Asylum For Sale


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Asylum For Sale: Profit and Protest in the Migration Industry, Edited by Siobhán McGuirk and Adrienne Pine (PM Press, 2020).

Reviewed by Luna (Cristine) de la Luna, Anthropology & Social Change Program, California Institute of Integral Studies

Asylum regimes have attracted global attention for several years largely due to the migration of people fleeing war torn countries wrought with political and economic instability. In Asylum for Sale, Siobhán McGuire and Adrienne Pine introduce a global community of activists, asylum seekers, advocates, artists, and scholars to analyze the dynamics and meaningful connections among and between different aspects of the asylum industry. This includes the asylum process and racialized capitalism through a “predatory accumulation” of land and resource grabs, violence, and war; the displacement of large populations; the causes and frequency; scale of displacement, and politics and language.

The book’s central argument is that most asylum policies and conventions worldwide engage in violent and gendered ways of extra-legal activities. In the context of an increased border security apparatus, the criminalization of displaced people, economic deprivation, and exclusion, is a site of contestation due to the misrepresentations and myths of the illegality of seekers of asylum. In addition to bogus justifications of worthy inclusion at the expense of violent and often fatal exclusion of those deemed other. Within the framework of neoliberal, structural racial capitalism, the diverse voices in this volume inspire the reader into feeling and practicing compassionate solidarity with asylum seekers. It is presented as an opportunity to understand those who engage in the struggle of freedom, dignity, and belonging in various spheres of asylum life.

The research project juxtaposes race, self and social justice to reveal the poverty in contemporary policy debates and crafts a road map for building true democratic community. In these enlightening essays, the contributors challenge those of us who consider ourselves relatively evolved on the issues of race, social justice, and human rights to think far more critically about basic assumptions and paradigms that frame our perspectives, animate our scholarship, and drive our advocacy. 

The book is organized in five sections with a Foreword and Introduction. The volume addresses different points and practices along the pathways toward asylum. Collaboratively, the contributing authors hone their expertise and insights of complex international networks  policies, and measures that implicate and impact people around the world. Reflective of the crisscrossing trajectories found within the asylum industry, readers are encouraged to cross-reference chapters and pursue their own lines of research interests. In the first chapter Crossings, contributors review the experiences and inherent costs of traversing across borders, and the threats of being “intercepted” along three routes of journeys. Travels from Central America towards the United States (López and Leech); the Mediterranean Sea toward mainland Europe (Alva, Uyi, and Madi); and between islands and atolls toward Australia (Dehm). The final journey stands out for its analysis of the “transplant tour” industry, an operation by a syndicate of local and international transplant brokers and surgeons (Scheper-Hughes). In each case study, an ever-present backdrop of illicit profit-making and exploitative practices of “security services, smugglers, and traffickers connect to a steady escalation of constructed border economies to benefit the elite.

The second chapter begins with a focus on “Waiting Games”. In greater depth, an examination of profit extraction within the migrant industry links directly to privately run detention centers. Voices of the detained and staff (Tassman, Wallman et.al) reveal the abhorrent abuses and threats associated with bodily commodification (Kula and Olakpe). Further chapter highlights are the poetics and critical thought of Behrouz Boochani’s imprisonment and resistance while incarcerated in an Australian-run immigration detention center on Manus Island from August 2013 through November 2019. In an auto-ethnography and digital ethnographic form, Behrouz explored the “Poetics of Prison Protest” that exists in cyberspace; sites such as Twitter, to report events and processes that the Australian government sought to hide from the public.

The next three chapters describes and analyzes the incestual relationship between “Complex Industries/Industrial Complexes”, and cross-border political kinship relations that states profit from, and invest in to prevent asylum access in Europe (Ackerman); Australia’s making of a refugee market in the Republic of Nauru (Morris); the extraction of money from asylum clients in exchange for their “freedom” (Zukowska); profiteering in asylum accommodation markets (Grayson); and testimonial “expertise” (Pine). A detailed review of “NonProfit”/ NonGovernmental” actors continues to interrogate which models of political activism are recognized with legitimacy over those within the asylum industry.

In the closing chapter, dramatic new ways of understanding the “Aftermaths” are introduced of unsettled, rejected, and returned asylum seekers and the endless experiences of uncertainty (Villegas); an increased border militarization and climate adaptation strategies for the rich and powerful (Miller); the contested profit structures of rejected asylum seekers confined between modern slavery and autonomy (Bijl and Nimführ); and post war political instability (van Houdt). In the context of aftermaths, the central thesis of the book is clearly identified as the vicious cycle of a hostile environment of structural violence within an ever-expanding asylum regime.

Despite the editor’s analytical achievements and efforts to introduce new concepts about displacement, commodification and profitmaking, challenges to hegemonic paradigms of asylum/human rights within the framework of liberalism and neo-liberalism is an ongoing project of decolonial study. In the wake of a new global pandemic with death tolls increasing, and an accompanying global economic shock deepening, new extremes of climate catastrophes, in addition to the recent violent coup attempt on the U.S. Capitol during an administrative electoral transfer of power; the research compiled by the editors of the book will inevitably result in the transformation of access to, and the concept of asylum. This is an evolving global crisis and one can fully anticipate that further insights and analyses will be necessary throughout the first decade of the 21st century.

Overall, Asylum for Sale is a rich and thoughtful analysis and tapestry of ethnographic research that provides in-depth knowledge of how individuals in hostile environments make sense of their lived reality. Many of the contributors have gained their wisdom by “using the self” as much as possible. Especially notable is the distinguishable forms of research by the presence of long-term engagement between researchers and those studied. This book is an excellent addition to anthropological studies of migration, borders, human trafficking and smuggling, critical social sciences, micro/macroeconomics, international poverty law, and intersectionality studies. All contributors have masterfully engaged in a variety of ethnographic methods to generate socially grounded research questions and to develop more egalitarian approaches to research.

Lastly, the book provides a plethora of ethnographic practice to better reflect the complex world in which we live. These ethnographic methods include examples of Urban ethnography to attend to the ways that global flows of people and money are implicated in the complexities of asylum disaster capitalism, Global ethnography to describe how people seeking asylum in multiple locations are interconnected through global processes and practices, including the circulation of foods, international banking systems, migration, and notions of humanitarianism; Visual ethnography appears as images and artwork; and finally, Auto-ethnography, by asylum seekers who used their personal life story and asylum journey as the source of ethnographic data. 

Undoubtedly, Asylum for Sale will continue to keep issues of power, relationship, and gender central to discussions of knowledge development and dissemination even as the social and political conditions of asylum regimes continue to evolve. This effort is no small project. Can we realize that working for the elimination of social suffering is an integral part of the transformation of the institutions that perpetuate suffering? I believe that we can because Asylum for Sale provokes the reader to rethink prevailing notions of racial identity, xenophobia, and what prevailing international law does, and does not consider in tackling persistent forms of human rights violations. The book is a brilliant and provocative challenge to transform conceptions of self and other, to challenge the current social order; and, to build a more humane and inclusive world.

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