The War That is Asylum: The Duty to Disobey

Isabel Arce Zelada

PhD student, Living with the Consequences of Slavery Cluster

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

I.D.Arce-Zelada-2020@hull.ac.uk

Asylum as an institution has existed since antiquity, deeply interwoven with laws around war, citizenship and political hierarchies. There have been attempts to push its history back to the origins of humanity by rebranding it as solely a humanitarian act of offering shelter. However, this can hardly be called asylum as it is missing the main components of rejection and submission. As part of the practices of the western world, asylum has taken on at least two crucial functions – to reject the border-crosser and to criminalize their migration. Not only does this process portray ‘repatriation’ as an acceptable course of action but it also has the ability to push the boundaries of ethics when we are dealing with other human beings.

The thousands of deaths at the borders of our nation-states are not treated as national emergencies. Instead they are used as excuses to make the crossing of borders for some even more hostile as a deterrent. Those who do risk their lives to save people crossing borders are now also targeted as criminals, as the boundaries of legal-ethical lines are pushed, creating geographical spaces where individuals can be killed with impunity. During warfare the killing of another person is sanctioned by our respective nation-states: no one is going to be shocked to hear that a soldier has killed an ‘enemy’ while his or her country is at war. Granted, war takes on many disguises, many events are kept hidden from the general public and war crimes, killing civilians for example, are still seen as illegal.  But asylum is not a war, we are told, it is humanitarianism.

In this sense asylum is not just the guardian of a geographical border but also the creator of ethical guidelines for citizens. If an asylum case is refused it becomes acceptable to discard the person who was applying for it. But if an asylum claim is accepted the person is entitled to support and advocacy from citizens to show what a humanitarian society we have cultivated. The difference between the two people is one judgement from a court room that might not know or comprehend all of the person’s lived experience. Then there are people seeking asylum in the UK who get stuck in the system for years, awaiting a decision or appealing while being required to exist on a lower income than Britain’s 10% poorest households.

Carving out the citizen was and is a colonial project, designed to cement an allegiance between the individual and the nation-state. It creates duties for both parties, criminalizing the individual that betrays the nation-state and invoking protests from the nation over civil rights when the nation-state fails to uphold them. In this relationship, however, we invisibilize the non-citizen: the stateless; the asylum seeker; and the Indigenous. These  are all excluded from the nation-state project and outside the contractual relationship that the citizen should have. When we speak of radical movements, particularly liberation movements, we need to then ask what kind of radical liberation we are striving for?  Are we looking for the full gain of promised civil rights, or for the dismantling of the citizen relationship all together; in other words should we break the monopoly on humanity that the citizen has?

As of today large parts of humanity are citizens, and so the question should also be what are the duties of the citizen in relation to this bordered violence? By law, in Britain, we can still all commit treason, and those with precarious British citizenship (who have been naturalized or whose parents have been naturalized) can have that citizenship stripped if this is the case. But citizenship duties go well beyond the duties to the nation-state. In fact, the exploration of citizenship duties by Thoureau and Walzer focuses on the duty that the citizen has to disobey. While we are being fed a notion of morality by asylum courts today, one that claims to distinguish between criminal and victim, it is the citizen’s duty to refuse the legal system’s monopoly on this judgement. On the 9th of November 2021, citizens locked themselves to the road that was meant to transport people in detention to another Jamaican charter flight. Whether they are to be tried by the British legal system remains to be seen, but in acts like these the citizen exercises the right to reclaim morality and humanity.

This example is not meant to obscure the constant activism of non-citizens. Indigenous peoples have a fundamental practice of consistent resistance against the assimilation of the land and their people into the nation-state. Targeted migrants have consistently carved out paths for ourselves geographically, practically and legally to survive. When it comes to asylum, the representative of the Secretary of State will stand (or sit) in court citing the safety and wellbeing of the “public” in Britain as a cause for the person seeking asylum not to be granted refugee status. The duty to disobey these border regimes is also rooted in refusing to be complicit in their violence; disobeying is the only way to acknowledge the humanity of the non-citizen.


Caption: ‘Silence is compliance – A protester with a message standing on a window ledge in Whitehall.’ Photo courtesy of Alisdare Hickson at https://www.flickr.com/photos/alisdare/31903348794/

Living with the consequences of slavery

Isabel Arce Zelada

PhD student on the ‘Living with the consequences of slavery’ cluster

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

i.d.arce-zelada-2020@hull.ac.uk

Jen Nghishitende

PhD student on the ‘Living with the consequences of slavery’ cluster

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

n.j.nghishitende-2020@hull.ac.uk

Mavuto K. Banda

PhD student on the ‘Living with the consequences of slavery’ cluster

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

m.k.banda-2020@hull.ac.uk

Five months in, our three newest PhD students, Isabel Arce Zelada, Jen Nghishitende and Mavuto Banda, reflect on their collective agenda and their individual research projects so far.

We started our PhDs in the midst of a pandemic and as a cluster we have had little opportunity to work together and understand how our projects interlink. However, through various zoom calls and physically distant interactions we are beginning to understand where we belong in this cluster as a team as well as individually. As a cohesive unit we found that we each speak about the way various institutions constantly ask groups of people with different experiences of exploitation to present themselves as victims. This establishes a uniform ‘humanitarian’ response to problems that involve a multiplicity of experiences, and in the process creates and recreates the model of what a victim is and what they need. At the core of all our projects are individuals who constantly have to prove themselves to be victims in order to get some level of assistance. As such, we are, as a collective, critically investigating what we mean when we say ‘victim’ and what solutions we need to achieve to assist this group of individuals. 

Isabel

In asylum processes the idea that the nation-state is providing safety to a person seeking persecution has a long and complicated history. As an institution asylum has always led to wide networks of power in which many other institutions are involved. In the UK, the rise of nationalistic sentiments, detention centres and hostile environments have led to an awkward paradox in which the UK saves the asylum seeker, yet also condemns them for a role in the demise of the British nation. At the same time, the asylum system keeps its humanitarian role by supposedly saving the true refugee. I am therefore researching the many violent tactics of distrust and retraumatization that are present in the UK asylum process. 

Jen

My research deals with women and children who have survived modern slavery in the UK and as such, I will be focusing on those people who have already either been accepted or rejected as ‘victims’ by the UK Home Office. In recent years, the spotlight has been placed on survivors’ accounts, their tales of slavery and their eventual escape or rescue; scant attention has been placed on what happens to survivors after slavery, especially in the long term. My research will therefore examine the long term trajectories of survivors in the UK, all the while looking at the laws, policies, and processes that are in place to assist them with rehabilitation and reintegration into society in order to  regain their rights and dignity.

Mavuto

My research looks from a different perspective at the children that have become the victims of modern slavery. In adhering to Fairtrade standards and safeguarding their corporate image, Malawi’s commercial agriculture has banned the employment of under-18 year olds in its plantations, as it seeks to prevent and rescue children from the evils of ‘child labour’. Once the work of under-18 year olds in commercial tea and tobacco plantations had been defined as ‘child labour’ this ban became necessary. My study therefore aims at exploring the impact of ‘child labour’ bans in commercial tea and tobacco estates with respect to youth employment and livelihoods in rural communities of Malawi. It will try to understand the socio-cultural dynamics of life in Malawi, and how communities view children’s participation in the labour market.

Henry Ford once said, ‘Coming together is the beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.’ Our continual working relationship will therefore lead to the collective success of our cluster as well as our individual successes in our research projects. We also look forward to hopefully meeting and working with everyone soon in person at the Wilberforce Institute. Our shared hope for the future is that victimhood, with the pressures of presenting oneself as the perfect victim, is scrutinized, and the assistance that is needed is given without requesting trauma as payment for it.

Protective medical mask on laptop. https://www.flickr.com/photos/156445661@N02/49799314177

‘Living with the Consequences of Slavery’ PhD Cluster

Dr Lorena Arocha

Lecturer in Contemporary Slavery, Wilberforce Institute

lorena.arocha@hull.ac.uk

This month we are delighted to welcome three new PhD students to the Wilberforce Institute. They are all part of the ‘Living with the Consequences of Slavery’ PhD Cluster, a strategic investment for the Wilberforce Institute and the University of Hull in this field.

The position we have taken with this PhD Cluster is that it is not evil people that create victims but systems. Criminal justice studies have historically been more concerned with the punishment of the offender, but our new students’ research sits with recent moves to re-centre attention critically on the relational shared experiences of victims/survivors and non-victims. Each of these individual projects therefore explores key questions that go beyond the individual person affected by these practices, examining instead the effects of systematic and rooted processes of exploitation, its relation with processes of victimhood and their intersection with questions of social justice and social rights.

The ‘Living with the Consequences of Slavery’ PhD Cluster examines contemporary forms of slavery from three different angles of critical victimology. The first project is led by Jennifer Nghishitende, who will be looking at what happens after people have experienced exploitation, how people make sense of these experiences and how they then move on with their lives, especially in the longer-term, with an emphasis on questions of dignity and rights.

Jennifer Nghishitende 

‘Living with the Consequences of Slavery’ PhD Research Cluster

n.j.nghishitende-2020@hull.ac.uk

The second project is led by Isabel Arce Zelada, whose investigation centres on testimonies, in asylum courts and beyond, and the extent to which these deliver justice.

Isabel Arce Zelada

‘Living with the Consequences of Slavery’ PhD Research Cluster

i.d.arce-zelada-2020@hull.ac.uk

The third project, led by Mavuto Kambochola Banda, focuses on tea plantations in Malawi. Mavuto will examine the unintended consequences of policy measures which are put in place to tackle contemporary forms of slavery.  Such interventions can adversely affect the lives of those they intend to assist.

Mavuto Kambochola Banda

‘Living with the Consequences of Slavery’ PhD Research Cluster

m.k.banda-2020@hull.ac.uk

The ‘Living with the consequences of slavery’ Cluster will therefore look at these problematics from opposite directions: on the one hand, from the perspective of those who have experienced exploitation and its relation with victimisation processes in contemporary forms of slavery; and, on the other, from the perspective of those who have been disadvantaged as a result of humanitarian anti-slavery measures. This, we believe, offers an exceptional opportunity to gain a more comprehensive picture of the complexity of practices and processes that drive exploitation experiences as well as an in-depth understanding of the impact of these experiences in the long term.

The theme of critical victimology, which marks a new direction for the Wilberforce Institute, is composed of two strands. Alongside our investment in the PhD scholarships we are introducing an MA programme in Contemporary Slavery Studies and Critical Victimology, due to start in February 2021.  The MA offers our new PhD students a platform and a community with whom to share their research. We are hoping they will inspire others to engage in this critical area of study.

We have high expectations for our new PhD students, and are looking forward to guiding and supporting them through their studies. They will be based at the Wilberforce Institute when they are not away on research, working with a team of supervisors across various disciplines, in Human Geography, Social Sciences, Criminology and Law.  We are excited by the prospect of seeing their research projects develop as they grow as scholars.

Oriel Chambers, High Street, Hull – the home of the Wilberforce Institute.