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How the British Government Deters Migrants via the ‘Politics of Exhaustion’

The British government has seized on the small recent increase in sea crossings to Britain as an opportunity to literally exhaust asylum seekers through a raft of deterrence measures, writes Marta Welander, executive director of Refugee Rights Europe.

Written by Marta Welander Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
A man cycles through mud past a shop run by refugees from Afghanistan in the former refugee camp known as the “Jungle” in Calais, France.Michael Bunel

Under an improvised tarp propped up with a few tree branches providing temporary shelter from stubborn rain and zero degrees, five Iranian men speak of their predicament and recent attempts to reach Britain via the sea route. “We’d really like to go to England, to go to our families so that we can build our lives,” they say. “We are asking the British government to visit Calais, and to think about us refugees, and to rescue us from where we are.” The men appear deeply shocked at the conditions in which they have found themselves, and raise repeated concerns and disbelief at mothers and children sleeping in the next few tents.

With freezing conditions looming, the realization that life in the woodlands of Calais and Dunkirk would become increasingly unbearable typically appears to exacerbate displaced people’s desperation to leave the area and cross the Channel at any cost. Prior experience of destitution and precarity elsewhere in Europe, coupled with the knowledge that any informal settlements and shelters reemerging in the Northern France area would be imminently demolished, seems to be a key motivator for displaced individuals to accept any possible “exit plan.” Smuggling networks offer a way out of this situation; be it at the back of a lorry or, as seen recently, on a dinghy or fishing vessel across the Channel for those who can afford the high cost.

However, rather than acknowledging that the increased number of sea crossings is, to a significant degree, a symptom of the pervasive desperation and untenable conditions for displaced people in France, supported through vast amounts of U.K. statutory funding, the British home secretary Sajid Javid stays true to a familiar British policy line that blames asylum seekers for not having sought asylum in the “first safe country” – or, indeed, in France. On this occasion, however, Britain takes things one step further. It is returning asylum seekers to France as part of an agreement involving an additional £6 million British payment toward French security arrangements, thus effectively interfering with the asylum process and prejudging the outcome of a person’s claim, which is in violation of the 1951 Refugee Convention.

This approach blanks out not only international law, but also the wider context of asylum in Europe, and asylum seekers’ individual circumstances. Javid’s convenient selectivity of facts is deplorable and dodges Britain’s asylum obligations under the Refugee Convention and its shared responsibility for asylum applicants in Europe while instead feeding into populist, demonizing narratives.

From ‘Hostile Environment’ to ‘Politics of Exhaustion’

But Javid’s response is far from surprising. In fact, it is perfectly aligned with the British “hostile environment” found in the domestic sphere, and with its cross-border extension (here referred to as the politics of exhaustion). The politics of exhaustion can be understood as a complex deterrence approach with the objective of exhausting asylum seekers, mentally and physically, with the ultimate goal of deterring them from approaching Britain for asylum, or indeed other European asylum systems.

This extension of the “hostile environment” is underpinned by bilateral agreements and juxtaposed border controls in France and Belgium as well as vast amounts of British funding. The politics of exhaustion consists of dispersals and push-backs, arbitrary detention and removals, evictions and demolitions, the blocking of humanitarian aid, sanitation and medical care, and the overall criminalization of solidarity. This raft of measures has contributed to the continuous application of structural and physical violence in what could be understood as a British “border zone” stretching from Calais and Dunkirk in northern France across to the capital cities of Paris and Brussels, if not further afield.

For decades, with a heightened period from 2015 onward, the effects of the politics of exhaustion have been felt across the British border zone. A bottleneck scenario has been unfolding, characterized by precarity, rough-sleeping, dangerous and unauthorized border crossings, and countless reports of excessive police violence. Displaced people have continuously reported arbitrary arrests and detentions, where they allegedly oftentimes experience further violence and may be left without access to food or water, raising serious concerns that the rights of displaced people may be violated while [they are] held in detention. The use of tear gas and intimidation tactics, as well as what would appear to amount to intentional sleep deprivation, appears to be part of a tactic utilized to create an exhausting environment in Northern France.

Such an approach – combined with the undeniable failure on the part of the British government to meaningfully facilitate safe and legal passage for prospective asylum seekers – directly hinders an effective resolution to a detrimental and decades-long situation. Extensive research conducted by Refugee Rights Europe in northern France, Paris and Brussels since early 2016 highlights the present-day impacts of the politics of exhaustion, and is a testament to the fact that nothing has improved.

Understanding the notion of the politics of exhaustion in Northern France as an extension of the British hostile environment helps to make sense of what might at first sight appear to be a senseless and counterproductive use of state violence, dispersals and push-backs in France – an immensely costly approach that has been going on for decades without any constructive resolution in sight.

“The French police treat us really badly. If we want to go, they hit us … whatever we do, they catch us, collect our tents. They tear our tents. When we want to go somewhere, they harass us. They have gathered us in one place, and as soon as we want to just move away from where we are, they catch us,” explains an Iranian man in his early 20s as he heats up a piece of bread over a flame in the fire pit. The thick smoke of firewood from the improvised fire pit blends with the smell of sweetened hot milk simmering in a rusty pot. Another Iranian man, who used to work as an interior designer in Iran, exclaims, “This is tax that the British people are paying. It is British people’s right to know where their money is being spent. It is being spent like this. These are our living conditions. This is the money you are investing to keep us living under such conditions.”

‘Border Crisis’ or Pretext for Deterrence?

Rather than addressing the harmful approach of preventing asylum seekers from accessing the British asylum system via legal routes, while sustaining a decisive and costly politics of exhaustion in its border zone, Sajid Javid has made a public spectacle out of the few hundred asylum seekers attempting to reach Britain via the sea route. Individuals trying to reach Britain via lethal routes is, tragically, nothing new. Since the mid-to-late 1990s, considerable numbers have made it across to Britain one way or another – stowed away on lorries, walking through the Eurotunnel and via sea crossings. Nevertheless, the recent small increase in sea route crossings has been framed by Javid and the British government as a “border crisis” and a pretext for strengthening security and threats to send asylum seekers back to France without a chance to file an asylum application – which goes against asylum provisions enshrined in international law.

Javid’s public promise to “send a clear message” as a deterrent to asylum seekers attempting to reach Britain is not something entirely new; such attempts to discourage others to try to reach Europe and Britain have been part of the British policy toolbox for long. In 2014, then-home secretary Theresa May unequivocally suggested, under the guise of caring for the safety of those crossing, that no search-and-rescue missions should be carried out on the Mediterranean as this would only encourage others to come. In 2015, she similarly suggested that individuals must be returned without being able to access the asylum system in the first place. The British approach to asylum fails, time and again, to acknowledge the reasons people take the perilous journeys, what drives them to risk their lives on the sea, and to take shared responsibility alongside other European states. Domestically, Britain has devised a “hostile environment,” and in the border zone it sustains a harmful politics of exhaustion.

As Judith Butler suggested in her acclaimed work “Precarious Life” from 2004, “[v]iolence renews itself in the face of the apparent inexhaustibility of its object.” In the same way, the British government, spurred on by segments of public opinion and right-wing populist forces, appears determined to keep a tightened border at all costs and stands behind state violence against asylum seekers in various shapes and forms, domestically and in the border zone, with the ultimate objective of deterring through exhaustion.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

This op-ed was originally published on the Border Criminologies blog and is reproduced with permission. Note: The concept of “politics of exhaustion” was first introduced in 2016 by Marta Welander and Leonie Ansems de Vries of King’s College London, in the context of the Calais camp, and is further developed in a forthcoming doctoral research project by the author at the University of Westminster.

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