Asylum haunts the modern democratic nation-state

Pagani detention center, Greece

Asylum haunts the modern democratic nation-state.  Asylum haunts the principle of democracy by positing a citizenship of higher order than that of the national variety. This asylum citizenship is based not in identity, not in birthright, not in lineage or kin, not in relationship to the nation-state. Instead, asylum citizenship is based in the conditions of life, in need, in a will to survive, in a demand for dignity. The asylum citizenship is the unknown and unknowable stranger who demands recognition as a familiar. Asylum citizenship is of a higher order because it has given up on the structures of power and the logic of the nation-State. It is neither a superior citizenship nor a more powerful one nor a wealthier one. Nor is the asylum citizen more privileged.  Asylum citizenship is of a higher order because it has always already been with us, and so precedes the noise of national sovereignty and of national due process, as it exceeds the furor and the hurly burly of the rule of law.

Asylum haunts the modern democratic nation-state because it puts the notion of demos in crisis. Asylum haunts the democratic nation-state because it preceded the nation-state. Asylum does not participate in the nation-state historical narratives of progress, those stories that make the invention and maintenance of the nation-state the pinnacle of civilization. For thousands of years women, men, children have sought, received or were denied asylum. They continue to do so today. This seeming eternal repetition of the same does not mean that those who seek asylum today are somehow `primitive’. Asylum as an aspect of the human condition is no more inevitable than torture or genocide, and no less historical or historically produced.

Women asylum seekers haunt the democratic nation-state because they demonstrate, forcefully, the violent patriarchy that reigns supreme. Children of asylum seekers haunt the democratic nation-state because they also demonstrate, forcefully, the violent patriarchy that reigns supreme.  They step out of the shadows, ask for help, and they are punished. For women asylum seekers and for their children, the modern democratic nation-state is a tight knit and tighter fisted brotherhood, and women asylum seekers and their children are not brothers.

How does the contemporary democratic nation-state respond to the asylum citizen? Prison. Yarl’s Wood, in the UK. T. Don Hutto, in the US. Villawood, in Australia. Lindela, in South Africa. Pagani, in Greece. Via Corelli, in Italy. Opbouw, in the Netherlands. Vottem, in Belgium. Glasmoor, in Germany.  The list goes on, the construction of new `reception centers’ continues, the cells continue to grow more intensely overcrowded. This is the way the modern democratic nation-state recognizes, understands, absorbs, responds to and resolves asylum. Sequestration. Intimidation. Torture, `if necessary’. Expulsion. The nation-state calls these reception centers, residential centers.  And so, this must be the architecture of reception and residence in the modern democratic nation-state.

Fifteen years ago, Jacques Derrida was asked to discuss the ways in which the French population was “taken by surprise” by immigration of the sans-papiers, the undocumented: “Immigration is no higher now than it was a half-century ago.  Yet today it takes people by surprise. It seems to have surprised the social body and the political class, and it seems that the discourses of both right and left, by refusing illegal immigrants (immigrés clandestins), have degenerated into xenophobia in an unexpected way.”

Derrida replied, in part, “A politics that does not maintain a reference to the principle of unconditional hospitality is a politics that loses its reference to justice.  It may retain its rights … but it loses justice. Along with the right to speak of justice in any credible way. …One would have to try to distinguish between a politics of immigration and the respect to the right of asylum.  In principle the right of asylum … is paradoxically less political because it is not modeled in principle on the interests of  the body proper of the nation-state that guarantees this right.  But … it is almost impossible to delimit the properly political nature of the motivations for exile – those that … justify a request for asylum. After all, unemployment in a foreign country is a dysfunction of democracy and a kind of political persecution. Moreover, the market plays a part in this; the rich countries always share in the responsibility (if only through foreign debt and everything it symbolizes) for the politico-economic situations that push people into exile or emigration. And here we touch on the limits of the political and juridical:…a right of asylum can be null or infinite.”

From the perspective of asylum, in the modern democratic nation-state, there is no right, there is no left. These niceties are irrelevant. Instead there is only unconditional hospitality … or there is none. And where there is none, there is injustice. More precisely, there is the loss of justice and the loss of the `right’, the capacity, to speak of justice credibly.  Xenophobia cannot credibly surprise anyone, it is the national democratic politics of false hospitality. The particular `indignities’ visited upon women asylum seekers  cannot surprise anyone. They are manifestations of the patriarchy that reigns supreme in the violent and violating absence of unconditional hospitality.

 

(Photo Credit: UNHCR / EU Observer)

About Dan Moshenberg

Dan Moshenberg is an organizer educator who has worked with various social movements in the United States and South Africa. Find him on Twitter at @danwibg.