Europe/Crisis: New Keywords of “the Crisis” in and of “Europe”

“Migrant Crisis” / “Refugee Crisis”

Nicholas De Genova, Elena Fontanari, Fiorenza Picozza, Laia Soto Bermant, Aila Spathopoulou, Maurice Stierl, Zakeera Suffee, Martina Tazzioli, Huub van Baar + Can Yildiz

Mass media news coverage has vacillated remarkably between depictions of a European “refugee crisis” and the implicitly more derisive label “migrant crisis.” It is a telling fact that literally every BBC News article related to these topics posted is accompanied with a kind of disclaimer: “A note on terminology: The BBC uses the term migrant to refer to all people on the move who have yet to complete the legal process of claiming asylum. This group includes people fleeing war-torn countries such as Syria, who are likely to be granted refugee status, as well as people who are seeking jobs and better lives, who governments are likely to rule are economic migrants.” In short, in this example and many others, the epistemic crisis related to migration and refugee movements is deflected and displaced: the vexed question of how most appropriately to characterize people on the move without “authorization” across nation-state borders is deferred to a presumed eventual decision on the part of the “proper” governmental authorities, the ostensible “experts,” who purport to manage Europe’s border regime by assessing asylum claims and adjudicating the matter of who may qualify as a “legitimate” and “credible” refugee (see “Politics of protection” in Casas-Cortes et al. 2015). Until such a day of reckoning, however, all refugees may be reduced to the presumed status of “mere” migrants. Indeed, in the discourse of the “migrant crisis,” it would seem that the term “migrant” in fact refers exclusively to “illegal” migrants, and therefore is profoundly implicated in the rendering of “migration” as inextricable from a global / postcolonial politics of class and race. Here, we are reminded furthermore that the very term “asylum seeker” is always already suggestive of a basic suspicion of all people who petition for asylum within a European asylum system that routinely and systematically disqualifies and rejects the great majority of applicants, and thereby ratifies anew the processes by which their mobilities have been illegalized (De Genova 2002; 2013b). As the outcome of the exclusionary politics of asylum, the current “refugee crisis” is in fact producing an enormous expansion of the rejected refugee population in Europe, and thus recomposing their “migrant”/(rejected) “refugee” “illegality” in relation to new formations of class and race inequalities (see “Migrant labour,” in Casas-Cortes et al. 2015).

To begin with, it is crucial to highlight the fundamentally misleading and unstable character of the opposition of the terms “refugees,” “asylum-seekers,” and “migrants.” Unlike “refugee,” for instance, the term “migrant” does not strictly correspond to a specific legal status and by implication does the work of consigning various people on the move to the nebulous category of presumptive “irregularity” or “illegality.” Nonetheless, as suggested above, the more rarefied term “refugee” can tend to relinquish any analytical substance to the narrowly juridical (and highly exclusionary) determinations of governmental authorities. Meanwhile, the term “asylum-seeker” overtly signals the subjection of people on the move to the asylum application procedure, but commonly encompasses both those who will and will not ultimately be granted the status of “refugee,” as well as various intermediary juridical categories of partial recognition and provisional (often precarious) “legality.” Yet, “asylum-seeker” in no sense adequately describes the complex historically specific social and political trajectories of those who find themselves compelled to apply for asylum in the absence of any other “legal” routes for mobility and access to Europe.

Furthermore, migrant subjects who come to be officially recognized as “refugees” and find themselves in possession of a temporary “legal” status nonetheless experience the precarity that is produced by the EU’s exclusionary politics of asylum. Indeed, the contradictory polices of abandonment and control that are deployed by governmental authorities (both EU institutions and national states) in order to govern asylum are characterized by a profound ambivalence that generates various absurd hybrids for those who inhabit “the margins of the state” (Das and Poole 2004), who come to resemble “half-citizens” or “illegal citizens” (Rigo 2007). Subjected to contradictory legal conditionalities, these semi-“legal” migrant/refugee subjects are sometimes trapped in protracted conditions of precarious “legality” and legally enforced immobilization, while at other times, the uncertainties of their juridical condition compel them to move restlessly across state borders under conditions of illegalized mobility and irregularized (temporary) residence (Picozza n.d.). For example, some refugees (originally from sub-Saharan African countries, who had been living and working as migrant workers in Libya for years) escaped persecution and civil war in Libya in 2011, and upon arrival in Italy, were treated as “asylum-seekers” or “temporary refugees” under the North Africa Emergency plan. Then, after enduring homelessness and unemployment in Italy, sometimes for more than three years, when they decided to abandon their destitution and move on in search of better life prospects, crisscrossing Europe, they were abruptly converted into “illegal migrants.” Those who have been registered as “asylum-seekers” or granted tentative “legal” statuses in an EU member state, such as Italy in this instance,fall under the EU’s Dublin regulation: hence, when they relocate to other EU countries to temporarily live and work “irregularly,” they are re-illegalized (reduced to the status of mere “migrants”), and upon apprehension by authorities, may be deported back to Italy. A juridical instability and a geographical hyper-mobility results, which can be understood as an effect of the tensions and conflicts between migrant subjects’ attempts to freely move and make their lives in Europe, on the one hand, and the efforts of EU and nation-state authorities to control and manage these contested mobilities. “Europe” thus emerges as a space of competing practices where borders are continually contested, negotiated, and re-defined, with the vexed question of asylum figured as a central contradiction of the taxonomic power and mechanisms of border control and migration “management” (see “Politics of protection” in Casas-Cortes et al. 2015). This condition of subjection to the Dublin regulation is in no sense unique to this example, however (Brekke, J. and Brochmann 2015; Kasparek 2015; Picozza n.d.; Schuster 2011a,b), and increasingly reveals how thoroughly the EU-ropean asylum system works effectively as a machine for the production of migrant “illegality” (De Genova 2013b).

Germany’s much-celebrated putatively “humanitarian” response to the dramatic influx of refugees and migrants, implemented over the summer of 2015 – effectively opening its borders (albeit very selectively, primarily for people from Syria) and notably, partially suspending the Dublin regulation – has to be understood as a retroactive adjustment to the fact that migrants and refugees have been crossing these same borders for at least two years and have been living “irregularly” on German territory in ever-increasing numbers. Moreover, in Germany as elsewhere, this sort of de facto “amnesty” (masked as a “humanitarian” policy) has been accompanied at the national as well as EU levels by the implementation of new restrictive asylum policies for other (illegalized) migrants and refugees. With the summary designation of various states as “safe third countries,” for instance, a policy of relative “welcome” for some has allowed for the preemptive exclusion of other refugees based only on their national origins, as well as the prospective deportation of many more refugees who have been petitioning for asylum in EU-rope for several years.1 Such national-level measures must be seen alongside the new forms of EU-level border control and migration management, such as the proposals for a new system of asylum-seeker allocation and distribution among member states – the so-called “quota system” – which would impose new forms of coerced mobility as well as forms of forced immobilization, analogous to those long instituted through the Dublin regulation, for migrant subjects.

Indeed, over the course of 2015, European responses to the arrival of people in search of asylum has been increasingly characterized by a politics of containment, aiming to block migrants and refugees prior to entering the territory of EU member states, at the “pre-frontiers” of “Europe.” The bilateral agreements signed by the European Union with Turkey at the end of 2015, as well as the EU military operation European Naval Force Mediterranean (EUNavFor-Med) to “fight migrant smugglers,” have resulted in increasing numbers of refugees and migrants halted in Turkey or Libya. Yet, the politics of containment has been enforced within the “European” space as well: with the creation of new detention camps – the so-called “hotspots” – points of entry such as Greece and Italy have been transformed into spaces of detention, sorting, and deportation, where the crude criteria of nationality has commonly become the main distinction utilized for partitioning those who are permitted to enter EU-rope to seek asylum and those who are blocked or illegalized (see “Differential inclusion/ exclusion” in Casas-Cortes et al. 2015). Thus, an expedited asylum procedure is meant to also serve the ends of expedited deportations for all those who are disqualified.

As a new and ambiguous form of detention center, “hotspot” emerges as the name for a new strategy for the capture of migrant mobilities: they reconfigure the demarcation of borderzones at the external frontiers of EU-rope (and also within the “European” space) that trace exclusionary partitions among migrants and refugees, giving some a pass as “legitimate” while illegalizing others as “unworthy” of asylum. The “hotspot” system, first launched in May 2015 and officially implemented in September in Italy and Greece, represents the restructuring of mechanisms of capture and identification in response to the migration “turmoil” at the external frontiers of Europe. According to these “hotspot” logics, Greece and Italy should operate as border zones for the enactment of a sort of pre-selection process, identifying and fingerprinting as quickly as possible all new arrivals and partitioning them as either “genuine” prospective refugees and all others, who promptly become deportable. Lampedusa and Lesvos will hereby function increasingly as island prisons, where the supposedly accelerated temporality of fast identification procedures – conducted “on the spot” – is combined with an indefinite detention (and protracted immobilization) for any migrants or refugees who refuse to be fingerprinted.

October 2015: While the weather deteriorates, refugees wait for registration without adequate shelter, food, medical care or sanitary facilities in the Moria “Hot Spot” in Lesvos, Greece.
September 2015: Moria Refugee Camp in the Greek Island of Lesbos. (Anadolu Agency)

In December 2015, 250 Eritrean refugees organized a protest on Lampedusa, demanding to be released from the camp where they had been detained for two months for refusing to give their fingerprints.

“No Fingerprint!”

Thus, centers of first “reception” in EU-rope become spatial traps for migrants. Likewise, the so-called “military-humanitarian” modes of border government are transformed into a police function, performed by EU-ropean actors (such as the border enforcement agency, Frontex) alongside humanitarian ones (such as UNHCR).

These new forms of bordering only exacerbate the uneven geographies of “Europe,” however. For example, on the Greek islands of Lesvos and Samos, local governments have largely acquiesced and accepted the transformation of their islands into “hotspots,” welcoming the arrival of assorted humanitarian agencies such as UNHCR, the Red Cross, and Doctors without Borders. In striking contrast, the local governments of other prospective Greek island “hotspots,” such as Kos and the small island of Agathonisi (near Leros), have persistently refused the implementation of “hotspot” camps and the installation of humanitarian NGOs, claiming that both the border policing and humanitarian functions will merely convert these islands into magnets attracting the arrival of more migrants and refugees on their shores and, consequently, damage the local tourism-driven economies. Hence, in the context of the economic “crisis,” authorities and many other local interests on these islands perceive the EU-ropeanization of their management of the “migration” and “refugee crisis” as simply another manifestation of a larger “European threat” that has devastated Greece’s economic viability, more generally. From the standpoint of some of EU-rope’s beleaguered borderlands, therefore, the deepening integration of military tactics and humanitarian techniques reappears not as a “solution” to the “crisis” of the border but rather as one more series of measures that will further escalate the (double) “crisis.”

Furthermore, transit zones such as the Eidomeni camp at the Greek-Macedonian border – where the deeply consequential partition between “refugees” and “everyone else” is made on the crude basis of nationality (such that only Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans are allowed to cross) – or the makeshift self-organized refugee/migrant camp at Calais near the entrance to the Channel Tunnel leading into Britain – where many migrants are periodically apprehended and deported by French authorities – operate informally as de facto “hotspots.” Reacting to the practices of mobility and the spaces of transit instigated by migrant subjects, these official and informal “hotspots” are simply among the most prominent signs of the new compulsion for EU and nation-state institutions to re-organize their responses to the autonomy and subjectivity of migration, in a feckless effort to sort, rank, and manage these human mobilities – all the while callously eroding any presumed “right” to asylum, and re-instituting the larger mechanisms for the preemptive illegalization of cross-border mobility on the part of the majority of humankind.

The multiplication of borders and the heterogeneity of border zones (Mezzadra and Neilson 2013) have been the hallmark of the ongoing “crisis” of migration in Europe. The perfunctory and euphemistic expression “mixed migration flows” is increasingly used by policy makers to reflect the veritable impossibility for states and migration agencies to fully domesticate and discipline the unruly practices of mobility that constantly exceed the boundaries of existing governmental categories and criteria for partitioning distinct formations of human mobility. What is commonly called “the migrant crisis” or “the refugee crisis” actually reflects the frantic attempt by the EU and European nation-states to control, contain, and govern people’s (“unauthorized”) transnational and inter-continental movements. Indeed, the naming of this “crisis” as such appears to be precisely a device for the authorization of exceptional or “emergency” governmental measures – and then their normalization – toward the ends of enhanced and expanded border enforcement and immigration policing. It could be said, then, that the “crisis” itself operates as a critical moment that allows governments to push through controversial policies while citizens are too intellectually distracted, emotionally manipulated, or otherwise paralyzed by the border spectacle to organize any adequate or consequential form of resistance (De Genova 2002; 2013b; see also “Border Spectacle” in Casas-Cortes et al. 2015; cf. Klein 2007). The ongoing “crisis” therefore corresponds above all to a crisis of sovereignty and the exercise of a power over classifying, naming and partitioning the “migrants”/ “refugees.”

Notably, the very terms “migrant crisis” and “refugee crisis” tend to personalize “crisis” and relocate “crisis” in the body and person of the figurative migrant/refugee, as if s/he is the carrier of a disease called “crisis,” and thus carries the contagion of “crisis” wherever s/he may go. Most importantly, the figure of the migrant/refugee hereby threatens “Europe” with its incurable and contagious malady. Whether this figure of personified “crisis” appears in the Mediterranean or Aegean Seas, or at the barbed-wire barricades on land – from Calais to Ceuta to the small border towns of Hungary or Bulgaria – the illegalized migrant or refugee’s physical presence and transgressive mobility delivers “crisis” to the amorphous symbolic membrane surrounding amoeba-like “Europe,” whenever and wherever it is “violated” by “foreign” bodies. Some of these embodiments of “crisis” are literally converted into figures of death as the corpses of migrants and refugees become spectacularly visible through the proliferation of images of dead bodies floating in the sea or washing upon the shores of “Europe”; others are hunted, wounded, exhausted, covered in dust and mud, or depicted in frenzied crowds, charging fences or climbing through the windows of trains – like cockroaches, commonly likened to a menacing “invasion” or catastrophic “floods,” if not outright “infestations” or “swarms”: wherever they are heading, they appear to bring “the crisis” with them. These spectacles sterilize Europe and divorce it from its “umbilical connection” (Hall 2008) to the diverse regions from which illegalized migrants and refugees come, and thus systematically dissimulates Europe’s precisely (post-)colonial interest in the natural resources and human labor of these (usually) formerly colonized lands. Migration thus presents itself as a disruptive manifestation of the postcolonial heritage of Europe (De Genova 2010c;2016). The terms “migrant” or “refugee crisis” therefore seem to be aimed at compelling us to imagine a “crisis” embodied in the human beings who, through their illegalized mobilities, now come to be racialized as “migrant.” In this context, the migrant struggle slogan, We are here, because you were there! continues to afford a resounding understanding of this phenomenon called “crisis” inasmuch as it invites us – indeed, requires us – to recognize Europe’s role in the very production of this “crisis.”

However, it remains crucial to underscore that the current “crisis” of border control and migration “management” is instigated, first and foremost, by the sheer autonomy and subjectivity of human mobility itself, and arises as an effect of the multifarious and entangled reasons for which people move across state borders without “authorization” or, alternately, find themselves stranded en route, stuck someplace along the way in their migratory trajectories. In this regard, in the face of the proliferation of alternating and seemingly interchangeable discourses of “migrant” or “refugee crisis,” the primary question that must be asked is: Whose “crisis”? In fact, this is fundamentally a “crisis” of (postcolonial) state power over the transnational human mobility of those whose movements are otherwise presumptively disqualified as “illegal” (effectively, on the grounds of global class, race, or nationality inequalities). Thus, we may begin to appreciate that this “crisis” is really a moment of governmental impasse that is being mobilized and strategically deployed for the reconfiguration of tactics and techniques of border policing.

This “crisis” therefore must also be seized as an opportunity for re-thinking and re-inventing border struggles toward the ends of reinforcing and enhancing the elementary human freedom of movement (De Genova 2010b). In particular, it is crucial to call attention to the new spaces of “transit” opened up by the migrants and refugees themselves, and consequently the ways in which these “irregular” human mobilities have scrambled and re-shuffled the social and political geography of “Europe.” Furthermore, we must begin to recognize and theorize the convoluted (un-mapped and potentially un-mappable) migratory routes that correspond to migrant and refugee movements across the European space that do not abide by the unidirectional (Eurocentric) arrows of the hegemonic cartographic representations of “the crisis” propagated by Frontex or the IOM (see “Counter-Mapping” in Casas-Cortes et al. 2015). In this respect, the “crisis” of the European border regime provoked by the myriad autonomies and subjectivities of human mobilities presents us with a moment replete not only with as-yet unresolved conflicts but also unimagined potentialities.

Essay series continues on next page…


  1. Germany, for instance, has designated most of the successor states of the former Yugoslavia, as well as Albania, to be “safe third countries,” even while several human rights organizations have collected evidence that many of these states cannot be considered to be “safe” for Roma. This recent German decision has impacted not only on former Yugoslavian citizens who fled to Germany in the 1990s to claim asylum under highly disputed circumstances (many of whom have recently been deported to their putative “countries of origin”), but also for asylum-seekers who have tried to enter Germany much more recently from the same purportedly “safe” southeastern European countries (Sardelić 2015; van Baar 2016c).

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