Isabel Arce Zelada
PhD student, Living with the Consequences of Slavery Cluster
Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull
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/