December 16, 2020
From PM Press

By Belén Fernández
El Faro
Friday, 27 de November de 2020

In 2016, Uyi, a Nigerian artist, attempted to leave
Libya—where he had endured months in prison-like accommodations
following a perilous overland journey from his home country—and make it
to Europe on an overpacked rubber dinghy. Reflecting on the time he
spent being tossed by waves in the Mediterranean, Uyi says: “We stayed
on that boat for what felt like days. It was so horrible. You pay to
die. That is how it is: you pay to die.”

Uyi survived the voyage thanks to a migrant rescue ship that has since been forced out of service
by the homicidal European Union policies often collectively referred to
as “Fortress Europe,” which envisions mass drownings as a handy
deterrent against continued immigration. In 2016 alone, an estimated five thousand
people perished while trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea, by far the
deadliest migrant corridor in the world. And yet physical death is, it
seems, only one way to die in the context of a thoroughly dehumanizing
industry that has arisen around anti-migration policies—and that
essentially makes migrants pay for their own dehumanization. 

recall an elderly Syrian refugee I met in 2015 in Lebanon, where
widespread physical and economic abuse of refugees has merely compounded
the trauma of the war they fled at home. As a result, the old man said,
many saw themselves as dead already.

Uyi’s reflections appear in one chapter of Asylum for Sale,
a new book edited by Siobhán McGuirk—a postdoctoral researcher in
anthropology at Goldsmiths, University of London—and Adrienne Pine, an
anthropologist at American University in Washington, DC. The anthology
of writings and artwork takes on the commodification of asylum as a
lucrative industry under neoliberal capitalism. Contributors include
scholars, activists, journalists, and asylum seekers themselves—such as
José López, the pseudonymous author of the book’s first chapter: “On
Seeking Refuge from an Undeclared War.”

The war in
question is in Honduras, a nation that has long occupied a special place
in the sadistic heart of the United States, serving as a base for
imperial military and economic operations in the region. In the
aftermath of the right-wing coup in 2009, the US increased aid to Honduran security forces that were murdering,
raping, and otherwise terrorizing Hondurans; after all, maintaining a
corporate-friendly regime in the country was more important to the
gringos than, you know, worrying about human rights. The climate of
violence and impunity would ultimately cause countless Hondurans to flee
towards the United States in the direction of potential safety —for
many, a hazard-ridden trajectory rendered only more lethal by frenetic
border militarization schemes and the effective criminalization of

López, a gay man involved in the anti-coup
resistance, sought asylum in the US in 2016 after concluding that
remaining in Tegucigalpa was likely a death sentence. He was interned
for three months at the Atlanta City Detention Center — “one of the
worst immigration prisons in the country,” he describes it — where the
city received $78 per day from the federal government for each
Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainee, putting the price-tag for
López’s own suffering at $7,020. Remarking on the “massive money in
asylum”—from private sector prisons to corporate contractors to the
exploitation of an underpaid immigrant workforce by the very setup that
criminalizes them, as with “illegal” immigrants employed in the prisons
themselves—López observes that “it’s an entire economic system,” a
“vicious cycle with profit at every stage.” Indeed, not only is profit
wrung from the US-backed neoliberal war on Honduras, the victims of that
war are then revictimized in the interest of further neoliberal profit
and the expansion of the asylum industry.

In another chapter of Asylum for Sale,
Garry Leech discusses the pernicious effects of so-called “free trade”
on Mexico, where the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement
constituted “structural violence that shattered the lives of millions of
Mexican small farmers through NAFTA-sanctioned dumping of heavily
subsidized US food products onto the Mexican market.” According to US
government statistics, he notes, more than two thousand migrants died
attempting to cross the US border in the first decade of NAFTA alone.
(The actual number of deaths is likely significantly higher.) In a
sense, then, Uyi’s calculation that “You pay to die” pretty accurately
sums up the essence of neoliberalism itself — at least from the
standpoint of migrants.

Assessing the 2018 US-bound migrant caravans that sent Donald Trump’s panties into a bunch and prompted the presidential Twitter-declaration of a “National Emergy” [sic], Leech describes the asylum seekers as “refugees of neoliberal free trade agreements.” This sort of conceptualization is precisely what’s missing from mainstream analyses of migration, which prefer to portray migrants as invading swarms, malevolent opportunists, or in the very least a cohort whose plight has nothing whatsoever to do with the machinations of the United States and other global powers that be. And it is in the relentless provision of context that Asylum for Sale really shines, connecting the dots internationally and exposing a system of institutionalized sociopathy that thrives on the cheapening of human life.

The book covers such a lot of ground and is
so consistently engaging that it is impossible to do it justice in a
short review. There are dispatches from Manus Island, Australia’s
offshore refugee hell,
and from Malta, the European archipelago-cum-migrant prison where
“non-deportable refugees live in a permanent temporary state, which
Zygmunt Bauman calls the ‘nowhere-land of non-humanity.’” There’s a
contribution from two of the activists charged for terrorism-related offenses
in the UK for forcibly preventing a deportation flight to Africa from
London’s Stansted airport in 2017. That year, each chartered deportation
flight from Britain reportedly cost
no less than £5,345.56 (about US$6,895.77) per passenger. But hey, it’s
not like there are any other uses for such money in an
austerity-stricken nation.

There’s also a chapter on
arms and security industry players who make bank off of xenophobic
border fortification efforts, plus an organ trafficking intervention
titled “Kidneys without Borders—Asylum without Kidneys” by UC Berkeley’s
Nancy Scheper-Hughes, who points out that, “while devalued refugees
face incredible difficulty finding security or asylum across
international borders, their commodified human organs—like any other
valuable commercial product—travel freely, following the flows of
capital and power.” In his own chapter on evolving industry prospects in
an era of anthropogenic climate change, journalist and author Todd Miller
writes that “governments and the corporations that benefit from their
contracts are treating climate change… as a ‘threat multiplier.’” He
continues: “From this point of view, the actual weather event is
secondary to the people most impacted by the event. More of a threat
than the drought itself is the farmer fleeing the drought.” Rest assured
that, as we hurtle toward planetary self-destruction, capitalism will
offer plenty of non-solutions to the environmental problems it created
in the first place—and will undertake to extract the maximum possible
profit from that farmer’s misery before it’s all over. You pay to die.

discussing who profits off of migrants, there is a reductionist
tendency to assign the bad guy role to human smugglers. But as Asylum for Sale
exhaustively demonstrates, punitive migration and asylum regimes mean
big bucks all around—for corporate actors, NGOs, doctors, lawyers, and
all the other characters who reap economic rewards from perpetuating a
routine of detention, deportation, and the sporadic acceptance of asylum
seekers whose claims have been deemed “genuine.” In the introduction to
the book, McGuirk and Pine note that individual claimants are “expected
to present harrowing evidence of personalized suffering and
violence—via photographs, video footage, and/or testimonies—to elicit
compassion and subsequent positive action.” In other words, traumatized
migrants are effectively required to sell their trauma to an audience.
Under neoliberalism, even trauma is for sale.

In their respective chapters, McGuirk and Pine are admirably honest and self-critical, as when Pine comments with regard to her work in US federal asylum courts as a country conditions expert on Honduras: “I participate in the fetishization of the asylum applicant’s trauma as capital within a system that offers no hope for changing the roots of that trauma.” Another chapter, this one in comic-book style, tells the story of a former guard at an Australian immigration detention facility—an employee of the British multinational Serco, which self-advertises as “deliver[ing] safe, secure and cost-efficient prison management services that achieve real outcomes for the community, governments, and those in custody.” The man had taken on the job with the idea of helping asylum seekers from within the system, and was promptly horrified by Serco’s contempt for the contexts of trauma from which those in its custody had emerged. But “no matter how bad things got in there, they [the detainees] looked out for each other. They had a sense of mutual
support and community, which I really respected. Something I don’t see
very often on the outside.”

On the outside, of course,
things are also bad, and we’re currently faced with a deadly neoliberal
panorama that aims to exterminate solidarity. But despite the cynical
subject matter of Asylum for Sale, one can’t help but feel while reading it that humanity won’t go down without a fight.

Siobhan McGuirk – In addition to her academic
publications addressing gender and sexuality, migration, and social
justice movements, McGuirk is an award-winning filmmaker, curator and
editor for Red Pepper magazine. Her writing has appeared in Teen VogueRewire News, and Australian Options.
She received her Doctorate in Anthropology from American University in
2016 and holds a Masters in Visual Anthropology from the University of
Manchester. She is a Postdoctoral Researcher in Anthropology at
Goldsmiths, University of London. 

Adrienne Pine is a critical medical
anthropologist whose work has explored the embodiment of structural
violence and imperialism in Honduras, cross-cultural approaches to
revolutionary nursing, and neoliberal fascism. She has served as an
expert country conditions witness in around 100 asylum cases over the
past fifteen years. Adrienne is an assistant professor at the American
University and author of Working Hard, Drinking Hard: On Violence and Survival in Honduras

Check out Adrienne Pine and Siobhán McGuirk’s & new book: