The great riddance

A penitentiary geography: A Spanish Civil Guard pulls an African migrant from a border fence between Morocco and Spain’s North African enclave of Melilla. (Jesus Blasco de Avellaneda/Reuters)

A penitentiary geography: A Spanish Civil Guard pulls an African migrant from a border fence between Morocco and Spain’s North African enclave of Melilla. (Jesus Blasco de Avellaneda/Reuters)

Once more, something extremely troubling is taking place at the heart of Europe. Unmistakably, an ever-increasing multitude of voices are making themselves heard. Spurred on by the strength of fellow living souls, human chains of solidarity are forming. In the darkness of fear and denunciation, and faced with unrelenting waves of repression, compassionate men and women seek to awaken the sleeping fireflies of hospitality and solidarity.

In the midst of an otherwise troubling anaesthesia, an active minority is taking a stance. With renewed vigour they seek to denounce acts carried out in their name against the Other — who, it is claimed, is not one of us.

What is going on?

Forced from their homes, millions of desperate men, women and children have set out on paths of exodus. Another great cycle of repopulation is taking place in the world.

However, these people are not deserters. They are fugitives. Threatened by one calamity or another, they have escaped their places of birth and childhood — places where they lived, but which one day became uninhabitable, impossible abodes.

In response to this great upheaval, familiar, well-rehearsed refrains sound out in unison. “Demographic explosion.” “Armed conflicts.” “The rise of religious extremism.” “Gold rush to Europe.” “The migrant crisis.” “Why are they coming here?” “They should just stay put.”

Propping up the fable of “foreign aid”, there are many who still believe in fairy tales. Despite the fact that, between 1980 and 2009, net transfers of financial resources from Africa to the rest of the world reached the threshold of approximately $1 400-billion, and illicit transfers totalled $1 350-billion, the belief somehow holds firm: the countries of the North subsidise those of the South.

Besides, it seems to count for little that the countries with weak or intermediate gross domestic product have welcomed more than 90% of the 65.6-million refugees currently displaced and uprooted in the world.

In this sector, as in others, an era of fantasy and closed-mindedness is upon us. Old prejudices are constantly recycled from the scrap heap, and in a cyclical process typical of racist discourses, new fantasies are suggested. “It’s both cultural and civilisational,” proclaim the erudite pseudo-experts. “They are fleeing because of tensions between generations.”

“The poorer they are, the more likely they are to leave, but as their condition of life improves, their desire to live elsewhere grows.”

From the depths of the shadows, an old spectre returns to haunt people’s minds with invasions of hordes from overpopulated lands — countries “where women still give birth to seven or eight each”.

The solution?

We must close the borders. Filter those who make it across them. Process them. Choose who we want to remain. Deport the rest. Sign contracts with corrupt elites from the countries of origin, transition countries.

They must be turned into the prison guards of the West, to whom the lucrative business of administering brutality can be subcontracted.

These states must become the protectorates of Europe — at once prisons for those seeking to leave, and dumping grounds for those it would be better to rid ourselves of. And above all, we must make Europeans want to have more children. This is the essence of the cornerstone of European migratory policy at the start of this century.

Borders and borderisation

In truth, the problem is not the migrants, nor the refugees, nor the asylum seekers.

Borders. Everything begins with them, and all paths lead back to them.

They are no longer merely a line of demarcation separating distinct sovereign entities. Increasingly, they are the name used to describe the organised violence that underpins both contemporary capitalism and our world order in general — the women, the men and the unwanted children condemned to abandonment; the shipwrecks and drownings of hundreds, indeed thousands — weekly; the endless waiting and humiliation in consulates, in limbo; days of woe spent wandering in airports, in police stations, in parks, in stations, then down on to the city pavements, where as night falls, blankets and rags are snatched from people who have already been stripped and deprived of almost everything, bare bodies debased by a lack of water, hygiene and sleep.

In short, an image of humanity on a road to ruin.

In fact, everything leads back to borders — these dead spaces of nonconnection that deny the very idea of a shared humanity, of a planet — the only one we have, that we share together, and to which we are linked by the ephemerality of our common condition. But perhaps, to be completely exact, we should speak not of borders but instead of “borderisation”.

READ MORE: Is the European Union putting African migrants at risk?

What then is this borderisation, if not the process by which world powers permanently transform certain spaces into places impassable for certain classes of populations? What is it about, if not the conscious multiplication of spaces of loss and mourning, where the lives of a multitude of people judged to be undesirable come to be shattered?

What is it, if not a way of waging war against enemies whose means of existence and survival we have previously destroyed — with the use of uranium warheads and banned weapons such as white phosphorus, with high-altitude bombardment of basic infrastructures, with a cocktail of cancerous chemical substances deposited in the soil, which fill the air, the toxic dust in the ruins of towns razed to the ground, the pollution from burning hydrocarbons?

And what should we say about the bombs? In the last quarter of the 20th century, are there any types of bomb to which civilian populations have not been subjected?

Conventional blind bombs, reconverted with central inertial systems in the tail, cruise missiles with inbuilt infrared head-hunting systems, e-bombs destined to paralyse the enemy’s electronic nerve centres, bombs that explode in towns emitting rays of energy like lightning bolts, other e-bombs that, though not deadly, burn their victims and raise the temperature of their skin, thermobaric bombs that release walls of fire, absorbing all the oxygen from surrounding spaces, which kill with shockwaves, asphyxiating nearly everything that breathes, cluster bombs that devastate civilian populations as they break up in the air, dispersing mini-munitions designed to explode upon contact over vast areas, a plethora of bombs, absurd demonstrations of untold destructive power. In short, ecocide.

Under such conditions, is it at all surprising that those who can, the survivors of a living hell, take flight, and seek refuge in any corner of the world where their lives might be spared?

This kind of war of attrition — methodically calculated and programmed, and implemented with new methods — is a war against the very ideas of mobility, circulation and speed, and the age we live in is precisely one of velocity, acceleration, increasing abstraction and algorithms.

Moreover, the targets of this kind of warfare are not by any means singular bodies, but rather great swaths of humanity judged worthless and superfluous, whose every organ must be specifically incapacitated in a way that affects generations to come — eyes, noses, mouths, ears, tongues, skin, bones, lungs, intestines, blood, hands, legs, all these maimed people, paralytics and survivors, all these pulmonary diseases such as pneumoconiosis, all these traces of uranium in their hair, the thousands of cases of cancer, abortions, foetal malformations, birth defects, ruptured thoraxes, dysfunctions of the nervous system — all bear witness to a terrible devastation.

All of the above, it is worth repeating, belongs to the current practice of remote borderisation — carried out from afar, in the name of freedom and security. This battle, waged against certain undesirables, reducing them to mounds of human flesh, is rolled out on a global scale. It is on the verge of defining the times in which we live.

Human meat and the manhunt

Often this battle either precedes, accompanies or completes the campaigns that take place among us, or at our doors — namely the tracking of those bodies who made the mistake of moving.

Movement, incidentally, is the very essence of human bodies, but these bodies are assumed to have illegally broken into certain spaces and places where they should never have been — places that they now pollute by their presence alone, and from which they must be expelled.

As the philosopher Elsa Dorlin has suggested in Se Defendre: Une Philosphie de la Violence (Self-Defence: A History of Violence), this form of violence sets its sights on a prey. It bears a likeness to the great hunts of yesteryear, to both fox hunting and trapping, and their respective techniques — research, pursuit, entrapment before driving the prey to the point where it is surrounded, captured or killed with the aid of foxhounds and bloodhounds.

But it also belongs to a long history of manhunts. Grégoire Chamayou has studied the modalities of these in his book Les Chasses à l’Homme (Manhunts). The targets are always roughly the same: maroon slaves, Red Indians, blacks, Jews, the stateless, the poor and, more recently, the homeless.

[Detritus of a savage age: Wrecked boats and thousands of life jackets used by refugees and migrants during their journey across the Aegean Sea lie in a dump in Mithimna on the island of Lesbos in Greece. (Aris Messinis/AFP)

These hunts target animated, living bodies, bodies that are mobile, fugitive and endowed with a presence and intensity, yet that are marked and ostracised to the extent that they are no longer thought of as bodies of flesh and blood like our own.

What’s more, this hunt is rolled out at a moment in which the acceleration of technologies shows no sign of relenting, creating a segmented planet of multiple speeds.

The technological transformation of borders is in full swing. Physical and virtual barriers of separation, digitisation of databases, filing systems, the development of new tracking devices, sensors, drones, satellites and sentinel robots, infrared detectors and various other cameras, biometric controls, and new micro chips containing personal details, everything is put in place to transform the very nature of the border phenomenon, and to speed up the implementation of this new type of border — one that is mobile, portable and omnipresent.

Confinement and cleansing

Migrants and refugees are thus not, as it stands, the main focus of the argument. Furthermore, they have neither proper names nor faces, and possess no identity cards.

They are merely a kind of hollowed-out entity, walking vaults concealed by a multitude of organs, empty yet menacing forms in which we seek to bury the fantasies of an age terrified by itself and of its own excess.

The dream of perfect security, which requires not only complete systematic surveillance, but also a cleansing policy, is symptomatic of the structural tensions that, for decades, have accompanied our transition into a new technical system of increased automation — one that is increasingly complex yet also increasingly abstract, comprised of multiple screens — digital, algorithmic, even mystical.

The world has ceased to present itself to us in the old terms. We are witnessing the birth of a previously unseen form of the human subject/object relationship, as well as the emergence of new ways of conceiving space. The phenomenological experiences that we hold of the world are being thoroughly shaken up. Reason and perception cease to match up. Panic ensues.

We see less and less of what is given to us to see, and more and more of what we desperately want to see, even if what we desperately want to see does not correspond to any given reality.

Perhaps more than ever before, others can present themselves to us in a physical and tactile way, while remaining in ghostly absence in a similarly concrete void, almost as phenomenon. This is indeed the case with migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. It is not only the way in which they appear among us that plunges us into a chronic, existential anxiety. It is also the matrix of their being, of which we suppose they are merely the mask, that plunges us into a state of agitation and radical uncertainty. After all, what really lies behind what we can see?

In an increasingly balkanised and isolated world, where are the most deadly migrant routes? Europe! Who claims the largest number of skeletons and the largest marine cemetery in this century? Europe! The greatest number of deserts, territorial and international waters, channels, islands, straits, enclaves, canals, rivers, ports and airports transformed into iron curtain technologies? Europe! And to top it all off, in these times of permanent escalation — the camps. The return of camps. A whole Europe of camps. Samos, Chios, Lesbos, Idomeni, Lampedusa, Vintimille, Sicile, Subotica, the list goes on.

Refugee camps? Camps for displaced people? Migrant camps? Waiting rooms for people in process? Transit zones? Detention centres? Emergency accommodation centres? Jungle? Composite, heterogeneous landscapes, certainly.

Let us sum up all of the above in a single phrase, the only one that paints a truthful picture of what is going on: camps for foreigners. In the end, that’s all they are. Camps for foreigners, both in the heart of Europe and at its borders. This is the only suitable name for these devices and for the kind of penitentiary geography that they serve to enforce.

Some years ago, the anthropologist Michel Agier counted some 400 such camps at the heart of the European Union. This was before the great influx of 2015. Since then, new camps and new sorting infrastructures have been created both in Europe and on her borders, and on her insistence, in developing countries. In 2011, this array of detention spaces contained up to 32 000 people. In 2016 the total grew to 47 000. The detainees are simply people without visas or leave to remain, judged ineligible for international protection.

Essentially, they are places of internment, spaces of relegation, a way to sideline people considered to be intruders, lacking valid permits, rendering them illegal, and ultimately undeserving of dignity.

Fleeing their worlds of places rendered uninhabitable, persecuted both at home and from afar, they have come to be in places where they were never supposed to be without invitation, and where their presence is undesired.

It is very difficult to claim that rounding them up and sidelining them in this way is being done in their best interests. After detaining them in camps, placing them in limbo and stripping them of any human rights status, the aim is to turn them into objects that can be deported, stopped in their tracks, even destroyed.

It must be repeated that this war — which aims to hunt down, capture, round up, process, segregate and deport — has only one end-goal.

It is not so much about cutting Europe off from the rest of the world or turning it into an impenetrable fortress, but rather to grant Europeans alone the privilege of the rights to possession and free movement across the whole of the planet — a planet on which, in truth, we should all have the same entitlement.

Will the 21st century prove to be the century of assessment and selection on the bias of security technologies?

From the confines of the Sahara, across the Mediterranean, the camps are once more on their way to becoming the last step in a certain European project, a certain idea of Europe in the world, its macabre emblem, just as was foretold by Aimé Césaire only too recently in his Discourse on Colonialism.

One of the major contradictions of liberal order has always been the tension between freedom and security. Today, this question seems to have been cut in two. Security now matters more than freedom.

A society of security is not necessarily a society of freedom. A society of security is a society dominated by the irrepressible need for adhesion to a collection of certainties. It is one fearful of the type of interrogation that delves into the unknown, unearthing the risks that must surely be contained within.

This is why, in a society of security, the priority is, at all costs, to identify what lurks behind each new arrival — who is who, who lives where, with whom and since when, who does what, who comes from where, who is going where, when, how, why, and so on and so forth.

And moreover, who plans to carry out which acts, either consciously or unconsciously. The aim of a society of security is not to affirm freedom, but to control and govern the modes of arrival.

The current myth claims that technology constitutes the best tool for governing these arrivals, that technology alone allows for the resolution of this problem: a problem of order, but also of awareness, of identifiers, of anticipation and predictions.

It is feared that the dream of a humanity transparent to itself, stripped of mystery, might prove to be a catastrophic illusion. For the time being, migrants and refugees are bearing the brunt of it. In the long run, it is by no means certain that they will be the only ones.

Under such conditions, how else might we resist the claim by one province of the world to a universal right of predation, if not by daring to imagine the impossible — the abolition of borders, that is to say, giving all inhabitants of the Earth (human and nonhuman alike) the inalienable right to freedom of movement on this planet?

Achille Mbembe is the winner of the 2018 Ernst Bloch Prize and the 2018 Gerda Henkel Award

Achille Mbembe

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