This essay was originally published on May 23 2019.

After a record number of refugees arrived in Europe in 2015 following the Syrian collapse, Europe’s reaction provided the conditions for an even more fundamental change. As the fences went up at each boundary within a previously borderless Schengen Europe — almost as an act of self-reproach following Angela Merkel’s acceptance of one million refugees  — the outcome was a new European politics, in which the newly arrived migrant became the working site to re-define Europe’s own notions of its liberal values and of its protection. This change could not have come about without the deployment of the offices of governance to protect liberal democracy against an anti-migration populist upsurge. An undeclared state of emergency provided the means by which residual forms of representation that specifically targeted the place of the migrant body in Europe’s social order came to define the agenda of nations’ political institutions. The outcome of this populism — understood here as both effect and cause — was a stream of legislation, with a cumulative effect that can be gathered from four examples from across Europe:

  1. In Greece and Italy, European Commission legislators introduced the hotspot. In this new form of European detention, acceptable yardsticks of humanitarian care could be suspended with impunity, as documented at Lesbos and in Sicily. The hotspot made possible an industrial scale of confinement designed to bypass United Nations refugee conventions, and turned the southern frontiers of Europe into territories of blockage and containment that invited the resurgence of reactionary populism.
  2. In Hungary and the so-called Visigoth countries, laws were instated that explicitly typecast race and religion (in violation of statutes of the European parliament and UN charters).
  3. In France, drastic changes of policy were introduced via new migration and asylum bills. These bills criminalized the undocumented and accelerated the destruction of shelters across the country (such as the Jules Ferry Jungle in Calais and the jungles at Port de la Chapelle in Paris) and instigated the closing of municipal shelters (such as those in Paris and Dunkirk) in disregard of UN conventions.
  4. In Britain, the Brexit vote based on “taking control of our borders” was followed by the Home Office’s escalation of a “hostile environment” and employment and housing legislation that led to unprecedented domestic policies of deportation, such as the Windrush scandal, which broke up second- and even third-generation migrant families.

There are other examples that could be drawn upon, whether from Poland, Denmark, the Netherlands, and so on, but to analyze just the above together is to see the common strand in the 2015 legacy. The refugee influx of 2015 provided the opportunity for governments to irrevocably alter the place of the migrant body within the social order, dissociating it from previous protections of UN conventions and national, European Union, and international laws. The target was not just the newly arrived migrant-refugees, but all the undocumented sans papiers of Europe — and by association, non-European migrants from the colonies. In effect, this was a project of retraction that sought at multiple levels to enable the state to un-claim or even revoke the migrant body. The licence for Europe to do this lay in an embodiment of its colonial imagination, a body it had invented in the Age of Discoveries: corpus nullius, the body “without claim” that necessarily accompanies the colonial fiction of the terra nullius, the territory “without claim.”

It is through the figure of corpus nullius that we can understand the significance of place the refugee and migrant body has been allotted within specific narratives of European crises; crises in which migrant bodies are subjected to a separate moral and legal rubric and their movement bound by border regimes. Through corpus nullius, these new instruments of liberal democracy (the hotspot, the declaration of a “hostile environment”) are relieved of the moral burden of violence while enacting it without sanction.

But corpus nullius in its distinction needs to be read against other fictions of embodiment in European modernity. For instance, through the refrain “man must die” in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche showed us the body as a bearer of moral fictions only by whose death could a new man beyond good and evil emerge. This new man opened the space for new ideologies of the body, but Zarathustra’s Ubermensch (the superman) led in time to the Untermensch (the subhuman), and new methods of social control and mass internment of the body within Europe. The violence wrought by the fascist idealization of the Ubermensch dominates European political consciousness as a constant reminder for the defense of its liberal values.

Yet always backgrounded in the making of liberal values in European modernity was its other violence, the distant violence borne by a body in the colony, a corpus nullius of a European-claimed terra nullius. And it is that body which now comes to the fore in the realities of migration, as the global age sees a reverse movement of bodies from the colonies into Europe. It explains why the same lexicon of fences, camps, and other forms of internment now defines every border between Europe and its former colonies.

The symbol of Fortress Europe marks a vast expansion of the principle of “the protection of liberal values.” As the inner space of Europe became striated by new fences running along its internal borders after 2015, the corpus nullius interned within became necessary for the renewal of (exclusionary) rights of the body — its claim to citizenship and belonging. Through the swathe of new legislations sweeping across Europe in ways that would have been considered discriminatory a decade ago, the citizen, as the clearly defined body with claim (thus the visibly native body) became the means to regulate the undefined body in new ways, from restrictions on renting a home in the U.K. (a policy now retracted after legal challenges), to car-sharing in Italy and France, to sharing meals in Switzerland, to finding subsistence work in Italy or Spain. In the aftermath of 2015, the burdens of citizenship now came with new measures of legitimation and a logic of inverse penalties (for the refusal to discriminate), while laws were unfurled by the year to discourage social solidarity.

Creating such a social order would not be possible without the practices of pre-emptive discrimination in which reactionary populism has been called to play its necessary part. In foregrounding the migrant body, Europe continually regenerates its crisis narratives, thereby legitimatizing policies rooted in discrimination. Missing in this unrelenting depiction of the migrant body are the reasons for the body’s presence in Europe. These reasons, which lie in a history of global upheavals and the way legitimate channels of migration are obstructed to those who need it the most, leave the body with no option but to migrate, even in the knowledge of migration’s risk and violence. The realities of forced migration in the contemporary world are distorted by their representation.

The narratives of the migrant-refugee crisis as the spectacle for our times reflect the interests they serve. It was perhaps in recognition of this that in September 2016 the UN General Assembly proposed a new international agreement through the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, calling for “safe, orderly and regular migration” and for countries to “share responsibility on a global scale.” Despite resistance (largely from the United States and certain European countries), the declaration was adopted by the UN assembly in December 2018 as a global compact, a non-binding agreement on migration and refugees. Only five nations voted against its adoption: the United States and Hungary voted against all parts of the compact while Poland, the Czech Republic, and Israel voted against the migration compact.

If the global compact underscores the need for equitable burden sharing in the global age (as explained by theForeign Office of Germany), it does so as a non-binding agreement: it carries no means of enforcement, though it does provide the means to contest the imbalances. The UN declares that 85 percent of global refugees are hosted in developing countries — that is, the poorest nations are saddled with greatest burdens. We can get the comparative measures from the Migration Data portal on refugees relative to host population or asylum seekers relative to host population; on the question of Europe’s share, graphs from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) via the BBC provide the figures. These confirm the exceptionality of 2015, when the number of arrivals to Europe were five times higher than in the years that precede or follow it. Beyond that, and even accounting for that, there is very little to reconcile the numbers of those who come to seek refuge in Europe to the reactive narratives of Europe’s refugee-migrant crisis.

What does become clear is the extent to which Europe has exploited the opportunity of the one million arrivals of 2015 — a human tragedy in which Europe had a hand — to emphasize chosen narratives of crises and occlude others. The underlying contradictions of the crisis lie in the geopolitical interests of Europe, which in themselves contribute to refugee and migrant flow and go against any globally mediated compact on migration. These interests are as apparent in the specific demographics of those who seek asylum in Europe — the Syrians, the Iraqis, the Afghans, the Kurds — as they are in the endless military or humanitarian missions on our screens. Thus it is of no surprise Europe used the opportunity of 2015 to decisively narrow its own global compact and expand its Fortress Europe policy; to that end, the narrative of the refugee-migrant crisis served its purpose.

Of course, those same policies have instigated Europe’s own enclosure. In a triumph of circular logic, the means of exclusion that serves to maintain a liberal Europe have pushed it to its very opposite: a Europe condemned to passing the baton of inhumane legislation from one member state to the next. At one end of Europe, the crisis is used in Calais to justify intensified abuse and the destruction of migrant jungles, even in sub-zero temperatures. At the other end, the same narrative calls to stop all search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean, disclaiming new deaths in the seas (2,262 deaths in 2018, according to the UNHCR ). Alongside the continuing spectacle of desperate conditions of passage for desperate people, the death toll is mounting. We need to understand how the resurrection of the body without claim, the corpus nullius of colonial imagination, re-opened the door to a new European politics of belonging in the global age.

Siraj Izhar is an activist and artist based in London.

One thought on “Corpus Nullius: How Europe Recast the Migrant Body

  1. I don’t want to quibble… but there is one misprint that is all too accurate. That is: the “Visigoth countries” for the “Visegrád countries”. Yes, the lands of barbarism, of fat necks and genocide – sometimes the misprint reveals more than the intended word.

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