… we actually live in a world in which human beings as such have ceased to exist for quite a while; since society has discovered discrimination as the great social weapon by which one may kill men without any bloodshed; since passports or birth certificates, and sometimes even income tax receipts, are no longer formal papers but matters of social distinction.
Hannah Arendt, We Refugees
French and british governments, politicians and media joust with each other over who is more lax in the control of “illegal” migrants, while everyday, these last months, hundreds, sometimes thousands, brave the passage through the Euro-tunnel from Calais to england (with over a dozen persons having died). More barriers, more surveillance systems, more police, more guard dogs are provided and promised, costing tens of millions of Euros. Laws, old and new, punish anyone who might “aid” those ignoring the borders (e.g. british landlords). Military and security metaphors proliferate in the speeches and public interventions of the guardians of order, mobilised to justify measures against migrants increasingly “naturalised” as sub-humans; David Cameron’s “swarms”.
In the midst however of the 60 million “refugees” and “forcefully displaced” that the United Nations estimates to exist today, the largest number ever recorded, and 85% of which are to be found in “underdeveloped” countries, the drama in Calais seems modest in scale. (Aljazeera 18/06/2015) Of the four million syrian refugees alone, the vast majority live in turkey, jordan and lebanon. Some forty thousand migrants wait in detention centres in greece and italy for judgements regarding their claims for refugee status. Over 2000 migrants have died this year trying to cross the Mediterranean sea. (Le Monde 04/08/2015) There are currently some 3000 people in the camps of fortune around Calais, a point of passage for at least the last 15 years.
What then is at stake in the most recent intensification of border control between england and france, and the accompanying rattling of sabres, is the constant need to affirm control of the movement of human populations on a global scale so as to secure the primitive accumulation and uneven development of capital that are at the heart of capitalist exploitation. The free movement of people would destroy the social relations that structure the economy’s power and inequality. And thus the need to fix people to their “places” and to put those who refuse beyond the limits of any legal or state “protection”. The displaced person, the refugee, the undocumented are the most evident example of the modern stateless person. As such, they are also anonymous, invisible and seemingly powerless, stripped of all rights and protections. Yet it is this very invisibility that transforms their weakness into a kind of power, the power of violating and transgressing global Capital’s systems of control. There is a cost to be born by this weakness in hunger and thirst, physical abuse and rape, torture and death. The body of the “refugee” however is the mirror of the modern superfluous status of all human beings, for we may all ever so easily fall to the same fate. If Hannah Arendt could once write that apparently “nobody wants to know that contemporary history has created a new kind of human beings – the kind that are put in concentration camps by their foes and in internment camps by their friends”, (Hannah Arendt, We Refugees) today, in the global civil war, we do not seem to wish to know that the distinction of foe and friend is ever shifting, that it is internal to Empire’s social life, and that we are therefore all possible camp internees.
State and Capital demand visibility. In their unrestrained exploitation of human life though, they make all individual beings invisible. We acquire at best a species life. But in being so made naked, we may come to see in the “refugee” not only our impotent invisibility, but also our shared pure potential to become, to create, beyond the borders.