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Asylum-seekers and state racism in Europe

About the author
Liza Schuster is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Sociology at City University, London.

The People Flow proposal argues that Europe should fundamentally shift its approach to migration from ‘defensive migration control’ to ‘constructive multiple flow management’. Theo Veenkamp recently returning to the debate emphasises that ‘control is a dangerous illusion’. But the vocabulary of ‘management’ implies control. The ‘management’ aspired to is the capacity of states to control how many and who enters Europe at any one time. Control of entry is allegedly fundamental to what it means to be a state: and the boundaries of what is permissible in the pursuit of this goal are continuously being pushed back.

As states devote more time, energy and money to asserting control, publicising their efforts and the struggle in which they are engaged, a spiral of fear is created in which governments both fuel and respond to concerns in the population about the loss of control. In such a febrile atmosphere, singling out certain groups of migrants for exclusion from the rights that would protect them, targeting them for exceptional treatment, becomes not just permissible but desirable.

Veenkamp urges those of us inclined to describe the result as ‘inadmissable xenophobia and racism’ to take such fears seriously before turning to his primary concern, ‘the strategy the public bodies responsible need to adopt in order to react appropriately to this fear’. Yet public bodies themselves play a significant role in this descending spiral. This is particularly the case when we look at the treatment since the 1980s of asylum-seekers, a treatment that is only possible (as I shall argue) if asylum-seekers are alienated and dehumanised in public discourse.

Liza Schuster is one of the speakers at an event discussing asylum-seekers and human rights in London on 1 November 2003.
Welcome and unwelcome strangers

European states are not hostile to all strangers; they actively recruit those who have something to offer. Highly-skilled migrants and their families, who submit to the procedures and conditions imposed by controlling governments, may, at the discretion of those governments, be allowed to enter under certain conditions. Less-skilled migrants will be permitted to enter under less favourable conditions (for shorter periods, without their families, without being able to switch employment sectors).

What stigma marks the doctors, nurses, economists, technicians, engineers, veterinarians, agricultural and other skilled workers who apply for asylum in Britain, France, Germany, Ireland and other EU countries, but not those who apply for work permits? Economic migrants and asylum-seekers have certain commonalities: most want to find work, somewhere to live, security for their families, and many asylum-seekers are as skilled, if not more so, than those who come through the ‘regular channels’. The stigma lies in the fact that they have not waited to be selected, but have taken their future into their own hands: they have arrived in EU states uninvited and unsolicited.

Asylum-seekers use any means they can to enter these countries; they do not wait for permission and unlike ‘economic migrants’ their claim to enter is based on their needs, not those of the country they seek to enter. In response, they have been stigmatised as parasites and scroungers, and often by the same public bodies that Veenkamp hopes will respond positively. As a result of public policy and, in the UK, a campaign by the tabloid press, ‘asylum-seeker’ no longer means someone legally present in a state awaiting the outcome of an application for asylum, but is a term that is used as short-hand for liar, criminal, cheat. The ‘asylum-seeker’ has become a caricature in the same way that ‘Blacks’, ‘Jews’ and ‘Gypsies’ are, and as such it is a dehumanised category. This allows policy-makers to subject them to treatment that contravenes human rights norms, such as the detention of children.

The justification for policies of detention, dispersal and deportation include economic arguments and more abstract arguments about identity and values. The economic arguments are based on the presumption that states must protect certain common goods that are finite and can’t be extended to all. At a time when the welfare state is in crisis in many European states, focusing on those who have no claim to these scarce resources seems understandable, even logical, and certainly not racist. It is surely legitimate to be concerned about members of one’s community, about the aged, the sick, the young, the homeless.

And yet, if the concerns were really about welfare, it seems odd to deny asylum-seekers the rights to work, meaning that they will need assistance and that will involve costs. Recent research as published by the UK Home Office in 2001, for example, shows that migrants in the long run, whatever their initial status, become net contributors to the receiving society.

There is no simple trade-off between groups of welfare recipients; and a policy that sets one group of disadvantaged people against another is cynical and damaging for the receiving society.
Concerns focus on material goods (welfare, housing, education, health care), but also on abstract goods such as the identity of the receiving country and its citizens. There is the threat that asylum-seekers allegedly present to a national identity that is an expression of certain values and norms, customs and traditions. External stimuli – such as the arrival of large numbers of Others who bring with them different values, norms, customs and habits – changes national identity, which is also affected by internal stimuli. Changes in identity, which involves both losses and gains, are inevitable in a dynamic society. Futile attempts to avoid or control identity involve unacceptable costs (poverty, continuing persecution, and sometimes death) to others inside and outside society.

However, these costs are not just imposed in the sending countries – the drive to control borders have led to the normalisation of three techniques that until recently were deployed only exceptionally in times of war or crisis.

Dispersal, detention and deportation

In seeking to assert control over their borders, European states have developed regimes, sets of practices that once would have only been possible in war-time, but that today are considered ‘normal’, part of the everyday experience of hundreds of thousands of people across Europe. The practices selected include forcible dispersal, detention and deportation. For many, and obviously for the governments who have introduced them, dispersal, detention and deportation are both rational and proportionate measures, necessary instruments in pursuit of a government’s responsibility to maintain the integrity of its borders. However, these measures only seem reasonable until one imagines using them against one’s own population.


Among the first acts of those arriving migrants who have family or friends in Europe is the attempt to contact them, and frequently this takes precedence over claiming asylum. The importance of such networks cannot be over-estimated; decisions on where to go are dictated by these connections.

Dispersal disregards these support systems. In Britain, Germany and Ireland, asylum-seekers are dispersed to different parts of the country with no choice of destination or accommodation. Dispersal in both Britain and Germany has led to people being placed in areas in which there are no community or support networks, in which they are often the only visibly different foreigners and in which they become targets for abuse and violence. In Germany the practice of housing hundreds of asylum-seekers in hostels in socially-deprived areas was abandoned in the 1990s following attacks on the hostels by local mobs. In spite of this, British home secretary David Blunkett and his immigration minister, Beverley Hughes, are introducing a similar system in Britain.

Germany has developed a further variation on dispersal, as yet unknown in the rest of Europe. While it is no longer acceptable to prevent people from moving freely within the country of which they are citizens, Germany imposes a Residenzpflicht (a duty to reside in a particular area) on asylum-seekers, who may be fined if they breach its regulations. In one case in Thüringen, the only public telephone from which asylum-seekers can call their solicitors, friends or family is fifty metres from an asylum hostel and across the border between one area and another; consequently, the Residenzpflicht is regularly breached, creating the opportunity for the local police, or BGS, to intimidate the asylum-seekers at will.


In Britain, France, Germany and Italy individuals are sometimes detained on arrival, sometimes after initial rejection of their claim and before their appeal has been heard, and not always, as claimed, at the end of the process. It therefore becomes difficult to see detention as practised in Europe today as anything other than arbitrary. Even if the goal of detention is the unacceptable one of deterring potential asylum-seekers from entering EU states to seek refuge, there is no evidence that it works.

Though conditions for those detained vary a great deal across Europe, there are some common concerns: people who have not committed crimes (entering a country without documentation or overstaying a visa is a migration offence, not a crime) are deprived of their liberty, usually for an unspecified period of time, without charges being pressed, without trial, without a right to an automatic bail hearing, usually without adequate legal representation, without being informed of their rights or even of what is happening to them in a language they understand.

In most European countries there is a limit to the length of time someone can be deprived of their liberty. In the case of asylum-seekers (and alleged terrorists) the time limits are considerably longer than those for citizens suspected of crimes. In France, a person stopped at the border and held pending return may be held for up twenty days in one of 122 zones d’attente, while those subject to a deportation order may be held in one of twenty-four centres de retention for twelve days, though a new law will extend this to thirty days. In Germany and Italy, people may be detained for up to sixty days, while in the United Kingdom, there is no legal limit to the time a person may be held, and there are cases of people being held for more than two years.

Many of those detained have no idea why they are ‘imprisoned’, for how long they will be imprisoned or what their rights are while they are detained. Among the gravest concerns of NGOs working with detainees is the issue of bail. In the 1999 Immigration and Asylum Act, the British government promised to introduce the right to automatic bail hearings, vital given the length of time individuals may be detained. This provision was, however, never implemented and was withdrawn in the 2002 Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act.

One family with three children that was detained increased public awareness through the efforts of a retired teacher. The Garza family had fled racist attacks by skinheads in Slovakia and sought asylum in Britain. They were dispersed to Gateshead, where Joan Moon got to know them. She became very fond of the children, the eldest of whom moved from the bottom to the top stream within months (though in Slovakia she had been excluded from school). Eventually their claim for asylum was rejected and they were removed to Dungavel detention centre.

Moon began to campaign on their behalf, contacting the National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns (NCADC for advice and support. On 14 April 2002, during one phone call, she said: ‘I am fifty-four years of age. How could I have been so blind, so naive? I thought I lived in a democracy; I was proud of this country and believed that the government was doing what was right. I can’t believe my government is behaving like this.’ The goal of detention and accommodation centres is to prevent manifestations of solidarity like Joan Moon’s, who successfully fought to have the family released from detention and put them up in her home. The Garza family were subsequently deported to Slovakia.


In spite of the difficulties associated with deportation, it remains an essential element of the migration regime. There is no convention that specifies freedom from deportation, but Article 33 of the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention includes the following provision: ‘No Contracting state shall expel or return (refouler) a refugee ... to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.’ EU governments would argue that deportation only occurs after the courts have satisfied themselves that the life or freedom of the applicant is not in fact in danger.

Because of pressure on campaigning groups it is very difficult to follow up individuals who are deported and it is rare that supporters of deportees hear from them after expulsion. However, Pro Asyl, a German umbrella organisation, carried out a study of Turkish Kurds whose claims for asylum in Germany were rejected and who were returned to Turkey. In all of the cases documented (approximately forty), the men and women had arrived in Germany and had claimed asylum on the basis of alleged detention and torture by the Turkish authorities. Their claims were rejected because the German authorities argued that safe internal flight alternatives were available (to other parts of Turkey) or because their stories were not found to be credible. In each case, on return to Turkey, the people involved were arrested, detained and in many cases again tortured before managing to return to Germany, this time bringing with them sufficient documentary evidence of detention and/or torture.

As a result, they were granted not refugee status, but leave to remain on humanitarian grounds. This was just one project following one group of asylum-seekers. It seems reasonable to assume that deportations throughout Europe lead to similar injustices, and it seems that cases like these are considered a price worth paying in the battle to control borders.

Aside from the dangers that are faced on arrival in the country of origin, the conditions under which people are deported are inhumane and degrading, and have led to a number of deaths in recent years. It is not uncommon for people to be restrained with handcuffs, to have their mouths taped shut, to be tied to their seats; people being deported from Germany have also been sedated.

These people, it must be stressed, have committed no crime; they are not a danger to others, except in so far as they may resist the deportation itself. And yet the state and its officials find it acceptable to treat people in this manner. Although there have been some cases in which campaign groups or fellow passengers have intervened to prevent an airline assisting in the forcible deportation of an individual, governments are increasingly avoiding public confrontations by chartering aircraft to return people to Pristina, Bucharest, Dhaka and, most recently, to Kabul. On these charters, it is impossible to intervene to assist those being mistreated in the ways described above.

Deportations are expensive in financial and in human terms. They are difficult to carry out and many fail. So why continue the practice? Asylum researchers Matthew Gibney and Randall Hansen argue that ‘deportation is, from the state’s point of view, both ineffectual and essential’. They suggest that the ‘noble lie’ that states can remove from their territory those without any right to remain is necessary to ‘assuage public opinion, which would not view the state’s incapacity in this area with equanimity’, that deportation acts as a disincentive to other potential migrants, and that it allows the state to apply pressure: return voluntarily or you will be deported!

Certainly this seems to be the logic at work behind the British government’s highly visible deportation of twenty-one people to Afghanistan in April 2003. The government does not usually publicly announce such deportations, and such a small number will not significantly improve the government’s deportation record. Instead it is intended as a signal to Britons that ‘something is being done’.

Asylum policy: the state’s revenge

Saskia Sassen writes movingly in the People Flow debate about the abuse to European democracy which goes in the name of the drive towards greater police and military control in European immigration policies. What I would like to add to her catalogue of the ‘gradual corrosion of citizenship, responsibility and ultimately humanity itself without which a decent society cannot survive’, is an exploration of the extent to which certain practices of European states in relation to asylum-seekers are in themselves racist, an inevitable exacerbation of that particular ‘weakness’ as she puts it, ‘in the European, and by extension, global, civic fabric’.

In the UK, for example, the Race Relations Amendment Act 2000 extended the remit of the Race Relations Act 1976 to public authorities, most significantly the police. However, just as significantly, it expressly excluded the field of migration and nationality from the application of the law. In other words, the government unapologetically accepts that migration and nationality laws discriminate. Does this mean they are racist? Yes – insofar as asylum-seekers (among others) are subjected to practices that would be wholly unacceptable in respect of citizens.

To implement these practices, governments employ an army of bureaucrats and officials and, in the United Kingdom, the help of private security companies, institutionalising these racist practices. Isolating people in deprived communities where they are highly visible and unwelcome, incarcerating them in detention centres, creating an army of officials and security guards with power over them after singling them out as people without rights, handcuffing, gagging and restraining them on aircraft, obliging them to live on 70% of the minimum provided to, for example, British people, or on benefits in kind as in Germany, or refusing them the right to work while refusing them any benefits: this mistreatment of asylum-seekers occurs at the behest of the state. ‘Asylum-seekers’ are now a group of people singled out by the state as legitimate targets for ‘a [selective] hostility to strangers’, which can be seen in the long view as part of the ongoing process of nation-building.

The 1951 Convention created a gateway for those who are persecuted – all of those who are persecuted – thus limiting the state’s right to refuse entry to its territory. But, in revenge, the state penalises those who exercise this right to request asylum by stripping them of all other identities save that of ‘asylum-seeker’, someone without rights, someone to be excluded.

This contribution is based on ‘Common Sense or Racism? The Treatment of Asylum Seekers in Europe’, the introduction to a special issue of Patterns of Prejudice edited by Liza Schuster on Racism and Asylum in Europe Vol. 37, No. 3, September 2003

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