Bringing together researchers, practitioners and policy makers working with migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in Scotland
Beside myself with rage and despair I check Twitter and Facebook for news of Isa Muazu and the campaign which is involving so many small committed groups. It’s 8pm yesterday for Isa. I am already in his tomorrow, the day he is due to be deported on a private charter flight, a man protesting with his incarcerated body, with the only means of protest he has left l, against the wickedness of the UK asylum and detention system. This is exactly the situation Spivak described in her extraordinary essay ‘Can the subaltern speak.’
Friends and fellow campaigners are gathering to protest outside the offices of the charter flight company, there is a vigil outside Harmondsworth detention centre. Another petition. I click, sign, share, share again, and again. I have been doing this every day for several weeks now, since the campaign launched and the situation became so clearly a matter of life and death, in what to me, in my somewhat naive legal understanding, feels like an extra judicial death sentence. And then, in despair, I sink my head into my pillow and sob, feeling the exhaustion and despair of those on the ground, wildly wondering if I should just get an early flight out…. But what good would my body do, on the ground there, rather than here?
I have been researching in Aotearoa New Zealand for 6 weeks and through this time Isa has represented my homesickness and my sickness at the UK as my home, with its present laws and practices on asylum and immigration. My work at the University of Waikato has been considering connections between hospitality, occupation and siege, and vulnerability. It is both theoretical work and intimate, practical, felt in the body.
I have never met Isa and I wonder at the way in which some cases just nest into you. It’s not as if campaigning for a humane process for asylum seekers and immigrants in the UK is new to me. It is an everyday embedded element in my life. Judith Butler spoke of this in her Nobel lecture. “The two questions that concern me are at first quite different from one another” she says. The first is whether any of us have the capacity or inclination to respond ethically to suffering at a distance, and what makes that ethical encounter possible, when it does take place. The second is what it means for our ethical obligations when we are up against another person or group, find ourselves invariably joined to those we never chose. This happens at the border of several contested states, but also in various moments of geographical proximity – what we might call “up againstness” – the result of populations living in conditions of unwilled adjacency, the result of forced emigration or the redrawing of the boundaries of a nation- state.”
A few of those campaigning are friends, community, but many find themselves, as I do, so very far away and yet in this state of ‘upagainstness’ such that it moves us from our private worlds into a public space. I am struck by the fact that much writing on ‘click activism’ and social media is either triumphalist or dismissive, drawing on its use in the Arab Spring and Occupy! The virtual world as a commons, or as an easy option for arm chair action. Of course the reality is rather more complex, as is always the case in border zones between the human being and the technologies she uses. ‘Bricolage’ was the word Levi Strauss famously used to describe the improvisational nature of human practices and uses of technology, and this pertains to the stick as much as it does to the touch screen my fingers skim as I type this. But what I am noticing as I answer Butler’s questions to herself for myself, is that my whole sticky, salty, travel messy body is telling me something of a capacity, an urge which my being chooses – body as mind as spirit – to engage ethically at this crazy distance.
Isa’s campaign gets picked up in Aotearoa New Zealand in a couple of places, people listen appalled as I use the case in my seminars and open lectures here to illustrate the asylum system in the UK and the nature of detention. I smile as a campaigner I know in the UK is re-tweeted in Australia, by groups I have come to respect for their advocacy and depth of research. My last engagement is in a Transforming Cities seminar and workshop speaking about GRAMnet at Auckland University. Both Isa’s campaign and the stimulation of reading the 670 pages of the White Paper “Scotland’s Future” setting out the Scottish Government’s vision ahead of the upcoming independence referendum, were exercising and energising me, and with a palpable, bodily nervousness of reading both, in the same screen.
Every time I check, and I do so compulsively now, I hold my breath for Isa, unable to hold down the strong anticipation of a moment when there may hope, an injunction, a stay of execution alongside. And the same feelings are present in what were, of course, the small hours – 13 hours ahead of the moment when it downloaded – as I type the words ‘asylum’ and’ detention’ into the White Paper search box I hold myself back from the social media comment, preferring to post about the need for consideration of what is a deeply thoughtful series of considerations on a potential future state. I have to let my emotions settle a little. But there is a small sentence buried at loc# 3921 and as I read it tears stream down my cheeks and my voice shakes as I Skype, from the same screen, with family at home:
‘In an independent Scotland we would close Dungavel, end the practice of dawn raids and inhumane treatment of those who have exercised their legitimate right to seek asylum.’
As a family we have known publicly and intimately the agony of detention and the daily fear of dawn raids. In an independent Scotland, would Isa Muazu be deported on a private jet, chartered by the Government? Would a future independent Scottish Government ignore the many letters and appeals from its own future MSPs? Lawyers who I trust tell me that Human Rights will have been considered in Isa’s case, even though it may not feel like it to me. Perhaps a future Scotland would do this too, perhaps not. That is indeed a question for the future. All countries putting energy and resources into the policing of their borders will have cases which are heart breaking. I want to live in a world where less hearts are broken by borders. I have hours of careful, painstaking reading with colleagues to do on “Scotland’s Future”, the contribution from other parties in the ‘Yes’ campaign and on “Better Together”’s responses, and no doubt debate, disagreement and much stimulating conversation to come. My colleagues in law will tell me that each case is always complex. My philosopher colleagues tell me to write into the grounded ethics of Hope, and to dis-abstract. Laws can be changed. Even after all the legal judgments have been made, executive powers can exercise clemency, or not. And there are also other laws to live by, laws of compassion, the law, as Derrida singularises it, of Hospitality, laws which make provision for clemency and mercy. Debating Scotland’s Future is part of the difficult civic process of creating an environment for clemency and mercy.
I wash my face and carry on with the work, with what I have to hand.