‘Use of intermediaries’ as Decolonisation pt1

Published: 13 March 2023

Tesfalem H Yemane and Hyab T Yohannes in conversation

Tesfalem H Yemane and Hyab T Yohannes in conversation


Acknowledgement: The authors acknowledge and appreciate Prof Alison Phipps' valuable suggestion of using the term "use of intermediaries" to refer to the facilitative activities discussed in this blog.'

Existing literature on refugee mobilities and what in popular parlance is called ‘use of intermediaries’ often construct refugee subjectivity in terms of vulnerability, violability and victimhood. The academic literature refers to ‘use of intermediaries’ as ‘the use of intermediaries’ as a way of neutralising the term. In this piece we revisit the use of ‘use of intermediaries’ as an example of agency, and deliberately re-appropriate the term.

In the context of the use of intermediaries, refugees are presented as passively shepherded and transported bodies that follow the smuggling bandwagon to random migration journeys, into unknown destinations.

In this conversation, we problematise this tautology and suggest that we ought to conceptualise the use of intermediaries as decolonial practices in which refugees engage to resist, contest and unsettle violent colonial (b)ordering regimes. We do so by drawing from our personal experiences and journeys as former refugees as well as scholars of migration studies. Following is Part 1 of an annotated version of our dialogical conversation.

Hyab: Just to kick us off, it would be good to start with our own experiences of the use of intermediaries in Eritrea and beyond.

Tesfalem: Each of us, although under different circumstances and migration routes, used the services of intermediaries when we fled Eritrea and crossed over into Sudan. It is important to highlight that, in Eritrea today, mobility is highly securitised where people live in immobilised “exilement”. This form of immobilised “exilement” manifests itself in various forms, including restricted movement within the country, enforced disappearance and purging, the so-called ‘freezing’ of dissident voices (mdskal), political alienation, forced conscription and policing of our dreams.

As Kibreab (2009) notes, in the context of the violent imposition of these socio-political conditions, our dreams are indefinitely ‘deferred’. One means of our resistance to these violent political structures is then to vote with our feet and leave Eritrea. And we do this by resorting to use of intermediaries. Moreover, as refugees outside Eritrea, we face multifaceted violent border regimes in every step of our migration journeys. In Sudan, we were subjected to humanitarian carcerality in desolate refugee camps. These humanitarian carceralities have their roots in the neo-imperial logics of warehousing the racialised Others in the geopolitical zones of violence and non-beingness. As refugees, we are imagined by the Global North and their violent gatekeepers in the Global South as the immutably passive people who should be more than content at the thought of receiving UNHCR rations in refugee camps. We refuse that tautology and show we are as capable of thinking for ourselves and as ambitious as anyone. And intermediaries facilitate our resistance. We incorporate their services in all aspects of our collective struggles to unsettle the tapestry of violent global borders. What this means is, the use of intermediaries has become our ontological state. Indeed, during Eritrea’s independence struggle against Ethiopian colonialism, the use of intermediaries was part of our collective, community resistance to colonial violence. Many Eritreans used various networks of community resources to migrate to Sudan, the Middle East and/or join the Fronts in the “field” (mieda), and in the process augmenting the ranks of freedom fighters.

I am sure you have interesting insights to share about the idea of use of intermediaries as our ontological state of departure.

Hyab: To begin with, it important to emphasise that we are not talking about exploitative and abusive intermediaries. There are instances where refugees are subjected to exploitative practices, including sexual abuse, rape, and extortions of ransom. In some cases, use of intermediaries becomes trafficking. So, it is important to emphasise that this is not about romanticising smuggling practices and exploitative intermediaries.

Here, we are talking about the use of intermediaries that is consensual, facilitative, supportive and participatory. This form of use of intermediaries makes movement possible. In the same way, by enabling our mobility, intermediaries kept alive our dreams, ambitions, and hopes against the omnipresent violence of the state. Most importantly, they keep us moving which can be conceived of as a decolonial act of rebellion against the violence of (b)ordering. As former refugees, it is fair to say that the act of movement and the emotive registers of crying and praying were our “ontological gifts”. These ontological gifts allow refugees to exercise and experience “agency” differently. They create the possibility for the emergence of decolonial forms of agency outside the logics and structures of coloniality.

To be clear, claiming “agency” within the structures of coloniality can only replicate coloniality. I think we have got to critically think about what the discussions in the migration scholarship of refugees’ contributions, resourcefulness, agency, etc., actually mean and/or do. What systems are they contributing to? I wonder what the settled narrative of “promoting human rights” does, for example? The human rights rhetoric is primarily a discourse through which Western domination (universalisation) is expressed, promoted and preserved. Human rights epitomise a West that has refused to acknowledge its Westernisation. The wordy rhetoric and conformist approaches to human rights make no sense to me except that they are discursive reflections of coloniality.

Tesfalem: It is very interesting. When we think of Western scholarship on refugee movements, the general understanding tends to be that it is the intermediaries who take refugees to specific destinations. In the case of the UK, for instance, the existing academic and policy literatures take that intermediaries play determinant role in deciding where a refugee goes. The idea tends to be not about the intermediaries facilitating where I want to go, but rather about determining where I should go. From an ontological viewpoint, I find this tautology very problematic. It highlights an idea of how the Western scholarship constructs the refugee subjectivity. What form of tautology does this sort of ontologisation reinforce about refugee agency, capacities, bargaining and negotiating tactics, and survival strategies?

From my experience, most of the existing policy and academic literatures seem to fail to acknowledge our agentive capacities in the use of intermediaries. And this reproduces an image of a refugee subjectivity which is inferior to the so-called Cartesian, neo-liberal subjectivity. In Eurocentric episteme, the Cartesian subjectivity is represented in the stream of thought that performs its agentive capacity, has resources, information and knowledge. When this Cartesian subjectivity migrates to the Global South, it is often represented in positive terms and is described as ‘expat’, not a migrant who migrates seeking better life opportunities. On the contrary, when refugees migrate to the Global North, they are thought as having come to the Global North on the back of the intermediaries’ decisions. In this way, the refugee subjectivity is conceptualised as lacking agency, lacking information and lacking capacity.

In the context of African migration to Europe, for instance, this tautology comes from the imagination of a docile African subjectivity. Of course, in the process, there are intervening factors. One might arrange to travel from Libya to Greece. In the process, unforeseen circumstances might force the intermediaries to change plans and refugees might end up in places they never planned to go to. But this is different from how an intermediary might have planned their travel. Refugees often make their own plans with intermediaries, including agreed payment plans and at what stage of the migration journey is money paid, etc. These simple examples of bargaining power in the use of intermediaries are forms of agency.

Hyab: When I was in a perilous journey myself, I met an Eritrean refugee in a prison in a transit country. He was wounded and taken as prisoner of war during the Ethio-Eritrean war (1998-2000). Around the year 2000, he left Ethiopia and went to a neighbouring country where he was detained for over fifteen years. He was intercepted by border patrols and thrown into jail. He was in a hellish underground prison in dark cell for almost fifteen years. I was there in one of the cells myself but only for several weeks. The prison cell was so narrow that I was not able to stretch my legs. On my first night, I heard the Eritrean man praying the Rosary in Tigrinya. I was perplexed, but equally excited that I was able to talk to him and that we were able to hear each other. We were locked in our own solitary cells, so there was no way I could see or touch him, but we were able to hear each other. I shouted, ‘who are you?’ And he replied, ‘and who are you? How did you end up here? Where are you from?’ We introduced each and prayed together. From his dark cell, he told me about his story. He told me that all he could do over those years was just pray and pray.

In the dark cell, proximity and distance – sense of time and place – are indistinguishable. It is like being out of time and place. When I talked to the Eritrean refugee, he did not have any sense of time. For all those years, he was absent in life. How can there be a life out of human time and place? For me, he was not living. He was simply a breathing corporeal going through death in life. What fascinated me the most, however, was that he was still doing his prayers. He was still singing hymns and praying the Rosary. If I may say, he was socialised into a spiritual world of his own. Another fascinating thing that I learned later about him was that he did not let his mind go to prison with his body. He understood that there was nothing to process in the cell other than a visceral feeling of pain, and he did not allow his mind to dwell in that pain. His mind stayed in the past, not outdated but connected with the supernatural power of spirituality. Spirituality, in his world, was like a way of moving away from the precarious existence. It is a way of discovering faith in the “unknown”.

Nonetheless, he could not smuggle his body. At the time, he lamented, “Had I known a good intermediary, I would not be here today”. He explained to me that he did not have money to pay for intermediaries. For him, the use of intermediaries was a way of survival that is only accessible to those who have the resources and physical ability.

Part 2 coming soon…


First published: 13 March 2023