Prem Kumar Rajaram is an Associate Professor at Central European University, at the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology. He is also the Academic Director of the university's Roma Graduate Preparation Program, and has written widely on topics of His research has focused on the government of asylum-seekers, particularly those in detention in Europe and Australia, and on colonial histories of state making. He is particularly interested in the limits of politics, looking at individuals and groups excluded from political participation and seeing what their exclusion says about the nature of the political. His latest book is called Ruling the Margins: Colonial Power and Administrative Rule in the Past and Present (Routledge 2014).
The migrant crisis in Europe has descended into the grotesque spectacle of states debating if they are responsible, and to what extent. People become parsed into real refugees/economic migrants. Germany wants to help Syrians, but only Syrians, not the Afghans, Iraqis and Pakistanis waiting in Hungary and elsewhere. Slovakia wants to take only Christians. Hungary, it seems, doesn’t want anyone at all. The UK are deeply concerned - still! - by that old chestnut, welfare scroungers. Batty people on comments section speak of ‘us’ and ‘them’, and of being emotionally blackmailed.
As the horse-trading goes on, the real grotesque plays out. The issue becomes framed as a threat to Europe. Angela Merkel worries that we may see the reinstatement of passport controls and border checks in the Schengen zone. Hungarian and Slovak politicians worry about threats to ‘European culture.’ Rather than focusing on the violence faced by refugees and migrants (the term you choose to use really doesn’t matter) trying to cross barbed wire fences and survive the Mediterranean, sleeping on concrete floors with their families outside train stations, dodging police and the threat of detention and tear gas, European politicians are coming quite close to the ultimate misrecognition: the violence to be concerned about is violence to a European ideal and a European cultural norm (that, lets be clear, does not exist).
This displacement of violence is a bankrupt response and it is a failing one. The capacity of European states to frame the problem in their own terms is surely slowly being overwhelmed by the simple weight of human numbers. Solidarity between refugees and citizen groups show up states and their inaction.
Framing the issue in terms of state responsibility creates situations where human lives become secondary to economic and social issues, real or imaginary, that states privilege. The migrant crisis in Europe cannot, must not, be seen as a problem of state responsibility. The frames that are used are parochial and limited. This is not a question of responsibility but the precedence that human life and dignity has over the state and its dated moralities. The response to this situation must surely be to override the state, to make it irrelevant, to work from the basis of human solidarity and overcome distinctions between citizens and migrants or refugees.
Prem Kumar Rajaram
Department of Sociology & Social Anthropology
Central European University