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Refugees and Biopolitics

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Published: Mon, 02 Oct 2017

Refugee: The Victim of Biopolitics

While we acknowledged as citizens of our country are enjoying our basic rights as a human as well as a citizen, have turned a blind eye to those millions of people around the world who are forced to live on the margins of social, political, economical and geographical borders. These people are known as the refugees; people in search of a refuge. They can also be called immigrants or asylum seekers.

Victims of their nation’s political functioning these people are forced to find haven on an alien land. At times, these people (called the ‘Others’) are constructed as a danger to ‘Us’. “Fear of the Other is produced, circulated and capitalized on to achieve political and economic purposes” (Robin). The questions that arise here are as many as why are these refugees treated as the ‘Others’? Aren’t they humans like ‘Us’? Weren’t they born as Man and, as a result, are entitled to be acknowledged with the basic human and citizenship rights? And most importantly, why and how do these people become the victims of biopolitics? This paper is an attempt to find the answers to such questions.

In his book Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben has devoted an entire section titled ‘Biopolitics and the Rights of Man’ to describe the suffering of these refugees who are denied even the basic human rights in a new country. Becoming a victim of his fate “the very figure who should have embodied the rights of man par excellence – the refugee – signals instead the concept’s radical crisis” (Agamben 126). The crux of Agamben’s essay is based on Hannah Arendt’s claim that the fates of human rights and the nation-state are linked together, which means that the decline of one also implies the end of the other. This means, that by altering the rights of these people who later become refugees, the nation is leading towards its own decline. “The paradox from which Arendt departs is that the very figure who should have embodied the rights of man par excellence – the refugee – signals instead the concept’s radical crisis” (Agamben 126).

Agamben completely understands the refugees’ condition as it is and that’s why he has titled his book as Homo Sacer. To understand the meaning behind this we need to go back to the Roman antiquity, where the cancellation of a citizen’s rights by the sovereign produced the threshold figure of homo sacer, the sacred man who can be killed by anyone as he has no rights but can’t be sacrificed because the act of sacrifice can only be done within the legal context of the city from which homo sacer has been banished, as can be seen in the case of refugees from Rwanda (Agamben 133). “He is an outlawed citizen, the exception to the law, and yet he is still subject to the penalty of death and therefore still included, in the very act of exclusion, within the law” (Downey). Homo sacer blurs the line between an outlaw and a citizen and, hence aptly portrays the figure of Agamben’s refugees.

In his essay ‘Biopolitics and the Rights of Man’, Agamben has talked about the devastating impact of biopolitics on the refugees. The word ‘biopolitics’ has been formed out of two words: bio (the life) and politics, and means the “regulation of the life of populations” by politics (Zembylas). When Agamben says “Biopolitics” or “Biopower”, he refers to the social and political power that the nation-state has over human life. In order to protect the population’s biological well-being, the state acts preventively and thus it goes against the ‘Other’: “If you want to live, the other must die” (Foucault 255). And in this way, the killing is justified in the name of security. Biopolitics “establishes a binary categorization between ‘us’ and ‘them’, or between the ‘normal’ (legitimate citizens) and the ‘abnormal’ (illegal immigrants, un-qualified refugees or bogus asylum seekers). The former deserve to live, while the latter are expendable” (Zembylas).

Agamben talks about the first move of classical western politics: the separation of the biological and the political. This can be seen in Aristotle’s separation between life in the polis. Bios is the political life and zoÄ“ is the bare life. “The entry of zoÄ“ into the sphere of the polis – the politicization of bare life as such – constitutes the decisive event of modernity and signals a radical transformation of the political-philosophical categories of classical thought” (Agamben). For Agamben, at the political level, biopower means that what’s at stake is the life of the citizen itself; not only his existence but also his life.

Agamben also examines the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, 1789 and concludes that the bare natural life (birth) is the source and bearer of rights as mentioned in the first article of the Declaration, which says that “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights”. This should mean that despite leaving their country, the refugees deserve equal rights. But at the same time, he reminds us that the very natural life vanishes into the figure of the citizen, in whom rights are “preserved”. This means, that although a man is born free and has equal rights, these rights are valid only as long as he is a citizen. So, when he leaves his country and becomes a refugee, he is devoid of any citizenship rights. And, since the Declaration can attribute sovereignty to the “nation”, Agamben says, “the nation closes the open circle of man’s birth” (Agamben). Now, that the sovereignty lies with the nation, this is where the biopolitics enters the scene.

Now, when biopolitics enters the scene, what we can see is the discrimination it does. A format of this discrimination can be seen in the real life accounts of Mexican-American writer, Luis Alberto Urrea, who in his book Across the Wire: Life and Hard Times on the Mexican Border, talks about his experience in Tijuana (a city in Mexico adjacent to the Mexican-American border) where thousands of immigrants/refugees from different parts of Central America arrive every day, with the hope that they might be able to cross the Mexican-American border and make it to The United States. He provides an account of the struggles of these refugees, who after spending all their money, leaving their homeland behind and facing all sorts of violence do make it to Tijuana but only to face more violation.

Reaching Tijuana isn’t the most painful hurdle for them, the real struggle begins after they reach there and begin the journey of crossing the highly-guarded Mexican-American border. The border, strengthened by Border Patrol, makes the idea of reaching the other side of the fence (USA) a ‘dream’ for these refugees. The biopolitics comes here in the form of both nations’ Border Patrols who stop these immigrants from entering North America. The danger is present not only in the form of the ‘foreign’ Border Patrols but also in the form of the ‘local’ coyotes (guides) who at times turn on these refugees and take all their money away from them. If the coyotes don’t attack them, there are rateros (thieves), if the rateros don’t, there are pandilleros (gangs) who will. If the refugees are lucky enough (or rather, smart enough) to avoid these thugs, they will eventually collide with the authoritative Border Patrols who catch them and transport them back to Tijuana, forcing these desperate refugees to start their struggle from scratch.

When these refugees return back unsuccessfully to Tijuana they are without a place to live, without any money to fulfill their basic needs, sometimes they are even without clothes and shoes. In many cases they are even “bloodied from a beating by pandilleros, or an “accident” in the Immigration and Naturalization Service compound. They can’t get proper medical attention. They can’t eat, or afford to feed their family. Some of their compatriots have been separated from their wives or their children. Now their loved ones are in the hands of strangers, in the vast and unknown United States” (Urrea 17-18).

It is clear that North America doesn’t want these Central American refugees, and after a time even these refugees’ spirit starts to break. They start ‘living’ in Tijuana where they sell chewing gum, their children sing in traffic and at every stoplight they wash the car windshields. “If North America does not want them, Tijuana wants them even less. They become the outcasts of an outcast region” (Urrea 19). All these circumstances are a result of biopolitics which stops these ‘Others’ from mixing with the ‘Us’. These refugees are not welcomed in Tijuana, which is a place that itself isn’t welcome in Mexico. Tijuana is Mexico’s cast-off child. Although, she brings money and attracts foreigners, no one would dare claim her. Some people there don’t count Tijuana as a part of Mexico. For them the border is nowhere. But, in reality a border does exist there. That borer is ‘invisible’.

Here, we can refer to Etienne Balibar’s concept of ‘inner borders’ which are “invisible borders, situated everywhere and nowhere” (Balibar 78). While talking about Europe’s Schengen Convention, Balibar says that “one of the major implications of the Schengen Convention […] is that from now on, on ‘its’ border […] each member state is becoming the representative of the others” (Balibar 78). By this, he is referring to the exploitation a refugee/immigrant/asylum seeker faces when more than one (Schengen) nations come together to exploit these refugees by prohibiting them entry (to asylums, etc.) in nearly every European nation (who have signed the Schengen Agreement). The border of these Schengen nations is biopolitically constructed, and “is indeed the only aspect of ‘the construction of Europe’ that is currently moving forward, not in the area of citizenship, but in that of anti-citizenship, by way of coordination between police forces and also of more or less simultaneous legislative and constitutional changes regarding the right of asylum and immigration regulations, family reunion, the granting of nationality, and so on” (Balibar 78).

Although, the Declaration of Rights, (based on the birth-nation link and leading to national sovereignty) was expected to succeed the collapse of the ancien régime (where the concept of national citizenship was absent), Agamben clearly says that after World War I “the birth-nation link has no longer been capable of performing its legitimating function inside the nation-state, and the two terms have begun to show themselves to be irreparably loosened from each other” (Agamben 132).

This leads him to talk about the immense increase of refugees and stateless persons in Europe. He lists several Europeans (1,500,000 White Russians, 700,000 Armenians, etc.) who were displaced from their countries in the first half of 20th century. Then, he talks about the mass denaturalization and denationalization of their own populations committed by France in 1915 with respect to naturalized citizens of “enemy” origin and by Belgium in 1922 who revoked the naturalization of citizens who have committed “anti national” acts during the war. He then mentions the “most extreme point” of this process when the Nuremberg laws on “citizenship in the Reich” and the “protection of German blood and honor” introduced “the principle according to which citizenship was something of which one had to prove oneself worthy and which could therefore always be called into question” (Agamben 132). This highlights the fact that by using the biopolitical weapons of Fascism and Nazism, countries stripped their own citizens off of their citizenship and human rights and ultimately pushed them towards their death. Agamben claims that, “Today it is not the city but rather the camp that is the fundamental biopolitical paradigm of the West” (Agamben 181).

The two resulting phenomenons: 1) The massive increase in the number of refugees and stateless persons in Europe, and 2) European states allowing the mass denaturalization and denationalization of their own populations, “show that the birth-nation link, on which the Declaration of 1789 had founded national sovereignty, had already lost its mechanical force and power of self-regulation by the time of the First World War” (Agamben 132).

What actually happens is that the governments suspend civil rights during social crisis and decide who is to be excluded and who is to be included. The refugees are the ones who are excluded. The camp signifies a state of exception in which “the originary relation of law to life is not application but Abandonment” (Agamben). The one who is banned is not simply set outside the law but rather abandoned by it. This highlights the fact that the nations and their biopolitics truly lack the humanitarian aspect.

Agamben sees a separation of humanitarian concerns from politics. Instead, what’s visible to him is a solidarity between humanitarianism and the political powers it should fight. This contradiction is a primary reason for the failure of several committees and organisations (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, for example) who work for the problem of refugees and the protection of human rights. They simply refuse to comment on the actions of political regimes. “This distinction is also seen in the general populace of many nation-states in which great compassion is demonstrated by donating millions of dollars to fund humanitarian aid, while showing great hostility to those same suffering faces when they are more proximate strangers” (qtd. in Zembylas). Although, these organizations function for the right of these refugees, they fail to resolve their problems in any way. These humanitarian organizations “maintain a secret solidarity with the very powers they ought to fight” “The separation between humanitarianism and politics that we are experiencing today is the extreme phase of the separation of the rights of man from the rights of the citizen” (Agamben 133).

Now, the big question is how to stop the exploitation of these refugees at the hands of nations’ biopolitics? Some might suggest that since the concept of ‘refugees’ is a result of ‘borders’, a ‘borderless world’ would aptly solve the problem of refugees. But, “such a ‘world’ would run the risk of being a mere arena for the unfettered domination of the private centers of power which monopolize capital, communications and, perhaps also, arms” (Balibar 85). By saying this, Balibar is pointing towards the omnipresence of biopolitics which makes the fact clear that a world without borders and biopolitics can only exist in a state of utopia.

First of all, what Agamben suggests is that the concept of the refugee must be separated from the concept of the human rights because refugees are devoid of any of those rights. It should be clearly visible to everyone where they stand. Secondly, the refugees are born in a nation and they should belong to it but they aren’t allowed to, and since they are born as Man they should be considered citizens but they aren’t. This is why the refugees must call into question the existing fundamental concepts of the nation-state: the birth-nation and the man-citizen links. Refugees should make nations and humanist organizations see how much they are lacking in their humanitarian approach. Lastly, refugees have got the power to ask the nations to renew their existing political categories where “bare life is no longer separated either in the state order or in the figure of human rights” (Agamben 134). If there would be no separation of bare life, then there wouldn’t be any discrimination against the refugees. This way they will be recognized as humans and citizens just like any other person and their discrimination at the hands of biopolitics will eventually see a decline.

Works Cited

Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1995. 126, 132, 133, 134, 181. Print.

Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism. New ed. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1966. N. pag. Print.

Balibar, Etienne. Politics and the Other Scene. London: Verso, 2002. 78. Print. Downey, Anthony. “Zones of Indistinction.”

http://www.sothebysinstitute.com/files/research/zones.pdf. Sotheby’s Institute of Art, 26 Apr. 2009. Web. 11 Nov. 2014.

Foucault, Michel, and Mauro Bertani. “Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the Collège De France, 1975-1976. New York: Picador, 2003. 255. Print.

Robin, Corey. Fear: The History of a Political Idea. New York: Oxford UP, 2004. N. pag. Print.

Urrea, Luis Alberto. Across the Wire: Life and Hard Times on the Mexican Border. New York: Anchor, 1993. 17, 18, 19. Print.

Zembylas, Michalinos. “Agamben’s Theory of Biopower and Immigrants/Refugees/AsylumSeekers.” Journal.jctonline.org/index.php/jct/article/viewFile/195/83. Journal of Curriculum Theorizing, 2010. Web. 11 Nov. 2014.


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