These are my brief opening remarks for the International Literature Festival Dublin event, Write Here with Melatu Uche Okorie and Nikesh Shukla. I wrote a brief essay for Melatu’s new book, This Hostel Life published by Skein Press. This essay explores legal questions of belonging and rights. You can access an open access version of this essay here.
Melatu and Nikesh write powerfully on issues of belonging and identity in their respective works. What it means to be human and what it means to be accepted. The complex interplay between humanity and acceptance is something that I engage with in my own writing. As a legal academic, my writing is less about telling stories, but seeks to examine how and why legal systems embed and entrench difference due to migrant status. This concept of the good immigrant is one that both Melatu and Nikesh in their own way engage with. This question of who belongs and who will be accepted as belonging is something I ponder upon often. How do politico-legal systems embrace those that are viewed as different, those whose migrant status in a State is questioned.
History shows us how us how political and societal responses to migration, despite the protestations otherwise, have always reacted to migrations in Europe. As Hannah Arendt has noted in the Origins of Totalitarianism, the political/societal discourses in the years leading up to World War II went as follows:
Those whom the persecutor had singled out as scum of the earth, Jews, Trotskyites, etc.-actually were received as scum of the earth everywhere.
The current migrations to Europe has revealed a deep political and societal crisis within our continent. The political acceptance of significant regimes of tyranny in Syria, Eritrea and so many other places, has not led to a yearning for protection by the peoples of Europe. Rather, we seek to exile further. We seek to push back people from Europe’s external borders. We seek to enter into agreements with ‘our’ despots and dictators to provide ‘safe zones’ and ‘safe’ places of shelter, far far away from European shores. We want not to actually abide by our freely accepted legal obligations to provide refuge to those who are at least fleeing persecution, we want rid of those people, we have now labelled ‘scum of the earth’. Rather than inviting the persecuted to rest here, we tell them to ‘stay there’, we’re full, we cannot possibly manage. Sure lookit, we have to look after our own. It is this obsession about ‘our own’ that justifies the most horrific of legal responses to issues of migration, difference and belonging. It is this focus on ‘our own’ that can lead to others not feeling as if they belong.
Look at the issue of Windrush Migrants, those who were British citizens who were nevertheless pestered by the Home Office to show that they met requirements for belonging, long after they first came to Britain. So this question of who belongs is something that societies struggle with, and constantly reassert new forms and modes of designating rights for those deemed to belong, and those cast away as outsiders.
Yet, we also need to reflect on Ireland, and its response to migrations. In Ireland, the persecuted or those seeking economic liberation, this category not within current international regimes for protection, are placed on the margins of our society. We condemn you. We condemn you and we withdraw your rights. If you seek asylum, your right to work is limited to jobs that pay over 30,000 euro a year, and you have to pay 1,000 euro to exercise this supposed constitutional freedom to work. We have condemned since April 2000 over 66,000 persons to spend at least some period of time within a system known as direct provision. As of April 2018, over 5,200 of you remain in this system. There are more asylum seekers in direct provision that convicted persons in our prisons. We condemn you to significant periods of time where your privacy is set at naught through communal sleeping, communal eating and communal living. We condemn you to live on €21.60 per week for the duration it will take for our inadequate administrative and legal systems to determine if you can be considered in law a refugee or in need of some other form of protection. We condemn. We also excuse. We also find reasons for justifying your rights denial. We need to look after “our own”- those people that we never really looked after, but become important to mention when we condemn migrant others.
Both authors bring us, in their own way, questions but also answers on belonging. Both authors capture migrant experiences in a way which a white middle class male academic ever could. Both authors shine a light on issues that law, politics and society want to keep hidden.