Deportees and the politics of experience
Picture by Sahr D. Ellie for the Network of Ex-Asylum Seekers - Sierra Leone (NEAS-SL), courtesy of the author.
Based on the principle of self-organisation, associations created by and for deportees across Africa since the 1990s have allowed deportees to exist collectively and to appear in the public sphere as political subjects. By sharing their experiences, the deportees invent a micropolitics that opposes deportation policies, but which also may be instrumentalised by states and the IOM to complement deportation devices with social activities in order to spread a deterrent message to those who wish to migrate. The forms of mobilisation initiated by self-organised deportees constitute a ‘politics of experience’, because it is the experience of deportation that underlies the legitimacy of speaking out and moving to the register of collective action. What is at stake is the conquest of an unmediated presence and voice that would allow those most directly or primarily affected not only to organise for survival in the post-deportation period (reception at the airport, accommodation in the associated premises, medical care, legal remedies, etc.) but also to bring out from this experience the political issues underlying the border regime. Their appearance in the public sphere raises issues related to the relationship between intimacy and politics – between personal experiences and the legitimacy of refounding politics and public intervention by those who are directly affected by deportation policies.
The origin of this movement of deportees in Africa can be traced back to the pioneering initiative of the Association malienne des expulsés (AME), whose creation in 1996 in Bamako, Mali marks the beginning of a movement through which the deportees try to face institutional abandonment and social stigma by coming together and reappropriating the term of their prejudice to assume a collective existence in the public sphere. Other similar initiatives would follow in the 2000s and 2010s with the creation in 2008 of the Association des refoulés d’Afrique centrale au Mali, the Association togolaise des expulsés in Sokodé, Welcome back Cameroon, and the Association des rapatriés et de lutte contre l’émigration clandestine du Cameroun in Yaounde; and, in 2011, the creation of the Network for ex-asylum seekers in Sierra Leone (NEAS-SL) in Freetown, among others. These concomitant initiatives are nevertheless autonomous; they are sometimes inspired by each other, exchange knowledge and practices of struggle, and organise joint mobilisations, but they can also have antagonistic positions, depending on whether they adopt a radical critique of state policies, condemning expulsions, calling for their halt, denouncing the complicity of African states with Western states; or relay the deterrent messages of the IOM and the EU to stop departures. Nevertheless, in their very heterogeneity, these associations – which are located in various national political contexts that impact their room for manoeuvre in terms of freedom of expression and mobilisation in public spaces – shape post-deportation life, make the deportees emerge as a collective presence, and shape expulsion into a political experience as they make their experience shareable.
This process of political subjectivation around deportation is indicative of an international political context, in which the model of ‘return’ of irregular aliens is central to migration control policies. While the notion of ‘return’ euphemises the violence of deportation, it also seeks to naturalise the idea of immigrants’ desire to return to their places of origin. Moreover, these policies are by definition ‘without subjectivities’, seeking to invisibilise deportations and send deportees back to a blind spot. The collective organisation of deportees shows the possibility of a political response and of forms of solidarity and mutual aid in the face of the hegemonic and unilateral dimension of evictions.
The deportees give voice to an experience that was once silenced and shameful. By coming together, by expressing what they have experienced, and by seeking to make it the foundation of a common experience and the basis of demands, they allow the emergence of questions born from the depths of what they have lived through. They give shape to deportation as a collective experience while demanding to be considered as political subjects. The shaping of this experience, its emergence in the public sphere, takes different forms: such as stories and testimonies in the media about the violence suffered during deportation, claims of abuse, and theatrical performances on deportation and its aftermath. In a video shot in Freetown, the NEAS-SL stages ‘the agony of expulsion’ with this antiphon, repeated in a monotonous and tired tone: ‘It's not easy for the deportees’. While the AME has developed a radical critique of the state, based on the idea of a double responsibility – a shared wrong – between the states that deport people and the states of origin of migrants, the NEAS-SL stresses the social stigma, death and condemnation in the society of origin, as well as the unquantifiable fatigue and unrecorded deaths induced by deportation. Made of a speakable and an unspeakable part, of an intimate and a public part, deportation becomes a political experience through its seizure by formed collectives. In this process of politicisation, of creating the ground for a common experience, deportation has resulted in testimonies, speeches, and slogans, including the Bamako Call launched by the AME in 2008 to call for an end to deportations, the ATE’s defence of freedom of movement on International Migrant’s Day, and slogans printed on NEAS-SL T-shirts such as ‘Deportees are not criminals’, ‘Up against deportation’, ‘Police brutality during deportation is inhumane’, and ‘Don't stigmatize us, make us feel belong’.
To think of deportees’ self-organisation as a ‘politics of the experience’ leads us to reflect on how the violence, the intolerance, and the impossibility of a life after deportation can be expressed while claiming a status as a political subject. The NEAS-SL’s motto ‘Deportees are not victims, they are activists’ seems to condense issues related to identifying the experience of state violence with a status of victimhood. It suggests that the experience of the deportees is the basis of a politics of struggle and not a target of compassion that locks the expelled into the position of passive suffering subjects. The register of lamentation – ‘it’s not easy’ – coexists and does not contradict the fact that this complaint is a source of collective transformation and political emancipation.
Clara Lecadet is a researcher at the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS). She works on deported migrants’ protest movements in Africa. She is also working on the history of refugee camps in relation to migration control, and on the refugees’ political organisation inside camps. She co-edited with Michel Agier Un monde de camps and Aprés les camps. Traces, mémoires et mutations des camps de réfugiés with Jean-Frédéric de Hasque. She is the author of Le manifeste des expulsés. She is currently participating in the ‘Air Deportation Project’ directed by William Walters.