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Seeking AsylumHuman Smuggling and Bureaucracy at the Border$

Alison Mountz

Print publication date: 2010

Print ISBN-13: 9780816665372

Published to Minnesota Scholarship Online: August 2015

DOI: 10.5749/minnesota/9780816665372.001.0001

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What Kind of State Are We In?

What Kind of State Are We In?

(p.167) Chapter 7 What Kind of State Are We In?
Seeking Asylum

Alison Mountz

University of Minnesota Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter summarizes the book’s main themes. It argues that states of migration are capitalizing on crises to advance enforcement agendas that exclude those in search of refuge. Whether viewed from the outside in or the inside out, the state is imagined, enacted, and encountered in our daily lives. In these processes, state borders expand far beyond political boundaries, moving outward to bring into being paradoxical zones and extraterritorial locales of policing and detention. The implications of the knowledge set forth in the book about migration are also discussed. The chapter concludes that the challenges confronting states of migration will not be solved simply, partially, or in times of crisis. Nor will they be solved by shifting the borders of sovereignty.

Keywords:   states, migration, immigration policy, borders, policing detention

If we pause for a moment on the meaning of “states” as the “conditions in which we find ourselves,” then it seems we reference the moment of writing itself or perhaps even a certain condition of being upset, out of sorts: what kind of state are we in when we start to think about the state?

—Judith Butler (2007, 3)

THIS BOOK HAS EXPLORED the relationship between discourse and practice, between the production of mobile subjectivities—the smuggled, the refugee, the spontaneous arrival, the detainee—and their abjection. Contemporary discourse on migration and asylum is indeed riddled with metaphors of exclusion by states. Australia excises islands, Europe externalizes processing, and Canada crafts the long tunnel. These metaphors represent exclusionary geographies that contribute to the shrinking of spaces of asylum. Meanings of asylum, initially designed to protect, are themselves crossing into a new phase of securitization. The very border enforcement regimes developed to curb human smuggling also stop asylum seekers from reaching sovereign territory. The securitization of migration renders those persons in search of protection more vulnerable.

States themselves act as the architects of statelessness, by utilizing legal ambiguity, temporary policies, and detention centers. It is imperative, therefore, that we turn our attention not only to those sites and persons that are stateless by geographical design, but also to states themselves, to document and understand their practices. While civil servants work furiously to manage human migration, social scientists must work equally hard to trace the changing nature of sovereignty and the many contradictions involved in (p.168) its exercises in border enforcement. We must write our way to and through the state, to understand just what kind of state we are in.

The book has examined state practices and their effects, from the conventional borders of sovereignty, to the preemptive transnational state that stops migration abroad. The analysis began at the administrative center and then moved progressively outward—along state borders and abroad to the international staging areas of human smuggling, to the margins of sovereign territory where asylum seekers find themselves detained, and then into daily life, where we negotiate and confront immigration and refugee policies. States enact violence not only in the act of detention, but also in the more mundane practices of exclusion, where migrants and asylum seekers are haunted as policy reverberates through work and life.

I have argued that states of migration are capitalizing on crises to advance enforcement agendas that exclude those in search of refuge. Whether viewed from the outside in or the inside out, the state is imagined, enacted, and encountered in our daily lives. In these processes, state borders expand far beyond political boundaries, moving outward to bring into being paradoxical zones and extraterritorial locales of policing and detention. The text dwelled in zones of exclusion: the tunnel, the detention center, the hearing, the island. These cartographies of enforcement demonstrate the securitization of borders that corresponds with shifting, privatized, dispersed, transnational areas of sovereignty. New political geographies of the state have been drawn, often constructing intimate and proximate boundaries around the body.

The competing views of borders held by civil servants and transnational migrants point to contradictory “states,” where states act more transnationally in their enforcement practices, exercising sovereign powers that extend beyond traditionally conceived boundaries of sovereign territory. The book’s ethnography of CIC has shown that, in the realm of human smuggling by sea, crises in the media often intersect with voids in policy, with exclusionary results. A battle in the naming and categorizing of those intercepted—typically, “bogus” refugees—accompanies remote institutional geographies of processing and detention. Canada does not act alone in these practices; rather, it is accompanied by other countries that are “leaders” in realms of border enforcement and refugee resettlement. States prove performative in their responses to human smuggling crises in the media, working their way productively—if perilously—through competing narratives of vulnerability and might with corresponding geographies of stateless spaces, remote detention, and interdiction.

(p.169) Most migrants who came by sea to Canada were repatriated in highly publicized and controversial chartered flights in 2000. As for Canada, after years of negotiations to draft and sign an interdepartmental Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) that would fill the void in policy around interceptions, the MOA was finally completed but never signed, leaving Canada in the same state of unpreparedness. Whether written into policy (as in Australia) or kept geographically apart from access to policy (as in the United States), ad hoc arrangements intersect with national security imperatives, resulting in crisis and exclusion.

Localized, seemingly aberrant phenomena connect with broader enforcement trends happening across international borders. In a 2007 editorial called “Gitmos across America,” the New York Times recognized the relationship between the detention of foreign nationals within and outside sovereign territory. Hidden and legally ambiguous detentions reduce chances of protection for those on the move. Exceptionalism prevails both on-and offshore.

Just as Gibson-Graham (1996) provoked readers to think outside the paradigm of capitalism, we must think beyond the inevitability of expansive borders, shrinking spaces of asylum, and “Gitmos across America”—in short, beyond the pervasive, mythical power of the magical state—to imagine and struggle for alternative geographies that protect and include, rather than endanger and exclude. Transnational migrations have elicited transnational enforcement responses, which in turn have elicited transnational activist projects. As states design sites that evade legal protections, a dynamic array of advocates and activists also work across borders to design alternative geographies of mobility. They confront transnational enforcement practices by drawing creative, transnational politics of resistance (Grewal and Kaplan 1994; Portes et al. 1997). National and transnational social movements are gaining momentum as people become politicized to oppose enforcement regimes, offering narratives to counter those of detention and exclusion. Their strategies render visible those practices and people that have been concealed by states. Australian activists wrote letters to asylum seekers detained on islands offshore without telephones or access to legal counsel (Lonely Planet 2003). They pushed down fences around the Woomera detention center in the Australian outback. European and American organizations such as the Detention Watch Network map detention to bring into view the spatial isolation where governments attempt to hide through detention. Activists in Texas and South Austrailia succeeded in shutting down detention centers. In Canada, Australia, and the United (p.170) States, detainees themselves resist with hunger strikes, escapes, and, in their darkest hours, suicide. In January 2009, 700 migrants detained on Lampedusa pushed down the gate to protest the conditions of the detention center (BBC 2009).

Mapping and Making Ethnography of the State

Anthropologist David Valentine (2007) “makes ethnography” of a category; in his study, the category is “transgender.” Valentine (231–33) writes:

Like my trusty bicycle, on these nights transgender is a useful way of getting around, of going from one thing to another, of framing a set of diverse moments and social practices in time and space as an entity. At other times, though, this feeling dissolves into a new story, a fractured sense that I am the starring lead in an ethnographic unity of my own making … “the transgender community” … even as it exists and is real—is at the same time a product of an imagined unity.

My own project takes cues from Valentine. In parallel fashion, I have pursued the transient, troubled category of “the state,” a category that is often more coherent in the writing of academics and activists than in the daily work lives of bureaucrats. The ethnography of the state that I have been “making” here has mapped states not only as institutional arrangements and geographical entities where power circulates through migration-related decisionmaking, but also as an iterative process. As such, an ethnography of the state cannot dwell in any one locale, but must move alongside the state itself. The sites in this book include the edges of sovereign territory and bureaucratic work where migrants, media workers, activists, lawyers, and civil servants struggle over states of migration. Transnational ethnography enables the material mapping of those sites that Agamben (1998) so intensely describes and yet overlooks as everyday practice. Only through ethnography do figures of smuggled migrants and civil servants become embodied and differentiated, rather than racialized and homogenized.

What alternatives to the securitization of migration can be found? State institutions work their way into the intimacies of our daily lives, but they are not without vulnerabilities and fissures of their own. These fissures are small cracks, but ripe with political potential. They become more visible in daily bureaucratic exchanges made up of individuals, groups, and networks across which information flows and policies are formulated.

Meanwhile, people and activities on the margins of the state illuminate its shifting center from the topography of its margins. These shifts are more (p.171) visible in the acts of daily practice than in the texts of policy, but they require innovative methodologies and creative mappings.

Giorgio Agamben sheds light on the margins of the state, writing stories without mapping them. However, contemporary camps and state practices that render “others” stateless by geographical design must be understood on the ground—how they come into being and function on a day-to-day basis. Only by following the lead of anthropologists moving inside the inner workings of the state (Hansen and Stepputat 2001) can we come to understand how Agamben’s states of exception emerge.

The daily negotiations occurring between state and migrant within and beyond sovereign territory must be documented. The theorizing of state activity in extraterritorial locales requires, in turn, a rethinking of transnational geographies of sovereignty and subjectivity (Hansen and Stepputat 2005).

One of the critiques of ethnography is its tendency to dwell in the details of life in one specific locale. This ethnography of the state, for example, hovered in particular in the office of employees of Citizenship and Immigration Canada as they struggled with human smuggling from China to North America. The ethnography responds to critiques of “smallness” in three ways. First, only by entering the anatomy of crisis, talking with and observing those working at its center, do we come to understand the precise moment when crisis gives way to securitization—when mundane border enforcement gives way to more aggressive exclusion of asylum claimants. Second, the connection of the Canadian case to the international context in which civil servants devised and learned strategies from other states sheds light on the fact that those who created the long-tunnel thesis did not act in isolation, but in the company of and conversation with others. Third, theoretical interventions by scholars working in the arena of enforcement and transnational migration facilitate connections between local cases and global trends. Ethnographic research off ers the potential not only to record the long tunnel, but also to understand how it is a tunnel that opens endlessly onto others.

Travesía, a Crossing

Nation-states are using geography strategically to deny people access to asylum policies and other legal and human rights. Through voids in policymaking and loopholes in laws, states produce and then manage crises, enabling the strategic use of geography to restrict access to asylum. They are especially—though by no means exclusively—implementing exclusionary (p.172) practices in extraterritorial locales. These practices become possible through corresponding geographies and discourses that criminalize and exclude asylum seekers; they position, mark, and homogenize the bodies of transnational migrants in particular ways.

It would be a different endeavor to write a book like this one about Canada or about Chinese migration, to write solely from sites of particularity and spaces of exception. Too much scholarship on migration does precisely this. Yet neither Canadian enforcement nor Chinese migration by sea proves exceptional, as international examples have shown. Agamben helpfully names the preponderance of such moments of crisis as exceptionalism. His point is to write against spaces of exception, against the violence perpetrated by states in these times and places too easily labeled “exceptional.” I have aimed here to connect global trends and practices with particular incarnations and expressions rooted in local histories and political struggles.

State enactments of international borders sit on a precipice where the new citizen is included through exclusion. Globally, national borders are drawn hastily and haphazardly around the body: they are biopolitical borders. Without a doubt, states have turned their attention to the containment of the body: incarceration rates rise exponentially within the United States; the U.S. model of imprisonment is exported abroad; and Canadians and others debate where, when, and whom to detain. The body becomes a site of global contestation, of struggles to resist the effects of the state and to be heard and represented.

When states and human smugglers construct tunnels, individuals are resubjectified in the spaces between states. The body is contained and excluded, at once inside and outside of the state. In response, detainees resist with hunger strikes and suicide attempts, highlighting the direct relationship between state strategies of containment and bodily practices of resistance.

The thresholds where migrants find themselves are intentionally ambiguous. States perform excision and exclusion—sometimes quietly and other times in forceful, performative fashion for large, politicized audiences. Some stories will be offered up to the media; others will never be told. Human smuggling events divert attention from irresolvable, protracted refugee situations where “durable solutions” to long-term displacement remain elusive. Genuine protection needs and refugee crises are overshadowed by fears of migrant invasions in the form of boat arrivals. Crises in the detention centers on Guam, the Canary Islands, Lampedusa, Melilla, and Nauru draw the state out of its safe bureaucratic offices and into the limelight of crisis. Suddenly civil servants find themselves on the front pages of newspapers, on national nightly news, on live news feeds of interceptions at sea, and at the center (p.173) of public debate. Crises along borders—at sea, land, and air crossings—intensified throughout the 1990s and gave way to the antiterrorist security walls constructed after 9/11. In this securitized climate, the asylum seeker who arrived spontaneously featured as a criminalized security threat.

The underresourced and unprepared state that refuses to design sustainable policy solutions enters willingly into the performance of crisis at its borders. This is the defensive state, responding and reacting to boats and other threats approaching its borders. Yet this is simultaneously the state that performs on the offense. Policy on the fly gives way to detention, processing in remote locales, and the contracting out of asylum to suprastate institutions, poorer states, and private companies. Boat arrivals construed as crises move securitized policy agendas forward. As Louise Amoore (2007) argues, vision and visuality become key registers through which sovereignty is enacted.

Following crises at coastal and land borders, states extend their borders and turn themselves out on the offense with tactical operations abroad. They network to share information and resources, to collaborate with intelligence and chartered flights of removals. Crisis precipitates action; reaction precipitates preemptive action; human smuggling precipitates border enforcement; terrorist act precipitates antiterrorism security framework. Caught up in these processes through countless modes of exclusion is the person seeking asylum.

Border enforcement projects perpetuate the myth that global migration can be tamed, controlled, “managed” in the name of national security. Some of us live out the myth of securely belonging to multicultural societies, while others witness the violence of exclusion.

How will these alternative states of migration be reconciled? Some of us inhabit the world of policy-speak: the “spontaneous arrival,” “voluntary return,” “temporary protection,” “reintegration package.” Others inhabit the fear of alarmist rhetoric: the bogus refugee, the refugee crisis, the disease, the security threat, the “asylum shopper” who exercises choice. Still others fight for a multicultural future where multiple nationalities are possible in societies that promise “integration” and upward mobility.

In this quote from her classic text The Borderlands / La Frontera, Gloria Anzaldúa connects knowledge to location, asking us to contemplate who we are and where we are located in relation to borders.

Every increment of consciousness, every step forward is a travesía, a crossing. I am again an alien in new territory. And again and again. But if I escape conscious awareness, escape “knowing,” I won’t be moving. Knowledge makes (p.174) me more aware, it makes me more conscious. Knowing is painful because after “it” happens I can’t stay in the same place and be comfortable. I am no longer the person I was before. (1987, 48)

What do we do with the knowledge set forth in the book about migration? What new stories can be told?

Geographies of smuggling and interception continue to expand where additional states of migration mimic practices outlined in this book. Thai and Israeli officials have made international news with marine interceptions. Meanwhile, political change occurs in many of the countries discussed, introducing eras of flux and uncertainty in states of migration for those seeking asylum. Anti-immigrant, reactionary governments hold political power in a number of states in the European Union. Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced an end to the Pacific Solution during his first months in office. It eventually emerged, however, that its residual effects remained and intensified offshore, with the detention facility on Christmas Island filled beyond capacity and the construction of new facilities on Indonesian islands. In the United States, President Barack Obama promised change yet studiously avoided the politically charged topic of immigration reform during his first year in office, as residual enforcement infrastructure remained: continued construction of new detention facilities, controversial deportations, and the intense criminalization of immigrant populations in the form of raids, arrests, and local enforcement.

In October 2009, Canadian authorities intercepted the first boat to arrive since the arrivals from Fujian ten years before. This ship carried seventy-six Sri Lankan Tamil men. After being intercepted, the men were placed in detention in Surrey, a suburb of Vancouver and denied release, their arrival associated with security concerns about the LTTE in Sri Lanka (Globe & Mail 2009). Simultaneously, similar vessels carrying Sri Lankans were intercepted by the Australian Navy and towed to Indonesia. Passengers on one ship started a hunger protest and refused to disembark. They appealed to the global community for help and communicated via mobile phone with relatives in Canada, rather than concede to the detention that they knew awaited them. “We want a resolution from any foreign country that says they are willing to take us…. Nobody wants to come off the boat,” stated one asylum seeker named Alex (Gartrell 2009). Their presence on the ship off western Java represented most poignantly the shrinking spaces of asylum, with nowhere to go but into detention.

(p.175) The challenges confronting states of migration will not be solved simply, partially, or in times of crisis. Nor will they be solved by shifting the borders of sovereignty. We currently inhabit a frightening threshold, between a time, only six decades ago, when asylum was off ered as a means to protect those displaced by war to a time when the selective movement of particular migrants is facilitated while far too many others are abandoned. States continue to shrink spaces of protection through creative geographical tactics. Viewed collectively, these are not exceptional circumstances prompting unusual responses, but rather the norm. How many long tunnels can be routed and rerouted through these mazes of (in) security that bring borders so violently to the threshold of the body? What do we do with this knowledge, and what state will we be in?

States continually attempt to bring order to the disorder that is human migration. The popular language of “migration management” expresses this effort. Policymakers and politicians will invariably opt for managed over spontaneous migration. But displacement defies management and is, by its very nature, a spontaneous act of dispossession for those displaced.

There are basic principles of asylum that states sometimes overlook in their response to human smuggling: that it is not illegal to make an asylum claim, that such claims should be allowed rather than prohibited, that histories must be heard and assessed individually, and that such incidents need not and should not be construed as crises. People traveling on boats, held in detention, and being processed in airports have distinct identities, histories, and desires that need to be heard. They have a right to seek asylum. (p.176)