- Asylum Speakers: Caribbean Refugees and Testimonial Discourse
April Shemak’s Asylum Speakers: Caribbean Refugees and Testimonial Discourse (2010) is “the first interdisciplinary study of refugees . . . located in the Caribbean, Central America, and the United States” (3). The study’s ambition is threefold. First, Shemak wants to expand the definition of refugees—legally recognized persons who find protection in a foreign country because of war, violence, or fear of persecution—to those who do not gain official refugee status but are nevertheless forced to leave their native countries. Second, she calls for recognition of economic circumstances as a basis for asylum because asylum seekers, in particular Haitians, Salvadorans, and Guatemalans, have been denied asylum, since the US government sees them as economic rather than political refugees. Finally, she approaches refugee testimonial discourse as a political ritual that is a precursor to political membership.
In the first chapter of the study, “Inter-dictions and Limbo Citizens: Haitian Boat Refugee Narratives,” Shemak exposes how Haitian refugees are silenced, and claims that the US interdiction policy prevents Haitian boat refugees from producing testimonies that establish credible fear of persecution in Haiti. Consequently, Haitian refugees are not granted permission to enter and stay in the US, and they are sent back to Haiti. By juxtaposing the human rights report Half the Story: The Skewed U.S. Monitoring of Repatriated Haitian Refugees (1992) and fiction by Edwidge Danticat, Nikol Payen, and Kamau Brathwaite, Shemak reveals that refugees not only face linguistic problems when expected to produce a testimony but are also expected to know precise and objective discourse. Too detailed, culture-colored, or terrifying stories are considered irrelevant and fabricated. As a result, Shemak claims, the Haitian refugee’s speech is “rendered unbelievable and thus inaudible in the political sphere” (60).
In Chapter Two, “False Witnessing: U.S. Coast Guard Photography of Haitian Boat Refugees,” Shemak illustrates the arguments introduced in the opening chapter. She analyses a sample of roughly 250 pictures of intercepted refugees posted on the US Coast Guard Web site and suggests that “the visual and textual rhetoric of hospitality obscures the [End Page 231] hostility whereby national borders are violently reinforced” (42). Since the US government recognizes Haitians who try to enter the country as economic migrants and therefore disqualifies them from refugee status, the documented compassion of the Coast Guard is merely a manifestation of disputable immigration policies. Once the refugees are fed and tended, they are returned to Haiti, where they are subject to possible persecution or murder, the fear of which they cannot successfully voice.
Shemak examines politics associated with global capitalism in the third chapter, “Silent Subjectivities: Testimony and Haitian Labor Refugees,” and challenges the dichotomy of political and economic factors that determine refugee status. Since she focuses on the Haitian migrant in the Dominican Republic, she contends that the exploitation of Haitians is directly influenced by US interest in that country. For instance, the humanitarian elements of the 1991 congressional document The Plight of Haitian Sugarcane Cutters in the Dominican Republic not only “ring false when read alongside the plight of Haitian boat refugees” that are scrutinized in previous chapters, but also silence migrant workers because their testimonies are excluded from the report. In addition, Shemak analyzes Danticat’s The Farming of Bones (1998), which “reveals ambiguity about the ability of testimony to provide closure” (42). While one can argue that Danticat’s fictional account provides an individual understanding of the historical events, the analysis also points out that the silence found in the fictional text resembles the legal document’s silence.
In the fourth chapter, “Corporate Containment: Refugee Seafarers on the Seas of Transnational Labor,” Shemak discusses the process of silencing an economic refugee by examining the similarities between seafaring and refugee-ness. Focusing on “an overlooked category of protection established by the UN Refugee Convention”—the refugee seaman—and the economics of the global shipping industry, she claims that the shipping companies that operate under flags of convenience, with ships registered in places such as Panama, Honduras, and...