Are Asylum Seekers Political Actors?

FRIENDLY FIRE | Failed Citizens or Failed States? | Workshops, Talks | ZK/U – Center for Arts and Urbanistics | Berlin | 02–04/11/17 | More info: | Hashtag: #FriendlyFire

Constantly Migrating

Invisible Walls

Coming to Berlin, we hit so many invisible walls. Language barriers, then sexism, then racism, all which lives inside the bureaucracy. If we have children to take care of there is not the support to do that properly here while living in homes that feel like detention centres, and we cannot work or go to school. If you put together all the walls we must go through on the way to finding a sense of belonging here, it makes an architecture. Not like a building, but like a maze. The secret password for moving through these walls is always “money”, and not “human rights”. This is the bad news: if we make it to the centre of the maze, a potential safe zone at the successful-paradise-centre of society, that’s where we find a golden fence which protects a golden cage. That is where you are kept once again. It’s not paradise in there, it is just more invisible walls. In our group, we discussed the experience of migrants*, and of so-called citizens as being defined by our common experience of invisible walls. We imagine that on the other side is a different kind of survival, but we aren’t sure. These walls are the kind that you may not know about until you feel your body up against it. Some people may live a long time before realizing the walls are there. (The definitions we are using, of invisible walls, are informed by the work of Sara Ahmed, and her work with that metaphor when describing the struggle of a diversity worker to work within and change institutional structures. ) Where did these walls come from? It feels as if the brick walls are the solidifications of an imperialist, colonialist history— the “building materials of power” (Ahmed). The common experience we share of being shoved against an invisible wall has taught us that the hardest things are those things that can’t be touched.

FRIENDLY FIRE | Failed Citizens or Failed States? | Workshops, Talks | ZK/U – Center for Arts and Urbanistics | Berlin | 02–04/11/17 | More info: | Hashtag: #FriendlyFire

„What do we mean when we use the word invisible wall? A wall that you do not see, that you cannot see or that you do not want to see. It depends on your perspective, on your position if you see it, or feel it Sense it. It is then a matter of sensitivity. Then to make it political, it also depends on you political position, your interest, on what side of this wall you are. The will to sense the things that block equality, cooperation, solidarity is in itself political and becomes agency when you try to deal with it . On the other hand, the man or woman who builds, is maybe even part of the wall, can see it, but for him or her the wall is not an obstacle, but a protection of this position, e.g. her or his job in the state. Something to hide behind. That is why it s/he cannot sense easily what this wall means for an immigrant. What do we need to sense the invisible wall? To look at it from another perspective. If Sabrina went with an asylum seeker to a state office to get unemployment money, she is able to sense how hight the wall is. The paperwork, the language, the way the public servant looks at you, the presence of an interpreter ar all bricks of this wall. I personally like to believe that we are always able to break down walls, even the invisible ones. We can start this difficult process by meeting and teaming up with another person, in a different position. To look at things and situations fr m another’s perspective. And then try to communicate“ .

Some of these invisible walls include

1. Laws and policies and constant paper work including duty of residence and paper granting permission to stay
2. Oppression and barriers such as racism, racial profiling, class, poverty, sexism, homophobia and identity politics, language barriers, digital divide
3. Invisible state interference in intimate relationships ie the decision to marry or have children informed by lack of papers.
4. The support structures intending to support being paternalistic and reproducing a superiority complex and people being stuck in guilt, ignorance and resignation
5. Broader Western prejudices, myths, misconceptions and myth of prosperity and safety
6. The stifling of our political imagination
7. Personal and collective trauma

The spectre of visibility (aurality, touchability, bodility)

We begun by sketching the issue as a continuum, arranging visibility and invisibility as two poles on an axes on to which position different aspects of the migrant, asylum seekers and refugees experiences. This two poles were not meant to set out a hierarchy – in fact, the opposite was at stake, that is, to show how both visibility and invisibility can function as protection or against the migrant subject. Visibility regimes can be in the eyes of the state, and equal control and surveillance as well as access to more rights.

FRIENDLY FIRE | Failed Citizens or Failed States? | Workshops, Talks | ZK/U – Center for Arts and Urbanistics | Berlin | 02–04/11/17 | More info: | Hashtag: #FriendlyFire

Clustering Issues

1. Bureaucracy: how this makes people visible and legible in specific ways, which are problematic as hard to negotiate.
2. Economic power: this allows specific subjects to become visible in desirable ways, controlling the storytelling and impacting legislation.
3. Marches/protests: these are techniques for making issues visible in public space and discourse. However, not everyone can afford to participate with their bodies in these situations.
4. Performative visibility: visibility or invisibility as regimes of performing the self for others and for power structures. What is that is not get shown or cannot be shown in various circumstances?
5. Art: art practices can be a resource for making issues and experiences visible in ways that are not the ones used in dominant media discourse.
6. Squatting: this is a tactic that can benefit both from being extremely invisible or seeking extreme visibility for political impact.
7. Not belonging/ not having resources or support/ statelessness: these conditions are often invisibly at work and also produce and are the product of regimes of invisibilization.
8. Invisible support structures: activated by migrants and allies beyond and against the demands places on the state. They are vital and yet problematically invisible as they replace resources that should be made available.
9. Precarity/ social reproduction/ care infrastructure: this was mapped as something that runs through the entire spectrum. Much social reproduction is undertaking in the private sphere of domesticity, and it is also pushed there as a way to make in invisible, ‘natural’ and cheap.
10. Opacity: this was discussed as an alternative strategy (following Eduard Glissant proposal for a ‘right to opacity’) – the right not to be made transparent – against the assumptions that one has to be full proposal for a ‘right to opacity’) – the right not to be made transparent – against the assumptions that one has to be full legible to be eligible.

Specific Invisible Walls

1. Language

While language barriers seem obvious when speaking about invisible walls, the inability to read, write or express yourself in the language of a host country or a common language understood by all in daily life can serve as the mortar in that wall: navigation becomes almost impossible when street signs, subway signs, even enter and exit signs to buildings make no sense. If you find your way around the city, you are vulnerable to racism and bigotry. If you’re with your children, you can’t de-escalate confrontations to keep you and your family safe, you can’t even speak up against verbal attacks — you can’t defend your own humanity. Social activities, such as sports or arts or music, as an avenue of integration are barred when you don’t even know how to ask where to find them, and you are excluded from conversation if you somehow manage to find them anyway. Even basic survival needs are jeopardized: you can’t even read the ingredients on packaged foods, so you have no idea if a food complies with religious or dietary needs. “You have no idea if something is Halal, or if it has an ingredient your child is severely allergic to,” and you don’t know how to call an ambulance or the police.

2. Sexism

Sexism, sexual aggression and sexual violence are very real concerns for women in the asylum process, even though they may be seeking refuge from exactly those threats in their home countries. Women traveling migrant routes on their own, whether single or with children, often attach themselves to other migrant families for protection, only to find themselves or their children in abusive situations. “One woman was leaving her son with a family she knew in the center whenever she went out, and discovered he was being abused by one of the males in that family.” Offers of protection and basic needs in exchange for sex are prevalent not only from males within migrant communities, but also from security guards and social workers at the centers and temporary housing. But more subtle forms of sexism contribute to undermining a woman’s attempts to integrate and establish herself in her new community. Jobs are often denied to women with children, under the assumption that they will quit easily or take too much time off to care for their families. And women’s only spaces are rarely women’s only: “The public pool had a women-only day and I wanted to get some sport so I went. Obviously I have to remove my scarf when I swim, but at the pool, the lifeguard was a man and then I couldn’t go. Women’s day is only one day a week; how hard is it to have a female lifeguard on that one day?”

3. Personal / collective trauma

1. Suffering from PTSD
2. Trust issues
3. Anxiety
4. Lack of support for others suffering from same
5. Isolation (self imposed)
6. Disassociation

4. Myth of Prosperity / Safety

Migrants, refugees, asylum seekers, and displaced persons have made the decision to leave their homeland for physical safety, economic security and a chance to live out their lives unobstructed by the systems that pose a direct threat to them. They often migrate with the idea that once arrived, they can start building new lives. But once they enter a housing center, and throughout the asylum process is, they instead step into, what one person has described it as, a “golden cage”. Inside the centers, whether permanent residences or temporary housing, a pecking order becomes quickly evident in a system of bureaucracy that is so complex, it is easily exploited. Money talks, and security guards, social workers and even government agents can be bribed. A complex system of nepotism and favoritism must be navigated if you want to find help navigating the complex bureaucratic system, creating a web of systems of bribery and paperwork so interlaced that it creates a micro-economy. “In our Heim, everyone was to receive only part of our monthly payment because we are provided three meals a day; but one of the social workers was selling papers so that some people could receive their full monthly payments. He had someone working with him, and obviously he was making money off it. I complained to our case worker, who played a smart game: she managed to get the social worker fired and his boss fired, and positioned herself right into the vacancy. Now, everyone gets their full pay as we are supposed to, and she’s the manager.” “We thought we were getting away from this system of bribes and who you know, but it’s just like the places we’re trying to get away from — it’s just like home!”

5. Hierarchies within migrant groups

Within migrating groups of people, especially as they are funneled into the asylum process, hierarchies become established based on status: refugee is a different status than asylum seeker than migrant than undocumented person. Permits and visas, which vary in their length of permission also create hierarchies according to desirability and accessibility: a three year visa is an accomplishment, as it gives you more breathing room — the threat of deportation becomes less immediate (although it is still there) than under a one-year visa — and you have more time to start building a life. However, they are more difficult to obtain; so a three-year visa holder can assume a position of authority over a one-year visa holder, and both can place themselves people who still only have “permission” to stay — each “permission” carrying it’s own definitions of desirability and inherent hierarchies, creating a micro-class system along every step of the asylum process. Additionally, there are cultural and racial hierarchies that attend migrant groups from their homelands all the way to their host countries, sometimes even cropping up anew, effectively fomenting economic or systemic class hierarchies into direct forms of racism and bigotry:

In our Heim, the bathroom and kitchen was shared between people from Christian countries and Arabic countries, who each have different ways of caring for their assets [e.g., forms of hygiene]. In my home country, we invited Muslims in our village over for Christmas dinner, and they invited us over for their holiday meals, which I loved because their food is so delicious. But in the Heim, after sharing the bathroom, I found myself not wanting to use the same kitchen as the Muslim people in the Heim, and then I had to ask myself: am I having a problem with a Muslim? when I never did before.

6. No Access to Internet

1. Creates isolation
2. Cannot find basic needs info
3. Cannot further language skills / information
4. Different keyboard

7. Guilt / Ignorance / Resignation

1. Did I do the right thing?
2. I failed my family
3. I have no options
4. My education level is higher than the people who have power over me (i.e., social worker)
5. I am invisible to the native populatin – they want to know nothing about me as a person, only my history

8. Paperwork

The sheer volume of paperwork required by governments for people going through the asylum or refugee process is overwhelming… and never-ending. In addition to long and complex forms that must be filled out and registered with the correct government office, there are often additional forms and applications that are not evident nor easily acquired. Because permits and even visas are temporary and come with expiration dates, the same process of forms and paperwork must be undertaken again and again. The tedious complexity of the process is disheartening, and many people eventually give up, choosing to bypass the paperwork and live undocumented and illegally, forever under the threat of deportation. While social workers and volunteers and other support organizations exist to assist with the paperwork process, there are inevitable gaps in the dissemination of information. To withhold knowledge is the same abuse of power as spreading false knowledge; whether by design or by accident, these gaps can cause deportation, delays in processing, and even the immediate threat of fines and stress of confusion: “When you arrive in Berlin, you are given a three-month travel card, but once it expires, you have to pay for transportation yourself. Nobody told me that, and after the card expired, I had no idea what to do or how to get another one, or where to even buy a monthly pass. And because we were only getting partial payments at that time, I couldn’t afford one anyway.”

FRIENDLY FIRE | Failed Citizens or Failed States? | Workshops, Talks | ZK/U – Center for Arts and Urbanistics | Berlin | 02–04/11/17 | More info: | Hashtag: #FriendlyFire

Unresolved issues

We also had a number of interesting conversations that were unresolved tensions. These were perhaps the richest part of our time together. These included:
1. A debate on whether identity politics is a dead-end or can contextually be generative
2. Is the framework of visibility and is it the most desirable form of political action? Are there other forms (eg. Aural, touchability, bodability, opacity)
3. Do we want to redeem citizenship or is a throw-away concept?
4. Are refugee-migrant struggles only ‘your’ struggle or is it also ‘my’ struggle? How do we connect across different struggles through common purpose.

FRIENDLY FIRE | Failed Citizens or Failed States? | Workshops, Talks | ZK/U – Center for Arts and Urbanistics | Berlin | 02–04/11/17 | More info: | Hashtag: #FriendlyFire


This project was conceived at the Berliner Gazette annual conference 2017 entitled FRIENDLY FIRE. Check out
Guests: Arwa Alladin, Sabrina Dittus, Taraneh Fazeli, Valeria Graziano, Bernd Hatesuer, Susie Kahlich, Annika Seibt, Jo van der Spek, Cassie Thornton, Harsha Walia.
Facilitators: Jennifer Kamau & Jaron Rowan.