Time theft as part of the state’s anti-migration arsenal: expansive harms and policy


A new book offers a broad geographic and inter-disciplinary analysis of how time is used to dehumanise, disenfranchise and disempower asylum-seekers, irregular migrants and people awaiting deportation.

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Stealing Time. Migration, Temporalities and State Violence. Edited by Monish Bhatia and Victoria Canning, Palgrave/MacMillan, 2021. Reviewed by Yasha Maccanico, Statewatch Researcher.

This interdisciplinary volume brings together accounts of how states use time as a weapon in different ways in their efforts to fight irregular migration. Such efforts have turned from an emphasis on border crossings and restricting entry, to practices that dehumanise people who have arrived and disenfranchise long-term residents or “natives” based on membership of communities or minorities targeted for deportation.

Accounts from countries of origin (Afghanistan, Mexico, Syria) and arrival (Australia, Britain, Denmark, Sweden) focus on how policies impinge on people’s lives to incapacitate, control and isolate them (asylum seeker reception or migrant deportation centres, island detention) in order to break their wills.

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 Iliadou’s chapter on Greece deals with what she terms a “continuum of violence” in which death by migration policy is a means of not only stealing time, but also of ending time for a growing number of border regime victims. Iliadou offers evidence that dehumanisation continues after death in relation to the management, identification and burial of corpses, extending the duration of harms and spreading them to subjects like relatives of the deceased, or communities witnessing burials that disregard their cultural and religious norms. This gives rise to self-blaming and shame, but also to people taking matters in their own hands to put things right by providing dignified burials.

Bhatia outlines Indian policies that make sizeable portions of its population insecure through initiatives like a national citizenship register and citizenship law reform based on ethnic and nationalist inputs. The backdrop includes border guards’ impunity in cases of border violence (including death by shooting), the historical background regarding partition with Bangladesh and the ascent of political nationalism and related communal violence. The artificial creation of candidates for deportation raises a cloud of suspicion to put pressure on minorities and social groups who may be suspected of irregular status.

This mirrors efforts described by Canning, Lindberg and Edward (a former detainee in Denmark) in deportation centres and facilities for would-be refugees in northern Europe that work against integration, in which pressure is exerted on “guests”, whose time is stolen by personnel seeking to convince them to give up hope of settling to push asylum seekers to return to their home countries “voluntarily”. For instance, English lessons would be provided in Denmark, because learning Danish may turn into an incentive to stay.

Canning (a trustee of Statewatch) highlights how temporal harms compound previous traumas experienced by asylum seekers, as certified by practitioners, and that such harm includes waiting, uncertainty, unknowing and an inability to plan. Practices and procedures in the asylum process inflict emotional and psychological harm by enforcing dependency and placing people in “temporal limbos”, a problem compounded in Britain by indefinite detention. Lindberg and Edward focus on hope as a weapon for both the oppressor and oppressed, and the active resistance embodied by not losing hope in desperate and coercive circumstances (they note how deportation centres “steal futures”).

Indefinite detention and attempts to nullify or maintain hope feature in a touching chapter written by a former detainee on Australia’s offshore Manus island facility (Boochani) and his collaborator and translator (Tofighian). They view indefinite detention as torture, while self-harm and suicide are deemed an unacknowledged systemic aspect of imprisonment on Manus Island and Nauru. They recount how 13 people have died and hundreds have self-harmed there over six years. Such acts have an expansive effect, because other detainees are traumatised by what they witness and “everyone is absorbed in the pain”.

A time chart of relevant events as perceived by detainees is viewed as a continuation of “extensive and endemic colonialist violence” in relations between Australia and Papua/New Guinea. Although refugees strive to maintain a “sense of hope” in the midst of violence, and Boochani’s creative and intellectual work provides a worthy example, emotions are intense: thus, after an Australian election result that quashed hopes of freedom, “everything sank into an abyss of darkness”.

This book focuses on forms of temporal cruelty that states inflict, either directly or at a distance due to the context they create, and on heinous forms of violence (on the body and mind), but it also provides an overview that is not bereft of sensitivity, positive outlooks and outcomes, and attempts to find meaning in the midst of stolen time.

Time is stolen from Mexicans deported from the USA (Silver, Manzanares, Goldring and Gomberg-Munoz, in two chapters), as professional, educational and cultural capital acquired during lengthy stays abroad proves insufficient to work unless people run through hoops (“the Mexico City Runaround”) and secure certification of their titles, among other issues. They often have to recover details from former lives that are indispensable in their new circumstances or, in the case of young deportees with little experience of Mexico, they have to “start from scratch”.

In all these cases, life is often marked by the lack of speed and occasional acceleration of bureaucratic procedures and often contradictory instructions that lead to protracted periods of waiting and/or uncertainty. Encounters with migrants in London, Berlin and Calais are central to a chapter on the “micropolitics of time” by Meier and Dona, documenting reporting duties and procedures that disempower people by relegating them into passive states of waiting interspersed with sudden accelerations when short deadlines compel them to act swiftly, or risk removal. The authors also mention examples in which migrants “counter-temporalise” spaces to regain degrees of autonomy, tell their stories from below, acquire skills and prepare for future lives they envisage for themselves, as forms of resistance.

Throughout the volume (in the Global North and Global South), the backdrop is one of continued violence by state actors. States have arrogated the right to suspend people’s lives and keep them waiting in conditions akin to probation whereby anything they do in a context that is oppressive and controlled may jeopardise their prospects. A study (by Yahya) that draws on experiential data and recollections along migration journeys, in different forms of camps and after settling, explores “liminality” and protracted forms of waiting imposed on refugees as a form of “trap”.

Analysis of situations of suspended existence experienced in camps make it clear that “guests” are not in charge of their time, identity and future: “They are suspended in a system that is designed to keep them suspended, reminding them that they do not have power”. Changes applied in Greek island camps following the 2016 EU deal with Turkey increased the length of stays in undignified conditions, in the midst of which Yahya finds individuals whose skills belie official claims that these people are mere burdens.

This waiting game does not just affect people on the move and those held in camps, penalised and controlled through admission and asylum recognition procedures and practices, but it also keeps those who are “left behind” in suspended states marked by uncertainty. A delightfully-written chapter on Afghanistan highlights the plight of women awaiting their husband’s return and/or the prospect of joining them abroad, which shows how insightful and touching ethnographic details and sensitivity can feature in research about awful subjects like stolen time and protracted suffering.

Fieldwork undertaken over time in two Afghan locations (Schuster, Hussaini, Hossaini, Rezia, Khan Shinwari) informs an account spattered with verses that assert migration’s place “in Afghan oral culture”. The role of patriarchy in home and destination countries means that while adult men often depart and Afghan boys are the most numerous among unaccompanied minors arriving in Europe, females are often left behind, sometimes leading to a degree of empowerment as family heads. Continuity is drawn with past migration in search of employment and with adult men engaging in warfare against the Soviets after the 1979 invasion, which caused large-scale displacement. Borders become “almost palpable” as they “make themselves felt in homes across Afghanistan” in negotiations about who should travel, and as geopolitical elements that separate people and keep them separate for months and years from children, relatives and partners, with periods of communication interspersed with phases of silence. 

This timely volume elucidates a number of aspects linking time management, control of people through detention practices and administrative procedures within which people on the move become trapped with systemic harm. Over several years in Statewatch’s work, it has become evident that time stolen from people on the move is not considered a problem, imposition or form of violence, but rather, it is an expedient way to punish disobedience with official instructions to stay put, even in unbearable conditions.

This outlook finds expression in continuous advice for “frontline” EU member states to grow their detention estates for deportation purposes and to use available exceptions that allow detention and extend its duration expansively. Efforts to undermine search-and-rescue activities have been compounded by Italian governments keeping rescue crews (from both NGOs and commercial vessels) at sea for days and weeks before allowing disembarkation, which may be viewed as a way to discourage them and to inflict suffering on people plucked from the sea. It was also an example of performative cruelty using instrumental pretexts like negotiations to get other member states to accept relocations before allowing the disembarkation of people whose plight, traumas following detention and abuse in Libyan camps and torturous conditions on board were entirely disregarded.

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