“In its contemporary manifestations, the migrant figure has been imagined variously as a mechanical, animalistic, spectral, zombified, vampiric or cyborg entity”
The frame used by politicians and mass media to describe migrants and refugees recalls the tradition of horror movies. A devilish, dangerous, elusive and relentless presence threatens the borders. They come from the sea.
A shapeless horde, a scary multitude.
The zombies are what we do not (want to) understand. They are the American Indians, the slum dwellers, the colonized, Iraqis and Afghans, Eritreans. They are the by-product of an (internal and external) Apartheid imposed by relationships of strength.
The doors of the fortress (or hotspots) are the critical junctures of the system, the crumbling bastions of a civilization under siege: Melilla, Lesbo, Ventimiglia, Calais, Budapest, the Eurotunnel, Lampedusa. Between land and water, the entrance to “heaven” is strewn with rotting corpses, and the stench goes straight to the nostrils of all.
The common discourse was: we need to erect fortresses and put barbed wire on the border. If we close the rail roads they will walk, and then we close the roads. If they use mountain trails, we will bring the police there. And if they try to pass by the Arctic route let’s see what happens.
Slowly, even clumsily, but ineluctably, the human mass advances, looking for brains to eat (welfare?). For years that was the archetypal narration, more or less explicit. Even in 2014, after 4 years of Syrian war.
Then something happened at the end of this mad summer. Different factors made impossible to frame the refugees – all of them – as zombies. Only Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian PM, was able to stubbornly criticize the EU policy, saying “the influx of Muslim refugees poses a threat to Europe’s Christian identity”. All the other European leaders suddenly changed their rhetoric between August and September 2015. Now, all together, from Merkel to Salvini, they are ready to say: Refugees are welcome. What happened?
The war in Syria was eventually recognized as an immense tragedy, of which Europe is partly responsible. The population stuck between Bashar “the hammer” al Assad and Islamic “hard place” State.
The presence of the migrants on the streets, in Austria, Hungary, Serbia, Croatia, as well as their faces and bodies, made the threat less terrifying, turned the tragedy into farce. This zombie invasion is actually a bunch of poor people walking from Hungary to Germany? It is true that there is nothing more revolutionary than walking today, and that solvitur ambulando (It is solved by walking).
The image of a drowned kid from Kobane, in the arms of the father, made impossible any anti-immigrants rhetoric.
A movement of intellectuals and common people all over the continent opposed to the criminalization of migrants, chanting slogans such as “no one is illegal” and “welcome refugees”: this opened the space for a different discourse (see this funny link for example, where a fake website of Ryanair – Ryanfair – promises to break the law and bring the migrants to Europe). The power followed the wind and changed direction as well.
This phenomenon, however, had a terrible side effect: it created first-class migrants (called “refugees”) and second/third/fourth-class migrants.
What about the economic refugees? Those who flee the climate change? Or a dictator? Or life-long military service? Or those who search for freedom of expression? No. They are not victim enough. They remain in the zombie-zone. What about those coming from Balkan countries, for example? Zombies.
Ask it to Germany. They are discussing a law in order to make it more difficult for them to apply for asylum: “Asylum applications submitted by migrants from the Western Balkans are generally refused in Germany. In the future, things will get tougher for these people, and deportation will happen even faster”.
On the other hand, Merkel acts as the “compassionate mother of the migrants” as the Guardian wrote:
On Facebook, there are pages with titles such as “Mama Merkel, Mother of the Outcasts”, and Syrians are sharing images of the chancellor with slogans such as “Wir lieben dich” (“We love you”) or “Compassionate mother”.
Migrants even chanted “Germany, Germay” in the streets of Budapest.
The reality is that this distinction between refugees and zombies has a double function: the power can remove from the table the embarrassing root of the problem while performing as “hero of the migrants”, thus isolating the populist right, frothing at the mouth.
Even one of his representatives, Matteo Salvini (Lega Nord), in perpetual war against migrants, in September declared: I am ready to host a refugee at my home if he or she is fleeing from war.
Refugees and illegal migrants are the two faces of the same coin: the irresponsible conduct of the West. The hypocrisy of the West. The selective memory of the West. Colonialism first, and economic exploitation then. The bill for an economic and social model based on structural inequalities between North and South. The result, as well, of the nonexistent political solidarity of the old continent, unable to propose any unitary policy.
The 28 countries had hard times finding an agreement about 140.000 migrants, while Lebanon alone hosts around a million of them. But the impression is that the numbers are used strategically in order to hide the real problem: we can tolerate only the “functional migrants”. Those who harvest tomatoes, clean the house, and look after our elders. We are willing to welcome the victims of war. Maybe those with a PhD and those speaking several languages. But always following the idea of emergency. Never with a long-term plan. Never with the idea of reducing the inequalities underlying migrations.
And even in the case of the “acceptable migrants”, the point is: for how long can they stay? What if the war were to end in Syria? Should they go back home? Or do we have an idea of how to harbor these persons?
In the best case scenario we will find answers to those questions, probably because we will have no other choice. However, the zombies as a metaphor for “illegal asylum seekers” will come back in the public discourse, because it is too easy to exploit. What we can do is to ensure that this toxic metaphor will be perceived as unusable from now on.
Recommended to read:
The Gothic, Postcolonialism and Otherness: Ghosts from Elsewhere, Tabish Khair, Palgrave Macmillan.
Wog Zombie: The De- and Re-Humanisation of Migrants, from Mad Dogs to Cyborgs, Nikos Papastergiadis (2009), Cultural Studies Review
Post Scriptum (01/10/2015): the same day this post was published, Donald Trump, one of the Republican candidates as US President, declared that Syrian refugees seeking asylum in the US could be a fifth column sent by Isis.