The language of European immigration is broken

This article at Time about the ingrained racism and xenophobia in Switzerland highlights the ongoing abuses experienced by asylum seekers and refugees currently being housed by the national government in different municipalities. Here are a few highlights of the situation:

That’s because local authorities have announced last week that asylum seekers housed by the federal government in Bremgarten’s army barracks won’t be allowed to move around town freely or use the local swimming pool and other sports facilities. “For security reasons, we decided not to allow access to these areas,” the town’s mayor, Raymond Tellenbach, explained in a TV interview. 


Roman Staub, the mayor of Menzingen, a town of 4,300 inhabitants that will house between 100 and 200 asylum seekers in 2015, echoed the unease expressed by his Bremgarten counterpart, telling a Swiss TV station on Aug. 6 that asylum seekers in his community would not be allowed to enter “sensitive areas” like schoolyards to prevent contact with children.

This is, of course, a policy of segregation based on racist notions of who is and isn’t allowed to become part of communities.

However, I am also becoming increasingly annoyed by the hegemonic appropriation of these semantic categories of “asylum seeker” and “refugee”. These are the two words used almost exclusively in all policy documents and media commentary about immigrants trying to reach the EU. The EU needs these migrants to be exclusively denoted as “asylum seekers” and “refugees” because it can then place the responsibility for their displacement outside its borders. These people, we are told, are escaping conditions outside the realm of our responsibility. The structural poverty, political turmoil, warfare, etc, they face back home has nothing to do with us, or so goes the dominant narrative. In this narrative, the European Union then positions itself as “saving” these migrants by allowing them to stay (as the case might be with some) or alternatively, the European Union is saving us from their scourge by detaining them in inhumane conditions and eventually deporting them (as the case is with the vast majority).

Europe needs the figure of the asylum seeker and refugee because then it can self perpetuate the centuries old tradition of Enlightenment and Universal Human Rights. In this tradition, Europe always, always places itself as a final dictum on the humanity of the Other. By creating this “human blob” of asylum seekers, there isn’t a need to offer any granular analysis of the effects of neoliberal globalization and corporate interventions/ resources depletion that created the mass displacements to begin with. Anyone following the “money trail” (which is what these mass displacements are; people following the flow of resources to the place where they are accumulated) is then presented as a single category of “asylum seeker” while denying the multiplicity of experiences and reasons that created the migration flow.

Anyone that aspires to live in the EU without the credentials to do so through a well paid corporate job has two options: become an undocumented immigrant (which is usually an individual pursuit and requires the migrant to have the resources to travel alone and enter the EU on a tourist visa) or claim asylum. Since this is the only venue left for millions, is it any surprise that the numbers would raise as poverty, political turmoil and warfare increase? Rather than offer long term solutions to the structural problems that led to the migration, the European Union creates an industry to deal with the displaced masses. The “asylum seeker industrial complex” gave us the militarization of the EU borders through Frontex; corporate contracts with G4S for the administration of detention camps and deportations; contracts for the purchase of weapons and military technology for surveillance; a legal network of experts that define the rules and regulations; think tanks that first create and then analyze the language of migration and displacement; mental healthcare professionals who have contracts to overview claims of PTSD and associated disorders created by the conditions that led to the asylum claim, etc etc.

The association of the non European Other with terrorism is losing momentum. Europe has more or less exhausted the possibilities of this rhetoric and now needs to move away from it in order to expand the military complex. The “refugee” comes with the added bonus of being an expansive category. It can include people from any region in the world without having to be confined to the “Muslim Other”. In the long term, the “asylum seeker industrial complex” is a much more profitable pursuit.

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