Centroamérica / Migration

“You Pay to Die” — New Anthology ‘Asylum for Sale’ Assesses the Global Anti-Immigration Regime

Friday, November 27, 2020
Belén Fernández

In 2016, Uyi, a Nigerian artist, attempted to leave Libya—where he had endured months in prison-like accommodations following a perilous overland journey from his home country—and make it to Europe on an overpacked rubber dinghy. Reflecting on the time he spent being tossed by waves in the Mediterranean, Uyi says: “We stayed on that boat for what felt like days. It was so horrible. You pay to die. That is how it is: you pay to die.”

Uyi survived the voyage thanks to a migrant rescue ship that has since been forced out of service by the homicidal European Union policies often collectively referred to as “Fortress Europe,” which envisions mass drownings as a handy deterrent against continued immigration. In 2016 alone, an estimated five thousand people perished while trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea, by far the deadliest migrant corridor in the world. And yet physical death is, it seems, only one way to die in the context of a thoroughly dehumanizing industry that has arisen around anti-migration policies—and that essentially makes migrants pay for their own dehumanization. 

I recall an elderly Syrian refugee I met in 2015 in Lebanon, where widespread physical and economic abuse of refugees has merely compounded the trauma of the war they fled at home. As a result, the old man said, many saw themselves as dead already.

Uyi’s reflections appear in one chapter of Asylum for Sale, a new book edited by Siobhán McGuirk—a postdoctoral researcher in anthropology at Goldsmiths, University of London—and Adrienne Pine, an anthropologist at American University in Washington, DC. The anthology of writings and artwork takes on the commodification of asylum as a lucrative industry under neoliberal capitalism. Contributors include scholars, activists, journalists, and asylum seekers themselves—such as José López, the pseudonymous author of the book’s first chapter: “On Seeking Refuge from an Undeclared War.”

The war in question is in Honduras, a nation that has long occupied a special place in the sadistic heart of the United States, serving as a base for imperial military and economic operations in the region. In the aftermath of the right-wing coup in 2009, the US increased aid to Honduran security forces that were murdering, raping, and otherwise terrorizing Hondurans; after all, maintaining a corporate-friendly regime in the country was more important to the gringos than, you know, worrying about human rights. The climate of violence and impunity would ultimately cause countless Hondurans to flee towards the United States in the direction of potential safety —for many, a hazard-ridden trajectory rendered only more lethal by frenetic border militarization schemes and the effective criminalization of migration.

López, a gay man involved in the anti-coup resistance, sought asylum in the US in 2016 after concluding that remaining in Tegucigalpa was likely a death sentence. He was interned for three months at the Atlanta City Detention Center — “one of the worst immigration prisons in the country,” he describes it — where the city received $78 per day from the federal government for each Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainee, putting the price-tag for López’s own suffering at $7,020. Remarking on the “massive money in asylum”—from private sector prisons to corporate contractors to the exploitation of an underpaid immigrant workforce by the very setup that criminalizes them, as with “illegal” immigrants employed in the prisons themselves—López observes that “it’s an entire economic system,” a “vicious cycle with profit at every stage.” Indeed, not only is profit wrung from the US-backed neoliberal war on Honduras, the victims of that war are then revictimized in the interest of further neoliberal profit and the expansion of the asylum industry.

In another chapter of Asylum for Sale, Garry Leech discusses the pernicious effects of so-called “free trade” on Mexico, where the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement constituted “structural violence that shattered the lives of millions of Mexican small farmers through NAFTA-sanctioned dumping of heavily subsidized US food products onto the Mexican market.” According to US government statistics, he notes, more than two thousand migrants died attempting to cross the US border in the first decade of NAFTA alone. (The actual number of deaths is likely significantly higher.) In a sense, then, Uyi’s calculation that “You pay to die” pretty accurately sums up the essence of neoliberalism itself — at least from the standpoint of migrants.

Assessing the 2018 US-bound migrant caravans that sent Donald Trump’s panties into a bunch and prompted the presidential Twitter-declaration of a “National Emergy” [sic], Leech describes the asylum seekers as “refugees of neoliberal free trade agreements.” This sort of conceptualization is precisely what’s missing from mainstream analyses of migration, which prefer to portray migrants as invading swarms, malevolent opportunists, or in the very least a cohort whose plight has nothing whatsoever to do with the machinations of the United States and other global powers that be. And it is in the relentless provision of context that Asylum for Sale really shines, connecting the dots internationally and exposing a system of institutionalized sociopathy that thrives on the cheapening of human life.

The book covers such a lot of ground and is so consistently engaging that it is impossible to do it justice in a short review. There are dispatches from Manus Island, Australia’s offshore refugee hell, and from Malta, the European archipelago-cum-migrant prison where “non-deportable refugees live in a permanent temporary state, which Zygmunt Bauman calls the ‘nowhere-land of non-humanity.’” There’s a contribution from two of the activists charged for terrorism-related offenses in the UK for forcibly preventing a deportation flight to Africa from London’s Stansted airport in 2017. That year, each chartered deportation flight from Britain reportedly cost no less than £5,345.56 (about US$6,895.77) per passenger. But hey, it’s not like there are any other uses for such money in an austerity-stricken nation.

There’s also a chapter on arms and security industry players who make bank off of xenophobic border fortification efforts, plus an organ trafficking intervention titled “Kidneys without Borders—Asylum without Kidneys” by UC Berkeley’s Nancy Scheper-Hughes, who points out that, “while devalued refugees face incredible difficulty finding security or asylum across international borders, their commodified human organs—like any other valuable commercial product—travel freely, following the flows of capital and power.” In his own chapter on evolving industry prospects in an era of anthropogenic climate change, journalist and author Todd Miller writes that “governments and the corporations that benefit from their contracts are treating climate change… as a ‘threat multiplier.’” He continues: “From this point of view, the actual weather event is secondary to the people most impacted by the event. More of a threat than the drought itself is the farmer fleeing the drought.” Rest assured that, as we hurtle toward planetary self-destruction, capitalism will offer plenty of non-solutions to the environmental problems it created in the first place—and will undertake to extract the maximum possible profit from that farmer’s misery before it’s all over. You pay to die.

When discussing who profits off of migrants, there is a reductionist tendency to assign the bad guy role to human smugglers. But as Asylum for Sale exhaustively demonstrates, punitive migration and asylum regimes mean big bucks all around—for corporate actors, NGOs, doctors, lawyers, and all the other characters who reap economic rewards from perpetuating a routine of detention, deportation, and the sporadic acceptance of asylum seekers whose claims have been deemed “genuine.” In the introduction to the book, McGuirk and Pine note that individual claimants are “expected to present harrowing evidence of personalized suffering and violence—via photographs, video footage, and/or testimonies—to elicit compassion and subsequent positive action.” In other words, traumatized migrants are effectively required to sell their trauma to an audience. Under neoliberalism, even trauma is for sale.

In their respective chapters, McGuirk and Pine are admirably honest and self-critical, as when Pine comments with regard to her work in US federal asylum courts as a country conditions expert on Honduras: “I participate in the fetishization of the asylum applicant’s trauma as capital within a system that offers no hope for changing the roots of that trauma.” Another chapter, this one in comic-book style, tells the story of a former guard at an Australian immigration detention facility—an employee of the British multinational Serco, which self-advertises as “deliver[ing] safe, secure and cost-efficient prison management services that achieve real outcomes for the community, governments, and those in custody.” The man had taken on the job with the idea of helping asylum seekers from within the system, and was promptly horrified by Serco’s contempt for the contexts of trauma from which those in its custody had emerged. But “no matter how bad things got in there, they [the detainees] looked out for each other. They had a sense of mutual support and community, which I really respected. Something I don’t see very often on the outside.”

On the outside, of course, things are also bad, and we’re currently faced with a deadly neoliberal panorama that aims to exterminate solidarity. But despite the cynical subject matter of Asylum for Sale, one can’t help but feel while reading it that humanity won’t go down without a fight.

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