Asylum in the Economy of Miserable Efficiencies

Posted on April 30, 2011


The imperative to tell of horror means giving up the horror of horror. A false economy of mourning, a gift that returns only more horror for those most at risk.


In the last half-century, the so-called `strong passport’ so-called democracies have turned the application for asylum into a criminal justice procedure. The myth of asylum is that asylum is a gift that one State gives to a citizen of another. From the perspective of nation-States, it is the gift of amnesia, the gift of forgetting. The gifting State forgets its obligation to respect the sovereignty of the asylum seeker’s State. The asylum seeker’s State forgets its obligation to protect the national identity of its citizens.

For the asylum seeker, the mytho-politics of the gift of asylum is irrelevant. For the asylum seeker, asylum is the labour of memory, the labour of speaking and writing and re-living the horror in order to obtain asylum. The injunction to provide evidence in the form of words, pictures and traces on the body is nothing more than the insistence that an asylum seeker must work, must provide labour, in order to obtain legitimate, real asylum.

In order for the asylum seeker to obtain asylum, she must abandon the work of mourning and replace it with the labour of asylum. To do otherwise is to become a failed asylum seeker.

In the United Kingdom, this narrative of horrible success and even worse failure relies on the particularities of the Detained Fast Track Asylum System, or DFT, initiated in 2003. DFT is a system meant to shorten the time of asylum proceedings and, importantly, to cut the number of asylum claims. It is a model of efficiency.

A woman applies for asylum. In two or three days, her claim is decided. In 2008, 96 percent of claims were refused first time out. The woman then has two days to appeal. The appeal has to be heard within 11 days. While `appealing’, the woman stays in detention at Yarl’s Wood. In 2008 91 percent of the appeals were refused. For women, DFT is lethal. Women’s cases are often more complex. Many involve sexual violence and many involve family members and partners. In DFT, that doesn’t matter. A woman seeking asylum is expected to tell all, instantly, to strangers. Any delay in revelation is read as duplicity.

Women arrive at Yarl’s Wood and often the asylum interview happens the next day. The majority of women have consulted with their duty solicitor only briefly and only over the phone. For women fleeing rape or abuse, there is every reason to not share relevant information in a timely manner. Accessing expert evidence, such as medical reports, is extremely difficult. A UKBA officer conducts the asylum interview and makes the decision. Not a specialist, not a magistrate, not someone trained to work with rape survivors. Just a guy.

That is what efficiency looks like.

And here is how efficiency `works’: The State declared an economic crisis, the time it took to reject asylum seekers. The source of this crisis? Too many asylum seekers. A surplus population. Surplus and Crisis, two of the Three Horsemen of Accumulation. The third is Misery. The story of the production of a surplus population is the story of the targeted distribution and intensification of misery, for some in the service of the acceleration and again, intensification of accumulation for others. Welcome to Yarl’s Wood.

What exactly is the value that is produced in this economy of miserable efficiencies?

The value is that women don’t matter. The value is precisely extracted from the absolute devaluation of the work of survival and the work of mourning. The value is in compressing the time it takes to destroy the worth of the women’s labour is destroyed. Once destroyed, it is replaced with non-worth, un-worth, and rising debt. That is misery.

The misery of the economies of efficiency is the misery of the precarious. Precarious in the sense of always at risk, at risk of deportation, at risk of incarceration, at risk of losing everything … again. Precarious in the sense of poorly paid, insecure, unprotected, unable to support a household and eminently disposable. Precarious as well in that the rate of risk, the rate of indebtedness, continues to accelerate and accumulate with stunning velocity. Precarity means being a citizen of the non-nation of the un-worthy, the surplus population.

In this national economy, women asylum seekers embody the precarious citizens. They are manufactured inside the asylum process as unworthy of citizenship because they have been filled with the non-worth and the un-worth of their labour and of their lives.

Posted in: 4. Ed Two