When There Is No Solid Ground

By Sharika Thiranagama

Displaced people queue for water in an IDP camp in Vavuniya, Sri Lanka. DFID (U.K. Department for International Development). CC BY 2.0.

On a Saturday evening at San Francisco airport, I was chanting with others gathered there “Let Them Out” and “Let the Lawyers In,” a demand for those detained under President Trump’s Executive Order at the Customs and Border Protection to be released and given access to lawyers. As I stood there in this airport and this political moment, I recalled being a seventeen year old detained with my father at Frankfurt Airport in Germany. My father and I did not have British passports; we had small blue books, Travel Documents inscribed with the UN Refugee Convention and our photographs. The first time we dared to leave Britain on an airplane, seven years after arriving in the United Kingdom, the Frankfurt Border Police detained us for hours, addressing us with their guns placed on the counter between us, and eventually deporting us back to Britain. We never left the airport. I do not write this in order to appropriate the experiences that others, especially Muslim communities, face at the moment, but to allude to a set of displacements and precarities that the experiences of moving as refugees or migrants, “semi-legal” or “illegal,” bring—and which never ever leave one, even if, as in my case, years later you have become upwardly mobile and moved into an affluent professional class.

My sister, my father, and I left Sri Lanka when I was nine, nearly ten, after my mother, a human rights activist, was assassinated outside our house. When we arrived in Britain, we claimed asylum and joined thousands in labyrinthine, deeply iniquitous, puzzling, and humiliating administrative processes to be recognized as refugees and be granted permission to stay. At first refused, our case was reconsidered, and we then began years and years of naturalization. We were lucky on many fronts. As I grew up and came to work within the refugee legal services in Britain, I encountered all the people who had not boarded a plane and arrived in their country of asylum. Instead, most of those I met, some of whom I ended up interviewing for my eventual doctoral research, had spent years in transit, internally displaced, and then in a series of refugee camps or semi-legal and illegal transit points. They had taken years to make the journey towards being refugees. While people waited for their cases to be considered, they were not allowed to work, and many asylum seekers were driven into the underground economy. My father, because he was lucky to have education and speak English, was able to go back to school to be retrained after nearly a year of working in gas stations.

Tamil sit-down protest in Whitehall in May 2009 by Southbanksteve. CC BY-SA 2.0.

By the time I was in my twenties, even more restrictions on asylum seekers and new policies of dispersing families across Britain, meant that families lived in isolated places far from any of their contacts, far from the administrative services they needed, and often far from even the courts they needed to attend for their legal cases. They were rendered unable to even work to support themselves. Homelessness was an ever-increasing problem. Community organizers at the Tamil Community Center in London Community working with Sri Lankan Tamil asylum seekers talked of increasing homelessness and addiction particularly among young Tamils who had come as unaccompanied minors in the last decade, especially those who were also LGBTQ and thus not accepted or helped within the community at large. Immigration fears and insecurities kept women who experienced severe domestic abuse within abusive relationships, as they were afraid of police and authorities.

Most of the time, especially as I spent time within refugee communities and the legal organizations that worked with them, I felt more in common with other young asylum seekers than I did with almost any other group with whom I could identify. We all lived in similar sorts of settings. We never imagined that our parent’s jobs said anything about them as individuals, as most of our parents worked within low-skilled, insecure, and shift-based work. Our houses were arbitrarily assembled,  our stories fragmented. It is a fellowship I feel to this day.

When I volunteered at Harmondsworth detention center in London visiting inmates regularly, it was to visit men incarcerated by private security companies, waiting to be deported, sometimes for years, as the receiving country had not acknowledged them. Other detention centers also incarcerate women and children. I am ashamed to admit I only made it through two months of visits to Harmondsworth; many of the other volunteers, however, had been visiting for years. Inmates were offered minimal psychiatric care even though many had had deeply traumatic experiences, and severely ill inmates had been placed in general cells that they shared with others. Inmates were also continually administered a series of sedative, “downers,” if any showed signs of being troublemakers – leading to deep depression and frequent suicide attempts in the facility. The young man from Sierra Leone I visited attempted to commit suicide the first week of my visits and was stripped and placed naked in solitary confinement for hours.

When I began to conduct doctoral research with Sri Lankan Tamils and Muslims both internally displaced in Sri Lanka and in Canada and the UK, I tried to understand displacement not only in terms of its numbers but as an experiential way of being in the world.

Numbers are useful; numbers are what help us understand the structural inequalities that those displaced face. Numbers help us understand that refugee and displacement crises are happening not just in Europe and US (despite representations as such) but primarily in countries in the global south. Numbers force new understandings.

Asylum seekers protesting at the Villawood detention center in Sydney, Australia. By Adam.J.W.C. CC BY-SA 2.5.

As an anthropologist, however, I could and did try to show the differences between those displaced in refugee camps and those within cities, those internally displaced and those externally displaced. The Sri Lankan Muslim refugees I worked with had been collectively ethnically cleansed from their homes in Northern Sri Lanka by the Tamil Tigers. They lived in camps just on the other side of the border from their former homes, in landscapes that resembled those which they had left. Their former homes were constantly within their visual and experiential realities. Proximate displacement over years and years within the country of your origin means that you and your former homes are changing together, noted, lamented, reflected upon and constantly imagined within the camps. Tamils externally displaced in Canada and the UK, felt themselves change, but their homes, far away, seemed to stay the same. These differences seeped into how memories were transmitted, families orientated, and journeys made.

Being an asylum seeker, being a refugee, being a migrant worker, being a visa over-stayer from a poor country, is neither a moment of departure, nor a moment of arrival alone. It is a life-long set of struggles, emotional, physical, economic—a lasting legacy. I write this because I want to draw attention not only to the current moment and Trump’s executive order, but to highlight that current restrictions occur within a longer backdrop of severe and destructive experiences by which people can become refugees, a series of humiliations that can continue long after being admitted to a country.

We as anthropologists have paid attention to migration, refugees, asylum, and law. Perhaps instead of treating this Executive Order in its exceptionality, we can make sure to expand this event into a moment when an outraged public can understand something about the longer modalities and processes that govern lives produced through perpetual insecurity and precariousness.

screen-shot-2017-02-21-at-6-43-07-pmSharika Thiranagama is Assistant Professor in Anthropology at Stanford University.  Her research has focused on various aspects of the Sri Lankan civil war. Primarily, she has conducted research with two different ethnic groups, Sri Lankan Tamils and Sri Lankan Muslims. Her research explores changing forms of ethnicisation, the effects of protracted civil war on ideas of home in the midst of profound displacement and the transformations in and relationships between the political and the familial in the midst of political repression and militarization. Her book In My Mother’s House: Civil War in Sri Lanka was published by University of Pennsylvania Press in 2011. She is currently working on a new fieldwork project in the South Indian state of Kerala with female Dalit (formerly untouchable caste) agricultural laborers and caste, work, gender and projects of emancipation within the communist movements of Kerala. 

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