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Homo Sacer in the contemporary world

Image by Artist Tulio pinto

"The situation of the refugee, displaced persons and asylum seekers in the world today has a double particularity: it represents an extreme relegation, and provokes the emergence of political subjects in equally extreme form. There is an intensification of the limit at which socially and politically rejected people find themselves, just as there is a redundancy of exceptionality in the historical and contemporary figures of the pariah” (Agier, 2011)

“The image of the refugee has profoundly changed since the period of the 1930s and1950s. Fifty or sixty years ago, the intellectual and political dimensions of exile were validated and gave rise to strong partisan solidarity’ however in the 1980s and 1990s ‘political solidarity gave way to anxieties aroused by wandering masses in movement, certainly perceived as masses of ‘victims’ but just as often as supernumerary and undesirable populations”. (Agier and Fernbach, 2011)

Today the refugee crisis has become a phenomenon of our age. Yet very few of the general population appreciate the scale and realities of the problem, most are unaware of the conditions refugees endure daily. Currently there are over 60,000,000 people around the world, displaced by “dirty wars” or “low intensity” wars (Agier, 2008 page 9), conflict or persecution. The highest amount since records began. An average of 42,500 people are forced from their homes each day, according to the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR). Only 5% of the 60,000,000 refugees and displaced people find long term residencies each year. (UNHCR).

Once displaced the refugees find themselves in a curious transitional space, a hazardous threshold space between humanity, state, law and politics. A ‘bare life’ underpinned by precarious conditions, perpetual dependency and social obscurity. Bauman proposes that, “having left behind his origin and been stripped of his former identities, the refugee is socially a ‘zombie’ whose spectral past survives in a world in which his symbolic capital does not count, and whose presence takes place in a condition of ‘social nakedness’ characterized by the lack of social definition, rights and responsibilities” (Bauman, 2002, p. 116). In other words, a condition that leaves the refugee vulnerable to cultural, structural and direct violence (Galtung) whilst scrambling for sanctuary. Buzi frames some of the terrible risks related to an unprotected quest for survival, explaining that “once someone is forced to leave their home, they are fifty times more likely to be trafficked, sexually assaulted, or die than settle in a safe and sustainable place” (Buzi, 2016). These beleaguered refugees have therefore become the “contemporary figures of the pariah” (Agier and Fernbach, 2011).

The much-publicised refugees who arrived on Europe’s shores, streets and railway stations are but a fraction of this growing global cohort of ‘forcibly displaced’ people. However, strangely, “they are the lucky few, the large majority live in large scale camps, some of which have existed for decades. The world’s largest camp is Dadaab (which means ‘rocky hard place’ in the local dialect) in Kenya and the precarious residence to over 300,000 Somali refugees who have fled the endless civil war there” (Rawlence, 2016). Located in the scrublands, halfway between the Somali border and the Kenyan town of Garissa, Dadaab has existed since 1991. If Dadaab were a city it would be Kenya’s third largest, yet it is a non-place, a pseudo-city, a feature in the landscape you won’t see on the country’s maps (Agier, 2008 p44). Rawlence explains, “to the charity workers, Dadaab refugee camp is a humanitarian crisis; to Kenyan government, a “nursery for terrorists”; to the western media, a dangerous no-go area; but to its half a million residents, their last resort” (Rawlence, 2016). In May this year Kenya made the decision to close two of its largest camps of which Dadaab is one. With the camp’s imminent closure the refugees are preparing to be cast adrift yet again, thus amplifying their precarious position within a state of abandonment. According to Amnesty’s International Regional Director for East Africa Muthoni Wanyeki “this reckless decision by the Kenyan government is an abdication of its duty to protect the vulnerable and will put thousands of lives at risk.”

With Dadaab’s precarious situation in mind this essay will argue that, following the declaration by the Kenyan government to close Dadaab refugee camp and potentially displace thousands of refugees thus aggravating an already desperate situation, we can clearly see the developing condition of ‘homo sacer’ (a biopolitical subject whose life is stripped of cultural and political form (Diken 2004. p83) re-establish a foothold in the modern world. This essay will seek to examine the notion of homo sacer in greater detail, breaking the theory down into important component parts and apply them to the situation in Kenya, therefore reinforcing the impression that Dadaab’s refugees in particular, are perilously close to becoming the epitome of ‘homo sacer’ in a contemporary world. (more)

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