When does Rosie the refugee become South African? Never?

Rosie” was born in 1987 in Angola, during the civil war. In 1997, her father brought her and her three siblings to Cape Town, where he dumped them in a shelter and disappeared. At the time, Rosie’s siblings’ ages ranged from five to eight years old. Rosie has lived in South Africa ever since. She spent ten years in Angola, eighteen years in South Africa, but she’s still a `refugee.’ The war has ended, and so Rosie and her siblings are now liable for deportation, or not. “We don’t know Angola as ‘home’. We want to get student visas so we can stay here. We don’t have anything to go back to,” Rosie explains.

Last Friday, various reports circulated claiming that the South African government was set to deport as many as 2000 Angolan refugees, as well as a smaller number of refugees from Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone. Over the weekend, the State leapt into action, explaining that it “is firmly committed to ensuring the fulfilment of its international obligations towards refugees and asylum seekers in terms of its ratification of the relevant international protocols.” Which means less than nothing.

Angolan community leader Jao Kaputo has been in South Africa since 1994. He explains the difficulties many Angolans face in the various registration processes, “Our homes were bombed. We lost everything, including documents. We are dispersed; our mothers went their own directions, and our fathers the other direction. As a result some of us are not documented, including children born here, and cannot apply for birth certificates.”

Pedro Nzazi” has been a refugee in South Africa for 20 consecutive years: “Starting over in Angola after 20 years of staying here will be very difficult. I have children at university and others still going to school. If I relocate to Angola, what will happen to them? Many Angolans, whose permits expired already are illegal, may be deported and they cannot access their bank accounts. I know five people who gave up and went back to Angola. They intend to apply for permits from there, but I am worried they might not be successful because of the strict immigration regulations gazetted on 22 May 2014.”

In 1989, Jesus Espirito Do Santos was born in Angola to a Congolese woman, Suzan Ntoto, and her Angolan husband. In 1992, Suzan Ntoto brought her three-year-old Jesus Espirito Do Santos to South Africa and applied for refugee status. In 2009, Ntoto died, and her South African employer offered to adopt Do Santos, but couldn’t because Do Santos couldn’t produce his birth certificate. In 2013, Do Santos, who speaks only English and Afrikaans, and not a word of Portuguese, faced “repatriation.”

Irene Kainda’s story is the same. She came to South Africa as a child refugee, grew up in Cape Town. She and her brother, Felipe, thrived, despite having been abandoned by their mother. And now she faces “repatriation” to a country she does not know that speaks a language she does not speak.

Everything about this is predictably wrong. One could argue that, while the civil war has ended, peace in Angola is still aspirational. For example, the past three months saw activists imprisoned for membership in a book club, and then their mothers were arrested. One could point to the gross injustice of Operation Fiela – Reclaim, an anti-immigrant sweep designed to “restore order” after the March – April Afrophobic, xenophobic pogroms in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng. South Africa’s firm commitment to the strangers in its midst under brutal attack has been to brutally attack those strangers. While the courts have temporarily stopped many of the deportations, the arrests continue, and the brutality intensifies in the Lindela Repatriation Centre. Here’s Fiela: a mountain of warrantless searches and improper arrests, deployment of the military as police, overly long stays in detention, evisceration of due process rights, intensification of xenophobia and Afrophobia. This does not restore or reclaim anything good. It merely terrorizes any South African-based, low to moderate income African born outside of South Africa.

The worst, though, is the willful imposition of inhumanity, the broad-brush practice of State terrorism and violence against those who came seeking succor and have actually thrived. The State will clothe its terrorism in legal language, but it remains terrorism. In South Africa today, what are the borders of being-a-refugee? When does one stop being a stranger and become simply a neighbor? Irene Kainda, Jesus Espirito Do Santos, “Pedro Nzazi”, Jao Kaputo, “Rosie”, and thousands of others want to know.



(Photo Credit: GroundUp)

Prison is bad for pregnant women and other living things


A report entitled Expecting Change: the case for ending the immigration detention of pregnant women was released today. It describes the nightmare that is Yarl’s Wood. The report bristles in its portrait of a system built of violence, planned inefficiencies and incompetence, and general disregard for women. You should read this report.

At the same time, a question haunts the report. So much of it is commonsensical that one feels compelled to wonder about the groundwork and horizons of social justice research. Here’s an example: “Asylum seeking women have poorer maternity outcomes than the general population. Many women in the sample were victims of rape, torture and trafficking.” The vast majority of women asylum seekers are fleeing sexual and other forms of violence, and so it comes as no surprise that they have poorer maternity outcomes than the general population. They also have poorer health outcomes generally, including mental and emotional health. They are asylum seekers.

On the one hand, we could discuss `the system’. We could talk about the planning that goes into systematically “failing to recognize” and “failing to appreciate” the particularities of women prisoners’ lives and situations. We could talk about the political economy of that planned failure, about who benefits and howbut we’ve done that already.

Instead, let’s imagine. Imagine what we could be researching and developing if we weren’t constantly working to undo over three decades of intensive, systematic and, for a very few, profitable mass incarceration.

Here’s where we are today. We have to conduct a multi-year study to prove that pregnant women asylum seekers shouldn’t be in prison.

We have to conduct other studies to prove that prison is an inappropriate place for children seeking asylum. We have to conduct another series of studies to suggest that maybe prison isn’t the best place for children, and that adult prison might be an even worse option. We need another multi-year study to `prove’ that sexual violence against children in juvenile prisons is epidemic. We need that same study to `demonstrate’ that the majority of acts of violence against those children, our children, were perpetrated by adult staff members.

We need another study to prove that the reason that self-harm and hunger strikes are so common, so everyday, in immigrant prisons is that the conditions are inhuman and dire. Prisoners have given up hope as they refuse to give up hope. We need many studies to demonstrate adequately that LGBT immigrants suffer inordinately in immigration prisons, and we need many more studies to demonstrate that the same is true for immigrants who live with disabilities. And then of course we’ll need more studies to prove that immigrant prisoners living with HIV have a tough time behind bars. We’ll need studies to prove that the prisons for immigrants and migrants and asylum seekers are extraordinarily cruel, and then we’ll need other studies to prove that the cruelty of those prisons is actually quite normal, and quite like the cruelty of all the other prisons.

We’ll need studies to prove that immigration prisons embody the architecture of xenophobia, and we’ll need other studies to prove that the asylum system is “flawed”. We’ll need other studies to understand that the xenophobia and the flaws are gendered. And then we’ll need meta-studies that will analyze the curious phenomenon of the complete lack of improvement. These studies will note, with compassion, that after decades of detailed research, the prisons are still hell.

I am grateful for the work scholars have performed. It’s often impossible work, and yet individuals and groups, such as those at Medical Justice who produced today’s study, do that work, and do it with grace. At the same time, imagine. Imagine what we could be researching and learning if we weren’t still drowning in our own Hundred Years’ War of Mass Incarceration. Imagine.


(Image Credit: Medical Justice)

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)