By Nico Vaccari
Red Pepper Magazine
January 17th, 2020
Siobhán McGuirk and Adrienne Pine’s edited volume is a powerful indictment of the modern migration complex writes Nico Vaccari
January 17, 2021 · 7 min read
At the end of 2019, nearly 80 million people worldwide were forcefully displaced because of war, occupation, extreme poverty and/or the climate crisis. It is hard to comprehend the scale of such displacement. A number equivalent to the combined populations of the UK and Belgium forced out of their homes by systems and structures beyond their control.
From the very beginning of Asylum for Sale: Profit and Protest in the Migration Industry, it is clear that this is a text of resistance. The book sets out to dissect a vastly expanding global industry whose profit is generated by the creation, displacement, prevention, detention, processing, trafficking, imprisonment and deportation of people seeking asylum. The collection of essays makes for a moving and sobering read. Asylum for Sale manages to simultaneously encapsulate the brutality of the current system and yet still implores us to imagine an alternative future.
What if, for instance, the Dutch government had secured a home for 14-year old Syrian teenager Ali Ghezawi and his family? Would he still have committed suicide? What if the British government had allowed Ugandan Mercy Beguma to work while applying for asylum? Would she still have been found dead alongside her crying, malnourished, one-year old son? What if more than 20,000 European citizens, and still counting, had drowned in the Mediterranean between 2014 and 2020? Would we be more likely to demand change?
An extensive journey
Asylum for Sale takes the reader on an extensive journey across the violent border regimes of the United States, Australia and the European Union. Each of the book’s sections dutifully focuses on a different aspect of the commodification of asylum, providing shocking and unique insights. Throughout it all, the obvious double injustice at the heart of Asylum for Sale is that the countries and regions that now pursue punitive border regimes initially prospered from the colonial and imperial extraction of the places from which people are now forced to flee.
From the start, the book reveals the horrendous conditions human beings must endure while seeking asylum. These vary from the more grotesque, refugee organ trafficking to the more routine instances of capitalist exploitation, such as asylum-seekers being forced to work in slave-like conditions in sweatshops. The second section, ‘Waiting games’, goes on to bleakly examine the reality of privately-run migrant detention centres around the world. ‘Detained voices’ platforms accounts of labour exploitation of those detained, while other authors focus on those employed in the industry. An unnerving observation is made that most employees in the 300 or so detention facilities across Europe are descendants of migrants or are holding temporary residence permits themselves.
Reading about the experiences of those detained and those hired to detain successively is an unsettling confirmation of one of the central arguments in Aimé Cesaire’s revolutionary anti-colonial polemic Discourse on Colonialism. The process of committing colonial violence ‘decivilises’ the ‘civilised’ coloniser, pulling them deeper and deeper into the void of barbarism and despair. Each page of Asylum for Sale burns brightly with evidence of the barbaric, inhumane crimes committed against refugees and migrants by supposedly exemplary nation states that claim to respect human rights. It goes without saying that the asylum industrial complex is corrosive and corrupting from top to bottom.
Throughout its pages Asylum for Sale continues to investigate those who profit from preventing people from seeking asylum: arms companies contracted to militarise land and sea borders, law firms selling ‘freedom’ and the corporate giants often hired by the UK and Irish governments to run asylum accommodation centres where conditions regularly violate fundamental human rights.
All of the contributors relentlessly drive forward the book’s narrative, moving the reader between countries and continents, borders and boats, airports and detention centres, guarded backseats of charter planes and in the hands of human traffickers or alienated bureaucrats. The reader is constantly plummeted into the emotional, psychological, physical and financial demands of a seemingly never-ending refugee journey. Editors Adrienne Pine and Red Pepper’s Siobhán McGuirk effectively illustrate how widespread the migration/asylum industry is. There isn’t a corner on this planet where someone isn’t risking their life to reach safety, often cruelly rendered ‘illegal’ in the process.
Testimony as resistance
Asylum for Sale’s strongest moments are when lived accounts are laid bare in front of the reader. In the first section of the book, ‘Crossings’, Nigerian artist Uyi recounts his punishing journey from Nigeria to mainland Europe. Uyi’s testimony is accompanied by personal illustrations of his harrowing experience travelling across the Sahara in jeeps that don’t stop even if someone falls off and crossing the most dangerous route in the world for migrants, the Mediterranean, in an overcrowded, unstable boat.
The images of Uyi’s hands holding drawings of their gruelling journey are as visceral as they are matter of fact. They unhinge our privilege as readers – European, white, ‘western’ – into the cold, harsh light of self-awareness and recognition. The hand-drawn images of personal experience captured by the clinical eye of the camera fulfil the role of political art: call out complicity, provoke empathy and encourage critical thought.
Another impressive contribution of artistic activism is ‘A guard’s story’, the first-hand account of a Serco employee inside an Australian immigration detention facility. This chapter stands out vividly by conveying a detention centre worker’s perspective in a testimonial comic-book style. The account details the internal moral conflict of the worker and the alienating, detrimental effect such a job has on one’s psychological wellbeing and wider social and family environments. The tasteful, profound and beautifully crafted images, all of which are inspired by extensive interviews with the ex-employee, are burning proof that together art and activism can, do and should play a crucial combative role in the fight against structural and institutional violence.
‘The poetics of prison protest’, by Iranian-Kurdish Behrouz Boochani, is a further inspiring account of protest and resistance. Boochani was imprisoned for six years in an Australian detention centre on Manus island. The excerpt ‘Tweeting as protest’ particularly stands out – a series of screenshotted tweets exposing abuses happening in the detention centre posted by Boochani whilst incarcerated. The chain of screenshots is a direct civil society action, evidence presented to the reader that the only effective way of igniting social change is to tirelessly and courageously expose the crimes of the ruling capitalist class.
Contributions such as the above elevate Asylum for Sale from a fascinating scholarly volume to a militant tool of action and resistance. Presenting first-hand survivor accounts of profit-driven violence is protest. Ensuring people read these lived experiences is resistance.
Asylum for Sale stands out in the large canon of asylum and migration literature because it does not lose track of humanity, unlike many academic volumes. It successfully encapsulates the expansive geography and economic and political complexities of an industry that makes money from illegalising and commodifying human beings. The last sentence of the volume shatters all structural and systematic attempts to dehumanise refugees. ‘Rejected’ Afghan refugee Farshid’s dream is to live freely, like us: ‘He hopes to be a singer one day.’
This article first appeared in Issue #230, Struggles for Truth. Subscribe today to support independent media and get your issue hot off the press!
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 Vogue, Rewire 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.