Sorting at borders

By retracing the history of the French Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons, Karen Akoka shows that the reception of migrants in France is based on an unaccepted distinction between “good” political refugees and “bad” economic migrants.

Why would it be more legitimate to flee individual persecution than collective violence? Why would it be worse to die in prison than to die of hunger? Why would the absence of socio-economic prospects be less problematic than the absence of political freedom? (p. 324).

Karen Akoka, lecturer in political science at Paris Nanterre University and associated with the Institute of Social Sciences of Politics, asks in this work essential questions on the moral foundations of our society, in light of the treatment reserved for foreigners requesting a form of protection on French territory. The public institutions concerned – mainly the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the French Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons (Ofpra), the Ministry of the Interior – have always attributed to applicants a variable degree of legitimacy: the latter, long linked to nationality of origin, is embodied in categories (refugee, boat people, asylum seeker, migrant, etc.) which are supposed to distinguish and classify them, and whose meaning, uses, and effects in terms of access to rights evolve over time. This work has the great merit of revealing the organizational processes, the balance of power, the political interests, and the moral principles which underlie these evolutions in the meaning and use of asylum categories.

This unveiling is the result of a socio-historical undertaking around the birth and functioning of Ofpra, between the 1950s and the 2010s, and in particular the practices of its agents. In a resolutely constructivist approach, the figure of the “refugee” (and implicitly of those who are not considered “refugees”) emerges as being the product of a labeling for which institutions are certainly responsible, but which is ultimately delegated to the agents responsible for implementing the rules and political guidelines.

How did we go from almost automatic recognition of refugee status for entire communities of Russians, Georgians and Hungarians in the 1960s and 1970s, to very high rejection rates from the 1990s? When and why did proof of an individual risk (and no longer a collective persecution) become a requirement? Contrary to an explanation which would suggest a change in the profile of the applicants, the author invites us to enter into the workings of the making of the “refugee” and its alter egos: the “asylum seeker” and the “economic migrant”. “. To understand what this is about, she looks at the work of the agents who are called upon to place them in one of these multiple categories, and on the elements (moral, organizational, economic, and political) which influence their decisions.

A journey through time within theOFPRA

Drawing on both open archives and numerous interviews, his book sheds light on the evolution of decisions taken within Ofpra, as close as possible to the profiles and experiences of the men and women to whom this responsibility has been delegated: the agents.

Karen Akoka offers a chronological reconstruction of the events and logics that governed the granting of asylum in France from the interwar period (chapter 1), focusing on the “false break” represented by the creation of OFPRA in 1952, following the ratification of the Geneva Convention (chapter 2). She shows that, far from representing a real change with the past, the protection of refugees after the birth of this institution continued to be a diplomatic and foreign policy issue for several decades.

The following chapters seek to show, in a documented manner and sometimes contrary to a scientific literature that has been little discussed until now (see Gérard Noiriel, Réfugiés et sans-papiers, Paris, Hachette, 1998), that the creation of the Ofpra is not an example of a “purely French” control of asylum: the profile of the Ofpra agents counts, and proves to be decisive for understanding the evolution of the percentages of refusal and acceptance of applications. Indeed, between 1952 and the end of the 1970s, refugees and children of refugees largely occupied the place of instructors of applications for their compatriots, in a period of Cold War when Russian, Georgian, and Hungarian nationals were recognized as refugees on the simple basis of their nationality. The counter-examples are heuristic and they show French interests in foreign policy: the Yugoslavs, considered as being nationals of a regime which had disassociated itself from theUSSR, and the Portuguese, whose President Salazar maintained excellent diplomatic relations with France, were for the most part turned down their request; responding positively would have been considered an “unfriendly act” towards their leaders.

The 1980s were a decade of transition, during which we moved from a “refugee regime” to an “asylum seeker regime”, where the search for an individual fear of persecution emerged in the practices of agents. But still not with regard to all applicants: differentiated treatment continues to exist, with obvious national preferences, as for the Indochinese or boat people, and postures of distrust for other nationals, such as the Zaireans. This discriminatory treatment still results from the profiles of the agents responsible for processing the requests: they are Indochinese for the Indochinese, and French for the Zaireans. The rhetoric of fraud, although well documented for Indochinese nationals as well, is widely used against African applicants. It occupied a central place in the government register in the 1990s, in order to legitimize migration policies aimed at reducing flows.

The entry through the sociological profile of Ofpra agents and through the internal organizational changes within this organization is enlightening: cultural and linguistic proximity with the public is no longer valued; we are looking for neutral, distanced agents. From the 1990s, the institution evolved the procedures for examining requests in such a way as to segment the skills of agents, to delegate to experts (lawyers and documentarians), to reduce contact with applicants; the organization gradually introduces performance bonuses depending on the number of files processed, and sanctions in the event of failure to meet objectives; informal modalities of stigmatization affect agents who grant too many refugee statuses; The recruitment of contract agents allows Ofpra executives to further direct their way of working. It then appears that acting on the profile of recruits and their working conditions is a way of “controlling them without official control”.

The socio-historical approach, making room for different types of data such as memories, the analysis of archives, and interviews, has the advantage of finely describing macro continuities and ruptures, and of making them resonate with experiences. more micro agents in a long time. Also, the author shows that their room for maneuver is largely influenced by, on the one hand, international political balances, and on the other, by the impact of new public management about this organization.

The author’s reflective return on her own experience within the UNHCR, where she worked between 1999 and 2004, is also the guarantee of an investigation where the meaning given by the interlocutors to their practices is taken seriously, without them being the subject of a moral judgment. The moral dilemmas which sometimes run through the choices and hesitations of the respondents shed light on the continuum which exists between support and resistance to the institution. Mobilizing both extracts from interviews with “resisters” and “members”, restoring the power of the costs of dissidence in terms of reputation among colleagues, making room for rumors from the corridors: these are the ingredients of a socio-historical investigation approaching the ethnographic approach.

To end the refugee/migrant dichotomy and the morality of true/false

One of the essential contributions of the work consists of deconstructing the moral edifice of asylum, to the point of bringing out the paradoxes of the argument which would consist of saying that protecting asylum today implies fighting against fraudsters and to limit the attribution of status to the most deserving. Karen Akoka fundamentally addresses crucial political issues for our society, forcing us, if necessary, to question the legitimacy of distinctions (between refugees and migrants) which are not sociologically founded, but which on the other hand serve specific interests. and the most dangerous political logics, whether to disguise as humanitarianism the cynical desire to further select candidates for immigration, or to assert populist and/or xenophobic objectives of reducing the entry of foreigners into the territory under pretext of an alleged too great cultural diversity or even of low economic profitability.

This book is a salutary stance against the rhetoric of “real and false refugees”, against the posture of “once it was different” (p. 27), and invites us to stop taking a moralizing look at the possible lies of applicants: these lies are the consequence of the narrowing of the protection boxes, of the escalation of the horrors required to have a chance of obtaining it, of the reduction of suspensive appeals for removal from the territory in the event of refusal by the Ofpra … The political significance of a critical sociohistory of labeling is in this sense obvious, and Karen Akoka’s epilogue goes into general terms by putting into perspective the refugee/migrant dichotomy with other populations subject to sorting: the parallel with the poor and the tellers studied by Vincent Dubois (Life at the teller. Administrative relationship and treatment of poverty, Paris, Economica, 2003) makes it possible to decompartmentalize the case of foreigners to show how the system justifies the (non)protection of ( un)desirable by presenting it as necessary or inevitable.