ASAP Column – 2016 March (Albahari)

Stemming Refugee Flows, Warehousing Refugee Souls

Maurizio Albahari

Originally: Anthropology News (March 28, 2016)

“We will not accept turning the country into a permanent warehouse of souls,” Alexis Tsipras, Prime Minister of Greece, recently declared as he contested the Austrian-led coordination of stringent border enforcement along the Western Balkan migratory route, from the Macedonia-Greek border just north of Idomeni to the Austrian-Slovenian border. Asked about the proliferation of barbed wire fences that restrict refugees’ passage toward northern Europe and that seem to contrast with ideas of unrestricted mobility within the “Schengen” space, Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, indirectly responded: “I’m afraid that sometimes you need tougher measures if you, we want really to apply Schengen. Sorry but this is the reality.”

Much is at stake in the definition of what counts as “the reality” evoked by Tsipras and Tusk, and in the investigation of the policy processes that both shape and respond to it. Focusing on the recent EU-Turkey agreement, in this column I argue precisely that each element, presupposition, and implication of policymakers’ eloquence constitute the occasion for several research proposals on the policy process. Questions need to emerge with urgency on the formation, goals, feasibility, and democratic legitimation of emerging migration policies, in particular. As anthropologists we apprehend the complexity of policy processes by building upon our discerning proximity to policymakers, diplomats, spokespersons, smugglers, refugees, bureaucrats, enforcement actors, rescue workers, and so forth. As the policy participants that we engage include such a multiplicity of actors, rather than being confined to classical decision-making figures, we should also grapple with a resulting analytical (and perhaps political) question: are these actors’ daily “realities” compatible? How do we, realistically and pragmatically, reconcile colliding existences and ideologies, within the outspoken cacophony of this refugee impasse?

Anthropologists often locate their work at the interfaces where national and EU policies translate, or fail to translate, into administrative, humanitarian, and policing practices. Analyses of the policy process that might have been perceived as a prerogative of political theorists, legal scholars, and international relations experts are integral to a burgeoning anthropological scholarship. In my larger work I argue for the epistemological and methodological merits of ethnographically situated analysis. In the recent monograph Crimes of Peace: Mediterranean Migrations at the World’s Deadliest Border, I focus on how national and supranational sovereignty materialize in maritime border enforcement, in bilateral agreements, and in the reception and detention of newcomers on Italian territory. Equal scrutiny is necessary toward tropes that might appear somehow more mundane than sovereignty, as they feature in the verbose vortex of daily press briefings, political diatribes, and social media activism centered on refugee displacement. What are the ideological underpinnings and practical effects of recurring policy arguments centered on crisis and the war on human smuggling, for example? Does the trite metaphorical usage of influx, flow, flood, and wave describe, mystify, or regulate a complex reality? And how, in actuality, is Turkey to stem the flow of refugees, as it is now expected to do?

President Tusk, visiting Ankara, has stated that while “it is for Turkey to decide how to best achieve” a “reduction” in “refugee flows,” the EU appreciates Turkey’s intensified policing “to combat human trafficking,” its “tightening” of visa requirements, its coast guard’s stepped up efforts, and NATO’s related activities in the Aegean Sea. Opening up a political space conducive to the EU-Turkey agreement, Tusk has argued that “to many in Europe, the most promising method seems to be a fast and large-scale mechanism to ship back irregular migrants arriving in Greece.” As anthropologists, we are able to dis-assemble more than rhetorics, here. We can tackle analytically the definitions, objectives, and implementation challenges embedded in each element of such a statement. What becomes apparent, for example, is that in the name of the fight against smugglers and the preservation of human lives, EU countries have opted not to resettle Syrian refugees unless other refugees, including Syrian nationals, first hire a smuggler, then risk their lives to reach Greek islands, and finally are deported back in Turkey. And the “reality” advocated by Tusk has resulted in the reality of thousands of people stranded in legal and humanitarian limbos, especially on the Greece-Macedonia border. It is here, “on the Macedonia-Greek frontier,” that the “border of Europe will be,” declared paradigmatically Croatian Interior Minister Vlaho Orepić (offering a thought-provoking indication of the fluid geopolitics that marginally include in “Europe” EU-candidate Macedonia and exclude Greece, an EU and Schengen member). It is also here that the confrontation between the rhetoric of the “tougher measures” securing the EU’s external borders and the horror of the earthly “warehouse of souls” actually doing the job resurfaces in its inescapability.

In the soggy limbo of Idomeni, in the trenches of Calais, and in Italian holding facilities, some refugees are convinced that they have to sew their lips shut in order to be listened to. They alert those interested in the complexity of policy processes to the excruciatingly physical dimensions of policies being defined, implemented, and legitimized in the name of “many in Europe”–if we are to take seriously Tusk’s claim and the representative basis of liberal democracy. Can we, and should we, afford these stranded persons the same analytical dignity we routinely afford to the eloquence of elected officials and policymakers.

Maurizio Albahari, Ph.D., UC Irvine, is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Notre Dame, and the author of Crimes of Peace: Mediterranean Migrations at the World’s Deadliest Border (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015).