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Refugees, displacement, and the European ‘politics of exhaustion’

Refugees and humanitarian workers alike are drained by years of uncertainty, movement, destitution, and the threat of criminal sanction or deportation, created by EU and state policies.

Police prepare for a raid at the 'Jungle' camp in Calais, France. Photo by authors, all rights reserved.

What has been called the ‘European refugee crisis’ has been unfolding both across and outside of Europe in the past years. This ‘crisis’ is both political and humanitarian in character in the sense that the (continued) humanitarian predicament of so many displaced people cannot be understood in isolation from the policies and practices adopted by European governments and the EU. Thousands of people have become trapped in border zones and transit points across Europe, both in informal camps such as those in and around Calais and in institutionalised spaces like the hotspots in Italy and Greece (see the ‘read on’ links to the right for more information on this).

Activists, civil society organisations and academics alike have documented the detrimental effects of these policies, and their role in co-producing and perpetuating the ‘crisis’. For instance, the detention of all irregular arrivals in hotspots and the denial of access to the asylum system; the lack of legal routes to Europe that stimulates the smuggling industry; the destruction of living spaces; and, the deportation of people to countries where their rights are not guaranteed.

Yet, one aspect that has received little attention in these important studies and reports is the politics of exhaustion. This refers both to the ways in which exhaustion is employed as a tool of governance and control, and to the ways in which it is experienced as a daily reality by displaced people. One of the issues that struck us during the conduct of our (separate) research projects across Europe is the prevalence of narratives of exhaustion among displaced people. Many spoke in terms of ‘being so tired’ and of having been ‘completely exhausted’ by repeated evictions, detention, push-backs, deportations, untreated health problems, below-standard living conditions, the continuous threat and reality of violence, as well as by continued uncertainty both of daily life and of their future prospects in Europe.

These are not simply the woes of desperate people on the move. Although our focus is on exhaustion, we see displaced people not as mere passive victims but as active agents with their own backgrounds, ideas and desires, in search of protection and a better life. Rather, employing the notion of a politics of exhaustion is to suggest that these experiences are closely linked to the migration management policies adopted by the EU and national and local governments, not least the increasing police violence in informal settlements as well as the detention and deportation of displaced people in institutionalised settings. To what extent these are deliberate and coordinated strategies is not our concern here – although this is an important question. Rather, we will focus on how the politics of exhaustion is experienced by displaced people and, in addition, we seek to highlight that this politics is unlikely to contribute to any humane and sustainable response to the question of migration in Europe.

The experience of exhaustion

What do we mean by exhaustion, or the politics of exhaustion? We refer to it here as a general frame for understanding a number of interlinked processes concerning, on the one hand, a method of governance and, on the other, an experience of displaced people. This manifests itself in various forms of violence on behalf of authorities, including:

A large part of the camp was bulldozed in February, destroying the living spaces of 3,500 people, including shelters as well as community, educational and religious buildings.

• the destruction of living spaces

• in feeling stuck due to the restriction of people’s movements, whether in the form of a physical or technological border or in the form of detention

• in being pushed back or circulated around from one country to another or within a country

• in feeling hopeless due to the uncertainty of asylum procedures, for instance due to being denied the right to ask for protection and/or lengthy and indeterminate asylum procedures and lack of appropriate guidance through the same.

• in the obstruction and criminalisation of humanitarian assistance, whereby those seeking to offer humanitarian, political and/or legal assistance are targeted or prosecuted for frustrating migration management procedures.

We will discuss the politics of exhaustion in the context of the informal camps hosting displaced people in northern France, of which the so-called ‘jungle’ in Calais is the most prominent settlement. In its current location, this camp emerged in the spring of 2015 after displaced people had been pushed out of the town of Calais onto a wasteland on its fringes, yet informal settlements have existed in the area since the 1990s.

In this respect, the politics of exhaustion in the area has a long history. However, the situation has changed over time, and especially since the autumn of 2015, when police started patrolling the settlement, followed by raids. In December 2015 and January 2016, the situation was marked by daily attacks, including the use of teargas, water cannons and rubber bullets. Evictions began in January 2016, when the French authorities ‘cleared’ a 100-metre strip of the settlement. A much larger part of the camp was bulldozed in February, destroying the living spaces of 3,500 people, including shelters as well as community, educational and religious buildings. Whilst the French authorities did order the construction an alternative ‘official’ camp to accommodate people, this ‘container camp’ offers too few spaces, little privacy and controversial (or at best non-transparent) identification procedures. Many therefore perceive it as part of the authorities’ deterrence strategy rather than a humanitarian response.

How have displaced people experienced these developments as well as their experiences of moving to and across Europe more generally? During our respective research studies, narratives of exhaustion among displaced people emerged with high frequency. The politics of exhaustion in this context manifested itself firstly as profound feelings hopelessness due to prolonged uncertainty of asylum procedures, restrictions to mobility, and the accompanying notion of living in limbo for a longer period of time.

Always on the run…

Take Abdul, a 26-year-old man from Laghman in Afghanistan. Abdul has been living in uncertainty for over six years while travelling between European countries, with the hope of one day successfully claiming asylum in Europe, preferably the United Kingdom. He explains that he spends his nights trying to jump onto lorries in the port of Calais because he believes that he has no other options left. Abdul tells us that he is starting to feel very tired as he pulls out his mobile phone to show us grim photos of his friends who died in motorway accidents when trying to reach the UK. In Abdul’s case, the politics of exhaustion have contributed to a situation in which the displaced person seems to find no plausible resolution to a prolonged state of limbo, ongoing suffering and never-ending uncertainty, yet continues to pursue his goals, at least for now.

In one of the cafes in the Calais camp, we meet a 25-year-old businessman from Ghazni in Afghanistan. Like Abdul, he has spent the last seven years travelling between different European countries in search of stability and refuge. He initially aimed to seek asylum in Sweden, but was caught at the Danish border and forcefully fingerprinted against his will. His asylum claim was subsequently rejected by the Danish government, after which he fled to Germany, yet the German authorities sent him back to Denmark where deportation was awaiting him. Fearing the Taliban in his home country, he fled Denmark again to avoid deportation and made it to Italy where he was granted papers after almost two years.

The 'Jungle' camp in Calais, France. Photo by authors, all rights reserved.

Despite this, he ended up in destitution, sleeping rough for months as he was provided no shelter or subsidies by the Italian government. Due to his harsh living conditions in Italy, he failed to find employment, became increasingly depressed and eventually decided to leave the country in pursuit of a more humane life. He attempted to enter the United Kingdom but was stopped at the border, after which he ended up in the camp in Calais. He tells us that “if there was peace in Afghanistan, I would go there tomorrow”. Here, exhaustion plays out as a combination of repeated forceful spatial displacement and the stretched temporality of years of uncertainty, waiting, rejection and poor living conditions, which is not resolved after being granted official protection. In addition, it is augmented by the desire for, yet felt impossibility of, returning home.

Exhaustion plays out as a combination of repeated forceful spatial displacement and the stretched temporality of years of uncertainty which is not resolved after being granted official protection.

Meanwhile, 17-year-old Mohamad from Syria, who travelled to Calais without family, explains that he recently spent 15 days in the Calais hospital following his latest attempt to reach the UK through the port of Calais, where he had an accident that almost cost him his life. For several months, he has spent his evenings walking for hours to try and find new ways to cross the border so that he can submit his asylum application in the UK rather than France. He appears disillusioned and unhealthy, both mentally and physically, and the left side of his face, including his left eye, has been severely damaged by the latest accident in the port of Calais.

Like many others we spoke to during our research study, Mohamad does not seem to quite understand why the border is closed and why he cannot choose where he wants to seek protection and start his new life. Rather than equipping people like Mohamad with information about their rights, about their asylum options and the reason for restricted access to the United Kingdom – and rather than providing adequate humanitarian support to children like Mohamad – French and UK government policies are focused on policing, deterrence and erecting physical obstacles to people’s movement.

…from destitution if not detention

The combination of being pushed or circulated around spatially over a long period of time is a common narrative both in Calais and in other transit points across Europe. For some, it is also a story of restricted mobility through recurrent detention. For instance, a 23-year-old man from Maidan Wardak in Afghanistan speaks of being physically and mentally tired due to regular deportations characterised by many episodes of detention. Initially fingerprinted in Bulgaria, he has been sent back there on numerous occasions following detention in western Europe.

He said he is starting to feel ‘very tired’ and his lethargic speech is markedly different from that of peers having only arrived in Europe

After his release in Bulgaria, he would typically start his journey back to western Europe as soon as possible – partly on foot and partly by train. It usually takes him a month or two to reach France, but sometimes his journey is interrupted and prolonged further due to periods of time spent in prison. He describes the experience in European detention as very difficult to endure, explaining that he is starting to feel ‘very tired’ and his lethargic speech is markedly different from that of peers having only arrived in Europe in the last month or so. His numerous experiences of detention and violence have undoubtedly left their marks on him, and it is unclear how he will be able to lift himself out of this cycle of detention and back-and-forth travel across Europe.

Many individuals we met during our research in Calais had previously obtained papers and leave to remain in other European countries, such as Italy. However, these individuals spoke of destitution, and told us about periods spent sleeping rough and with no access to basic services. They also spoke of racism and discrimination, which led them to move on in search of places that would offer protection. These onward journeys and circulatory and back-and-forth movements across Europe, which show people’s agency and determination to find safety and a better life, also demonstrate how current efforts to respond to the ‘crisis’ through policies of migration management are often an obstacle to these very efforts – that is, to safe and humane passage to and settlement in Europe, provoking instead situations of uncertainty, violence, and destitution.

The need to break the cycle

Moreover, our observations from the field indicate that the politics of exhaustion not only affects displaced people; it is also experienced by those seeking to offer humanitarian, political and legal assistance, such as activists, lawyers and others working for civil society organisations assisting displaced people. For instance, in Calais, tens of thousands of pounds worth of donations and thousands of hours invested in providing basic services – including health care, nutrition, sanitation and educational opportunities – are at constant threat of government policies of demolition, police surveillance and mobility control. Annie Gavrilescu of the local charity Help Refugees explains that many of her volunteers demonstrate exhaustion, ill mental health and a sense of disillusion, in particular following the demolitions of the southern part of the camp in February this year, which had been built from scratch with the help of volunteers and private donations. The criminalisation of humanitarian assistance is not confined to Calais; it is very much present also for instance in the Mediterranean, especially after the signing of the EU-Turkey deal.

Reflecting a situation present in Europe more generally, although in different shapes and forms, the politics of exhaustion at play in Calais consists of a combination of migration management policies and practices that reproduce the ‘crisis’ and people’s continued experiences of uncertainty, illegality, lack of access to rights, information and protection, and physical, psychological and structural violence.

Rather than tackling the problem of the destitution of so many people living in unacceptable conditions across Europe, migration management politics stands in the way of developing sustainable and humane responses. In Calais, in particular, uncertainty is paramount, due to the continuous threat of destruction of a settlement where currently more than 10,000 people find shelter, especially in light of the changing rhetoric of French and UK governments with respect to the unknown implications of the UK’s vote to leave the EU.

About the authors

Leonie Ansems de Vries is a Lecturer in International Relations at King’s College London, and author of the book Re-Imagining a Politics of Life: From Governance of Order to Politics of Movement (2014). She is the co-Investigator of the research project ‘Documenting the humanitarian migration crisis in the Mediterranean’.

Marta Welander is the founder of the Refugee Rights Data Project, which aims at filling information gaps by conducting field research among refugee communities across Europe. She is a PhD candidate in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Westminster, London. 

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