Guilt through Punishment: Border Spectacles, State Violence and Public Attitudes towards Refugees and Displaced People

Guilt through Punishment: Border Spectacles, State Violence and Public Attitudes towards Refugees and Displaced People

“Common sense reacted to the horrors of Buchenwald and Auschwitz with the plausible argument: ‘What crime must these people have committed that such things were done to them!’”. With these words, drawing on the Holocaust as an example, Hannah Arendt illustrates a notion of ‘guilt inferred from punishment’ through which public acceptance of, or in some cases support for, state violence is generated. If ‘these people’ hadn’t committed terrible wrongdoings, then why would state authorities inflict such horrific violence upon them? Similarly, in the context of the US-led war on Iraq in 2003, British scholar David Keen explains how a poll in February 2003 indicated that more than 70 per cent of Americans thought it was likely Saddam Hussein had been involved in the September 11 attacks despite the absence of any evidence. Keen suggests: ‘Given a certain level of trust in – and deference towards – the US government and the US President, guilt could to some extent be inferred from punishment.’ The scholar moreover suggests that ‘In any kind of conflict – whether international, ethnic or an international conflict with ethnic dimensions – an aura of legitimacy for violence can sometimes be generated by violence itself.’

To practitioners and scholars concerned with contemporary refugee rights and migration matters in Europe, it does not seem implausible that a similar dynamic might be at play in contemporary Europe. Polls have shown that security concerns are amongst the driving attitudes towards refugees and displaced people arriving in Europe, with a 2016 survey carried out by Pew indicating that more than half of respondents in eight out of ten countries researched were worried about the security implications of accepting refugees, despite there being little substantive evidence connecting refugee movements to terror attacks in the West. The same study indicated that fears linking refugees with criminal behaviour are prevalent as well, with nearly a third, or some 28% in the UK and 24% in France, saying that refugees are ‘more to blame for crime than other groups.’

While discursive analyses of media and political discourses linking migration with security threats (as well as concerns of an economic and cultural nature) have allowed for a general conclusion to be drawn regarding the threat framing of migration and refugees through discourse, far less has been done to explore the links between state micro-practices at borders on the one hand (such as police brutality and sustained structural violence) and public attitudes towards refugees and displaced people on the other. While the purpose here is not to prove a causal connection per se, I believe that more attention should be directed not only to the impact of political narrative and media discourses on public attitudes towards refugees, but also to the violent border practices of states.

For instance, in the borderlands between Italy and France and France and Britain respectively, three countries often praised for their domestic human rights records, it is evident that structural and physical violence perpetrated against refugees and displaced people is commonplace. While there have been continued outcries by local organisations and national rights groups, the violence continues, with the wider public as silent bystanders.

Indeed, in Calais, the securitised border zone between France and Britain, and in Ventimiglia at the French-Italian border, structural violence is an everyday reality, with displaced people in their hundreds sleeping rough without shelter. In Calais, they typically have their belongings confiscated or tear gassed on a regular basis. In Ventimiglia, repeated push-backs to the south of Italy mean that individuals have to travel more than a thousand kilometres to make it back to the border crossing, covering huge distances without access to state support, food or shelter. According to a recent study conducted by UNICEF and REACH in February 2017, protection risks facing unaccompanied minors in Ventimiglia are widespread. As also illustrated through in-depth research studies by Refugee Rights Europe throughout 2016-2017, living conditions in both locations have been wholly inadequate and characterised by untreated health conditions and little to no access to legal advice to break out of this cycle.  

As regards physical violence, preeminent organisations such as the Bar Human Rights Committee and Human Rights Watch have issued reports evidencing alarming levels of police violence in Calais. An internal investigation by the French administration and security forces’ internal investigations departments in October 2017 similarly found evidence that police has used ‘excessive force and committed other abuses against child and adult migrants in Calais’. Additionally, according to a survey conducted by Refugee Rights Europe with 233 refugees and displaced people in Calais in October 2017, a staggering 91.8% said they had experienced some form of police violence. While a significant proportion of the police violence tends to take place when individuals try to make their way to the UK, there were also an alarming number of instances of unprovoked police violence. For instance, more than 80% said they had been woken up by police whilst sleeping, often involving physical violence and tear gassing.

In Ventimiglia, another study conducted by Refugee Rights Europe in August 2017 found that more than a third of respondents (40.4%) had experienced violence from Italian police. While most incidences of police violence in Ventimiglia appear to have taken place during attempted border crossings, other incidences were reported to have played out without any specific provocation. Across Europe, such violence against refugees and displaced people continues, with large segments of the public  seemingly complacent about, or favourable towards, such practices.

The critical question for us all to pose here, is whether structural and physical violence perpetrated by powerful European states against refugees and displaced people might be causing far more long-lasting damage to our societies than the immediate physical ailments and mental health issues spurred on by such state practices. We must consider whether this violence is contributing to the construction of a negative status of refugees and displaced people through the notion of ‘guilt through punishment’, and thus deepening the societal polarisation in Europe. 

This is an abridged version of an original article published on Border Criminologies (University of Oxford, Faculty of Law) on 1 March 2018: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2018/03/guilt-through  

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