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Borders and the Politics of Mourning

A Response in a Post-Trump World

It seems an understatement to emphasize the timeliness of the recent edition of The New School’s journal Social Research on “Borders and Politics of Mourning,” edited by Alexandra Délano Alonso and Benjamin Nienass. The title takes on a whole new meaning in the aftermath of the US election. The politics of mourning for those who have lost their lives under the prevailing border regime now implicates even more those whose lives are likely to be set upon by greater border enforcement, given the hardline record of President-elect Trump’s choice for attorney general, Jeff Sessions. In this context, it is tempting to mourn for the lost opportunity to think in less binary and less violent terms about the line between “us” and “them,” “here” and “there,” “open” and “closed” borders, as a racist form of nationalism gains license to shape the terms of debate around immigration, citizenship and belonging. But mourning in this latter sense would be premature. It is precisely now that hard lines and border walls threaten to overwhelm the diverse sensibilities of what it means to belong, that belonging (and all its corollaries — citizenship, alienage, and the proliferating forms of migrant status) ought to command our creative attention. It is right at this moment that the task of finding new ways of articulating and generating cross-border solidarities becomes imperative.

“Borders and the politics of mourning” is concerned with precisely this task. More specifically, the volume poses the question as to when and how grief for the stranger (the migrant, the refugee, in particular) gains political force. In the editors’ words, the volume examines “moments when grief transforms into a public demand,” moments when “mourning changes the boundaries of the visible and sayable” and, following Judith Butler’s work on the subject of mourning, “whether our exposure to loss can serve as a new ‘basis of community.’” So as much as the volume’s focus is on violence, loss, and grief, its impulse is towards solidarity and transformation. This impulse takes on renewed importance in the face of rising populism in liberal democracies around the world, where migrants are being scapegoated for deepening inequalities and uneven development with intensified, life-threatening, vote-winning vigor.

The volume proceeds from the premise that mourning is political and frequently takes a crude instrumental form. Burkhard Liebsch reminds us in his contribution that survivors of violence are often so filled with desire for revenge that they “misuse the dead for political purposes even before they are buried,” and that this dynamic plays out daily in the context of terrorist violence in the Middle East. For Jenny Edkins, the memorialization of the 9/11 dead provided justification for a war on terror and was materially attached to a “freedom tower” built to the “glorification of country and capital.” Marina Kaneti and Mariana Prandini Assis show how the deaths of migrants en route to “safe” countries are depicted in strategic ad-campaigns, designed by destination states to deter and contain would-be asylum seekers contemplating similar journeys. In each of these examples, the mobilization of grief and loss obscures the ways in which the state or the community grieving (in Liebsch’s example) is implicated in the deaths at stake. Rather than reflecting on policy choices that put lives at risk, including and especially the denial of safe and licit means of transit across borders, blame is diverted to nature (the sea or the dessert), to the choices of migrants and their families, and to criminals (smugglers, traffickers, terrorists) as the appropriate targets of collective outrage and hostility. Against this backdrop, the contributors to this volume document counter-practices of mourning that refuse the narrative of state innocence, refuse to instrumentalize death in the pursuit of political causes, and insist on the complicity of the prevailing border regime and its technocratic enforcers in the escalating numbers of border deaths.

At least some of the counter-practices described in this volume, are working on the assumption that violence of the kind that allows, authorizes, and/or ignores deaths at the border, is out of step with the liberal-democratic narratives according to which migrant-receiving states project their identities. That those states go to such extraordinary lengths to deny culpability for border deaths and to demonstrate their life-saving commitments through border rescue efforts would seem to suggest that a commitment to liberal-democratic values, including human rights and the right to seek asylum, cannot be reconciled with the exercise of violence against migrants at the border, whether directly or through neglect. From this perspective, exposing the apparent contradiction between states’ humanitarian rhetoric and the violence that increasingly characterizes border policing practices is logical because it calls on states to make their actions cohere with their values.

But what if the state and its citizens were to confront that violence in its full reality and be able to live with it? What if that violence was rationalized not as an unfortunate side effect of compelling policies but as a necessary feature of liberal democracy itself? What if states and citizens, in other words, were able to incorporate that violence into their own self-understanding?

Political Theorist, Hagar Kotef, has asked this question recently, in relation to settler-colonial violence. Kotef puts it like this: as much as the settler state seeks to imagine away its founding act of dispossession and to deny the ongoing legacies of structural violence against indigenous and colonized peoples, might it also have an attachment to that violence — even if an ambivalent one? An attachment of this kind would see violence converge with the self-understanding of the liberal democratic subject such that citizens learn to be at home in the practice of expulsion and the active denial of human rights.

I raise these questions here with one specific theater of border deaths and mourning in mind in which, arguably, it is possible to see this kind of attachment to violence alongside liberal-democratic commitments to life and liberty. In the waters surrounding Australia, between 2009 and 2013, some 1,200 asylum seekers drowned attempting to reach Australian territory and some 50,000 arrived onshore. Following the most visible and dramatic of the deaths at sea, parliamentarians engaged in an outpouring of grief over the tragic loss of life, and an outpouring of vitriol against people-smugglers as the responsible culprits. The ensuing narrative maintained that smugglers had taken advantage of the gaps in Australia’s border defenses, most notably the suspension of offshore detention of asylum seekers in 2007, in order to make passage to Australian territory a viable, sellable product. According to the narrative, the resulting increase in numbers of asylum seekers arriving onshore threatened to undermine the manageability of an orderly offshore refugee resettlement scheme, whereby an annual quota of resettlement places (around 14,000) was filled via a selective process applying to refugees in camps in Asia and Africa. The seeming loss of border control represented by the boat arrivals of asylum seekers threatened, in turn, to undermine public support for the formal resettlement scheme and for Australia’s far more numerically significant general migration intake. In this way, a zero-sum relation between migration in general, resettlement in particular and the spontaneous arrival of asylum seekers became lodged in public debate. From this perspective, Australia’s ongoing provision of refugee protection in the form of a formal resettlement program required the rejection of asylum seekers at the border.

In the aftermath of the deaths at sea the then Australian Labor Government reinstated mandatory offshore detention for all asylum seekers attempting to reach Australia by boat. In subsequent iterations of the policy, those processed offshore in Manus Island, Papua New Guinea and the Pacific Island state of Nauru, would be refused resettlement in Australia even if found to be refugees under international law, and regardless of whether or not another country was willing to offer resettlement. The practical implication was indefinite offshore detention. The justification entailed the following three components: (1) humanitarian concern for the of loss of life at sea; (2) an attempt to undermine what the government referred to as the people smugglers’ “business model” by taking away the product for sale, that is, the prospect of protection in Australia; and (3) the preservation of Australia’s capacity to offer refugee protection under a formal resettlement scheme. The liberal defense of human rights in the form of refugee protection was enabled precisely by the denial of the right to seek asylum — at least within Australia.

Over the years that followed, report after report documented the appalling conditions in offshore detention centers. The Australian Human Rights Commission, the UNHCR and Amnesty International documented multiple human rights violations. In 2014, Iranian asylum seeker Reza Berati, was beaten to death on Manus Island when locals and security guards stormed the detention center — a case generating widespread media coverage. In September 2014, Iranian asylum seeker Hamid Khazaei, also detained on Manus, died of a sepsis infection that developed from a cut on his leg that could not be treated on the island; Australian authorities delayed his transfer to Australia for appropriate care against treating doctors’ advice, and the ensuing septic shock proved fatal. In 2016, video footage captured Iranian refugee, Omid Masoumali, detained on Nauru for three years, drenched in lighter fluid, moments before he set himself alight in front of UNHCR officials, yelling “This action will prove how exhausted we are. I cannot take it any more.” Days later in Nauru, detained Somali refugee, Hodan Yasin, also set herself alight. Doctors, nurses and security staff who worked in the offshore centers gave graphic public testimony of the inhumane treatment of detainees and their rapid mental deterioration into a kind of living death. They did so despite secrecy and disclosure provisions of the Australian Border Force Act that rendered such disclosures punishable by up to two years in prison. Despite such efforts by the Government to avoid transparency, there has been no shortage of publicly available evidence as to the extent of the violence.

It is striking how the policy settings that maintain offshore detention in the face of such violence and human rights abuse have been cast in humanitarian terms as the necessary and solemn response to the 1,200 deaths at sea. One way of reading this tolerance for violence is that the violence represents a price considered necessary, not only for effective border control, but for the effective provision of refugee protection and the fulfillment of liberal-democratic commitments. The liberal democratic promise of liberty and prosperity remains open to some, via formal refugee resettlement schemes, precisely and explicitly through violence enacted on others (asylum seekers at the border). In this calculus, border deaths are mourned, but not in a way that denies or disavows violence. Rather, violence is implicitly recognized and integrated within an account of good governance and moral citizenship. By this reckoning, asylum seeker deaths do not represent an irreplaceable loss but an expendable life that is exchangeable for the maintenance of liberal norms.

It is telling that in a deal recently negotiated between the Australian Government and the Obama Administration, exchangeability was precisely the terms in which a resolution to the fates of those detained offshore was attempted. Under the terms of the deal, refugees currently based in Nauru and PNG will be assessed for resettlement in the United States, in exchange for Central American refugees, currently based in Costa Rica, who will be assessed for resettlement in Australia. Leaving aside the fact that assessments of this kind may well take many more months and years, as well as the prospect of a Trump Administration rejecting the terms of the agreement, the deal would sanction the permanent separation of refugees currently in Manus and Nauru from family members already in Australia. Indeed, the Australian Government is simultaneously attempting to pass legislation to prevent asylum seekers intercepted at sea who are ultimately resettled elsewhere from ever entering Australia on a tourist, business or other visas. Far from an effective resolution, these efforts would perpetuate the impact of violence and loss in the very terms in which protection is offered.

Australia has long married its commitments to refugee protection with ever more innovative means of deterring asylum seekers at the border. Governments elsewhere, in Europe in particular, look to Australia for policy inspiration in efforts to offshore Europe’s border policing regime. The Australian case thus raises a more general question as to the political potency of counter-practices of mourning that attempt to shame states on account of an apparent gap between humanitarian rhetoric and border policing reality. The Australian case shows that on the border, as elsewhere, humanitarian sentiment can be integrated with a violent expression of liberal-democratic ideals.

Counter-practices of mourning are not limited to those that mobilize humanitarian sentiment towards the stranger and this volume attempts to grapple with other ways in which we might mourn. It is worth asking, as Burkhard Liebsch does in his contribution, whether we might turn mourning upon ourselves, to recognize ourselves as “affectable by grief, that is, injurable by loss.” These phrases speak to what is lost in ourselves and in our communities by tolerating violence at the border. The intention here is not to deflect attention from those very lives lost through narcissistic reflection. But unless we reflect enough to consider the deep entanglements between the self and the stranger, between what we attempt to protect at the border (our state, our community, our values, our self) and the acts we employ to do so, we may miss recognizing a generative sense of shared vulnerability to loss — one that Butler and others suggest might animate new solidarities. The loss we might mourn thus extends to the diminished status of a community that fails to acknowledge the irreplaceability and unexchangeability of each life encountered at the border, or to respond to each border death in ways that are commensurate with the full implications of the loss that it entails.

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Anne McNevin

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