- Double Vision:Refugee Crises and the Afterimages of Endless War
The refugee bears the burden of irreconcilable meanings—the refugee as both fugitive and detained, acquiring a strange permanence in status, perpetually seeking refuge in what also has been declared an era of endless war (Said 2002; Arendt 2007; UNHCR 2015a). In April 2015, surging numbers of people attempting to enter the European Union gained global attention after several vessels were wrecked in the Mediterranean Sea, leaving over a thousand dead or missing. These deaths were harbingers of what the United Nations has called an unprecedented crisis for the European Union (UNHCR 2015a, 8). More were washing up, alive and dead, on shores that had heretofore been seen as prosaic sites of tourism, leisure, or everyday travel: resort beaches in Turkey, the coastlines of Greek islands, the familiar spaces of train stations and transit hubs throughout Europe. Coming from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Eritrea, Sudan, Libya, and elsewhere, hundreds of thousands have continued crowding into vessels for one stretch of a journey that also requires them to evade militarized and policed borders, migrant detention centers, and all kinds of predators along the way.
The refugees have met with a dizzying array of responses: policed as fugitives, tolerated as guests, cared for as victims, identified as cultural threats to European secular social life, and attacked as militant enemies for whom the crisis is a perverse Trojan horse in the latest “Islamic invasion” (Cottee 2015). Abject refugees or opportunistic migrants; [End Page 226] innocent victims or stealth terrorists: the frames for describing these people have been raised repeatedly as a problem of media reportage and of EU policies on immigration and asylum. Whether reporters name it the “European migrant crisis” or the “European refugee crisis” to invoke an ethics of hospitality or a politics of exclusion, the point here is that the crisis—the break and breakdown of order, the turning point, the time of decision—is denied its condition as legalized, chronic, and routinized violence inflicted on those already seeking refuge from violence. Obscured from view, this doubled violence attains recognition as crisis obliquely, only as it affects Europeans—it is their crisis, the refugees their problem (EMMHR 2015). The refugees are subject to violence both spectacular and banal and are criminalized for attempting to minimize the doubled violence inflicted upon them. Breaking the rules they know are impossible to follow in order to survive, they gamble on smugglers, buy fake passports, cross more borders.
In a strange spatiotemporal mode, these migrant refugees approach Europe as the not-quite-afterimages of unending wars elsewhere. Their incorporation into the European Union weaves the effects of these wars into the future “social texture” of Europe in ways that the financial cost of war, death tallies, or even returning veterans and service workers do not (Arendt 1973, 293). The question of how to properly determine their legal status as persons is knotted into the political and affective responses of Europeans and Americans faced with the call to receive into their daily lives the consequences of the wars their states have waged elsewhere.
To manage migration is also to manage war and regulate spatially its effects, which in part spring from the violent interventions of Europe and the United States across the Middle East and Africa. Daniel Trilling suggests that “Fortress Europe” can be divided crudely into three zones: in Zone One are the wealthier states of northwestern Europe, Zone Two the poorer EU states to the south and east, and Zone Three the countries just outside the periphery such as Ukraine, Morocco, Turkey, and Libya, the zone in which the majority of Middle Eastern and African migrants and refugees had been managed before the crisis. The distance between war and peace had been attained through a number of technics: diplomatically through bilateral agreements, such as that between Italy and Libya in 2004, in which Muammar Gaddafi agreed to accept returned deportees from Italy while Italy helped pay for the construction of multiple detention centers in Libya; through fences and walls that militarized state borders, such as those built by Greece along its Turkish border, by Hungary along its Serbian border, or...