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Governing the Funnel of Expulsion: Agamben, the Dynamics of Force, and Minimalist Biopolitics

Nicolay B. Johansen[1]


Migration politics are emotionally charged. So too is much academic analysis of them. Presenting migration policies as ‘politics of destitution’ (Welch and Schuster 2005; Phuong 2006; Vitus 2010; Pinter 2012), scholars tend to discuss foreign nationals in terms oftheir (lack of) citizenship (De Genova 2002), statelessness (Blitz and Otero-Iglesias 2011), and absence of rights (Dembour and Kelly 2011). Migration control, in other words, is defined by deficit and deprivation.

Giorgio Agamben’s (1998: 2005) work has been particularly influential in creating and maintaining this ‘deficit paradigm’ in migration research. His famous term ‘homo sacer’ (1998) describes a liminal figure ‘reduced to bare life’. Power neglects and has no concern with homo sacer. Control is equated with abandonment.

While these arguments have many merits, I believe that the deficit paradigm does not do justice to the political ambiguities and subtle ways in which states manage unwanted foreign nationals. Rather than a politics of destitution, such issues are better captured by Khosravi’s notion of ‘hostile hospitality’ (2009: 53). ‘The detention apparatus in Sweden’, Khosravi asserts:

does not operate in the form of simple acts of violence but as a complex and ambiguous set of regulations. Built on a ‘hostile hospitality’, it is partly caring, partly punitive; partly endangering (deportation), partly saving (protecting deportees from police brutality); partly forced, partly empowering; partly a site of hospitality, partly a site of hostility.

Following Khosravi’s approach, this chapter describes and analyses the conditions of ‘hostile hospitality’ as they appear in strategies pursued by Norwegian authorities to expel refused asylum seekers. Legally and politically, refused asylum seekers are not wanted—‘they have no right’ to stay, we are told—but refuse to leave voluntarily and resist deportation. While substantial numbers are deported every year,[2] the government is reluctant and sometimes unable to remove them without jeopardizing its humanitarian self-image and human rights commitments (Valenta 2012). The ambition is nevertheless to remove them, to make them leave by other means. In this respect, the handling of refused asylum seekers reveals broader and complex sets of strategies of social exclusion and expulsion directed at the ‘unruly’ inhabitants of the globalized world, forming a distinct field of politics, which I call ‘the funnel of expulsion’.

While sharing the political objectives of deportation, the inner logic of expulsion is different and more finely tuned.[3] It is difficult to grasp its character within the framework of traditional divides of sovereignty since it is an area of politics that transcends the inside and the outside of the state (Aas, Chapter 1 in this volume). The governing of expulsion is indirect. As such, the strategies to expel refused asylum seekers have similarities with rationalities, like biopolitics, which concern the demos: citizens and the ‘regular’ population. However, the overall objective is to force the unenforceable, locking these people in a situation that is so unbearable that they ‘choose’ to leave. They must be the ones to make the choice to leave, yet they do so because their life situation is designed to be as deprived as (politically) possible. The refused asylum seekers are thus politically abandoned—left to them- selves—to such an extent that a substantial number live in misery and destitution.

In what follows, the chapter sketches the complex and often contradictory interplay of exclusions and rights which define the funnel, focusing in particular on two main institutional domains: work and welfare. In addition, attention will be paid to the openings for aid. In the final section, the chapter examines how the ‘funnel of expulsion’ works in relation to Foucauldian concepts of governmentality and biopolitics. First, however, a brief comment on the (problematic) uses of Agamben within border studies.

  • [1] This text is, to some extent, a collective product. I would like to acknowledge contributions fromthe members of the research group Crime Control in the Borderlands of Europe and Ben Bowling.I am especially grateful for extensive assistance from Katja Franko Aas and Mary Bosworth.
  • [2] Since 2000, the number of people deported from Norway has varied between 2,300 and 7,000(Mohn 2013).
  • [3] My use of the term ‘expulsion’ is in line with Walters (2010a) but differs from Gibney(Chapter 12 in this volume).
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