Seeking Asylum: Human Smuggling and Bureaucracy at the Border by Alison Mountz


Alison Mountz , Seeking Asylum: Human Smuggling and Bureaucracy at the Border . Minneapolis : University of Minnesota Press , 2010 . ISBN: 978–0-8166–6537-2 (cloth), 978–0-8166–6538-9 (paper) .

Alison Mountz undertakes an admirable project in Seeking Asylum in order to understand why and how “[t]he securitization of migration renders those persons in search of protection more vulnerable”. She details a complex terrain of issues that show how “[t]he very border enforcement regimes developed to curb human smuggling also stop asylum seekers from reaching sovereign territory” (167). Mountz explores this problematic by providing a detailed accounting and analysis of a humanitarian and media spectacle that gripped Canada in 1999, when several boatloads of Chinese migrants (approximately 600 in number) attempted to land on the remote coastal shoreline of British Columbia. Canadian Coast Guard vessels intercepted the migrants, most of whom subsequently claimed political asylum citing fear of persecution or undue hardship should they be returned to China. Given the large influx of migrants and the high drama of interceptions, the Canadian government found itself in crisis: forced to adapt to a situation it was not prepared for, in the process allowing concerned agencies to create “policy on the fly” (20). One such policy decision was the housing of the migrants in detention facilities well in the far interior of British Columbia, away from immigration and asylum lawyers who could help mount successful asylum claims. These facilities were considered part of the “long tunnel” Canadian authorities wanted asylum seekers to experience, similar to the tunnels in international airports that connect aircraft gates to immigration/passport control (xiv–xv). Documenting this “long tunnel effect” is part of Mountz's “ethnography of the state”, an integral feature of how she illustrates the development of techniques of population management within the “performative state”.

Mountz uses Judith Butler to theorize the performative state; namely, the state not as given but instead an entity that produces itself through the everyday actions of its numerous functionaries.. Unlike theories of the state that naturalize it and give it a unitary and a priori power over subjects, Mountz claims that “[t]he state becomes a series of performances and practices that involve negotiations and power plays” (58), and that the state's response to human smuggling and migration are especially fruitful areas in which we can see the state perform its sovereignty. This view of the state inverts the way we traditionally think about policy as expressive of a state's interests. Instead, “[p]olicy makes sense of procedures honed over time, and is more coherent in its final iteration” (38). Mountz provides compelling ethnographic evidence for such “policy on the fly” (73–75) within the context of the contemporary, neoliberal state that is starved for resources—both financial and human—and therefore, often unprepared for crisis events. Mountz shows how detention became the primary technique for dealing with covert migration and asylum claimants in Canada post 1999. Under intense pressure to “do something” (75), Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) officers chose the more expensive but highly visible option of detention. The contradiction between a state starved for resources and the “do something” attitude that leads to the expensive decision to detain migrants is commensurate with the intense focus on personal security under regimes of neoliberalism. Therefore, because the spontaneous arrival of non-sanctioned migrants is perceived as a dire threat to state sovereignty, Mountz points out that “the response is to exercise border enforcement as an expression of sovereignty” (78).

The “performative state” is an advance in empirically grounded geographic inquiry of state power for two reasons: first, as Mountz carefully documents, the state is not a thing-in-itself that acts, but is instead an entity made up of the day-to-day actions of state actors (from elected officials to beat cops to the desk-ridden bureaucrat); second, it moves thinking about the state away from discussions of the irrational actions of states (as in when it cedes territory) and towards an understanding that there is a novel set of complex yet contradictory rationalities at work. This is how we can understand the neoliberal state: it has no necessary relations to blood, soil, territory, government, or community; instead the neoliberal state is reduced to the micropolitics of cost/benefit and risk analyses. What the asylum/refugee policing process detailed by Mountz illustrates is a limit case in the way Western states incorporate “risky populations” through the logic of the inclusive exclusion[other limit cases being, among others, Guantanamo Bay and the 287(g) immigration policing program in the United States].

If Mountz's first major contribution comes in her careful documentation of the performative state, her second major contribution is her detailing of how states manipulate their territory in order to render some individuals stateless and prevent others from claiming asylum. She proposes that states manipulate territory to make some people “stateless by geographical design”, which signifies the “extraterritorial locations that are neither entirely inside nor outside of sovereign territory, but that subject migrants to graduated degrees of statelessness by introducing ambiguity into their legal status” (121). This is significant because Mountz is clearly pointing to a phenomenon with two facets: first, the overlap between geographical, sovereign territory and the law, and second, the operative mode of power as one of “inclusive exclusion”, or what I generally refer to as precarity.

To concretize how migrants can become stateless by geographical design, Mountz offers a four-part typology of sites: remote detention centers within a state's territory; offshore detention facilities; short-term transit zones; and dynamic interdiction sites (124). Remote detention centers, such as the Esquimalt military base in Canada or prisons in the United States that are also designated as immigration holding facilities are both located within a state's territory but paradoxically do not allow their “residents” to fully access their rights under national or international law. Offshore detention facilities need little explanation, given the unresolved fate of detainees at Guantanamo Bay or Bagram Airforce Base, Afghanistan. Places like airports or seaports function as short-term transit zones: they are technically on sovereign soil but are designated international zones until a (literal) line is crossed after identification checks. Finally, dynamic interdiction sites are shifting areas over which states respond in varied ways to try to intercept covert migration. To name but two examples: first, the United States dispatching immigration officials to foreign airports to screen passengers boarding inbound flights to try and head off potential asylum seekers, and second, offshore interceptions of human smuggling, as in Canada in 1999. Such tactics—though operating through different technologies, mobilizing different enforcement agents—involve the strategic manipulation of sovereign territory, and combine to produce migrant populations that are in a state of constant precarity.

The most valuable aspect of Seeking Asylum is its contribution to a growing literature within geography, international relations, and political theory on the phenomenon of “precarious life” (Butler 2004). This new trend in the scholarship on immigration and refugee policing, which underscores the shifting constellations enforcement practices, popular and policy narratives, and technological innovations that are employed to alter the geography of the state in order to produce “inclusive exclusions”, is best characterized by the works of Didier Bigo (2002), Wendy Brown (2009), Mathew Coleman (with A. Kocher 2011), Jef Huysmans (2006), Jennifer Hyndman (1999), Peter Nyers (2006), and others (witness the wave of graduate students presenting on the subject at recent AAG meetings).

Mountz is putting her finger on a contemporary phenomenon in which state power is performative, its ends neither disciplinary, biopolitical, nor conventionally sovereign (the consolidation of territory); rather, this new mode of power seeks the production of precarity. In Mountz's telling precarious population management, at least in the USA and the EU, is not about keeping people in or out of territorial space; instead, it is about “civic stratification” (Coleman and Kocher). Specifically, what we are now seeing in multiple contexts is the formal disassociation of territorial presence from legal presence through formal legal exclusion. The latter involves heterogeneous processes: the devolution of punitive functions from federal to local authorities, removal of deportation proceedings from judicial oversight, and administration of immigration policing through professionalized police and bureaucracy. The net effect is the production of a precarious shadow population that can be exploited economically and politically but lacks legal/constitutional protections.

Seeking Asylum is a provocative and insightful book. But it has one conspicuous weakness: the assumption that the best protection for precarious populations lies in securing their right to asylum, which has the effect of valorizing the state once again as ultimate guarantor of rights. Thus, Mountz ends the book with an emphatic statement: “People traveling on boats, held in detention, and being processed in airports have distinct identities, histories, and desires that need to be heard. They have a right to seek asylum” (175, emphasis mine). These are noble sentiments, but have the effect of positioning the book on a trajectory that leads away from its potential opening onto a radical space of thinking beyond borders, nations, and states. This is unfortunate, because Mountz seems to want to point in another direction, toward imagining and struggling for “alternative geographies that protect and include, rather than endanger and exclude” (169). It is indicative, to an extent, of the aporia that confronts discussions of refugees and migrants: where does one turn if the basic problem is located at both the national and international levels and protection is lacking in both?

It is ironic yet understandable, then, that even after spending most of the book empirically demonstrating the loose coupling of rights at both national and international scales Mountz, who mentions rights infrequently and usually in passing in much of the book, should end by reaffirming without much ado that migrants have a right, by principle, to seek asylum. Based in an international order that nonetheless is entirely reliant upon national compliance and enforcement, as Hannah Arendt forcefully noted several decades ago, the claim of the right to asylum is vacated by the very work undertaken in Seeking Asylum. This is not done intentionally, and as discussed earlier it may also be unavoidable; and readers should take note before passing judgment. They should also take note of what Mountz accomplishes: problematizing the knotty issues of asylum, migration, territory, and state power through the exploration of an event, the 1999 interception of Chinese boat migrants by Citizenship and Immigration Canada officials, which lies at their intersection. My point here is that Mountz's notion of the performative state sits uneasily with her concluding defense of human rights that must rely on state beneficence to be effective and meaningful.

That said, Seeking Asylum is an excellent work of scholarship. Readers of Antipode will benefit greatly from engaging with Mountz's book; indeed, Seeking Asylum should be read by anyone interested in questions of asylum, human smuggling, the state, and territory.