Volunteer English teacher at the Doncaster Conversation Club, and editor of their newsletter, Paul Fitzpatrick, shares some profound thoughts about the values we place on the lives of asylum seekers.
Writers about asylum sometimes make use of the ideas of the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben. He identified two different meanings of the simple word ‘life’. It is one thing to be alive, it is another to be, and to be recognised as being, part of a community. The first of these he described simply as ‘bare life’, and he distinguished this from living with the rights and responsibilities of social and political belonging. If all a person has is ‘bare life’, they are excluded from communal, political, life. They are barely a person at all.
Asylum seekers are the clearest form of bare life. Although governments may talk about their ‘human rights’, their practice has not guaranteed respect and justice for asylum seekers.
Another example which brutally illustrates Agamben’s distinction is the difference between being thrown into an unmarked grave on death or being buried with a tombstone or other marker of presence. The thousands who have died crossing the Mediterranean thus represent bare life in its starkest form. So too do the unnamed victims of the Grenfell Tower fire. The horrific realisation that the first named victim of the Grenfell Tower fire was a Syrian refugee has revealed how little we value ‘bare life’ – though at least we can honour his name, Mohammed Alhaj Ali.
As I write, much attention is being paid to the cladding on high-rise buildings. This is important, but I can’t help feeling that it is also a distraction. It deflects attention from the inequalities in our society. In the future, buildings may be better clad, but the inequalities will remain, and asylum seekers, migrant workers and people with uncertain immigration status will be foremost in the new precariat.