The asylum procedure as a hope-generating machine

Over the past few years, the European Union has used deterrence as its main strategy to prevent an influx of refugees, becoming more hard-handed as the number of refugees has increased. A faulty asylum procedure creates false hope to those who are then met by an untimely death or horrific conditions upon reaching Europe instead of ‘making it’ as a handful of refugees before them did. This hope-generating machine divides instead of unites, diminishing the collective power of refugees to challenge the EU’s migration policy.

Eu refugee policy migrant
Activists have taken to the streets in Amsterdam and Utrecht in the Netherlands to protest conditions in refugee camps, particularly Moria, and the EUs migration policy. Pictured here are protesters at Neude Utrecht. Photo: Dorothea Hilhorst.

Some days ago I reread Power, Community and the State[1], a book by former colleague at Wageningen University Monique Nuijten, to contribute to a publication celebrating the author’s work on the occasion of her retirement. Back in 2003, Nuijten described how the Mexican state acted as hope-generating machine that disciplined and divided poor peasant communities. While rereading the book 17 years after it first appeared, I was reminded how much the world has changed in the last two decades. I also realized how appropriately the idea of a hope-generating machine describes the asylum system in Europe.

Power, Community and the State is written in a time when arguments that we had entered a deterritorialized and transnationalized world seemed compelling. The book quotes Hardt and Negri’s view[2] that ‘sovereignty has taken a new form, composed of a series of national and supranational organisms united under a single logic of rule’.

How dreamily naïve such a quotation sounds today. In contrast to what was then hoped would be a move toward greater global unity, today’s world manifests itself as reterritorialized and renationalized, especially when seen through the eyes of migrants. Most passports in the world do not travel far. Borders that seemed to have disappeared have been reinstated as real physical borders, paper borders, iron borders, or even—when we read about the plans for barriers miles away from coastlines or hear of surveillant ships shooting at migrant boats at open sea—borders of death[3]. As Linda Polman accurately remarked, ‘[t]he Human Rights Commission of the United Nations stated in 2018 that Europe has developed a refugee policy that implicitly and explicitly accepts death as an effective anti-migration instrument.’[4]

Yet the core idea of Nuijten’s book about the state as a hope-generating machine is more relevant than ever —certainly for the millions of migrants seeking entry into inaccessible states. Oliver Bakewell noted how prospective migrants in East Africa are completely devoted to collecting papers and building a portfolio for an envisioned migration. During his presentation at the Forced Migration Studies Association Conference in Thessaloniki in 2018, Bakewell echoed Monique Nuijten, who said that ‘[t]he culture of the state is central to the operation of the bureaucracy as a hope-generating machine. The hope-generating bureaucratic machine gives the message that everything is possible, that cases are never closed […]’ (p. 196). With reference to the migration policy in East Africa, Bakewell seemed to expand on her argument that ‘[s]tate intervention in Mexico tends to have a divisive effect on the population, and to frustrate independent collective organising efforts “from below”’ (p. 198).

What the example of East Africa shows is that, rather than seeking out their brothers in fate and rising to protest, migrants are driven by the hope of becoming one of the lucky chosen few, doing everything in their power to mould their individual behaviour and attitudes to the requirements imposed or favoured by the migration machines. The annual lottery that hands out 55,000 Green Cards to hopefuls wishing to enter the United States—with a 1.33% chance of people in the most eligible countries getting one—is indeed the ultimate hope-generating machine, steering millions of people away from engaging in protests and activism in their own countries against conditions they are fleeing from, and instead motivating them to be left at the hands of ‘fate’ in the form of a lottery, as in the US Green Card Lottery, and to maintain immaculate track records and build their individual case files to be considered ‘good citizens’.

Stories of refugees ‘slipping through the cracks’ of Europe’s asylum system and starting afresh continue to fire the continent’s hope-generating machine.

It is widely acknowledged that Europe’s policies towards migration can be summarized by the word ‘deterrence’. The European Union as well as its individual member states, perhaps with the exception of Germany, seem united in their determined aggression in seeking to expose and render as visible as possible the cases of failed migration that result in tragic and horrifying death by drowning when crossing the Mediterranean Sea or being stuck in a horrific limbo in refugee camps such as Moria. In these camps, refugees seem to have the same function as the shrivelled human heads on stakes that used to decorate the walls of medieval European cities to deter vagabonds from passing through the gates. The purpose of these efforts is similarly to deter would-be migrants from trying to reach Europe. Nonetheless, there are always a number of people who manage to slip through the cracks of the system and are granted asylum, and so the hope-generating machine continues to churn out hope, fed by ‘success stories’.

For a long time, I thought maintaining the appearance of a just system of asylum was a concession to the many Europeans who are supportive of refugees. In the Netherlands, for example, the government insists that there is no social support base for migrants. This, however, is far from the truth. Recent research[5] from the University of Groningen found that, although the support base for migration is shrinking in the Netherlands, 45% of the population still supports government assistance to refugees. Another 25% of the population is willing to support such assistance to refugees provided that strict measures are taken to protect society from asylum seekers who ‘misbehave’. Thirty Dutch municipalities have declared their willingness to receive refugees from Moria.

The bold statement of the right-wing Dutch government that there is no support base for refugees is no more than a malicious manipulation of the truth by a government that plays to the populist far right, where it fears it is losing votes. I always assumed that the small numbers of successful asylum cases in Europe were a triumph of the countless refugee-friendly lawyers, volunteers, and left-wing politicians making noise on behalf of refugees. I assumed that they occasionally managed to beat the system.

Upon closer inspection, and after rereading Power, Community and the State, I realize more clearly that those asylum seekers who successfully slip through the system are not a mistake or a failure of the deterrence machine. It is much more likely that the machine is built in such a way that, once in a while, a lucky individual comes out with a residence permit. Thus, refugees that slip through the cracks, and are granted a residence permit to continue their life in Europe—are also the symbols of hope that keep inspiring migrants to bet on obtaining a residence permit. .

It may very well be that the machine is designed in this way to discipline the migrants in Moria and other places where they are living a non-life.

When stuck in these camps, they continue to hope that they can eventually ‘move on’ and start the asylum procedure, and so they continue to wait, and to hope. And those that reach a country where their asylum procedures are started are told by their friendly lawyers to keep their heads down, behave well, and do whatever they can to enhance their chances of being granted a residence permit. Knowing one or two people who succeeded before you further feeds that hope. And as long as migrants have this hope, they are prevented from being united to fight the cruel reception they get in Europe.


[1] Nuijten, M. C. M. (2003). Power, Community and the State: The Political Anthropology of Organisation in Mexico. London, UK and Sterling, VA: Pluto Press.

[2] Hardt, M., and Negri, A. (2000). Empire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

[3] Henk van Houtum & Rodrigo Bueno Lacy (2020) The Autoimmunity of the EU’s Deadly B/ordering Regime; Overcoming its Paradoxical Paper, Iron and Camp Borders, Geopolitics, 25:3, 706-733, DOI: 10.1080/14650045.2020.1728743

[4] Linda Polman Tegen Elke Prijs. Essay Vluchtelingen en Europa. Groene Amsterdammer, 01-10-2020.

[5] Toon Kuppens et al. (2019). Ongenoegen, migratie, gastvrijheid en maatschappelijke onrust. Onderzoek Rijksuniversiteit Groningen, in opdracht van het Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek- en Documentatiecentrum. https://www.wodc.nl/binaries/2742%20Volledige%20Tekst_tcm28-425017.pdf

About the author:

 

Thea Hilhorst

Dorothea Hilhorst is Professor of Humanitarian Aid and Reconstruction at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam.

This article is based on a contribution of the author to the Liber Amicorum for Monique Nuijten of Wageningen University.

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1 Comment
  • Josephine
    November 19, 2020

    Thanks for this article, Thea! I didn’t know the concept of ‘hope-generating machine’ yet and it indeed describes Europe’s approach very well. The contrast of today with 14 years ago ties in with a TNI research that was published yesterday and found that 6 of 10 people in the world live behind border walls, most of which are built to keep migrants out (tni.org/walledworld). The only thing that made me wonder is why you think Germany is an exception? Would be interested to hear your thoughts. Best, Josephine