Travelling Fear in Global Context: Exploring Everyday Dynamics of In/Security and Im/Mobility
The shock that greeted President Trump’s travel ban ruling was seismic, inspiring massive demonstrations in opposition to the executive order barring individuals from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. Observers repeatedly asked: How could a president block Muslim refugees, asylum seekers, and immigrants—even green card holders—from entering the United States? This is a pivotal issue for many members of the refugee and host communities from Syria – forcing them to encounter some of the most significant obstacles to protection since conflict broke out six years ago. This has also had substantial implications on affected communities in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey too, making it of key interest to the Refugee Hosts project.
A largely implicit element of the collective shock toward the ban has been the recognition that the policy has not only prevented refugees’, migrants’ and citizens’ arrivals to the United States, but also blocked people from leaving different spaces in the Middle East. While international forced migration has long been hyper visible in media and political rhetoric, the ban also forces us to meaningfully acknowledge “the realities of involuntary immobility—people who are ‘internally stuck’—and those who are physically prevented from crossing… borders.” In essence, the travel ban is one of many processes that restrict both the entry and exit of people, simultaneously limiting mobility and enforcing immobility.
Putting Exclusion and Im/Mobility in Context
Such processes have a long history: Trump’s actions are neither new nor exceptional. The travel ban has many commonalities with other exclusionary policies, such as the recent decision by the U.K. government to cease its obligations to child refugees under the Dubs amendment, thereby leaving them stranded in precarious camps in France, or the infamous EU-Turkey deal which has seen Syrian refugees pushed back to Turkey from Greece, breaching long-standing norms of non-refoulement.
All of these policies have been framed by a politics of exclusion and immobility. They contribute to a climate of Islamophobia and xenophobia that have for decades shaped the experiences of refugees and asylum-seekers in Europe and North America. For instance, research conducted over the past decade has evidenced the unequal impacts that British anti-terrorism measures (and the related global in/security context) have had on Muslim Middle Eastern asylum seekers and refugees in that country.
This 2010 assessment corroborates the rhetoric surrounding Trump’s travel ban; national security concerns overrule the protection needs of refugees, and the need for extreme vetting, which—in this instance—calls for heightened scrutiny not of the validity of a refugee’s claim to asylum, but of the extent to which their “Muslim-ness” (real and imagined) makes them a security risk.
Spaces of Everyday In/Security
The forcible unveiling and inscription of identity markers—a “Muslim,” “Middle Easterner,” “refugee,” or “other”—that have played out in the queues for passport control both at arrivals in U.S. airports and in departures (and runways) around the world are reminiscent of the processes long experienced by refugees and asylum seekers in airports and immigration reporting centers, but also in seemingly innocuous spaces such as post offices across the United Kingdom.
Global trends in terrorism-related security policies have encouraged a combination of regional and religious identity markers—regardless of whether they are real or imagined—to define officials’ and many citizens’ perceptions of Muslim refugees on the one hand, and the ways in which these asylum seekers and refugees experience, resist, negotiate, and respond to this everyday scrutiny on the other.
Following Trump’s travel ban, this everyday insecurity came to a head for U.S. green card holders, including those self-identifying as, and/or inscribed as, Muslim or Middle Eastern. Many are now afraid to leave the country for fear that they will be barred from re-entering the United States, which demonstrates how even with the granting of permanent residence, insecurity can continue to define refugees’ and immigrants’ experiences in their new host countries.
Travelling Fear and Hostipitality
This insecurity characterizes life across a range of geographies and temporalities. For example, Palestinian refugees who hold Jordanian citizenship have repeatedly been stripped of their nationality and rendered stateless once again. Elena has here thought of this in relation to what she refers to as “travelling fear”—the fear of being stripped of one’s seemingly stable legal status and rights that can travel with a refugee throughout their life.
“The fear becomes part of your identity because wherever you go, you are not fully accepted. Sweden can today be the perfect partner but still there is a fear that this relationship can change and end,” Marwa, a 30-year-old born in a refugee camp in Syria, said in 2014.
Well before the Muslim ban, refugees and former refugees have framed this fear in relation to the ambiguities of democratic politics, which in theory allows a newly elected president to call for the deportation of a certain group of refugees and asylum seekers, even after they have ostensibly become citizens of the state.
This resonates clearly with the concept that hospitality is “parasitized by its opposite: hostility.” As such, hospitality inherently bears its opposite but also its own opposition, the ever-present possibility of hostility toward the “other,” who was once welcomed at the threshold. And yet, “perhaps no one welcomed is ever completely welcome.”
Trump’s travel ban and the insecurity it has brought to thousands of Muslim refugees, asylum seekers, immigrants, and citizens, is far from unique. It may be particularly conspicuous both in its declarative nature and in the massive mobilization of resistance and solidarity it has prompted, but its implications will be familiar to many currently and formerly displaced people and to many Muslims whose daily lives are characterized by exclusion and/or insecurity around the world.
Meaningfully overcoming these processes of in/security and im/mobility demands that we develop a more nuanced understanding of local encounters that frame the everyday experiences of refugees and migrants. This is vital if we are to ensure that solidarity and protection can be expanded for—rather than withdrawn from—those fleeing from conflict and widespread violations of human rights and dignity around the world.
An expanded version of this reflection was first published on March 1, 2017, on the Refugee Hosts blog. This version has also been published by the Berkeley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs