‘Use of intermediaries’ as Decolonisation pt2

Published: 6 June 2023

Tesfalem H Yemane and Hyab T Yohannes continue their conversation

Tesfalem H Yemane and Hyab T Yohannes continue their conversation

For part 1 of this conversation, please click here.

Hyab: Many destination countries describe the role of intermediaries as “business model of smuggling networks”. What are your thoughts on this commonly used language?"

Tesfalem: I think we both agree that the use of intermediaries is an involuntary migratory undertaking, and it is not a journey that refugees take lightly. The violent (b)ordering practices force racialised migrants into zones outside the protection of the law, where they are compelled to use the services of intermediaries as a last resort. While we may agree that the use of intermediaries can develop into a life-threatening situation, we should also consider the rhetoric and language used by asylum destination states to justify their violent (b)ordering policies, which ultimately put refugees in situations of what Mbembe calls as “necropolitics”, or the politics of death.

In this way, the language employed by states comes as one of a genuine empathy, care, and concern for refugees who use intermediaries. Let me highlight two interrelated strategies Global North states employ to legitimise their policies of ‘necropolitical’ killings at different global borders. First, they employ a sort of linguistic and conceptual ambiguity by conflating the clandestine movement of refugees using intermediaries with human trafficking, terrorism and organised criminal activities. Second, refugees are constructed as vulnerable victims who, by taking desperate measures, fall victim to the “criminal gangs”. With such securitisation of the use of intermediaries and representation of refugees as agency-less victims, Global North states present themselves as the bearers of moral (this often comes in “civilisational” terms) responsibility to save lives in liminal spaces such as Libya and Calais.

In fact, we may argue that the real motivations that derive the policies and practices of these states are the disabling of the mobility services that intermediaries provide for refugees. It is through their deceptively crafted language like ‘break smuggling networks, save lives’ that the dark side of this policy rationale is revealed. For the many refugees who have been abandoned in places like Libya and Calais, the rhetoric of ‘saving lives’ actually means capturing, containing, and encamping them in detention centers where they are left to die, and as Butler would argue, their deaths are rendered ungrievable. Isn’t this a form of ‘embedded liberal cruelty’ in state rhetoric? What would you say about such socio-linguistic violence?

Hyab: You reminded me of Gloria Anzaldúa’s words when she says: “Words are not innocent. They carry with them the weight of history, power relations, and social hierarchies. Language can be a tool of liberation or a weapon of oppression”. As you pointed out, these fictitious narratives epitomise oppression and cruelty. They are deeply ingrained in the socio-linguistic fabric of society, allowing raciality to permeate and operate within juridico-political landscapes. Words like "smuggling", "illegality", and “inadmissibility” are not mere words, but tools of violent law and toxic politics. While they signify punishable crimes in political discourses, they become violent, oppressive, and silencing when incorporated into the law. Thus, they represent the ultimate expressions of violability and cruelty as communicable linguistic weapons of the law.

The irony is that these weaponised words are also used to deceptively claim to protect the humanity of people seeking asylum. How can a weaponised language humanise anyone? The goal is not to humanise but to dehumanise whatever is left of the humanity of people seeking asylum. Once dehumanisation is achieved, it becomes easy to establish the illegality, violability, and inadmissibility of people seeking asylum to the public. The state then creates a manufactured threat that is addressed through building barriers, detentions, and forced removal.

When I think of the so-called Rwanda deal, for example, it is practically impossible to distinguish between the exploitation of refugees by traffickers and the UK Government’s coercion to transport them to Rwanda. The only disparity is that the latter is legitimised by new laws that are inherently colonial and violent. Through these new legislations, the UK Government writes state-trafficking into a legitimate potentiality of self-preservation through administration of racial violence. The Government deploys this form of trafficking as a violent tool against racialised groups of people, creating a necropolitical boundary between those with citizenship (who have rights) and those seeking asylum (who lack dignity and political subjectivity). This discursively constructed boundary reinforces the idea that some people are more valuable and deserving of rights than others. This is what (b)ordering is all about - creating legal and political structures that use raciality and violability to constitutively exclude a particular group of people from the political community.

I am curious to know your thoughts on addressing such linguistic paradoxes and their implications. Importantly, how do refugees cope with the toxic discourse?

Tesfalem: The first thing that comes to mind is education - educating oneself, but also the public. People need to know that language matters, and it matters most when it comes to addressing people seeking asylum. To my naive mind, the simple act of saying 'welcome' is the simplest thing that one can do in an encounter with others. What makes us think that we can use invasive language against strangers whose stories we do not know? I do not think this has been human nature, nor do I think it should be. It is imperative that people understand that denigrating others says more about the society we live in than about the people who are targeted. People must learn, unlearn, and reflect on the qualities that make us all communicable beings.

That said, not all use of language comes from a place of ignorance. This is especially true when leading politicians use inflammatory language against refugees that I cannot repeat here. These individuals are experts in language, and they know how to use it. Their use of toxic language stems from intentionality and a position of power - and this combination is destructive. One can only deplore such behaviour.

When it comes to how refugees cope with toxic discourse, I believe that staying silent and invisible are their primary strategies. They fear even saying a basic greeting and instead, become experts in being invisible and keeping quiet. The coping mechanisms of silence and invisibility resemble what Kristie Dotson calls “testimonial smothering”. According to Dotson, “testimonial smothering” occurs when 'the speaker perceives one's immediate audience as unwilling or unable to gain the appropriate uptake of proffered testimony’. This can cause the speaker to view their testimony as unsafe and risky and choose to remain silent. In other words, they may feel that their audience will not understand them.

Also, for many refugees, the most secure environment is within the communities of fellow refugees or established refugee background community. Outside of these settings, the works of solidarity, activism, and hospitality allow refugees to engage in intercultural dialogue with longstanding communities. These gestures of kindness, collaboration, and hospitality are essential for building a shared future.

Is there anything you would like to add?

Hyab: I find it fascinating how those seeking asylum use their languages to resist dominant and oppressive narratives. Like many refugees, we often use language to express hope, resilience, and dignity. In the Tigrigna language, for example, we use words like asgert'i to describe intermediaries instead of smugglers, selam to signify resistance against violence, and tesfa to plant hope in times of despair. These words help us understand the humanity of the people seeking asylum. Language can serve as a sanctuary for those seeking asylum, carrying their hopes, dreams, and aspirations. For refugees, language is an inexhaustible world of decolonial possibilities of love, hospitality, and a chance to live life again. Weaponising language against them destroys their world of possibilities, love, hospitality, and hope. It destroys their potential to recover and heal.

It is also fascinating to observe how ordinary people resist the toxic effects of language. In Glasgow, for example, I often see windows adorned with the message 'Refugees welcome,' which is a powerful act of resistance. Across the country, people protest against new legislation and advocate for the protection of asylum seekers as their neighbours, rather than ‘illegal migrants’. Unfortunately, the state and its bordering institutions are out of touch with humanity and time. However, this does not mean that many ordinary people do not also support toxic discourses, which can create a climate of toxicity and racism.

Lastly, and most importantly, we must use language for a different purpose. Instead of weaponizing language, we can use it to create poetry, music, and other forms of communication that can help foster relational and mutual dwelling. These artistic forms of communication often convey joy and resistance to the temptation of violence. They can be used to promote peaceful coexistence, mutual sharing, and a respect for the sanctity of languages. I should say this is what the UNESCO RILA at the University of Glasgow does best.

Tesfalem: Let's conclude with these hopeful words and make a commitment to continue the discussion in Part 3.

First published: 6 June 2023