Compassion and Repression: The Moral Economy of Immigration Policies in France

Peer Reviewed

"Refugee." April 13, 2008 via Michelle Stewart.

Editorial Overview

In recent decades, Europe (much like the the United States) has tightened its immigration policies and becoming increasingly punitive to illegal immigrants. But within this class of immigrant, there has long stood the "exceptional" category of "refugee" and those individuals who seek asylum based on factors ranging from political and/or religious persecution to the fall out of war and economic hardship. In "Compassion and Repression: The Moral Economy of Immigration Policies", Didier Fassin investigates the ways in which political asylum has undergone a transformation in which "humanitarian claims"—informed by health needs—are being privileged over political claims (based on fear of persecution etc).

Focusing on the Sangatte Center that was put up in France in late 1999, Fassin explores the role of this holding facility—often called a transit camp since most immigrants final destination was Britain, not France—and how it became a symbol for the "moral economy of contemporary Europe" that was wrestling with new policies governed by compassion and repression. It was during the 1990s, following the end of the cold war, that France began to tighten its doors in the name of national and economic security. Concurrently, as it rejected thousands of asylum seekers, it became involved in immigration policies that favored a language of charity over one of human "rights". This obligatory compassion could be located in new practices that focused on health-based claims by immigrants and refugees. Successful claimants more often were those who could "prove" they had a medical condition that would not be treated in their country of origin—compassion weighed in as these cases were granted on "humanitarian grounds."

Through empirical examples, Fassin illustrates the various ways in which the body crossed over into a new space of productivity; whereas once the laboring body was sought out, now the diseased body as accepted into new homelands. Using the work of Giorgio Agamben, Hannah Arendt and Michel Foucault, Fassin delivers an ethnographic text that reminds us of the ways in which the state continues to manage through new and emerging practices of biopolitics favoring the life of one over another—offering up exceptional spaces in the name of national security and economy.

Editorial Footnotes

Cultural Anthropology has published numerous articles on immigration policies and practices. For example, Dorothy Schneider's "'I Know All About Emma Lazarus': Nationalism and Its Contradictions in Congressional Rhetoric of Immigration Restriction", Cultural Anthropology 13.1(1998): 82-99. Cultural Anthropology has also published articles that focus specifically on refugees and asylum seekers. For example, Peter Redfield's "Doctors, Borders, and Life in Crisis", Cultural Anthropology 20.3(2005): 328-361 and Ilana Feldman's "Difficult Distinctions: Refugee Law, Humanitarian Practice, and Political Identification in Gaza", Cultural Anthropology 22.1(2007): 129-169.

About the Author

Didier Fassin is Professor of Sociology at the University of Paris Northern and Director of of Studies in Anthropology at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales in Paris. He is a trained sociologist, medical doctor and anthropologist. During the 1980s he practiced medicine while concurrently studying social science. He has been the director of Cresp, Centre of research on public health issues, of the University Paris North and French Institute of health and medical research and he has served as the Vice-President to Doctors Without Borders.

His books include: Pouvoir et maladie en Afrique, L'espace politique de la santé, Les enjeux politiques de la santé, Des maux indicibles, and Faire de la santé publique.

Dider Fassin's website

Multimedia and Links

The following media can be used to assist in teaching about this article. Included below are recent articles that discuss how the French government is planning to build one, if not two, new centers in this general location and others that speak more loosely about the migration path through France en route to Britain as well as the use of hunger strikes in asylum cases.

Doctors without Borders website

News Stories about Sangatte Center:

Q&A: Sangatte Camp

Sussex Migration Working Paper #18--Images of Sangatte: Political Representations of Asylum Seeking in France and the UK

Q&A: New Laws on Asylum

Sangatte: A Place of Hope and Despair

Sangatte Journal: Refugees Out in the Cold in Sight of Dover's Cliffs

Deadline Set for Refugees in Church

French Police Oust Migrants Who Took Refuge in Church

Recent Developments:

"France Says New Immigration Centre is no new Sangatte" 2007
UK Home Office on Proposal From Calais Mayor to Open new "Reception Center"

"Talks on New Calais Asylum Centre"

TWO Sangatte Twos Called For as 'Vast Influx' of Immigrants Try to Get into Britian

"European Union Clarifies What it Means by Refugee and Subsidiary Protection"
From European Union's area of "Freedom, Security and Justice"

Video: Channel 4 News Article 2008-01-16

Supplemental Piece about Asylum Seekers in Europe:

Video: Hunger strikers seek asylum in Belgium

Questions for Classroom Discussion

1) How do the languages of security and humanitarianism present themselves in this article? Further: Can you think of similar examples from other countries where these terms have been deployed when speaking about refugees and immigrants?

2) Explain how and why the inhabitants of Sangatte Center began to be called "refugees"; what is significant about this terminology?

3) Explain the process by which Sangatte Center began to appearance of an urban space.

4) Discuss the ways in which Sangatte Center became a "space of confinement". Further: In the name of security, The Red Cross accepted a strong police presence, explain the tension that surrounded this agreement.

5) Using the example of the Swedish welfare workers (p.366), Didier explains the role emotion can take within larger institutions, he then moves beyond this example to consider the "moral heart" of an institutional policy—explain the example and this term.

6) Explain the use of Agamben's terms: bios, zoe and camp.

7) According to Fassin, Sangatte Center is the "perfect expression" of Agamben's narrative of the camp as that pure space of exception, please explain.

8) Fassin explains that the collective treatment of refugees does involve a 'blurring' of the space between the "political" and the "humanitarian". Using France as your example explain this and the implications it has brought about. Further: how do these terms factor into the rhetoric of national security?

9) Using the time period of 1980s-1990s, explain the term "systemic suspicion" and the effects it had on both policy and public perception. Be sure to include such terms as: "false refugee" and "economic refugee".

10) Explain the origin of "humanitarian reason" related to health care needs for refugees and immigrants.

11) Why did advocates ask asylum seekers if they had any health issues; how did the relationship between humanitarian cases and political asylum shift in the 1990s?

12) What events took place in late 80s/early 90s that heavily influenced this shift in immigration policy?

13) "It is the disease that is killing me that now keeps me alive." (371) Explain this quotation within the context of these new politics of daily life.

14) How are medical cases handled in a more standard way; and how does appear to make medical cases less politically risky for the government.

15) What does Fassin mean when he discusses the humiliation of having to use one's "biology" over "biography"?

16) How has the body, the way it is used and deployed, changed through these new immigration policies? Further: Have the values that govern national and economic security also changed with regards to the notion of a productive body as working or diseased?

17) Explain the perceptions and responses to the accident involving the East Sea. Using this example, reconsider some of the key terms in the article and explain them through this example, please use at least 5 key terms of your own choosing.

18) Explain the role of the Geneva Convention and how its role has changed with regard to asylum seekers.

19) Explain the process of "disqualification" developed by three different French administrations.

20) Explain the implication and significance of calling Sangatte a "camp"; be attentive to Agamben but also consider Fassin's empirical examples.

21) Fassin closes with a discussion of the film in this world and says that it offers a "fictional illusion in our moral world". What does he mean by this term. Can you think of other films that garner a similar illusion of a shared humanity between audience (spectator) and character?

Related Reading

Fassin, Didier. "Humanitarianism as a Politics of Life." Public Culture 19, no. 3 (2007).

To see the ways in which this article has been used by other authors, please see the following essays that have cited this article:

Feldman, Ilana. "The Quaker way: Ethical labor and humanitarian relief." American Ethnologist 34, no. 4: 689-705.

Hoffman, Danny. "The City as Barracks: Freetown, Monrovia, and the Organization of Violence in Postcolonial African Cities." Cultural Anthropology 22, no. 3 (2007): 400-428.

Feldman, Ilana. "Difficult Distinctions: Refugee Law, Humanitarian Practice, and Political Identification in Gaza." Cultural Anthropology 22, no. 1 (2007): 129-169.

Greenhouse, Carol J. "Fieldwork on Law." Annual Review of Law and Social Science 2, no. 1: 187.

Fassin, Didier and Estelle D'Halluin. "Truth from the Body: Medical Certificates as Ultimate Evidence for Asylum Seekers." American Anthropologist 107, no. 4: 597-608.

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