Monthly Archives: October 2012

The Bureaucratization of Refugees

Refugees from the emergency in North Africa took to the streets of Rome yesterday to demand basic humanitarian assistance and an end to the clandestinity of their daily lives in Italy. As Franco Calzini, president of ARCI di Perugia explains, the fate of these individuals, the majority of whom have begun the political asylum process, is currently in limbo. (ARCI is currently the biggest Italian cultural and recreational association founded in 1957 and born of the liberation struggle against Fascism. It is currently known for its stand against the war in the former Yugoslavia, anti-racism initiatives, and activism around the integration of immigrants.) Calzini speculates that the decision by the Civil Protection department to grant temporary residence visas, which is set to expire in December, was a tactical act to bide enough time for people to acclimate to the situation, rendering it less a crisis and thus a problem that could be transfered to the Department of the Interior Ministry to handle.

This is another clear example of the tension between – the rule of law regarding political asylum seekers and refugees as dictated by transnational governing institutions like the European Union and the United Nations – and the bureaucratic and administrative state of exceptionalism that is enacted by nation states when handling political asylum and refugee cases. I can’t help but think of Hannah Arendt’s writing on bureaucracy.

In Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt details two main political devices of imperialist rule: namely race and bureaucracy. Bureaucracy was employed to solve the colonial problem: the impossibility of governing ‘a people by a people – the people of India by the people of England,’ the majority of native people by a minority of foreigners. She describes how the tropes of the colonized as inferior, in need of tutelage and protection, were used to legitimize bureaucracy and “its government of experts, of an ‘experienced minority which has to resist as well as it knows how the constant pressure from ‘the inexperienced majority.’” Bureaucracy relies on decrees not law, and considers the law to be powerless because it is by definition separated from its application while the decree is justified by its applicability and used by all governments in times of emergency. In turn, “legally, government by bureaucracy is government by decree, and this means that power, which in constitutional government only enforces the law, becomes the direct source of all legislation.”

Arendt details how the colonial bureaucrat was employed to mask history and legitimize the keeping of gains that had been accidentally begotten through conquest. Indeed, in bureaucratic governments the objectification of decrees obfuscates the powerful men that are issuing them as if they “were the incarnation of power itself and the administrator only its accidental agent.” Furthermore, the replacement of decree by law in bureaucracy staves off the universalizing and equalizing force of law, which “threatens to establish a permanent community in which nobody could possibly be a god because all would have to obey a law.”

It is important to understand how bureaucracy obfuscates power. The consequences of this bureaucratic role assumes that the “people being ruled by decree never know what rules them because of the impossibility of understanding decrees in themselves and the carefully organized ignorance of specific circumstances and their practical significance in which all administrators keep their subjects.” Bureaucracy and the rule of the experts, subjectifies those who are governed by bureaucratic structures and precludes them from the political realm.

Ok, so perhaps I am trying to square a circle by conflating the colonial period with the refugee situation in contemporary Europe but bear with me for a second. The main point I want to make is that bureaucratic administrative decrees about whether an entire group of individuals will have the opportunity to seek citizenship within a country renders these individuals outside of humanity again in the Arendtian sense. These stateless individuals are reduced to bare life by the act of being expelled from having a polity in which they can participate. As a result of this banishment, this clandestine life, they are foreclosed from social life and political life and more importantly economic life. Indeed the biggest concern of these individuals is the ability to work in their host country and support their existence. Paradoxically, this is the greatest fear that the citizens of the host country have about these individuals, namely that they are mere labor migrants and not subject to political prosecution, and more importantly, unwanted competition for resources, namely jobs.
This bureaucratization effectively relegates these individuals to an inferior social status, even further disenfranchised than second-class citizens, since they are denied citizenship altogether. This is where I see the crucial tie to colonialism. The subjectification of an entire social group, only now the privileged are no longer the few and no longer the travelers but the native masses. In this way, the use of bureaucracy to tame the masses and precondition the rule of the few is no longer necessary, but the ability to subjectify an entire group of people through the bureaucratic obfuscation of power remains and I would argue is problematic and unjust.


La Lega Nord political party in Italy has a long history of exclusionary policies. Therefore, their new slogan Contro I profughi, or against the refugees, should come as no surprise. During the 1990s, the party wielded the term Padania to make claims to an autonomous northern Italy that would effectively excise what they viewed as the corrupt and lazy southern Italians from partaking in the riches wrought by the industrial north. Nowadays the leader of the party, Umberto Bossi has invoked autochthony to clamor for political privileging of Italians over Arab immigrants and refugees.

As Peter Geschiere elaborates in his book The Perils of Belonging, the etymology of the term autochthony can be traced back to Ancient Greece. The Athenians prided themselves on their homogenous demographic, which was unique among the rest of the immigrant founded Greek polies. The term that was used to refer to being born from the land where they lived was autochthonous and Geschiere, among others, claims that this is what preconditioned their propensity for demokratia. While the reality of this is contested by a number of scholars, the myth of Erechtheus by Euripidies is used to illustrate the underlying connotations of the autochthonic concept in Athens. King Erechteus disappears in a chasm Poseidon makes through the Akropolis and remains forever locked in the earth. Inherent in the coinage of the term autochthoon is both a connotation of indignity and chronic-ity according to Vincent Rosivach. “Throughout this book this double meaning will come up time and again: the autochthon as prestigious first-comer but also as primitive or even prehuman” (11).

The main point of Geschiere’s work is to point out how these claims of belonging to the soil are often seemingly self-evident empty categories and while they have great emotional appeal and while those who politically manipulate them often have great electoral success, they elude any ability to clearly define who are autochthoons. Or in other words – don’t believe the hype.

Putting the Political in Political Asylum

Headlines today abound with notices of Iranian president Ahmadinejad’s cameraman defecting and seeking political asylum in the US. The importance attributed to this fact by the media exposes a tacit conceptualization of political asylum as an indicative legitimization of governments in international affairs, the venue for a conceptual beauty pageant to determine the best nation, if you will. Indeed, in this vein one hears the phrase that immigration is the highest form of flattery in international affairs. The tacit implication of the tactical reporting on who is seeking asylum where suggestively legitimates the US political system by showing how the friends of the bad guys in Iran really just want to come to America because the latter is inherently better. This story adds fodder to the propaganda of American heroism out to save the Israelis and the Iranians from the savage Iranian Islamic government and their hyperbolic nuclear program.

A further elaboration of this comes in the form of the discourse around Julien Assange’s political asylum case. The Australian founder of WikiLeaks is the center of a nebulous showdown in international affairs. Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa is said to be purposefully positioning himself as America’s chief Latin American enemy by his steadfast resistance against corrupt media and American imperialism (along with its accomplices the UK and Sweden) by granting Assange political asylum. Ecuadorian foreign minister Ricardo Patino reiterated this after the UK threatened to raid the Ecuadorian embassy and forcibly remove Assange when he declared that Ecuador is not a British colony and that colonial times are over. Amid these diplomatic tensions, the US decided to grant an Ecuadorian journalist political asylum, seemingly in retaliation.

What are the repercussions of this instrumentalization of the political asylum process as a way of vetting out political legitimacy? Is it simply the means for a good story? Does this indicate anything about the American media’s complicit reinforcement of American propaganda despite the seeming objectivity of their language and reporting? Food for thought.

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