Raia Apostolova: Economic vs. political: Violent abstractions in Europe’s refugee crisis

This post is part of a series on migration and the refugee crisis moderated and edited by Prem Kumar Rajaram (Central European University).

The “economic migrant” must leave. From Berlin’s widening of the definition of “safe country” zones and the fast execution of deportation orders, to hunters of economic migrants along the Bulgarian–Turkish border, our memory is persistently being pressed on the idea that the European space is reserved for “genuine refugees” only. Refugees are welcome. Their counterpoint—the economic migrant—is not. In the second post of this series, Manuela Bojadzijev and Sandro Mezzadra write, “One can see … a ‘difference machine’ at work, which discriminates between ‘first-class’ refugees of brutal war (the Syrians) and potential seekers of political asylum (the Iraqis) while branding people from the Balkans as ‘economic migrants.’” We see, however, that this “difference machine” works in a complete oscillation; it moves back and forth from one extreme to the other and it feeds on the contradictions it breeds. It produces unstable categories and where “first class” qualities could be sensed ostensible for a moment, they quickly retreat to previously engendered anxieties. The temporal protection that is currently being distributed to Syrians is precisely this: a temporal protection from being labeled an “economic migrant.” What does it mean, however, to accept one’s refugee-ness but not one’s economic migrant-ness? How does the so-called “refugee crisis” articulate the economy, the labour market, and humanitarianism?

The pre-migration world and the “economy”
The constructed division around refugees and economic migrants has a particular implication over how we are schooled to think of the “global market,” the “economy.” To describe one as an ungenuine refugee is to construct the opposite of what constitutes political persecution, and hence political violence. Therefore, the opposite of political violence is the economy as prescribed in the concept of the economic migrant. The category of the economic migrant and the debates following true refugee-ness teach us that the pre-migration world is separated into two distinct zones. The one, where refugees come from, is a space where bombs fall, heads are cut off, and murder has become the norm. The flight of the refugee is “involuntary.” We learn that political violence leaves one with no choice. Conversely, economic migrants come from places where “economic” mechanisms are at play. Here, the act of fleeing is deemed voluntary because the economy, it is widely accepted, retains choice and will among its subjects; they are encouraged to endure the poverty and the unemployment and to be more entrepreneurial as, eventually, the economic burdens will go away as the market clears. As such, the pre-migration world closely follows the ideological impetus of liberalism. Capitalism, in this mythological sequence, remains a relation where distribution and production is nonpolitical. “Economies” are nonviolent. Hence, Europe has no obligation toward those who decide to flee the violent excesses of the “markets.”

Yet, whether excess populations are pronounced economic or political migrants, they always seem to reach their final destination. The migrant movements of the past months are a stark reminder of that. Unlike the economy, however, migrants, as “relative surplus populations” must be monitored and regulated by all means possible. A complex hierarchical system is assembled, where people are classified under different migratory categories and are made to enter into stark competition with each other. The initial classifications, as woven into the apparently straightforward economic/political migrant dichotomy, produces a complex sequence: bogus asylum seekers, social benefit tourists, poverty migrants, transit labor, mafia beggars—all subjects of differential juridical and politico-economic treatments. This sequence merges with juridical rationales and furthers the migratory classification by fragmenting migrants according to differentiated access to work permits, labor markets, social benefits, and labor rights.

The state and the labor market
The physicality of the European border is not the only boundary to be crossed. One must prove she is a genuine refugee in order to remain on European territory. Migration management in Europe is organized in a way to effectively distinguish between refugees and economic migrants. There is an entire apparatus in place for this purpose: interviewers, translators, psychologists, and professionals who collect evidence regarding the scale of “hotness” at the “problematic zones.” The process from above is called “asylum seeking,” a temporal gap reserved for being pronounced a refugee or being turned into an economic migrant. There are two potential outcomes of asylum seeking. One’s status of being an asylum seeker could change overnight, with the drop of a hat. The change could either be “positive” (i.e., one’s refugee-ness is granted) or almost devastating (i.e., one is proven to be an economic migrant, illegalized, and hence, under the constant threat of forced removal).

The “market” is of universal concern, however, with or without refugees around. The migrant could almost always be a barometer to the particular needs of this universal. When the refugee enters the fortress, she simultaneously enters the anteriority of capital accumulation—the so-called needs of the European labor market. This anteriority is the guise decisive for political economy: the possession of labor power, the particularity of the labor desired, the temporal gap between the potential to gain and the reality of contracting labor. There is a European consensus: migrants are surplus labor that need to be managed. The conservative voice desires management by minimizing the number of newcomers so as to protect the “national labor market.” Hence, non-genuine refugees must leave. The liberal leftists desire management by extracting more (migrant) surplus and more (migrant) tax revenues. Hence, shrink the space that comprises the so-called safe third countries as designated by Germany and free the movement.

The divide between refugees and economic migrants is like an elastic string—it can always include or exclude people from one or another migratory category and move them between the different categories and hence between particular material conditions. The division is both the coercive force and the ideological impetus for active deportation policies. Simultaneously, the hierarchies created by the economic/political migrant divide are fused into an instrument to ensure market needs in a situation where accumulation strategies rely heavily on the so-called gray sector, which is traditionally preserved for surplus populations. Moreover, the historical process of this differentiation has created a competition between the different migratory categories that is channeled through the state.

Let’s take the example of the German state’s intervention into the “poverty migration debate,” which held our attention for a minute in 2014. Back then, the German parliament passed a law that (supposedly) increased welfare opportunities for asylum seekers while simultaneously restricting freedom of movement rights for East European EU migrants (which many use as the only channel for survival). Here, the state retained the division not simply by reliance on international law but also by creating a deep chasm along the lines of distribution and production.

Unlike the myth that the “market” is politics-free, we can see that the state plays a decisive role in the allocation of labor market needs. From the issuing of green cards for certain types of professionals to issuing working permits to asylum seekers under certain conditions and irregularizing other types of migrants, the state enters a mode of distributing surplus populations into different statuses and hence different modes of exploitation—be they organized through chains of subcontractors or following the more traditional labor contracting. Moreover, the actions of the German state opened the door for an old monster: namely, the racialization of the Eastern European benefit scroungers.

Refugees versus the East
As Prem Kumar Rajaram points out in the opening post of this series, “There are parallels between the biopolitical and racial exclusions of contemporary capitalism in Europe and the response to the ‘refugee crisis.’” There are three major pillars of European integration: open markets for capital and labor, the judiciary, and the management of movement (regardless of its “free” or “unfree” character). In this regard, we need to trace similarities in the processes of racialization alongside different groups and the forms of distinctions that have become socially pertinent.

Refugees are often given the supernatural ability to destroy Europe. They are a distinct type of “other.” They are separated from our prisons, from our institutions for socially vulnerable people, and even from our political struggles. Let’s take the example of the Europeanization of asylum law in new member states. Before Bulgaria entered the Union in 2007, the country went through a process of harmonization of its legislation with the EU acquis communautaire. A curious particularity of this process was the way the detention of third country nationals (i.e., the potential refugees) was split from other detention facilities. Whereas, before, all “problematic” persons—the junkies, the homeless, the gamins—were placed in the same detention facilities, 2006 brought about the establishment of a specific detention camp for (potential) refugees. The differentiation had a particular humanitarian twist, a detention with a human face one could say. And it came replete with newly painted walls, clean sheets, and entertainment rooms. Where incarceration of the ordinary Bulgarian criminal could take place within the same miserable prison walls, the refugee was at least spared the violence of hunger and pneumonia-causing conditions. As such, a specific form of racism was (historically) activated, the racism against the refugee triggered by the envy that the social exclusion of the utmost other is conducted humanely. The image of what constitutes a refugee as articulated by special detention practices and humanitarian treatment offered a point of de-identification from the larger social formation but also from the “other” within.

In the beginning of the 1990s, the racialization of the migrant in Bulgaria followed the well-known line of deindustrialization and the fear of losing jobs to cheap labor. Thousands of Vietnamese workers were expelled from Bulgaria, an “antiforeigner” commission that followed up with deportations and voluntary returns was created under the auspices of the Ministry of Interior, and the migratory “Soviet worker” was stigmatized as a job-stealing scrounger. Racism was utilized to get rid of the remaining workers from Nicaragua, Cuba, and Ethiopia. This is not to argue, of course, that there is some inherent Eastern European racism. Similar attitudes were present in Germany, as evident in the Rostock riots of 1992 and the qualitative changes in the asylum law of that same year. The refugee—the new foreigner—did not emerge as a major figure before 2013, when the Bulgarian border started being regularly crossed. This time the fear of losing jobs was displaced by the fear of losing budget money to the support of refugees.

The divide between true and untrue refugees has made possible the re-emergence of racism as revolving around old European dichotomies of East/West, civilization/barbarism. The distinction has cemented the perverse ways we see the refugee as a victim devoid of agency. Where the economic migrant has a choice, a will, other “economic” possibilities, we are told refugees do not. This triggers a peculiar type of sympathy, which cannot help but juxtapose the “truly harsh” situation of those fleeing political violence and the apparently “bearable” situation emerging from so-called economic misfortunes (that are taking, by now, generations to get to their point of clearing). As the “crisis” unfolded, the world’s attention was attracted toward the civilized West and the barbarian East. Ignoring the decisive role of Germany in the construction of the modes of migration management in Europe and the consequent coercion against border crossers, intellectuals from both the “West” and “East” reinvented the humanitarian deficit of the Eastern Europeans and in the meantime equally ignored the quick spread of solidarity in Hungary, Macedonia, Serbia, and Bulgaria.

The Balkans is a peculiar contradiction. It has always been presented in the European imagination as a region of barbarian violence, where the most inhumane atrocities are always just around the corner. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s warning that the region could erupt into a vicious military conflict after closing the borders from 3 November reproduces this. Yet, curiously, after a controversial change in the German asylum law from this year, the entire region is now for once pronounced to be a safe zone. Dividing economic migrants and refugees is a violence not only of abstraction.

Raia Apostolova is a PhD candidate at the Central European University in Budapest. Her dissertation, “Methodological liberalism and the interaction of migratory categories in late capitalism,” looks at the ideological, political, and practical sources of the political/economic divide among migrants, and its effects on European politics today.

Cite as: Apostolova, Raia. 2015. “Economic vs. political: Violent abstractions in Europe’s refugee crisis.” FocaalBlog, 10 December. www.focaalblog.com/2015/12/10/raia-apostolova-economic-vs-political-violent-abstractions-in-europes-refugee-crisis.