Taking The Violent Demolition Of A Makeshift Camp In Paris As A Point Of Entry To The Debate Around Undocumented Migrants In France


Indignation in light of hundreds of migrants’ coercive displacement  


On the night of the 24th of November, national security forces dismantled 500 tents set up by undocumented migrants on the Place de la République in Paris. A week before, a similar dismantlement of the Seine-Saint-Denis camp had left hundreds of migrants, mostly Afghans, wandering. If thousands of them had found refuge in neighbouring homeless shelters and gymnasiums, hundreds were left behind, invisible.


Numerous migrant advocacy groups have denounced the French security forces’ coercive practices during the operation on Place de la République. The violent images of French police officers using tear gas to disperse the activists and dragging migrants out of their tents have galvanized the broader public’s attention. As the Assembly prepared to vote on the next day on the new “global security” law preventing the malicious diffusion of policemen’s images, activists have pointed to these images’ mobilizing power in such a controversial context. 


Ten years after the start of the migrant crisis in Europe, refugees awaiting asylum in France have gathered in Paris’s focal points, especially after the Calais “Jungle” closure in 2016. This operation had led to the displacement of more than six thousand migrants. Like the dismantlement of the camps in recent weeks, this operation is but a few examples of the coercive measures taken in the context of deportation and detention of undocumented migrants in France.   


The mainstream media frames the issue of undocumented migrants as a debate between security and pity. This event on the 24th of November in Paris has revealed a deep polarization between the leftist activists and their right-wing opponents. Le Monde’s article unveiled how the “wave of dismay on the left” has contrasted with the “support from the right and the far-right to law-enforcement officials.” The security vs. pity frame is captured in Ian Brossart’s reaction (Communist Party), the mayor’s deputy in charge of welcoming refugees, who deplored “a police response to a social problem.”


Earlier this month, the same newspaper published an article titled “Here, you wonder if you are a man or an animal”: in Saint-Denis, 2,500 migrants live in tents, quoting Besmellah Dawlatzai, an undocumented Afghan migrant. Hearing undocumented migrants’ experiences and receiving their testimonies reminds people that they are suffering humans before anything else. It attempts to raise compassion from the broader public by departing from the observation that undocumented migrants have been demonized by the far right, which has fostered a general fear of illegal aliens; many activists try to re-humanize the debate. 


Re-centering the debate: the creation of illegality and colonial legacies 


Often, the legal context is overlooked. In August 2018, France adopted a new law concerning asylum and immigration. On the one hand, it aimed at enhancing the protection and the living conditions of recognized refugees. On the other hand, it restricted asylum access by regulating the legal process through which recognition is granted. The review period for asylum demands was shortened and deportation policies strengthened. Notably, the legal detention time was lengthened to 90 days to facilitate expulsion at the border. Furthermore, the controversial status quo concerning the detention of minors was not changed. 


Since the 1999 Council of Tampere, European states have adopted a common asylum-migration policy framework. One of these policies’ distinct features is the Dublin procedure, which states that asylum-seekers can ask for asylum only once and solely in the first country where they initially filed their claim. In practice, this has fostered a situation where 90% of asylum-seekers are forced to enter the EU irregularly (Oxfam). National and European legal restrictions are thus the primary source of undocumented migrants’ vulnerabilities. 


This is not to mention the role of colonial legacies in the current migration crisis. Colonial imbalances have been perpetuated by institutional political continuities, international North-South trade relations and military interventions. Europe has built its economic and political hegemony by exploiting colonies, who are today the primary sources of out-migration. In the words of Gurminder Bhambra, “Europe’s relatively high standard of living and social infrastructure has not been established or maintained separately from either the labour and wealth of others or the creation of misery elsewhere.” (https://theconversation.com/europe-wont-resolve-the-migrant-crisis-until-it-faces-its-own-past-46555 )


In Europe, citizenship is constructed around normative ideas of who belongs and who does not. Citizens are entitled to rights and freedom on the basis of their inclusion in the nation-state. If Europeanization of state policies have re-defined notions of sovereignty, they have not erased borders. The illegalization of migrants shows the legal perception of migrants as outsiders who threaten the inside. The 2016 EU-Turkey agreement is emblematic of this duplicitous logic. In return for increased funding, for the resumption of negotiations on the liberalization of short-term visas launched in 2013 and the relaunching of the membership process, Turkey had agreed to keep refugees in his territory by strengthening deportation policies and increasing coercive control at the border, in collaboration with the EU-institution Frontex. 


Framing matters 

Activism can change public opinion and lead to policy change. It is thus important that the issues advocated for are framed in a comprehensive manner. AlJazeera recently explained that it hereafter refused to use the term “migrant” because it no longer appropriately described the horrors experienced on the Mediterranean Sea and blurred the essence of the debate by stripping suffering people of their dignity. 

(https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2015/8/20/why-al-jazeera-will-not-say-mediterranean-migrants )


Similarly, I think that appeals to pity won’t lead to constructive debates. To induce meaningful policy change, activism has to be mindful of not oversimplifying the societal framework in which the issue is embedded. Appeals to emotion and to pity reproduce structural exclusion based on normative premises. By using notions such as welcome, sanctuary and hospitality, compassionate framings overlook the role that the state plays in normalizing the criminalization of migrants in the collective imaginary, and the historical roots of their vulnerabilities are overlooked.


They construct a debate where ethical pro-migrants call for a charitable welcome of foreign guests. In the words of Hannah Arendt, these views call for pity rather than justice. It recasts the relationship between the oppressor and the oppressed as one between the lucky and the unlucky.


Instead, they should call for structural reforms by emphasizing the destitute national logics in which migrants are embedded and stressing the connected histories that have made these logics self-perpetuating.  


This report does not try to undermine the indispensable role of activists’ efforts to address vulnerabilities faced by undocumented migrants threatened by deportation and detention try. Instead, it seeks to re-contextualize them. 


Not all activist framing undermines the structural causes of the problem. Some groups have rendered public and intelligible crucial information aimed at understanding the impact of recent asylum and immigration laws on asylum-seekers’ conditions. Others have criticized the artificial separation between legitimate refugees and economically-motivated migrants perpetrated by fears of illegal aliens disqualifying postcolonial acknowledgments. 


News reports of the events such as those of police intervention on the 24th of November in Paris should incorporate these complexities if we want to defuse the national debate between politics of security and pity to engage in politics of justice. 


Maelys Chanut


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