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.

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