Some thoughts upon Annalisa Pelizza’s lecture

By Yelyzaveta Monastyrova

Identities are constructed – to start with a truism – and the border regime makes this process visible. What is argued is that one may proceed with this identification differently – according to different scripts and to fit different objectives, and that none of these contingent categories represent the person ascribed to them. However, this artificiality is what gives borders their sense, enacting them just as the border regime enacts those who cross it.

To question here is not the “processing” function of the border, but the very notion of alterity, the “otherness” supposedly revealed in the process of migration. The aim of “translation” is to reduce persons at the border to their “legible” characteristics, and it neither fully grasps the personality nor even adequately describes the features it aspires to capture. That said, the problem is not in the procedure, which has its restricted purpose; it is in the generalisation based on this simplification; it is not in qualifying a person a refugee – this being, after all, a legal category, – but in conceiving this person, in whatever he or she does, as a refugee.

The critical scrutiny of bordering practices aspires to expose and counteract such partial reductionism. What goes largely unnoticed is how it affects those who, on a face value, are not concerned: are European citizens, too, reduced to their belonging to the EU? If a refugee is only defined in his or her relation to the state in which he or she seeks a legal status, what about Europeans, defined by their privileges? Would it not be logical, in the act of defying “labels” attached to the discriminated, to defy those attached to the privileged? Yet in no discussion on the rights of refugees, in no opposition to their consignment to this or that rigid category, does the equal consignment of all the rest gets recognised – to another, perhaps more comfortable, yet none fairer, category of a citizen or an authorised foreigner. And if we take pride in what we do and who we are, not in the colour of our passports, why are refugees denied the same – in the very genuine attempt to “restore” their dignity? The nationality is a means securing access to specific benefits – but so is the status of a refugee. When an applicant for asylum “challenges” the registration authority by proposing “alternative data” (Pelizza, 2020); when personal stories are composed to fit the “humanitarian scripts” making one eligible for the status of a human trafficking victim (Mai, 2018); when, after all, a “regular” visa application is filled to prove one’s credibility – is this so much different from using one’s ID to travel within the Schengen zone?

Border regimes are unjust; but so are the rest of identification procedures, varying only in more or less beneficial outcomes of discrimination. Migration indeed demonstrates the ever-present partiality and simplification, but it does not create it. Those who have never had to be interrogated at the border may feel lucky – which does not make them less codified, and their identity less “performed” than those X-rayed to be allowed entry. If anything, the former are not only “legible”; they naturalise their legibility, no longer understanding the control – which is always there.

Mai, N. (2018) Mobile Orientations: An Intimate Autoethnography of Migration, Sex Work, and Humanitarian Borders, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.
Pelizza, A. (2020) ‘Processing Alterity, Enacting Europe: Migrant Registration and Identification as Co-Construction of Individuals and Polities’, Science, Technology, & Human Values, Volume 45, Number 2, p. 262–88.

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