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“Contemporary history has created a new kind of human beings – the kind that are put in concentration camps by their foes and in internment camps by their friends” – wrote Hannah Arendt in her 1943 seminal essay, We Refugees. Her lucid account of the social and psychological experiences of refugees in Europe has particular bearing today, when the West is facing a dramatic rise in the influx of refugees.

Thousands of individuals flee the war-torn Middle East and North Africa, looking for refuge and safety. To them – Europe is a haven of security; to Europe – they are a crisis. Their mass departure is chaotic, their journey – uncertain, their hosts – inhospitable. An infrastructure of arrival is set in place, with institutions of control and scrutiny working to categorise, count, and register the newcomers, as they try to keep the crisis in check.

In the words of philosopher Giorgio Agamben, “refugees put the originary fiction of modern sovereignty in crisis.” As visual indicator of a certain loss of control over territory and borders, the body of the refugee is in itself a territory, a symbolic enclave, a fragment of a foreign land crossing all frontiers in its way towards salvation. The crisis is partially a crisis of space, occupied visibly by agents of foreignness.

Kawargosk Refugee Camp, Iraq, 2016. Photo by Danish Refugee Council/Eduardo Soteras Jalil

New tensions between the public and the private arise, which are regulated by spatial structures such as intake centres, camps, and asylums – liminal areas, producing and reproducing a constant in-betweenness, a neither here, nor there, with temporal ramifications. The asylum is a temporary reality, a space of confinement, of control and observation, intended to turn the unknown into known, manage the foreign, tame the strange.

The organising structure of the asylum rests on the suspension of personal agency: freedoms and rights are limited, commodities and properties are reduced to a minimum; nothing can be appropriated, only a few things can be kept. The asylum is a public space, allowing ephemeral illusions of privacy. In the democratic West, privacy is a value we defend with no second thought, it is an indicator of human rights and personal dignity. In the refugee asylum, privacy is secrecy, it is a symptom of danger, a strangeness resistant to the penetrating eye of the asylum workers, and, at large, of the host society.

In the asylum, refugees renounce their claim to privacy; nothing should be hidden, all should be transparent. Some might see this exile as a start of a new life, a chance to forget, be forgotten, and, in turn, integrate and be assimilated. This is, however, rarely permitted, as refugees will stand for scrutiny and suspicious investigation long after they have been inserted in society.

Turkey, 2015. Photo by Miguel Winograd

I had the opportunity to visit a Danish refugee asylum, and speak to one of the employees. Bjørn Christensen has an academic background, and his work with refugees, both in asylums and during the transition into society, informs chilling, yet somehow sensible opinions on the refugee experience in Denmark, a country which in 2015 alone received over 20 thousand refugees. In 2015, the far-right Danish People’s Party (DPP) was voted into the Parliament with 21% of votes in the general election, becoming the second largest party in Denmark, among a majority of centre-right parties. With their political views, DPP endorses an already existing fear of the other. “With so many refugees coming in, the fear of the other ethnicity is perceived, by some Danes, as contagious” he states. “To look like a person of Arab or Middle Eastern descent is indeed a symptom. Sometimes it seems like non-ethnic Danes are really afraid of this disease of foreignness that they feel the newly integrated refugees carry. But their fear might be, in fact, of the mutations of the virus – some are terrified that non-ethnic Danes like themselves might be intoxicated: with foreignness, with otherness, with ideologies, and worst of all, with strains of terrorist inclinations. Of course, this is a personal opinion, and I wish it were far from reality.”

Western societies are at the receiving end of an exodus of foreignness, and transparency is the core of a necessary sense of security. The private is acceptable when it is predictable. Privacy is recognised and allowed as long as what is hidden can be guessed, and is unsurprising.

To extend Arendt’s thought – contemporary Western societies are creating a new kind of social subject: the transparent subject, whose personal integrity is constantly being negotiated, who is expected to be assimilated, to forget his old self, but who is paradoxically exposed to perpetual scrutiny.

Words: Elena Stanciu