Can Europe Make It?

Foucault and the ‘current’ refugee crisis

The specter of Foucault has much to teach us – if we are able to listen.

Jen Bagelman
13 November 2015
Syrian refugees arrive on Lesbos. Demotix/Björn Kietzmann. All rights reserved.

Syrian refugees arrive on Lesbos. Demotix/Björn Kietzmann. All rights reserved.Over thirty years ago Michel Foucault spoke to the refugee crisis of his day. Today another refugee crisis, the largest since WWII, is spilling out from Syria and North Africa. And tomorrow, Foucault anticipated, there will be yet another current crisis.

The eternal return

In his 1979 interview Foucault addresses the question: What is “the origin” of the refugee crisis that killed thousands of Vietnamese and Cambodian people? He refuses to point his finger at a particular enemy or culprit, but traces conditions that give rise to the terrifying cycle of forced migrations we see repeated today. These violent migrations, he says, are symptoms of historical developments. They arise from bordering practices that police us/them relations inherited in the colonial present. Until these conditions foundational to our global politics change, mass displacement of peoples will remain not just a “sequel of the past, but a presage of the future.” Until these conditions foundational to our global politics change, mass displacement of peoples will remain not just a “sequel of the past, but a presage of the future.”

As I read Foucault’s words the familiarity of this tragic eternal return renders me cold. Numb. The stories of human beings abandoned "at death's door" and bodies washed up on shore resound  with an ongoing trauma. Foucault speaks of transit centers housing Vietnamese asylum seekers in the late 70s—waiting zones that were concentration camps in everything but name. Just this morning, I read about how Germany’s former concentration camps are being used to house today’s asylum seekers.

The specter

I have encountered Foucault’s words many times, but never before have they moved me to tears. They viscerally expose truths about bloody fortunes accumulated through the exploitation and dead labour of others. They remind us that the borders we vigilantly patrol today protect not what is ours, but stolen land founded on stolen lives. There has been too much violence for too long. How could this vicious cycle ever be disrupted?

These feelings that Foucault’s words evoke are my entry point into a discussion of his texts. Colin Gordon and Engin Isin carefully situate these texts within the wider context of Foucault’s thought. My comment is animated by the affective power of Foucault’s statements in terms of how this might inform a politics of the present. The specter of Foucault has much to teach us – if we are able to listen.

Foucault’s 1979 interview, and even more so his 1981 Geneva speech, assume a direct tone about the refugee crisis to which he refers. Some might view this as uncharacteristic of Foucault. Yet as Isin points out, Foucault often spoke with such force in his role as an ‘activist intellectual.’ In this role he spoke powerfully but not as an expert authority. In fact, he undermines such a claim to authority in his question: “who asked me to speak?” He unsettles this even further with his answer: “no one.”

While he continues to inhabit this critical attitude, I read Foucault’s statements as a call to act. He offers more than a hope for the near future. The temporary migrant laborer, to whom Foucault alludes, toiling in the shadows on indefinite pathways to citizenship is a reminder of hope’s dangerous hold.

Rather than hopes and promises of a yet to materialize future, Foucault insists that an “international citizenry” must speak up and act in the present. This political engagement, he states, cannot be confined to hollow gestures of protest. We have become all too familiar with the easily co-opted, feel-good performances that serve only to assuage the conscience of the governing, without undermining conditions of privilege. For the governed to stand up to power necessarily involves an act of disruption that unsettles and undercuts privilege.

Today we see modes of political engagement that are taking up Foucault’s call to address the ongoing-current refugee crisis. Although the technologies of power and government have shifted and intensified since Foucault’s call, so too have the tactics to resist. I would like to highlight a few of these tactics that I see following on from and deepening the power of Foucault’s call to act.

Intimate-international solidarities

Increasingly we see trans-local movements committed to exposing intersecting forms of violence – colonial, environmental, economic, gendered – that displace people and cause forced migrations. Movements like No One is Illegal have been fostering relationships between indigenous peoples whose lands were stolen by the very colonial powers that bomb today and then fail to unconditionally welcome the refugees it produces tomorrow.  The very colonial powers that bomb today… fail to unconditionally welcome the refugees it produces tomorrow. Such movements also identify the links between environmental degradation and displacement. Remember the 1.5 million Syrians forced to leave their homes in 2007 due to a historic drought caused in part by climate change? These intersectional politics forge desperately needed complex solidarities. And they sustain these solidarities through intimate modes of organizing such as inter-generational conversation, art, song, and other practices of care.  

In the wake of intensified calls in Europe to protect the plight of refugees, activist-academic networks are also probing the indifference towards so many who do not qualify as bone fide refugees. Indeed, networks like ‘Crossing the Mediterranean Sea by Boat: Mapping and Documenting Migratory Journeys and Experiences’ are more than simply posing questions. They are working in partnership with those people moving under precarious conditions in an effort to demand swift action on the part of EU Member States. This work insists that the EU – which celebrates ‘open’ borders – dismantle its security apparatuses that control, deter and kill certain lives through its ever-expanding ‘border zone.’ [1]

While demanding changes to hostile policies, these activist networks are not simply waiting for politicians and policy-makers. In the spirit of Foucault’s call, people are intervening “actively and materially in the order of international politics and strategy.” We see this in the everyday life of our cities, some of them Sanctuary Cities, where people are providing refuge in ways that states cannot, or will not [2].  In their most radical form, these trans-local movements do not simply settle for providing pockets of welcome. They actively dismantle border regimes that have infiltrated the intimate fabric of daily life; they do so through acts of defiance. Educators, doctors, neighbors refuse to enforce an exclusionary citizenship regime by asserting: ‘All have a right to the city without fear of deportation and detention. No, I will not become a border guard!’ 

In keeping with Foucault’s call, these forms of political engagement seek to help people in grave danger. Increasingly however, this engagement learns from and with those who resist day after day under terrifying pressure.  The act of embarking on a perilous journey across miles of land and water – this is not the “residue of politics,” nor a romantic politics but one that exposes the impossibility of doing nothing.


Over thirty years ago Foucault stated that in order to make change we must put pressure on those who abuse power. Knowing all too well the violence that such pressure begets he goes on to ask, “But what does “putting pressure mean?” In the context of persistent violence I wonder: what does it mean to enact love, actively and materially? How can we put pressure through impossible expressions of love that disrupt, what Harsha Walia refers to as, border imperialism?



[1] Bigo, Didier. “When Two Becomes One: Internal and external securitisations in Europe” in Morten Kelstrup and Michael C. Williams (eds) International Relations Theory and the Politics of European Integration: Power, Security and Community. (London: Routledge, 2000), 185. 

[2] For a discussion on how trans-local groups are responding to the inadequacy of civil governance in other contexts see: James Tully, On Global Citizenship: James Tully in Dialogue, London, Bloomsbury, 2014.



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