Undocumented Unraveled

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Documents, it seems, are states’ best friends. They can be placed on top of heavy moral issues, burying them effortlessly under their officious weight.

Worldwide there are said to be more than 11 million ‘undocumented’ people. In the context of international migration and asylum seeking, being ‘undocumented’ can have devastating consequences for one’s chances to secure basic rights, to receive protection, and to lead a dignified life. In many crucial respects, ‘undocumented’ people fall outside the law. Their access to formal employments, welfare benefits, educational institutions, housing markets, and healthcare systems is legalistically heavily constricted if not altogether blocked. For the mere fact of being ‘undocumented’ – which is in most countries an administrative violation and not a criminal act – people can be arrested and placed in detention for months and even years, awaiting an ensuing attempt to deport them back to their country of origin.

The reader will notice that I am using the word ‘undocumented’ with quotes. I do so because, in reality, many so-called ‘undocumented people’ do in fact have several documents in their possession. There are, of course, people in the world who lack any document or certificate that can evidence their bureaucratic existence. This might be the case because their documents got destroyed, confiscated, or lost, and they are not in a position to have them reproduced. One can think here of asylum seekers who escape their country, leaving behind all their possessions, including all documents, or needing to dispose of all identifying documents in order to avoid risks on their way to a safer place. There also some people, such as destitute groups of Roma, who could never obtain birth certificates for their offspring from the national authorities, which makes it practically impossible for these children to claim any other identifying documents later in life. Notwithstanding the horrific position in which people who are literally undocumented find themselves, this is a small minority within the larger group of those deemed ‘undocumented’.

With respect to the vast majority of so-called ‘undocumented people’, the issue at stake is their categorization as ‘undocumented’ by the state authorities. This doesn’t mean that these people don’t have documents. It means that they don’t have the ‘right’ documents. At stake then is the notion of mis/recognition. For example, some migrants need to show the authorities an employment contract with a local employer for a duration of one year or more in order to receive or maintain their residency permit. If they don’t have this particular document in their possession, or if the authorities consider such document invalid for whatever reason, a residency status for these migrants will be disallowed or revoked in case it had been previously given. Let us consider another example. Those who fled the Sudan can sometimes receive a refugee status in European countries if they can prove that they lived in a conflicted area like Darfur. To do so, they must have a verifiable document from the Sudan with an indicated address in it. Otherwise, they might be put to some strenuous interrogation during their asylum procedure by officials who are in charge of mis/recognizing their identity, birthplace, and residency.

Given that at the root of the undocumented condition is a political dynamic of mis/recognition and exclusion, I shall speak in this article of illegalized people in referring to those who are deemed ‘undocumented’ by the state authorities. Lamentably, both in academic writings as in popular media outlets, phrases like ‘undocumented migrants’ or ‘bogus asylum seekers’ have gained wide currency. These phrases qualify and objectify people, according to the view of the state on them. By insisting on calling them illegalized people, we highlight the restrictive move to declare certain people as legalistically unrecognized, lawfully excluded, practically abandoned, and thus susceptible to the harsh sanctions of detention and deportation. Illegalizing a person is an act that is done by certain authorities, and it can therefore also be undone. In other words, being ‘undocumented’ should never be seen as a fixed attribute of people, but rather as a categorical imposition by other people who are in power to do so.


Documents Before People

It is not surprising then that states inflate exclusionary discourses that paint migrants as ‘taking our jobs’ and asylum seekers as ‘potential terrorists’ or ‘people who don’t share our values’. Such defamatory and often racist claims allow states to justify their insistence in sacralizing documents over a consideration for the lives of those who always end up with the ‘wrong’ documents.

The thorny question we must therefore answer is: What is the morality behind the extreme importance that is given to documents over the actual lives of those deemed illegalized by the authorities? I shall first attempt to answer this question on a conceptual level and then draw on its implications in the concrete case of the state of Israel.

In order to understand the importance of any given document, one needs to account for its function and for the authorities that issue and monitor it. Think here of national banknotes. Their importance arises from the facilitation of economic transactions that are guaranteed along the indicated value on each bill, as issued and monitored by the central bank of a state. In the most basic sense then, national identity documents assume their importance from prescribing the rights and duties of individuals under specific states. The alleged function of national identity documents is to assist states in governing a recognized population within their sovereign territory. Yet, if we carefully examine the vested interests of states in illegalizing millions of people in recent decades, we can understand that the importance and function of fetishizing national identity documents are to be found in achieving two more unscrupulous goals.

First, by insisting on highly restricted criteria for the regularization of status for most migrants and refugees, the national economies of states benefit enormously from the cheap labor that disenfranchised, unprotected and readily exploitable illegalized people are forced to sell under the most unfavorable conditions. That this is done deliberately by states can be easily deferred from the fact that the presence of the majority of illegalized people is “tolerated” in spite of recurrent statements about ‘getting though on illegal immigration’.

Second, branding illegalized people as a national risk for the physical safety and cultural integrity of the nation, allows states to beef up their security apparatus, tighten surveillance, and appear protective as they allegedly fight a new, yet particularly weak, ‘state enemy’. It also creates a perfect scapegoat and diverts public attention from serious issues that our political elites struggle to address, for example: healthcare provision, affordable housing, gender equality, control over the financial markets, etc. Electorally speaking, being hard on immigration and asylum has become a winning ticket in most countries around the world.


Illegalizing non-Jewish Migrants and Refugees in Israel

Having been established by refugees, many who entered Palestine illegally under the British mandate, Israel is perhaps an extreme symptomatic case of how the modern nation-state shapes our ethics according to a bureaucratic exclusionary logic of sorting out deserved people from abject Others in line with their un/documented identity.

In the 1990s, after the first organized Palestinian uprising (intifada) saw a reduction in the number of Palestinian workers in the Israeli labor market, the Israeli government decided to import a few thousands of non-Jewish labor migrants and to put a blind eye to the arrival of thousands more non-Jewish migrants from countries in Asia, Latin America, and Africa. Historically, Israel discriminates immigrants according to ethnoreligious criteria. In the aftermath of WWII and the Holocaust, Israel was established as a Jewish state to secure a homeland for Jews worldwide. The Law of Return (1950) categorically refer to the term ‘Jews’ in safeguarding their right to ‘‘return’’ from anywhere in the world to Israel. The Nationality Law (1952) stipulates only the inclusion of Jewish immigrants as full citizens in Israel. By default, non-Jewish immigrants are unwelcomed in Israel, and they can hardly ever regularize their status in the country.

In the late 1990s, when Israel first decided to address the growing presence of non-Jewish immigrants, it opted for deportation as its only policy. Regularization of status for those who lived for years already in Israel, formed families, and proved to be law-abiding and hardworking, was not an option. In 2002, Israel established a mighty and heavily funded Immigration Police, and subsequently moved to arrest and deport tens of thousands of illegalized people. As reported widely in the Israeli and international media, the Immigration Police used inhumane methods to brutally apprehend, detain, and deport illegalized people, with little consideration for the traumatic effects that this had on the individuals involved, and especially for families with small children.

Since the mid-2000s, Israel has also faced around 60,000 asylum seekers mostly coming from the Sudan and Eritrea, after crossing over the land border with Egypt. To the demise of many in Israel and worldwide, the Jewish state holds one of the world’s worst records when it comes to the granting of refugee status to those who escape religious and ethnic cleansing or police and military oppression under authoritarian regimes. Instead, Israel categorized many asylum seekers from Africa as infiltrators, illegalized their status, and moved to detain and deport them. Some asylum seekers were given subsidiary protection for a limited period in which Israel franticly sought to agree a deal with a third country like Rwanda that would receive those refugees.

On paper, Israel unreservedly insists on the preservation of its Jewish character. This never prevented Israel from admitting thousands of non-Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union, who alleged to be Jews escaping Russian oppression. Although not having documents that could prove their Jewishness, Israel showed leniency towards white, highly skilled, European migrants. Something quite similar happens today in Europe where millions of Ukrainian refugees are being welcomed, while in recent decades hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers from countries like Iraq, Afghanistan or Nigeria were being systematically illegalized or left to die at the borders of Europe.


Never Again?

To offset this evil project of documentation under the guise of protecting the nation and the state, it is not enough to wave banners with ‘No Borders’ written in red letters on them. Indeed, the passport was invented only 100 years ago, but exclusion on the basis of (state) categories is a much older social dynamic. Insisting on the documents that certify one’s identity as a condition for a dignified life stands diagonally from our most basic humanity. At the end of WWII, when world leaders declared ‘Never Again’, they did not refer solely to the horrors perpetrated by the Nazi regime against innocent people, many of them, like Jews, who had been first stripped from their citizenship and illegalized. What they meant, we might hope, is that a regime that sacralizes identity, as certified in documents, over the basic dignity and actual life of people is an evilness we cannot accept.

It is for all the wrong reasons that the powerful poetry of Warsan Shire echoes painfully in our ears. Here are some lines from her acclaimed poem ‘Home’.

‘you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
under trains
beneath carriages
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey’.

Dwelling in our ethical discomfort is perhaps the first necessary step on the way for changing our priorities. People before documents. Never the other way.

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