When the ‘state of exception’ becomes ‘normality’
June 01 2020 01:23 AM
Men wearing protective masks wait for a bus that will take them to a quarantine facility, amid conce
Men wearing protective masks wait for a bus that will take them to a quarantine facility, amid concerns about the spread of coronavirus disease (Covid-19), in Nizamuddin area of New Delhi, India, on March 31. Rohingya refugees in India have become highly visible due to the vicious campaign launched by the BJP and its Hindu right-wing partners calling the Muslims “Corona Bomb”.

*The pandemic and the plight of refugees

At the moment, there are over 70.8mn people forcibly displaced from their homes according to UNHCR.
Of those, over 20mn are refugees.
The fast mobility of large populations is an inalienable part of humanity that is driven by drought, famine, earthquake, climate change, political opinion, massive violation of human rights, religious persecution, racial discrimination, ideological conflict, war, and pandemic diseases.
People fleeing such a catena of crisis are called refugees, asylum-seekers, migrants and stateless persons and they are recognised under international law.
However, no legal means currently exist that could require sovereign states to comply with international conventions and rules.
Individual states, thus, retain the power to deny parts of humanity “the right to have rights” simply by asserting national sovereignty.
Nafees Ahmed (The Jurist, April 2020) refers to these classes of people with the abbreviation ‘RAMS’ to signify their collective plight of flight or transit.
Measures to combat the spread of the coronavirus have been casting a significant impact on RAMS in the form of border closures, travel restrictions, and racial discrimination in refugee camps and against RAMS on move.
In this article my aim is to focus on analysing the situation of refugees and their plight in various international contexts and point to the emergence of xenophobia and a new form of racism during the current pandemic outbreak.
Links between xenophobia and racism (Xeno racism ) are rarely made.
It is a racism that is not only directed at those with darker skins or different ethnicity or religion, but additionally at the newer categories of the displaced, the dispossessed and the uprooted.
It is a racism that is based on the natural fear of strangers.
It can be colour or ethnicity coded, but it could be directed as it is at poor whites as well, and is therefore passed off as xenophobia, a “natural” fear of strangers.
But in the way it denigrates and reifies people before segregating and/or expelling them.
It is racism in substance, but “xeno” in form. (Liz Fekete 2001)
As the coronavirus forces the world’s big cities and wealthiest and poorest countries alike into lockdown, a humanitarian catastrophe starts threatening tens of millions of people crowded into refugee camps and makeshift settlements for displaced people from the Arab world and across Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America where healthcare and clean water is often scarce, sanitation is poor, illnesses are rife and social distancing is almost impossible.
The refugees issue is a lived, embodied experience of displacement and placelessness, insecurity and violence, marginalisation and otherness.Their camps are underprotected, vilified and hated by some, always at risk of attack and erasure.
They are marginalised, poor, overcrowded, often filthy and unhealthy places to live.
The three traditional durable solutions to refugee status are, with the pandemic outbreak, becoming inaccessible: (a) voluntary repatriation to the country of origin (rejected by governments of country of origin or by rival regional and international forces) (b) local integration in the country of displacement (rejected by hosting countries), and resettlement in a third country (becoming impossible due to the rise of nationalistic movements ). We need to analyse (a) how and why nationalist, xenophobic, and anti-refugees sentiments and hate-speech directed at them have strengthened; and (b) how the refugees have become – even more frequently than previously – the targets and victims of racist aggression, stigmatisation, collective victimisation, and ethnic scapegoating.
There is always an armoury of technologies of control and exclusion that are mobilised against refugees such as detention facilities and prevention of access to work, education, health care and housing.
By the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic that kind of global imaginary that is shaped by the fear of the Other and fearism has increased.
Identity politics, nationalism and the media have been the key elements in promoting that kind of fear culture and popularising the hostile attitudes toward refugees.
Fearism in psychology usually activates the behavioural immunity system.
Because immunological defence against pathogens is merely reactive (triggered only after the pathogenic infection), human anti-pathogen defence is characterised by proactive and imaginative behavioural mechanisms that inhibit contact with certain identified pathogen sources in the first place.
Like the ‘real’ immune system, the behavioural immune system includes both detection and response mechanisms.
Stated differently, this behavioural immune system comprises psychological processes that infer infection risk from perceptual cues, and that respond to these perceptual cues through the activation of aversive emotions, cognitions and behavioural impulses towards things.
These things include conspecifics (ie other people). The behavioural immune system, according to (Michalanos Zembilas 2010) creates boundaries between “what I am” and that which “I am not,” through the very affect of turning away from an object that threatens “that which I am.
It is the flow of fear among ‘legal’ citizens that establishes these boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Such attitudes towards other people are engaged flexibly, producing context-contingent variation in the nature and magnitude of aversive responses.
In the current virus pandemic outbreak such processes have been aggravated.
The refugees are the easy target and the main prey.
They are considered as the main threat to the well-being of national citizens.
It is a recourse to identity politics and the preservation of bounded membership within ethnic and citizenship boundaries.
The practising of scapegoating and supporting an exclusionary politics towards non-citizens (refugees mainly) comes from nationalist, authoritarian, repressive, and social-darwinist ideologies.
Refugees are included in the political order of the nation-state system only through their exclusion, and ‘regulated and governed at the level of population in a permanent “state of exception” outside the normal legal framework – the camp’ (Owens 2009).
The space of the refugees camp assemblage is intimately bound up with a temporality of liminality and enduring temporariness (Bailey 2002). The camp exists, in Georgio Agamben’s terms, in a ‘zone of indistinction’ between permanence and transience: ‘a temporary suspension of the rule of law … is now given a permanent spatial arrangement’ (Agamben 1998).
Unlike ‘normal’ settlements like cities and towns, a refugee camp is never intended to be a permanent home.
Just as ‘refugee’ is a temporary status for those denied the ‘normal’ status of citizens, so is the camp a temporary place of refuge.
The camp is a time-space of dislocation: a space of displacement and exile, and a time of interruption, waiting, stasis (Sanbar 2001). Like a slum or shanty town, the camp assemblage is always contingent, in process, held within a status of liminality, semi-formality and semi-legality.
Superficially, the refugee camp might seem similar to other unofficial settlements that also lack formal legality, but even the slum belongs and is part of the story of the city.
The camp simultaneously is part of the city and divergent, an enclave of exceptional sovereignty impinging upon but never truly integrated with the city, existing both in the here and now and simultaneously within another spatial-temporal dimension. The suspension of the rule of law in the state of exception is fundamental to the modern legal and political order.
It defines the sovereign who is simultaneously ‘outside and inside the juridical order’ (Agamben 1998), belonging to that order and able to step outside and suspend it.
Originally intended as an emergency procedure for the protection of the state, the state of exception has ‘tended increasingly to appear as the dominant paradigm of government in contemporary politics’ (Agamben 2005). The international community of nation-states has proven incapable of dealing adequately with the problem of refugees, because the refugee represents such a ‘disquieting element’ to the normal order of states, nations and citizens.
The refugee possesses only biological life and not politically qualified life, and thus exposes the original fiction of national sovereignty and conventional categories of citizenship and rights in liberal democracy (Agamben 1994). By appearing as a human life without citizenship, the refugee disrupts the assumed continuities between ‘birth and nationality’ and ‘man and citizen’ through which bare natural life is inscribed in the political order of modern state sovereignty.
Therefore, ‘precisely the figure that should have incarnated the rights of man par excellence, the refugee, constitutes instead the radical crisis of this concept.
Within the nation-state system, the supposedly ‘sacred and inalienable’ rights of man prove in fact to be ‘attributable to man only in the degree to which he is … the citizen ’ (Agamben 1994).
There cannot, then, be any autonomous space within the nation-state system for a ‘pure man’, a permanent refugee or non-citizen.
Excluded from political status and ‘the normal identities and ordered spaces of the sovereign state’ (Nyers 2006), refugees are subject to a separate international humanitarian that manages their bare life.
Refugees are included in the political order of the nation-state system only through their exclusion, and ‘regulated and governed at the level of population in a permanent “state of exception” outside the normal legal framework – the camp’ (Owens 2009). As we can see in the last few months since the outbreak of the pandemic,the presumptuous othering practice of allocating diseases to refugees as something ‘foreign’ contributes to giving the own population was orchestrated in a three-stage process that singles out refugees as the carriers and the spreaders of the virus and, in the process, constructed them as the country’s enemy.
The first stage required surface-level validation by legitimate institutional actors to confirm preconceived ideas about the constructed enemy (affixed blame for the virus to non-citizens, and among them refugees). The achievement of surface-level validation provided the necessary grounds to make a luminal move to the second stage: the demonisation of refugees through inflammatory political rhetoric.
The intent of stage one and stage two interaction is the creation of widespread moral panic in society.
Moral panic constructs an imaginary enemy (in this case, non citizens), which is presented as a ubiquitous threat to the stability of society as well as to its bona fide citizens.
Within the purview of a moral panic, many come to believe that without the eradication of the imaginary enemy, society in its existing form — including its culture, tradition, religion, etc. — would crumble. To Page 19

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