The bare life of immigrants

A new EU directive allows tougher action against illegal immigrants. Meanwhile, Western citizens are

Behind every death there was a dream, and then a tragedy. More than 9,000 illegal immigrants have died since 1993 in the attempt to seek a better life in Europe, according to the European organization United.

They drown in Gibraltar are blown up in mine fields on the Turkish-Greek border, die in asylum custody, commit suicide and get killed when they are sent out of Europe. We don't think about it much. It is unwanted and dispensable life.

The European Parliament* has backed a much criticised new return directive which, when implemented by 2010, will allow governments to keep illegal immigrants, and those who have overstayed their visa period, in detention for up to 12 months, ban re-entry into Europe for five years, and make it easier to deport vulnerable people.

Maybe it seems like a simple and rational piece of legislation, but it is more than that. The Italian Philosopher Giorgio Agamben talks about "bare life"; life which has been reduced to biology whilst the person's political existence has been withdrawn by those who have the power to define who is included and who is excluded as worthy, sovereign human beings. Power through, for example, law can legitimately be exercised over them whilst their own voice is negated.

The thousands of nameless, faceless and unwanted people who risk their lives trying to cross our borders, desperate to make a better life for themselves, constitute such 'bare life'. Their aspirations and legitimacy can be effectively negated by the power of a bureaucratic vote in Brussels. Meanwhile, goods, capital, and western citizens are flowing freely around the globe in the name of globalization. The irony, tragedy and hypocrisy is obvious for those who want to see it.

For six years, I witnessed up close the agony and fear of a friend who was fighting for obtaining asylum status in my home country, Norway. He was from a semi-authoritarian West-African country, had joined the opposition as a youth leader, and ended up in prison, where he was tortured and starved. Friends with friends in the system managed to get him out and on a flight to Europe. But refuge in Europe had its price. Once a student of English literature, he found himself in a Kafkan limbo, living off occasional illegal jobs as a cleaner and friend's contributions while the authorities rejected his first two applications, arrogantly dismissing doctors' statements of physical and psychological torture and Amnesty International's reports on the political situation of his country. The police came after him to have him deported. He narrowly escaped through a back door, and hid in friends' houses.

When his appeal was rejected, he tried to commit suicide. I visited him on the psychiatric ward, the poisonous green hospital paint on the walls were as joyless as his eyes; eyes which had given up. But he is safe now. He was finally allowed to stay and has taken up school, aspiring to become a police officer. He has returned to a legitimate existence.

But for every harsh immigration law passed, for every statement made about the need to keep 'them' out, for every immigrant imprisoned, we make 'the others' a little less human and a little more 'bare life'.

* The UK and Ireland are not bound by EU immigration laws, and in some aspects, UK immigration laws are even more harsh.