Nothing but the truth: the deportation of the Izevbekhai family

The deportation of the Izevbekhai family highlights the complexity which surrounds the issue of immigration and asylum seekers, writes Gavan Titley

Pamela Izevbekhai and her daughters, Naomi (10) and Jemima (9) were deported from Ireland on Tuesday morning. Having been arrested at 1.30am, they were flown to Amsterdam at 6am, to be placed on a flight to the Nigerian capital Lagos later that day.

Following the failure of her case in the European Court of Human Rights last month, swift action against such a high-profile and ‘controversial’ figure was to be expected. Nevertheless, some supporters remained hopeful that some form of discretionary action by the Minister for Justice would allow the family leave to remain.

According to a widely circulated headline in The Irish Times, reaction to the deportation was ‘muted’. This is not strictly true; state action of this kind always legitimates popular racism, and several radio call-in shows and popular comment boards accelerated rapidly from a discussion of the case to the wider injustice of the hair-braiding vouchers and taxi plates provided by the Department of Social Protection.

However, the mutedness in question stems from a widely reported sense that her supporters, and public opinion, felt let down and betrayed by allegations of forgery. Medical documents provided in support of her argument that her first born daughter, Elizabeth, had died as a result of blood loss following genital mutilation, were repudiated by the doctor named in the documents. His public statement followed an investigation by Garda National Immigration Bureau operatives in Nigeria, and led to Izevbekhai’s legal team standing down from the case. As a result, much of the reaction to the deportation that I have read and heard expresses sympathy for her daughters, while remaining satisfied that justice has been served on someone who lied to the state, abused public sympathy, and incurred significant legal fees for the taxpayer.

Such easy, clear-cut moralism should give pause for thought. Arguing that this deportation provides a disturbing glimpse of what Liz Fekete calls the ‘European deportation machine’ does not depend on making similarly moralizing defences of a character known to me, as for most others, solely through the media. Media narratives shape their characters as they report them, and surefooted moralist pen pictures rarely do justice to the complexity of anyone’s life, and personal relationships with the truth. The racialized and the marginalised, in particular, are frequently restricted to comforting roles as angel or devil, the deserving or the damned.

The journey from ‘our Michelle Obama’ to ‘Scamela’ is as well-trodden as the path from ‘being unemployed’ to ‘dole as a lifestyle choice’. The prevalent moralism of the moment obscures the political dimensions of asylum-seeking, and the systems within which asylum-seekers are forced to survive, subsist, satisfy institutional definitions of their credibility, and live with institutional evaluations of the value of their lives. An outraged fidelity to truth, to paraphrase the civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois, is an easy badge to wear when you have never been forced to wear any other.

Surplus life

Globally, and particularly in the West, asylum-seekers are increasingly kept hidden. They are warehoused in detention centres and camps in remote locations, and incarcerated in a border regime which no longer corresponds to conventional, national borders, but which is instead transnational and extraterritorial; networked across naval interceptions in international waters, to random identity checks on the platforms of European train stations. Occassionally this invisibility is ruptured; think of John Howard deploying the Australian military against the Norweigan freighter the Tampa, or of Nicolas Sarkozy’s periodic clearances of ‘le jungle’ near Sangatte. As against this spectacular state violence, think of asylum-seekers on hunger strike against their treatment in Yarl’s Wood detention centre in Bedfordshire, or in Christchurch Cathedral in Dublin. The global politics of asylum involves making what Zygmunt Bauman caustically terms ‘human waste’ invisible – the exceptions are when the politics of public relations, or the desperation of bare lives, open a gap to gaze through.

We should remember these images of absolute power and total desperation when ideas of ‘genuine’ and ‘bogus’ asylum-seekers are trotted out. The gaping irony of this distinction - which presupposes a pure, politically oppressed subject and a contrasting, impure economically oppressed imposter – is that the conflation of ‘asylum-seekers’ with ‘migrants’ is a product of state and media racism since at least the late 1980s. The end of the so-called Cold War, and the ongoing and escalating conflicts in the Middle East, North Africa, Central Africa and the Balkans, led to an anxiety concerning the potential resource drain of asylum-seeking, and a political determination to undermine its public legitimacy and legal provisions.

In the wealthy states of northern and western Europe, for example, Andre Gingrich (2006) has pointed to the interlocking development of what he terms economic chauvinism – ‘this wealth is ours and we do not want to share it with anyone’ – and cultural pessimism; what will happen to our small country in this globalizing world? Anyone seeking to understand the rise of anti-Muslim racism in Europe would do well to look past 9/11 to this period of far-right activity and anti-asylum politics. The delegitimation of asylum-seeking has in part been a politics of unwanted numbers, but the presence of refugees from a diverse range of Muslim-majority countries also cemented a cultural aversion. Provisions for family reunification, for example, were politicised as both a resource drain and as a ticket to demographic catastrophe.

Flotels, or how gorgeous living nearly came to the Liffey

Ireland has not been immune to these trends, but they are nowhere precisely the same. The period from 1997 to roughly 2001 is regarded as the high point of media sensationalism and political grandstanding. A study by the now defunct NCCRI and the Equality Authority in 2003 examined newspaper coverage of refugees and asylum-seekers between 1997-2002, and noted a cross-paper tendency towards sensationalist reporting of ‘spongers’, and the consistent linking of asylum-seekers to public health anxieties (an idea which has in roots in late nineteenth century European fears of ‘aliens’ damaging the race health of the nation). The report noted the development of a restraint in tone and informed awareness from the late 1990s, and credited this, in part, to the awareness-raising work of the bodies who produced the report.

Arguably, however, this increased restraint had as much to do with the gradual invisibilization of asylum-seekers, not in the flotels of Bertie Ahern’s imagination, but in a system of regional dispersal and direct provision. Provided with lodging and board in a designated centre or hostel, and with a weekly living allowance of €19.10 per adult, asylum-seekers are in effect remaindered from society. This system has been subject to repeated international criticism. Most recently Thomas Hammerberg, the Human Rights Commissioner of the Council of Europe, noted that the recommendations he made in in the 2008 country report on Ireland had not been implemented. In this original report, the Council of Europe expressed concern at the poor quality and limited facilities of many accomodation centres, the lack of private space for families, and the damaging ‘lack of personal autonomy’ for people prohibited from work or study, and held in a suspensed existence during lengthy determination processes.

Nicky Gogan and Paul Rowley’s film Seaview, made over a three-year period in the re-purposed Mosney holiday camp, provides a portrait of the effects of this suspended existence spent ‘killing time’. Time in the camp is deadening, but it must also be deadened. The Congolese, Kurdish, Nigerian, Somalian, Sri Lankan and other asylum-seekers who appear in the film must make a life there, but it is a life that, as one participant puts it, is ‘waiting for the zero point’. And, for most, the deadened waiting of asylum-seeking is not the antechamber to a new life, after the zero point, but one that ends abruptly through deportation. Every day is the same, until it isn’t – ‘I came home from school and he was gone’. It is internationally recognized that these processes impose severe emotional and psychological costs; in the film some residents are described as those that ‘talk alone, in the walking way’.

Removing the Izevbekhai family at 1.30am is a routine dimension of a system that imposes both insecurity and monotony. It is not an exceptional practice; when the Oguntuyi family, who lived in Newbridge for five years, were deported in February of this year, they were arrested at 5am. Their three daughters, Aiesha, Amy and Amira, were all under the age of 6, so - even more so than the Izevbekhai girls - they have grown up in Ireland. For these children, and many others who have been born in or grown up in hotels, hostels and reception centres, society in Ireland is both, in a very real way, off-limits, and also an important horizon of the only reality they know. If it were not for the sharp political resonance of the 2004 Citizenship Referendum, it would be hard to negotiate the contradiction in offering official ‘certificates of Irishness’ to up to 80 million people, while making it clear that living in, socialising and being socialised in, Ireland counts for nothing.

But it is not a contradiction, it is a fundamental truth of the cliche that ‘we live in the most globalized country’ in the world. First suggested at the Global Irish Economic Strategy in 2009, the certificates are designed to tap the good global flows of diasporic interest and potential investment (as well as having a personal importance to many). Tapping good flows, under neoliberal globalization, must be accompanied by stemming the bad; heavily securitised systems of asylum and migration control are designed to manage and contain the human surplus. Migration regimes, into which asylum-seeking has been integrated, increasingly make clear distinctions between desirable, good flows of autonomous, culturally compatable migration, and the supposedly unproductive, unskilled and dis-integrating bad surplus. Despite a widely mediated sympathy ‘for those poor children’, and the uncomfortable fact of their lives lived in Ireland, they belong to the surplus.

 The politics of truth and life

A common criticism of Pamela Izevbekhai is that she has made matters more difficult for ‘the genuine ones’. Anyone with even a passing acquaintance of the asylum determination process would recognise that even if this were in some real sense true, that it is the least of the problems facing an asylum-seeker. Figures from the European Commission in March of this year show that Ireland has the highest rate of refusal in the EU, with just 25 out of 1,600 receiving asylum or another form of protected status in 2010. As the Examiner reported, ‘although Ireland accounted for just 0.7% of all decisions on asylum applications in the EU, it is responsible for just 0.04% of those who were granted asylum’. Justice Catherine McGuinness, quoted in the same article, drew attention to ongoing ‘issues’ with the transparency and conduct of the Refugee Appeals Tribunal, and how the soaring rates of refusal created a substantial backlog of cases seeking judicial review (a systemic truth absent from the lavish coverage of the legal costs involved in Ivevbekhai’s case). As Liz Fekete has documented in A Suitable Enemy (2009), refusal and deportation rates within the EU are increasingly determined by set targets, with obvious implications for the ‘genuine’ consideration of cases. This industrial processing is hiding in plain sight; on the last day of the Fianna Fáil/Green government, the acting Minister for Justice Brendan Smith signed 200 deportation orders.

A consequence of this kind of system, as the anthropolgist Anthony Good has consistently shown in his work on asylum-determination hearings, is that asylum-seekers are largely dependent on the extent to which their ability to represent their own lives is deemed credible. Questions of lingustic and cultural translation; evaluations of what constitutes trauma and how it is manifested; the increased demand for biological forms of proof; cynicism and stereotyping of certain nationalities; the impact of national security assessment reports; the evaluation of consistency across repeated telling and varied questioning; varying weighting of oral and documentary evidence; all of this works to ensure that the statutory burden of proof placed on asylum-seekers is, in practice, a variegated and generally insurmountable one.

In this context, it is fair to ask in general, if not of specific aspects of the Izevbekhai case, what is truth, and who is genuine? How is ‘being genuine’ recognised, and how is ‘truth’ adjudicated?

A muted reaction of betrayal, and outraged reactions on behalf of ‘the taxpayer’, are privileged positions posing as victimised ones. This is the same across Europe, and it is as much a political and psychological necessity as a form of hypocrisy. The only way in which the violent display of occassional gaps in the machine can be rationalised is through a moralizing distance. It is this that allows the mostly invisible, global system of racial and securitised power to be safely ignored once more.