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.

Advertisements

Burning Barges

http://www.siciliainformazioni.com/sicilia-informazioni/21834/lampedusa-in-fiamme-barconi-del-museo-dellimmigrazione

The Immigration Museum on the island of Lampedusa was an ad hoc initiative that blossomed by Askavusa activists that assembled artifacts of humanitarianism gone awry. The burning of one of their boats highlights the tensions on the island between tourism, environmentalism, bigotry and hospitality, and hospitality as a ploy for tourism.

Life’s Work

What good is gaining entrance to a city of refuge if one isn’t given the means to subsist within it. This week the European Committee on Civil Liberties voted on a draft directive to provide asylum seekers free legal assistance and access to the labor market.

Many critics of this new legislation argue that allowing asylum seekers access to the labor market will encourage economic migrants to abuse the political asylum system. It is important to understand to do otherwise would be inhumane. When denied means of subsistence, political asylum seekers are forced to rely on state support (which carries with it it’s own risks for exploitation and personal safety) or enter into under the table cash economies in order to provide for their basic necessities. These kinds of illegitimate labor render asylum seekers especially vulnerable to exploitation (for instance the indentured servitude of housekeepers and nannies) or high risk including criminal activity such as drug dealing.

This brings up the further question of why the current system of political asylum does not consider economic deprivations grounds for political asylum claims. One way to respond would be to worry over opening up the proverbial flood gates to allow anyone from the ‘developing’ world to have a right to migrate.

Indeed, the effects of economic globalization and the new inequalities that it has created have recolonized where one’s physical place on the globe becomes imbued with indications of their worth and disposability (think the seemingly disposable worth and labor of South Asians for example).

If the current system of citizenship in Europe continues on its exclusionary trajectory that internalizes this globalized racism, it is doomed to result in a system which Balibar has labeled European “apartheid”. In this institutionalization of racism, non-citizens are both relied on for their labor but accorded a second-class status by being denied citizenship in their place, and their families place of residency.

Smug Smugglers

The term human smuggler is problematic and misleading. One would be just as easily inclined to refere to these individuals as guides. It removes the agency of these individuals seeking asylum and economic means of subsisting by assuming that they are being taken advantage of. While there are certainly abuses to be expected when dealing with these situations of legal and administrative gray zones, to demonize the act of charging for a boat ride, when paying an airline company for the same kind of transportation is not subject to the same kind of critique seems hypocritical.

Kat Stacks

Kat Stacks aka Andrea Herrera is a self-described victim of sex trafficking turned Hip Hop Ho tell-all. Shout out to all the lipstick feminists trying to reclaim words like ho. Indeed what I found so captivating about the Kat Stacks persona was her embodiment of many lipstick feminist ideals (stiletto feminism would be the more apt category actually). She shamelessly flaunted her M.O. of irresistible stripper and supposedly leveraged the access her sexuality afforded her by gaining fame for spilling secrets on the heavy hitters in the world of Hip Hop. However, she would argue that current sex workers have all these freedoms now compared to when she was young and coerced to working the streets, distinguishing her life story in significant ways from lipstick feminists.

In this fascinating interview with Hip Hop Radio show Hot 107.9 Atlanta (her first radio interview ever), Kat Stacks shifts the vibe of the segment away from gossip over the hip hop personalities she has been intimate with to a moment of self revelation that accomplishes much of what Take Back the Night hopes to be a forum for. In this interview the listeners discover a world of abuse that she suffered through, and the ability to have a forum for publicly vocalizing both the abuses of her past and the private details of famous hip hop personalities is described by her as ‘having a voice’. The expression ‘having a voice’ has long been evocative of empowerment and Kat Stacks makes a stark comparison between being “taught in the game to shut the fuck up and keep your fucking face down and not speak to nobody… and now that you actually have a voice and people listen to you it’s like so new to me.”

Kat Stacks is now a retired personality (indeed Kat Stacks is the name her pimp/baby daddy referred to her as). Andrea Herrera (the real women behind Kat Stacks) can currently be found in a Louisiana detention center fighting to stay in the country. She’s gone from blowing up rappers to blowing up the immigration police on twitter (suffice it to say her tweets about the rape of a transsexual individual and a Haitian hunger strike have not gone over well).

The following are a few speculations about the potential politics behind her political asylum claim. Normally, victims of sex trafficking and domestic abuse are looked upon favorably for political asylum claims. However, the bombastic out lash that the Kat Stacks personality evokes runs contrary to the narrative of a helpless victim that the political asylum industry generally looks for. Furthermore, Andrea Herrera’s retelling of her move to the US suggests that she came voluntarily because she thought she was leaving with a man who loved her (i.e. her pimp who forced her to work in dangerous situations and was gravely abusive). This conception of an amorous tryst obscures the psychological coercion at the heart of many sexual trafficking incidents. I think it also further demonstrates how the insistence on a victimization narrative to qualify for political asylum is inappropriate and discriminatory. In the tweeted words of Andrea Herrera on 7/2/12: “Just cause I didn’t kill my pimp or curl up in a ball like the rest of the girls doesn’t mean I’m not a victim.”

UPDATE – JANUARY 15, 2013

Andrea Herrera (Kat Stacks) will NOT be deported.

The Bare Minimum

In some headlines this week you may have noticed very brief mention of three so-called “African migrants” who were granted entry into Israel. According to Israeli newspaper Haaretz, these Eritrean asylum seekers were forcibly removed from Israel into Egypt and given as “as little as possible” water in the words of one IDF officer. The three that were admitted into Israel were two women and one child. Human rights group We Are Refugees confronted the Israeli government with a petition insisting that they accept the entire group of Eritreans at the Egyptian border. The Israeli government was accused of transgressing international conventions of which they are a signatory by failing to check the status of the Eritreans as political asylum seekers before forceable deportation. In response, the Israeli high court ruled that it was an irrelevant responsibility since the group was no longer in the country (as a result of their being forcibly moved by the IDF (i.e. dragged over to the other side of the border on a tarp?) from Israel back to Egypt).

There are a number of interesting trends in the handling of political asylum seekers that are at play in this situation. The first is the humanitarian leveraging that the Israeli’s have a long history of deploying  (just think of the undermining of Geneva Convention stipulations on the amount of food and water necessary for populations to survive that the occupying power is required to allow to enter unimpeded. The Israeli government intentionally kept Gazans significantly under supplied during the 2008 occupation of Gaza, using the bare minimum requirements as a measure to determine how far one could transgress without facing public scrutiny for neglect).  Eyal Weizman in his new book The Least of all Possible Evils: Humanitarian Violence from Arendt to Gaza, does an excellent job of describing the conniving violence that forging a path of least of all possible evil justifications (for a review see the post below). This new form of international political action manipulates the rule of law in order to evade responsibility. One could indeed argue that the act of allowing the women and children access to the potential for a political asylum hearing in Israel, obscures the illegal act of denying the other 18 Eritreans in the group their right to be considered for political asylum, the violence of deportation, and the violence of providing them with the least possible amount of food and water to survive. Israeli laws that grant unconditional asylum only to seekers from Darfur (and more importantly to anyone who is Jewish) further illuminates this trend of undermining of the rule of law when it comes to political asylum. For example, out of the 60,000 “migrants” in Israel there were only 4,000+ political asylum hearings last year. Out of those 4,000+ only one was approved for a Darfurian asylum seeker. The supposed rational behind granting Darfurians unconditional asylum is that they are coming from an internationally recognized site of genocide, however the politics of naming and shaming have good reason to call into question the singularity of Darfur. Indeed one could make a case that the Eritrean Afar ethnic minority are facing a similar type of violence as the Darfurians. But then again, Israel just deported 127 South Sudanese “migrants” in June.  These individuals are quickly dismissed as economic migrants and Again we see the power of naming where describing individuals as economic migrants or  “infiltrators” others that individual in a way that is rife with a parasitic undertones.

Just a couple of months ago, in May, there were race riots in Tel Aviv agains the 60,000 or so “migrants” living in legal limbo. A number of Africans were injured and a number of businesses were destroyed. Some have proclaimed the event Israeli Kristallnacht. Others are concerned about the participation and endorsement of the event by certain right-wing politicians. Some think the foundational moment of Israel as a refugee state that is thus responsible for living up to a legacy that offers safe haven for the world’s disenfranchised. Others view Israel as a Jewish state and it’s African “infiltrators” as posing a “demographic threat.” For now Israel has followed in the American example of building a fence between the Egypt Israel border, the same border where 6 African “migrants” were killed in August.

http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/insidestory/2012/05/20125291044273790.html

Review – The Least of All Possible Evils – Eyal Weizman

Eyal Weizman’s most recent book The Least of all Possible Evils presents its reader with a smorgasbord of disciplinary approaches (as opposed to deli meats). On this board one finds Weizman eloquently stringing together French satire, Christian theology, political activism, forensics, fetishism, and legal theory (and those are just a few of the juiciest bits). Though The Least of all Possible Evils goes much further in its interdisciplinary approach than Weizman’s previous book Hollow Land, it shares certain key characteristics. Both works grew out of an artistic exhibition, both examine crisis through an engagement with spatial politics, and both hold the Israel-Palestine conflict at their proverbial heart. However, to write off The Least of all Possible Evils as excessively eclectic would be to miss its ever-present political agenda that admonishes the violence spawned by the justificatory principle of ‘lesser evil.’

Weizman historically situates the principle of ‘lesser evil’ within Western ethical philosophy and Christian theology before delving into three instantiations that highlight its contemporary transformation. The first of these is the Ethiopian famine of the 1980s that brought the idea of humanitarianism into crisis in a very public way (which Weizman fleshes out via the internal debate of Médecins Sans Frontière about the extent of their intervention). The second is the 2004 trial of the Israeli separation wall in Israel’s High Court. Here Weizman shows how the doctrine of proportionality indirectly worked to legitimize the separation wall and its role in the Israeli occupation. Finally, there is the Israeli invasion of Gaza in early 2009, where forensic architectural analysis of the ruins left behind was employed in order to reconstruct how the violence unfolded. This effectively displaced victim testimony for a supposedly more objective and scientific account. Interwoven throughout these three examples are instances of damaging legal and ethical equivocations—whether through putting a wall on trial instead of a person, justifying murder by transforming victims into symbols within an equation to calculate ‘risk,’ or replacing witness testimony with material forensics.

Weizman’s elaborations on this trifecta of contemporary ‘lesser evil’ moments almost reads like heroic adventure novels with eccentric protagonists. There is the crusader, Rony Brauman, former president of Médecins Sans Frontière, who navigated (with Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem in hand) the polemics of humanitarianism gone awry. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, Brauman and his fellow humanitarians were faced with an impossible choice: that of becoming inadvertent accomplices to the Ethiopian regime’s practice of forced migration, or risk expulsion (and consequently responsibility for mass starvation) by speaking out against it. Then there is Muhammad Dahla, a Jerusalem-based Palestinian lawyer, whose ingenuity in exposing the nefarious motivations behind the so-called militaristic necessity of the location of the Israeli separation wall ended in the victorious ruling of relocating 30km of the wall. Dahla’s conscience however was tormented by the ways in which his mere engagement in the trial, not to mention the victory of its partial relocation, validated the existence of the wall itself. Villain turned hero turned pariah, Marc Garlasco was the former intelligence analyst for the US Defense Intelligence Agency responsible for selecting lesser evil targets according to an assessment of proportionality. He then became a forensic architect for Human Rights Watch as its senior military analyst and expert in battle damage assessment. Like all heroes with a bad past, Garlasco is prone to being easily misunderstood. According to Weizman, the same objective detachment, that allows Garlasco to have a keen eye for restringing the ways violence was wrought in Gaza through the ruins it left behind, is the same fetishistic quality that would lend him to becoming a collector of Nazi paraphernalia, i.e. relics from a different atrocity.

Alongside these heroes, Weizman gives us corresponding damsels in distress—the Ethiopians who were made more vulnerable to forced relocation and were denied the right of movement by entering into refugee camps, the Palestinian farmers whose land was displaced from them through the construction of Israel’s separation wall, and the Gazans who were starved, neglected, and massacred in a premeditated way that ensured it would fall just short of shocking the world.

Weizman’s use of the objective spatial dimension works to show how militaristic and politically interventionist violence is reified and obscured in an economy of calculations and management based on objective legal and forensic tenants. During the trial of a material object, namely the wall (and not the architects of the project), the materiality of the wall’s scale model worked to displace the subjective individuals responsible for it’s implementation. In the Ethiopian famine crisis, Weizman speaks about how refugee camps reflect a corruption of political space. This fabricated extraterritorial humanitarian space for Weizman is a bubble, a non-place, which is governed in such a way that the political capacity for self-government is foreclosed. This governed space is a causality of a destructive event, a famine crisis for instance. Weizman leaves us with the consideration that once the space of the refugee camp is understood as a site of destruction, then the destruction of a refugee camp like Gaza can be understood as ‘the destruction of destruction’. True to the spatial configuration that Weizman employs to couch his argument, he proposes what one might call a politics of construction as an alternative to engaging in the principle of ‘lesser evil’, a principle that when understood in spatial terms permits a little destruction for the preservation of the greater good. Just as the scale model of the Israeli separation wall was an introduction of a novel physical pretense, previously unaccounted for, which worked to disrupt the traditional power relations of the courtroom, Weizman leaves the reader with a provocation to rebuild and construct physical realities out of sites of destruction that, while imperfect, can work to support the political rights of the former damsels in distress without relying on the heroism of lesser evil proponents.

For further information check out an interview Mike Schapira and I were fortunate enough to conduct with Eyal Weizman on Full-Stop.net.

http://www.full-stop.net/2012/06/14/interviews/mikecarla/eyal-weizman/

Asylum Occupation

August 23, 1996. Saint-Bernard de la Chapelle (St. Bernard’s Church). Paris. Sans Papiers OCCUPATION. 98 men. 54 women. 68 children. Mali. Senegal. Guinea. Mauritania. Tunisia. Morocco. Algeria. Zaire. Haiti. All former French Colonies. Demonstration 10,000+ strong. Hunger strikes. Forcible removal. Deportation. Residence Visas. Asylum. Repatriation.

Occupation is all the rage nowadays thanks to the Occupy Movement and the Arab Spring (particularly Tahrir). But what is occupation? The interpretation that makes the most sense to me is the contestation and disputation of the public character of space, or the redefinition or reclamation of the public through a spatial collection of physical bodies and voices.

While a debatably effective political tactic, there seems to be something categorically important about political asylum seekers employing the tactic of occuptation.  When political asylum seekers make a claim to space, at best they call into question the legitimacy of a sociopolitical system that casts foreigners into the dangerous margins of clandestinity, and at they very least they draw attention to the physical reality of their existence. It seems to me that the political asylum seeker is the occupier par excellence. For what is the act of seeking political asylum than an act of laying claim to the right to exist, to occupy space – to be, not simply an idea, or a victim in need or charity, but a physical presence, a living being.

San Bernard

%d bloggers like this: