The refugee crisis in Europe has become front-page news around the world in recent months. With the conflict in Syria pushing hundreds of thousands to travel across the continent in search of asylum and safety, the countries of the West are being forced to make difficult choices.
Last year, our author Heath Cabot wrote a book called On the Doorstep of Europe: Asylum and Citizenship in Greece. While it focused on refugees from Greece, her insights have broader relevance, and can give some context and understanding about a very complicated set of issues affecting the world right now.
Last year, Heath sat down to discuss her book with Julie Billaud (Kabul Carnival: Gender Politics in Postwar Afghanistan) of AllegraLab, and more recently, she wrote a piece discussing today's crisis. Here are some excerpts from those pieces, as well as links to the full articles.
[C]ritical accounts of crisis, however, frequently neglect the continuities that permeate moments of rapid change, and the often entrenched practices and socio-political forms that underlie them. Crisis has a kind of maghia, a bewitching quality, not just for wider publics but also for researchers: it can pull us in; it makes certain topics and places dangerous and sexy when they weren’t before, and promotes the urgent need to be on the apparent “frontlines” of whatever is coming next. Journalists, of course, often live on crises. But this spell, this maghia, is dangerous: Crisis-thinking distracts us. Crisis-thinking encourages us to approach such moments as aberrations, exceptions to the normality of social and political orders. Continuities, however, usually are palpably evident in hindsight: for instance, looking back on Hurricane Katrina ten years later, from the viewpoint of the U.S., it is hard not to see the deep forms of class-based and racialized injustice that shaped the outcomes of this “natural” event. It is easy to forget, however, the many who had the foresight to present crucial critiques of these injustices when that particular crisis was unfolding.
Allegra: The book is built around the notion of ‘tragedy’, and it is even composed of 3 acts, like in a classic Greek drama. The emblematic image that comes to mind when one thinks of the tragedy of asylum in Europe is one of a boat full of migrants sinking on the shores of Lampedusa. But the picture that comes out of your book is somewhat more complex as you suggest that tragedy also includes a transformational dimension. Can you tell us a bit more about the significance of this metaphor for your argument?
Heath: One has to be very careful with employing tragedy in exploring migration and asylum, because it is very easy for it to become a caricature: as anthropologists and perhaps advocates, we can very easily reproduce the very images and narratives that certain publics – and bureaucratic audiences – want to be “tragic,” in a more simplistic sense. For instance, the “standard” refugee story, which speaks of displacement and violence, as well as those very real images of sea-death and unspeakable loss (in Lampedusa and in the Aegean) are often discussed as “tragedy,” in a way that does not do justice to their unspeakability. Moreover, as I and others show, such narratives themselves can cause profound violence and exclusion, demanding that persons present themselves as vulnerable victims in particular ways in order to gain protection.
On the Doorstep of Europe is a vividly written ethnography of the asylum process in Greece, “with its ethos of mystification, unpredictability, and arbitrariness,” as well as very low percentage of positive decisions. This seminal work explores the crisis of governance and democracy as Greece is portrayed as the unstable locus of a myriad of problems (financial stability, its position as the EU’s external border etc).