On the position of ”asylum-seekers” and asylum-seekers’ struggles in modern societies


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During the last 11 months we have witnessed a strong wave of refugees and asylum-seekers' protests across Germany. These protests are still ongoing and have accomplished considerable achievements up to now. The movement has used a new method of organizing, namely organizing from below. This approach, has hardly any precedent in the socio-political sphere of Germany in the past 2-3 decades and could reach out beyond the walls separating asylum seekers and society, thereby considerably impacting the public and activist groups. The new wave of refugee protests has faced many challenges and notwithstanding its important achievements, has made some mistakes and in some instances has deviated from its goal. Through a critical assessment of the path taken, the movement can go beyond its current limitations and play a more effective and prominent role in the political arena of Germany. Through qualitative and quantitative growth, the movement will hopefully grow beyond Germany and stimulate similar protest movements in other countries as well, a process that has already inspired protest actions in the Netherlands and Austria.

Irrespective of how the achievements of the movement are analyzed, an issue that I will later address in another text, here I will describe my understanding of the position of 'asylum-seekers' in society. This new understanding has been obtained through observations, experiences, conversations, interactions and challenges that I have been part of or directly involved in, during the past months.

Let us start with a simple question: basically, who is called an 'asylum-seeker' and what position is attributed to the person who carries this title? The first part of this question could be readily answered: the phenomenon of asylum seeking is a product of contemporary dominant capitalist forces that create the unbearable social, economic and political conditions in the immigrant's countries of origin which coerce people to leave these countries. The second question, namely what position is imposed upon asylum-seekers in the destination country, is however more difficult to answer. First we note that the term 'asylum-seeker' has a demeaning connotation in European languages (and perhaps other languages, including Farsi). Asylum-seekers are those who 'seek' 'asylum'. But above all this title is a stigma, a logo that determines one's position within the internal hierarchy of a society. Therefore, in order to understand asylum-seekers, the asylum-seekers' position within society should be also understood. Obviously, the common approach of the system to the concept of asylum seekers is to marginalize them and to distort the reality of their condition in the mainstream media. This approach leads to the public lack of information and awareness regarding the asylums-seekers condition. However, more importantly, the position of asylum-seekers itself is unknown and unrecognized due to its very nature.

1. The position of an asylum seeker in society

The answer is clear; given that in the capitalist society the position of a person is determined by the social division of labor in the economic system, the asylum-seeker becomes a person who is not allowed to take part in any of the production and reproduction cycles, does not have ANY position in the society, since s_he does not own any useful economic function. Therefore, from this perspective the asylum-seeker lives outside society at the so-called margins of society (therefore from a pragmatic, economic oriented point of view the asylum-seeker is considered a parasite). Obviously, living outside the society does not necessarily mean that they are physically outside this society, even animals are living in an environment within the human society (and they are protected by solid laws in Germany, some of which do not even apply to asylum-seekers). The Life of an asylum-seeker outside of society means that s_he does not have the means to influence his/her life conditions and social destiny (similar to caged animals in a zoo that can-not determine their life conditions). The situation of an asylum-seeker differs even from the situation of an unemployed person, since the unemployed can potentially find a job sooner or later.

The forced life of asylum seekers outside society is primarily guaranteed by the two sides of the capitalist system: the governmental rules and the police force on the one hand, and simultaneously the nationalist and racist mechanisms (often implemented by the lower socio-economic class of the destination country) on the other hand, together effectively resulting in isolation of asylum seekers from all aspects of social, political, cultural and economical life. In fact this fate is an unavoidable consequence of capitalist structural functionalities and a symbol of its deadly disorder; it can be regarded as the debris of the non-stop workings of the capitalist machinery. Nevertheless, from the point of view of the guardians of the current order, the inevitable nuisance of the asylum seekers should be removed while causing “as little damage to the system as possible'', then be hidden and buried in suburbs and margins of the cities, with the possibility of retaining it as recycled material for usage in the reproduction of the system. Looking carefully at the asylum-seeker's face, we will see the traces of Imperialism. In order to hide these traces this face should be therefore remade but until then the head carrying this face is pushed under water! Refugee camps are places where different steps of this process take place: Isolation, keeping the head under the water and remoulding the faces. The high rate of refugee suicides cases per year clearly and bitterly support this claim.

Of course there is always a safety valve, called deportation, to ensure that the number of incoming and outgoing refugees is proportional, also making sure that unhealthy or unusable cases are returned to their countries of origin. However, triumphant capitalism has created such horrid and intolerable infernos in peripheral countries, outside the borders of the ''safe countries'', that each year many choose to flee and move towards the borders of the ''safe countries''; successfully crossing borders is equivalent to entering the camps and confinements. Many of those who flee in despair lose their lives while trying to reach Europe, Australia or the USA (this is while technology such as satellite tracking systems and non-official army forces, such as Frontex1 for Europe – are used to protect the borders and to reject those who try to cross them).

What we see in practice is the project of 'demonizing' asylum seekers, the refugees are the demons who crossed land, see or air borders first and then crossed the borders within countries and are rendered more and more invisible, so ghost-like and indiscernible that the political message they carry and its problematic can-not be conveyed to the public space. The life in the limbo of camps acts as a hammer which smoothens up all the jagged roughness of asylum-seekers' character (the system of surveillance and punishment). Thereafter ''filters'' are put in place to detect the lucky ones; the ones who can best serve the system and integrate in it. Ultimately, those who pass through these filters turn into cheap workforce, the current supply of which is necessary for the maintenance of the economy of the metropole countries (even some of 'developing countries', like in the Gulf region, need cheap and obedient workforce to pursue their economic growth). The masses of refugees that live in suspension, not knowing their status, could also be seen as the reserve workforce who will in due time, depending on the demands of the market and the level of laborers' struggles (noting that national and social differences are used as tools to split the workforce), enter the market. In fact, the asylum-seekers living the uncertain, suspended life of camp limbos are ready to accept any job and therefore will provide the cheapest work force. In fact, if necessary, small changes in regulations can be easily made so that the asylum seekers are recruited for temporary or 'illegalized' jobs and of course they can at any time be returned back to their camps or even to their countries of origin thereafter.

However, albeit all the potentialities and connections that along the way of asylum-seekers' future lives connect them to the 'working class', and despite both belonging to the lowest social classes, the concept of asylum-seeker should be differentiated from the 'working class'. In fact asylum seekers belong to the hidden layers of the society (in traditional classifications) and the term of 'under-class' is more appropriate to describe their position. Therefore the concept of asylum seekers is somewhat similar to the 'margins of the society': the people that due to 'citizen'/'non-citizen' dichotomy are thrown out of the formal territory of the 'citizen' based societies. All their efforts to gain recognition is constantly refused and suppressed by both society and government. Perhaps an example can elucidate this difference: although the organized section of the working class struggles to improve the labor conditions and increase their wages, i.e. the rate at which their labor is sold, the 'non-citizen' asylum-seekers have to strive to obtain a permission to work, a permission that allows them to sell their labor in the first place.

Contemporary governments and societies have internalized the 'citizen'/'non-citizen' dichotomy to the extent that the non-citizens can do nothing but to strive to become a citizen if they want to change their marginalized condition, this in turn requiring them to integrate into the logic of the system. At any rate, the transition from non-citizen to citizen or any other secure' status, inherently promotes the status as second class citizen. However, in principle, our efforts should be towards building a society that does not need this dichotomy. Creation of such a society requires the creation of an alternative2.

2. Do the systematic discriminations towards asylum seekers result from racism?

Individuals, groups and communities that strive and struggle towards improving asylum seekers' condition often regard their struggle as a fight against racism. A clear example of this is the point of view and discourse that is shared by many activists who have taken part in the movement of the last last 11 months. These people and groups, (some of whom have been long involved in defending refugees rights and fighting against racism), believe that the governmental regulations concerning refugees' lives are cultural remains from the era of white European colonialization or the period of fascist rule. However, we are in an era where a persisting economic crisis and the growth of radical potentials of the working class have been associated with the appearance of new forms of racism. The growth of neo-fascist beliefs and behaviours that are foddered by the right wing, populist fraction of the government who through attacking people regarded as 'foreigners', leftists and those who fit both categories, try to hide the real reasons of the crisis. At the same time they are preventing a radical alternative to be formed. In principle, in this situation, any effort to fight racism should be supported. However, the idea that the asylum seekers' struggle is an anti-racist struggle in nature can-not be confirmed. In the following paragraphs I will explain the reasons and will answer the question why the asylum seekers' struggles is not merely an anti-racist endeavour.

2.1 Overlapping yes, identical no

Racial discrimination and oppression are forms of social oppression that are as old as human societies themselves and have appeared in different forms across different political and cultural areas. For example, the attitude of Iranians towards Arabs and Afghans should be discussed within its own special geopolitical contexts, while claim of superiority of white Europeans relative to People of Color has its own specific context. Undoubtedly, racism as a long-lasting, perseverant phenomenon can be transferred through time and space. However, when we talk about racism in modern societies, our attention should be directed towards those aspects of racial discrimination that are systematic and are produced and reproduced from the position of power in society, therby providing the social and political context that strengthen and cultivate regressive cultural racist tendencies. 'White supremacy' as a cultural phenomenon for instance is closely related to 'Eurocentrism' in politics. Obviously assuming the historical cultural European domination, the
benifits and rights of Europeans become the priority in the relationship with other countries; giving us the underlying reason for the continuous influence of (post)colonialism. This is the procedure we can see in the ways governments of Western metropoles communicate with and relate to other 'nations'. Here, norms based on political pragmatism and with 'national benefit' as it's ultimate goal, can be found. In other words, when the major political and economic processes and interactions are based on dominance and inequality, they will also affect the cultural domain and will resurface in the form of racist tendencies in society.

The emphasis on structural and systematic racial discrimination in Europe and other societies of the metropoles, however, does not mean that the cultural forms of racism in the society and even among People of Color are any less important. In fact the two forms of discrimination are mutually reinforced, with the structural form having a more prominent role. In any case, the result of these processes is that those regarded as 'foreigners' and People of Color, solely due to their different origin and 'unusual' appearance carry the label of “not from here”. This label despite all the social and legal measures and the pretended tolerance and multiculturalism, confirms itself and reveals the difference between those regarded as 'foreigners' and the 'native people', especially during critical periods such as the economic crisis.

The “not from here” phenomenon resurfaces in many ways: the second and third generation immigrants, the students and job holders from peripheral countries, asylum-seekers and accepted asylum-seekers, illegalized workers and sans-papiers. Usually an 'uncommon', “not from here” name is sufficient to have problems finding a job or a place to rent. Therefore all those who are subject to this discrimination should take part in the struggle against systematic racial discrimination in Europe. Obviously asylum-seekers (non-citizens), as part of the “not from here” who are targets of discrimination, racist attacks and neo-fascist actions should also take part in such a struggle but this does not mean that their endeavour should be limited to the fight against racism (noting that, asylum-seekers, because of their unstable and unsafe situation, coming from their non-citizen status, are even more easily targeted by racist and discriminationg laws). Non-Citizens like other “not from heres” can take part in anti-racist movements and improve their own subjectivity within this struggle, but we need to have in mind that neither the victory nor the failure of an anti-racism struggle will necessarily change the 'citizen'/'non-citizen' balance.

2.2 The laws are based on capitalism, not on racial discrimination

Most of the activists who are involved in 'asylum-seeker' issues believe that current legislations on asylum seekers' life, such as 'Lagerpflicht' (obligatory residence in camps) and 'Residenzpflicht' (obligation to live within certain boundaries) and deportation are all based on racial discrimination. This is the point of view that has brought anti-fascist and anti-racist activists to become the main supporters of the asylum-seeker movement. Here we ask if such a view regarding the origin of asylum-seekers' legislations and laws is correct and also what is the theoretical basis of the link between struggles of asylum-seeker and anti-racism endeavours.

Legislations that concern asylum-seekers' life, such as 'Lagerpflicht', 'Residenzpflicht' and deportation are laws that only apply to one group of people in a society and in this sense are discriminatory. Yet targeting only one group of people and isolating them does not necessarily have a racist basis. The point is that asylum-seekers (non-citizens) do not cover all the “not from here” people described before, but are the ones that the government has stigmatized and labelled as ”asylum-seeker”. A careful look at these laws shows that they are not in nature related to racial discrimination3.

A comparison may clarify this better: All the above mentioned discriminatory laws also apply to asylum-seekers from Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan, Iraq, Equador, Kurdistan, Iran, Peru, etc., but they do not apply to asylum-seekers who have already received their asylum status, the foreign students and third generation immigrants for instance, who are all suffering from being “not from here” and racial discrimination. The main difference between these groups is the 'citizen'/'non-citizen' dichotomy. These legislations do not apply to some because of their race or nationality, but when people are in 'non-citizen' positions, these laws apply to them “naturally”.

Despite the obvious discriminatory nature of these laws, they serve the main function of keeping asylum-seekers in suspension and uncertainty, which has its own economic and political reasons and functionalities. Albeit this, most of the efforts of activist groups are directed towards the aspect of racial discrimination in the legislations. This is somewhat sad because it means that the ruling system is able to disguise its vital mechanisms in a mystic cover, thereby predetermining the areas of activities of its opponents. In fact, through emphasizing the cultural aspects of racism and even recognition of anti-racist endeavours, the system tries to hide the full picture of what it is doing. However, discriminatory laws and attitudes that target those seen as “not from her” and the whole process of creating “the others” are inevitable functions of capitalism and therefore racism is not the key to understanding and addressing this issue.

3) Changing the laws is possible, but this is a short-term and insufficient goal

Most of the efforts of activists is directed toward trying to change the refugee laws. This trend has been also present in the asylum-seeker movement during the past 11 months (major part of activists' efforts has been to support asylum seekers who are in acute conditions and need immediate help). Despite the value and importance of these efforts, at the level of a political perspective (which goes beyond helpful and humanitarian aid), any change that does not interrupt the 'citizen'/'non-citizen' dichotomy is not a radical perspective for the asylum-seeker movement and can at most only transfer the inequality from the old legislation texts to new ones. Of course, among all efforts, fighting against deportation laws has utmost importance since the termination of deportation will abolish the 'non-citizen' concept. In other words, defending the right to stay ('Bleiberecht'), has priority in determining the direction of struggle of the asylum-seeker movement.

Summary and conclusions:

This text has been based on my understanding of the position of asylum-seekers and their struggles and the way that they are confronted by the system. This understanding has been gained through 11 months of involvement in asylum-seekers protests in Germany, taking part in hours of group discussions and group decision making and facing theoretical and practical challenges and receiving advice and suggestions from people inside and outside this movement. Based on the analysis provided in this text, the first conclusion is that anti-racist and anti-fascist groups and activists should rethink and perhaps revise the concept of anti-racism and should also revise their interaction with asylum-seeker issues accordingly. Furthermore, independent asylum-seekers should also revise and redefine their own position in the political sphere of society.

Confinement within the 'citizen'/'non-citizen' dichotomy and deportation to the country of origin (or 'third country' – Dublin II) is the utmost problem of asylum-seekers and sans-papiers' (non-citizens) in Europe. Any achievement in relation to these two issues can result in a real change in the social lives of these marginalized people. Therefore, the self-organization of asylum-seekers and sans-papiers in order to abolish deportation and obtain citizenship (albeit a 'second class' citizen status) can be the major lines along which the struggle can progress toward a radical perspective. The main agents of this struggle are 'non-citizens', those who do not have a right to citizenship in societiesbased on citizenship: asylum-seekers and the sans-papiers and illegalized workers. But since preparations of this self-organization are rather difficult, – given the diversity of languages in refugee camps, different geographical locations of camps, the insecurity and weakness asylum-seeker feel due to a suspended, uncertain condition, the lack of the ability to speak the language of the destination country and the need for financial, logistic and media support -, the support and cooperation of activist groups and individuals who are involved in solving asylum-seeker problems are also needed. These citizens, however, should respect the agency of non-citizens and the principles of self-organization. In this context, any struggle that fights against the 'citizen'/'non-citizen' dichotomy will be part of the struggles against the alienating and discriminating capitalist processes. This movement will return the sense of agency to non-citizens and on the other hand is a place where the struggles of non-citizens and their supporting citizen groups will join each other in a common fight against the system.


1http://www.frontex.europa.eu; last access: 15.03.2013; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frontex;last access: 15.03.2013

2 Realization of an alternative is not as far-fetched as it seems. An example is the Zapatista movement in Mexico: in January 1994, the Zapatista army of national liberation (EZLN), seized Chiapas province and after years of struggle for the equal rights of marginalized communities of Mexico, established the ''good government'' plan in Chiapas, a society outside the "citizen/non-citizen" dichotomy, where the previously marginalized people could collaborate in all areas of economy, politics and culture where the councils of the "good government" (Juntas de Buen Gobierno) and the EZLN that guards the borders of Chiapas, satisfied the collective will of the people.

3 Undoubtedly many of refugee laws have a racial discrimination in their historical background. The obligation to live within certain boundaries, 'Residenzpflicht' for instance dates to around 120 years ago, when white Germans in 'Deutsch Togoland' (today Togo) legislated this law to differentiate the Germans from the Native. Shamefully enough the same rule with the same name is applied to the refugees in Germany. But looking carefully at this law, we see that it has gone beyond black/white dichotomy, since it also applies in its today form to European refugees that are for instance from Serbia.

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