By Michael Agier
After the Second World War and its 30 million deportations, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was created in 1950 and in 1951, ratifying the Geneva Convention and Protocol on Asylum and the Status of Refugees. These measures were a direct result of the post-war mind frame, the planned redemption of Europe after the Shoa drama, as well as the perspective of the Cold War that peaked after the construction of the Berlin wall in 1961. The West, which had endorsed the posture of the free world, wanted to become a place of welcome for all the people sent packing from the Soviet Bloc or who had managed to escape. The occidental world, with the United States and Europe as its leaders, declared themselves the bearers of the notion of universality.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the need for a universality rhetoric has dissolved or changed camp, showing the subjective and relative nature of universality itself. The 90’s were a troubled and unsure decade. Marking the end of one century and the beginning of another, these years were a radical turning point. Slowly, asylum and all conditions relating to the crossing of national borders, especially when persons moved along the traditional south/north migration route, were identified as a burden, and soon known as “the misery of the world”, also a threat, giving the poor immigrants and refugees the reputation of persona non grata: illegal, clandestine and dangerous. Within the space of a few years, Europe had gone from an 85% acceptance rate for asylum seekers in the 90’s to an 85% rejection rate by the end of the 2000’s.
New ways of outsourcing the processing of asylum and immigration claims have been adopted since the end of the 90’s. One part of this new institutional outsourcing is the « readmission agreements » predicated on terms that completely contradict the Geneva Convention of 1951. This allows the European Union – or any one of its member countries who can sign up separately – to enter into one of these agreements with a country of provenance (Libya, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Albania, Moroco, Senegal, etc.) that allows them to send back claimants and asylum seekers immediately from these countries. This agreement deletes or removes de facto the right to asylum while officially maintaining that it still exists.
We can now recognize the figure of the untouchable, the supernumerary, the bare life or human superfluity previously advanced by Hannah Arendt in her concept of the stateless. In a world that pretends to be unique, homogeneous and consensual, these marginalized people are experienced simply as a form of excess. The most prosperous states, particularly European states, create for these undesirables a fiction of the externality of the world, a process that accords them a physical life without ever recognizing their social existence. This is what I refer to as internal exile. It describes the long and painful route, often dangerous, from destitute neighbourhood to refugee camp, to detention centre or bush camp, taken by people going from one institutional category to another – clandestine, asylum seeker, internal deportee, refugee or sans papiers – without ever being able to arrive at a place to stay and find recognition in a host city or society.
This path for the exiled is the collateral damage of the security and exclusionary politics of the ‘first world’. It is also, at least in part, the field of action and intervention for humanitarian governments, a concept I equate with the concrete management of the undesirables of the world, in places and situations where the NGO takes the place of the parliamentary representative. A new configuration combines this encampment of people with a humanitarian government required to respond to a diversity of phenomena that are logically presented as ‘disasters’ (vagaries of nature, political crises or human migrations). Thereby, a distant and delegated form of management, a government without citizens must take charge of the undesirables in the globalized world. Nicolas Sarkozy furnishes this analysis with an authentic case study: faced with the impact of the democratic upsurge, the violence and displacement of the Magrheb and Machrek’ populations since the beginning of 2011, the French President proposed to his European colleagues on March 11, 2011 the creation of North African ‘humanitarian zones’ to ‘control the migration flows’, thus pinning the humanitarian banner to the desire for political control over human mobility…
Extraterritoriality defines and indentifies the stranger today: if he is physically present, he is administratively held over and beyond the national territory. Two French laws, passed in 2003 and 2010, institutionalize this situation, literally declaring “outside the territory” all the places that a stranger “in an irregular situation’ might pass through from the moment that he sets foot on French soil, whether he has had to move for safety or administrative reasons for example, or if he simply goes from the waiting zone at Roissy airport to Paris. Everything that surrounds him becomes like an aura, extraterritorial, and therefore outside the Law. In Europe as in Australia, where coastal islands are converted into retention centres for foreigners, this is purely about circumventing the law on asylum which states that when a person sets foot on national territory and asks for asylum, they cannot be expelled until their request has been dealt with and due process fully complied with. We can now designate as a waiting zone any part of the territory – a path behind Calais, or a beach in Corsica. These places (that I call “off-site”) become areas of exceptions where an individual, no matter whom, would be a stranger. He is confined to the exception, the extraterritoriality and the exclusion – ‘’exed’’ three times over.
To understand this fully, we must briefly sketch a synoptic picture of this ‘outside’. This outside has no substance, but is the mirror image of the society in which we live and yet largely invisible to the reality of the social world, which by contrast is official and visible. The social world may fancy itself to be like a picture of Europe while these heterotopias or spaces of otherness are a negative of our world.
There are more than 75 million people in a situation of displacement worldwide, but these movements of the population occur 75% of the time within the southern hemisphere. Twelve million of these displaced persons are refugees recognized by the UNHCR, meaning that they have an ID (from either the UNHCR, or the World Food Programme, etc.) and a third live in camps. Since 1948, there are 4.5 million Palestinian refugees worldwide, of which 1.5 million live in camps. To this, we have to add the category of Internally Displaced Persons, a category created by the United Nations. These are people who have left their usual place of residence, in the context of war or violence, but who did not cross the border of their country, as in Afghanistan, Iraq or Sudan, for example. Today, we officially estimate the number of internally displaced persons at 30 million people. At least six million of them live in camps. It would also be important to add the 20 million people displaced because of ‘natural disaster’ that the UN counted in 2008. Everywhere, people without anchor, live in off-sites: at least one thousand camps for twelve million occupants (300 camps for the UNHCR refugees, 60 camps for Palestinian refugees, and several hundred camps for the internally displaced), to which must be added other self-made camps, hidden refuges and other ‘ghettos’. In these areas, those who take refuge or are confined for long periods of time and often restrained by force, live away from the common citizenry. Even if humanitarian discourse still defines them as ‘vulnerable’ or ‘victims’, they are still treated as undesirables.
Those exiles have no starting point from which they can build their story, their poem or the part they play in this exile. The figure of the exile is no longer achievable, simply because there is no place to be recognized as the place of exile, were it not for the location of the camp, the set aside space and the hampered movement. We have gone from an understanding of the spiritual grandeur of the exile to the institutional misery of the refugee, or the sans papiers stranger. The refugee depends on politics recognizing his or her status as an asylum or assistance seeker. The demand for access to minimal assistance creates a strange and humiliating situation where the exile now has to beg for refugee status, in order to prove his good faith but also his innocence, as the figure of ‘victim’ is now elided with one of ‘guilt’. A paradox of the new century after the fall of the Berlin Wall has been that refugee or migrant status went from being a desirable privilege to a matter for ‘negotiation’, and no longer a universal right. As this privilege defines the limit between inside and outside, it’s the principle of humanity itself that comes to be increasingly debated, as well as the actual scope of the common world. The membership of all in a common world and the equality that this community implies, are what allow us to name something an injustice in the broadest context to which we belong – a world whose failure we can now exactly measure.
Michel Agier is an ethnologist and anthropologist at the Institut de Recherche pour le Développement et École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris. Latest book : Le couloir des exilés. Être étranger dans un monde commun, Croquant Edition, 2011.