Introduction: Refugees and the Crisis of Europe

From the Series: Refugees and the Crisis of Europe

Photo by Eva Gluszak Castagna.

Since the beginning of 2015, an unprecedented number of people from Middle Eastern and African countries—many of them fleeing war, persecution, and unrelenting poverty—have been crossing borders into and within Europe, traversing the Mediterranean, the Balkans, and the English Channel. This “refugee crisis”—and we use scare quotes deliberately—has turned immigration, asylum, border control, and state sovereignty into interconnected problems, making migration not only a political event but also a media spectacle. In so doing, it has brought certain issues to the fore, from refugee quotas and the moral imperatives that ostensibly ground European humanism to the impossibility of European unity (witness the Brexit referendum), even as it has simultaneously rendered others invisible, including older patterns of migration, border control, and state violence.

This Hot Spots series therefore takes as its starting point an interrogation of the spectacle of crisis, of crisis as spectacle. How, we ask, ought we interpret the media focus on Syrianrefugees, and how might this focus reinscribe a (racialized) distinction between “deserving” or “real” refugees and so-called economic migrants? How do we locate the migration crisis within an ongoing alternation on the part of the European Union and its member states between humanitarianism and border control, between a Liberal Europe committed to moral humanism and a Fortress Europe committed to expelling undesirables? How do the strategies of, on the one hand, custody and control (of foreign bodies and borders) and, on the other, rescue and care (of victims of human trafficking, asylum seekers, and refugees) reflect and refract the nature of power and sovereignty in Europe today?

The images of dead bodies at sea, of drenched refugees on overloaded, rickety boats, and of families climbing frantically through border fences made of barbed wire have become iconic in our collective imagination. No image is as iconic as the figure of Aylan Kurdi, whose tiny body washed ashore on a Turkish beach in September 2015. He and his family, fleeing the civil war in Syria, had boarded a boat bound for Greece that capsized soon after departing Turkey. The figure of Aylan became the emblem of innocence and injustice, mobilizing an international public outcry about the destruction wrought by the Syrian civil war, the cruel forms of trafficking it has produced, and the ineffective European response to that humanitarian crisis. The affective reactions generated by the image of Aylan seemed to have an effect on the decisions of European nation-states: German Chancellor Angela Merkel opted for open borders, and the Refugees Welcome movement gathered momentum across the continent.

Yet the very iconicity of that image of Aylan—its easy visibility and legibility to an international audience—also made invisible and illegible other figures, other moments, other histories. The intense focus on the image of Aylan brought with it a narrative of unprecedented tragedy that is the death of an innocent child, foreclosing potentially troubling reflections on longue durée geopolitics and the complexity of the present moment. In fact, we keep referring to “the image” and “the figure” of Aylan for a reason. It turns out that the boy’s name was likely Alan Shenu—his family took or were given the name Kurdi once in Turkey because of their ethnic background—but few readers would have recognized that name. We knew and we mourned Aylan Kurdi.

The essays in this series are an attempt to bring to the fore some of these buried histories, illegible moments, and invisible figures, to interrogate the discourse of crisis and to problematize the very framing of refugee migration as a hot spot. As Didier Fassin notes, hot spots are also the name for refugee processing centers that the European Union has put in place to triage applicants (with the goal of mass rejection), part of a long-term project of border control that increasingly extends the European frontier to its most marginal perimeters. Other essays similarly refute the notion that the 2015 migration phenomenon is extraordinary or unprecedented. Heath Cabot writes of the asylum seekers and caseworkers who constituted the grinding machinery of migration and deportation well before the present crisis and who will do so well after. Cristiana Giordano likewise draws our attention to the everyday, ordinary rhythms of migration and violence that are occluded by the spotlight on the so-called refugee crisis. Francesco Vacchianno details the thousands of deaths in the Mediterranean, rendered uneventful by their sheer quantity, and points out the neoliberal structural adjustments in Europe that created the conditions of possibility for a narrative of scarcity and crisis. While none of the essays here address the Brexit referendum since they were commissioned months ago, the success of the Leave campaign, built on xenophobia in a context where many Britons feel socioeconomically vulnerable, underscores the need to problematize discourses of scarcity and to undermine the concomitant presentation of crisis as spectacle.

Given its place in the spectacle of crisis, the iconicity of Aylan Kurdi serves as the springboard for a number of essays: Miriam Ticktin interrogates the politics of innocence and the racial hierarchy on which that politics draws, while Andrea Muehlebach juxtaposes “little Aylan” to his more menacing double, the figure of the sexually aggressive North African man whom many Europeans assume he would have become had he survived (a connection crassly depicted by Charlie Hebdo after the 2015 New Year’s Eve mass sexual assaults in Cologne). Damani Partridge, also writing about Germany, examines the role of pity and wonders what a politics of solidarity, rather than pity, might look like. The remaining three essays locate the ostensibly European crisis within a broader geopolitical frame. Mehmet Fatih Tatari documents how the Syrian war has eclipsed Turkey’s military operations in and destruction of Kurdish areas, and how both wars enable the Turkish state to reinforce its sovereignty. Suvendrini Perera connects Fortress Europe to Fortress Australia, detailing the ways in which Australia, like Europe, increasingly outsources its detention regime, turning its border into a “set of makeshift and protean geographies.” Finally, Jeffrey Kahn historicizes this spatial-qua-juridical outsourcing, showing how the modular nature of border control—including its law-evading tendencies and its constant extending of geo-juridical boundaries—has its roots in the United States’s interdiction of Haitian refugees in the early 1980s.

Our contributors map the histories, geopolitics, ethical imaginaries, forms of sovereignty, and patterns of circulation that state categories of crisis and emergency render visible and/or invisible, in Europe and elsewhere. Each essay is, moreover, accompanied by an image from End of Dreams, an installation and photo project by Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen that memorializes the massive loss of human life in the Mediterranean. As Rhiannon Welch explains in her essay on the installation, Larsen dropped forty-eight figures, wrapped in concrete canvas meant to resemble body bags or funerary sheets, into the sea near the southern Italian port city of Pizzo Calabro. In a stark reenactment of the vulnerability of the migrants themselves, a number of the sculptures came unmoored from their anchors and were cast out to sea during a violent storm, just like the human beings they were meant to memorialize.