calais because a lot of it had been commandeered by French riot police brought in to “maintain order”. The relief worker told me later that nearly 10,000 riot police were in Calais at any one time, not only to police the camp, but also to secure the ferry terminal and the Channel rail tunnel which are access points to the UK.
The heavy hand of official control encourages refugees to seek alternative spaces that are less supervised– sleeping under bridges, crashing-out for the night on the beach, camping in fields, etc., are preferred by many to the camps.
As the EU’s deal with Turkey shows, its unstated policy is really one of deterrence, of finding ways to get refugees to keep moving, either on to another country whose “problem” they then become, or back to the war-torn hell holes they just escaped from.
There is no European solidarity on the refugee crisis. Hence Greece, reeling from troika-imposed austerity which has crippled its own social-support structures (making many Greeks the equivalent of “refugees” in their own country), now finds itself having to deal with an influx of hundreds of thousands of people who arrive with nothing but the clothes they have on and a couple of plastic bags of odds and ends.
In fact, the EU countries surrounding Greece would quite happily have the displaced persons stay in Greece and not cross its borders into their own countries. According to Reuters, to date nearly a dozen EU countries have built fences to keep out refugees, and most EU countries have not taken in the refugee quotas pledged by them in earlier negotiations and meetings.
Today (8th July 2016) in Lesbos, for instance, a British “Border Force” vessel is moored in the harbour, with the Union flag and a sign saying “PROTECTOR” on its side, clearly defending British borders, albeit on the Greek island with the largest influx of refugees (see the photo below, courtesy of Janell Watson).
It is thus perhaps something of a misnomer to call the malheureux “refugees”, since the term implies that a place of aid and relief may be in the offing, even if only potentially or in principle. This is far from the truth.
Instead I prefer the term used by Loïc Jaeger, Médecins Sans Frontieres’ Head of Mission in Greece– “people on the move”.
If you are a displaced person today, the European nations, apart from a few notable relief efforts (in any case undertaken mainly by informal local networks and the aid agencies), would rather you just kept on walking and walking, and/or got on a leaky boat almost guaranteed to sink, to anywhere but their own countries. The European countries purport to be “democracies”, but their border politics is anything but democratic.
The crisis reported in the western media, which projects it as a “crisis” for the European countries, is in truth a crisis infinitely more dreadful and hazardous for the refugees and asylum seekers than it is for these much wealthier (apart from the few on the EU periphery) countries.
Photo credits: Prof. Dr. Janell Watson