Before the law stands a gatekeeper: The case of Syrian refugees in Calais

All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law
– Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UN 1948).
 

‘Before the law stands a gatekeeper’ – this is how Franz Kafka’s short parable begins. A man from the countryside (K) arrives in front of a legislative building to be admitted to the Law. However, the gatekeeper stands in front of the door, always deferring the man’s admittance. K waits patiently, at times bribing the gatekeeper; in return, he is told: ‘I am taking this only so that you do not think you have failed to do anything’. The gatekeeper informs K that the latter can try to enter the Law, but he also reminds the countryman of the former’s power to keep him away from the gate: ‘It is possible’ to be admitted, the man is told, ‘but not now’ (Kafka 1915/2011). K waits his entire life before the Law, and dies outside the building. The parable ends here.

Let us imagine the ‘door’ as a metaphor for the geopolitical b/orders of the United Kingdom and France, and ‘the countryman’ represented by Syrian refugees; the doorkeepers are the French and British border agencies. The real story of a group of Syrian refugees follows:

In the French town Calais, sixty Syrian refugees staged a three-day demonstration in October 2013, showing their disappointment with the country’s asylum system, and demanding to be granted asylum by the UK (Suner 2013). They had fled Syria because the state has been, in the past three years, one of the most dangerous and oppressive in the world. The refugees escaped from fear, torture, and death, only to encounter fear again in France: ‘we thought that France was the country where human rights are respected’ (Sky News 2013), said Tarik – and rightly so. As a matter of fact, France is one of the first signatories of the UN Refugee Convention in 1951. When the Syrians arrived to Calais they did not find the promised support they so much needed, nor even the hope for a better future: ‘here even animals are better treated than us’ (ibid.). Like the countryman in Kafka’s parable, Ali spent a fortune (£9,500) on transport, in order to have access to the Law (ibid.), but all his efforts were in vain. The refugees were greeted with ignorance, as if they had been guilty for the violence exercised upon them in Syria. Apologetically, the French and UN officials declared that the ‘system’ is ‘overcrowded’ (Al-Makhadhi 2013).

The refugees then turned their hopes towards France’s neighbouring country: ‘Britain is the dream of every Syrian who comes here’ (Al-Makhadhi 2013), as (allegedly) ‘more humanity’ can be found in the UK (Sky News 2013). On the contrary, both Britain and France, when faced with the question of access to the Law of Asylum, have put the refugees on hold; it takes six months for a refugee to even arrange an appointment in Calais to claim asylum. In October, Britain promised to grant them asylum on a ‘case by case basis’ (ibid.). However, to arrive to Britain, they are left with no other option but to assume the risk of being exploited by human traffickers. Not surprisingly, Yemane, an Eritrean refugee and member of the Calais refugee group, died whilst on his way to cross the border (Calais Migrant Solidarity 2013). The UK Government’s actions have displayed such hostility towards asylum seekers that even the head of the anti-immigration UK Independence Party appeared more reasonable than his political counterparts, as he took a public stand in favour of welcoming the refugees (BBC 2013).

This is the Kafkaesque reality which Syrian refugees live in, a context where those who claim to protect human rights are no more than condescending gatekeepers, and where even the far-right English Defence League can declare themselves a human rights organisation (EDL n.d.). The Syrian group discussed above represents only sixty out of millions of refugees around the world. It is this contrast between the realities of the law, ethics, politics, and democracy the dissertation explores, in order to offer a perspective on the ambiguous nature of human rights. The border and the Law construct identities, order subjectivities, and maintain the unity of a ‘system’ which in turn perpetuates violence. This paper is a quest for exploring the possibility of keeping the gate open for newcomers as a way of interrupting and transgressing the boundaries imposed by sovereign bodies, by using the tools which are already at-hand: human rights, politics, and hospitality.

 

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