Deirdre Duffy: Legitimate Victims, Illegitimate Agents
This is our second guest post from Deirdre Duffy. You can read about Deirdre on our Guest Contributors page.
According to the author Stanley Cohen (1997), no group has been as systematically and consciously demonised as refugees and asylum seekers. In his analyses of the creation of moral panics Cohen argues that at no point have this group been portrayed – accurately or otherwise – as anything other than a threat to society as a whole. Their status as people in need of refuge and sanctuary has been constantly questioned. It is little wonder then that advocates of refugee and asylum seekers constantly try to underline this group’s victimhood. Asylum seekers are not, after all, seeking asylum without good reason. However, in the long term, this promotion of the victimhood of refugees and asylum seekers places them in an extremely precarious position, one felt by many vulnerable groups, where their villainy is only negated by their ability to be victims. While this may not seem to be problematic, it is quite disempowering and restrictive of their ability to move from being asylum seekers to ordinary members of society by themselves. Legitimacy means powerlessness.
Of course this is not to say that reminding an otherwise hostile public of the drivers behind seeking refuge or asylum is entirely blame-worthy, however it is not entirely unproblematic either. Victimhood becomes a legitimising force, whereby refugees and asylum seekers’ rights become dependent on their ‘powerlessness’. Attempts to sustain themselves are marketed as abuses of the system and add to the image of the ‘asylum seeker as villain’. This dichotomy creates problems for the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees in both the public sector and the justice system. By underlining the fact that refugees and asylum seekers are often cases in extremis, activists have, at least in part, provoked a perverse response whereby those refugees and asylum seekers wishing to gain access to services have to present themselves as being a case in extremis. Put simply, public services are available for those in dire need, not those who wish to play an active part in the process or even those at risk of becoming cases in dire need. The ‘active’ asylum seeker is milking the system; the ‘passive’ asylum seeker requires unconditional support.
In a way, this has contributed to a situation whereby the role of the asylum seeker in the victim/villain dialectic is to be given, or allowed, access to particular services, not to access them directly. In the case of housing, for example, asylum seekers do not operate within a ‘choice-based’ social housing system by any stretch of the imagination. The fact that a key bone of contention for refugee advocates is the availability of appropriate, well-maintained housing for asylum seekers and refugees is testament to this. Responding to calls from the refugee community that asylum seekers are often housed in over-crowded, poorly-tended properties for significant periods of time, refugee advocates promote the fact that poor housing means poor health as much as possible. Yet, laudable as this may be, it has, in part, narrowed the scope for asylum seekers to gain access to housing services and limited tenure choice to properties which are well maintained and do not damage their health. Thus housing support for refugees and asylum seekers is considered synonymous with crisis housing rather than the type of housing support offered to others.
A further problem with this attitude to refugees and asylum seekers is that it lends itself to a situation where the heterogeneity of ‘asylum seekers’ and the complexity of the issues they face, is overlooked and the dynamics of a single situation are taken as indicative of the group as a whole. In part, this is symptomatic of any vulnerable group or indeed any group of people, but what appears to mark refugees and asylum apart is that, because of the victim/villain nexus, any deviation from abject victimhood is pathologised as part of the figure of the ‘asylum seeker as villain’. In other words, all asylum seekers must be victims, their victimhood must be clear and visible to the general public, all victims look the same, and any deviation from this model is part of a wider villainy. A recent statement by Judge Aingeal Ní Chonduin , for example, regarding a case where a Roma mother had “taught her children to steal”, at different points blamed the children, their mother and Roma culture as a whole. Based on a single case whether a mother and her children had been accused of theft, Judge Chonduin declared that this was all part of Roma culture – “it’s their way”. While Judge Ní Chonduin also highlighted that the mother was also a victim – she had married an older man at a very young age – this apparently was also part of Roma traditions. The actions of one family were thus taken as representative of the pathology of all Roma and any victimhood had been negated by deviancy.
What is interesting about this case is that it illustrates how the image of the victim can not only be defined in quite narrow terms but also how easily it can be taken away and used to compound the demonization of the group as a whole. An instance of a mother forced to turn to crime to support her family is presented as exemplary of a tendency to teach criminality inherent to the Roma.
Although these are only two examples, they do serve to illustrate a number of growing problems within migrant communities and highlight that a number of important questions still remain largely unanswered. How fluid is the transition from asylum seeker to ordinary citizen? Does the use of victimhood as a legitimising force prohibit this? How do we balance meeting the needs of people in extreme need with empowering people to access services on their own? How easily can victims be turned into villains? And, most importantly, how do we, as activists, break free from a definitional debate which allows for two identities, neither of which particularly helpful.