By Professor David Scott FitzGerald
Most refugees do not have a legal way of reaching safety in the rich democracies of the Global North. There is no legal line where they can register and wait as their number advances. Obtaining a resettlement slot is like winning the lottery. The only realistic way to reach the Global North is to reach its territory and then ask for asylum.
The core of the asylum regime is the principle of non-refoulement that prohibits governments from sending refugees back to their persecutors. Governments attempt to evade this legal obligation, to which they have explicitly agreed, by manipulating territoriality. A remote control strategy of “extra-territorialization” pushes border control functions hundreds or even thousands of kilometers beyond the state’s territory. An architecture of repulsion based on cages, domes, buffers, moats, and barbicans keeps out asylum seekers and other migrants. Australia, Canada, the United States, and the European Union have converging policies of remote control to keep asylum seekers away from their territories.
Simultaneously, these states restrict access to asylum and other rights enjoyed by virtue of presence on a state’s territory, by making micro-distinctions down to the meter at the border line in a process of “hyper-territorialization.” “Refuge Beyond Reach: How Rich Democracies Repel Asylum Seekers” (Oxford University Press, 2019) analyzes different forms of remote control, going back to the their 1930s origins, explains how they work together as a system of control, and establishes the conditions that enable or constrain them in practice. It argues that foreign policy issue linkages and transnational advocacy networks promoting a humanitarian norm that is less susceptible to the legal manipulation of territoriality constrains remote controls more than the law itself. The degree of constraint varies widely by the technique of remote control.
Psychologists have shown that people are more likely to mobilize around saving the lives of identifiable individuals in close proximity. Remote control policies by design or effect thwart that humanitarian impulse. Like nation-states, medical institutions can evade their obligations by repelling those in need from entering shared spaces. Sociologist Alejandro Portes describes how U.S. hospitals often deliberately create obstacles between sick people seeking health care and the doctors who have taken the Hippocratic Oath to render aid. Only patients with the resources and insurance to get past a hospital’s clerical gatekeepers and physical barriers surrounding the examination room can put themselves in a space where the doctor’s norm to render aid is activated. This “Hippocratic bubble” is created by the same logic of controlling space that puts up barriers to keep out asylum seekers. Ironically, the healing temple where Hippocrates founded modern medicine stands on the Greek island of Kos across the water from the beach where three-year-old Kurdish Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi’s body washed up in 2015. The world’s collective failure to shelter refugees from the Syrian civil war produced its most visible icon of despair when a toddler died at the edge of the Hippocratic bubble.
David Scott FitzGerald, PhD
Professor, Department of Sociology
Gildred Chair in U.S.-Mexican Relations
Co-Director, Center for Comparative Immigration Studies
UC San Diego, CA, USA