Z. speaks English in an accent that is not easy to place. He manages to mumble and be charming at the same time. His clean-shaven face, silver necklace, gelled short black hair and tracksuit do not make it easier to assume anything about his origin – only stereotypes of migrant Middle Eastern youth in Europe come to mind. As his story unfolds and his views connect and collide with mine, I come to learn the sketchy path that brought him here and see reflected in the fragments an antithesis to my own story. In this contrast I also glean the workings of a vast, opaque and sometimes monstrous structure that provided the guidelines to both our journeys. It paved avenues, provided crash barriers and put up hurdles. This structure is Europe’s system of states and borders.
These are the basic coordinates of our encounter: I am a European foreign student in the UK, a migrant of the privileged kind. He is of North African origin, having come to this country without a visa and ending up detained indefinitely at an “Immigration Removal Centre” in the south-west of London. I make his acquaintance as a volunteer with a student society that provides support to detainees.
The visiting room is an expansive, yet low-ceilinged space, furnished with ugly armchairs grouped around a number of low tables. Z.’s eyes move around the room while we speak and mine follow. We see desperate attempts to make this space more livable and welcoming: children’s drawings framed and hung on one side and a kitschy amateur rendering of London’s skyline painted across the back wall. They cannot detract from the guards moving in and out of the room – two of them permanently seated behind a counter to watch us – nor the security checks including drug dogs and pat down that I had to undergo before coming in. The room, the building and everything in it are firmly in control of a private service provider to the UK Border Agency. I can only imagine what it is like to be handled by that firm’s employees behind closed doors every moment of every day.
Over the course of 7-10 weekly visits to Z.’s prison I find out in discontinuous and non-chronological segments how he crossed the Mediterranean and later the English Channel to study and work in the UK. Interrupted by chit-chat about the Premier League, at times trying to chase away awkward silence, and interspersed with political comments on Euro-Arab affairs, a fuzzy picture emerges of his background in a North African town. A grandmother who took care of him and taught some French; parents struggling to make a living. His upbringing and formal education broke off when he left home in his early teens to join his older brother in southern Europe. He claims to be fluent in Arabic, French, Spanish and English. His English clearly bears the marks of having been picked up in the streets of the north English town where he lived quasi-legally as a minor, starting to work in takeaway restaurant as he came of age. He also mentions having studied I.T at some sort of college.
When I came of age, before commencing undergraduate studies in the Social Sciences in Germany, I conscientiously objected to military service. The act itself was little more than a formality — a letter sporting some shallow pacifism and appealing to the Basic Law was written in a half-hour. In truth, I had no idea what I objected to in life at that time – or aspired to, for that matter. In place of military service, I then had to find a civil public institution to serve in for nine months, such as a hospital or a kindergarten. By accident as much as driven by some vague desire to “help” in a meaningful way, I ended up working as a caretaker, assistant social worker and driver at a hostel for refugees. Located at the outskirts of my hometown, the place was almost as depressing as a British Immigration Removal Centre.
I never quite made out what Z.’s legal situation had been during his early years in the UK but on one of the first occasions he described to me with a half-defiant, half-apologetic smile how, after having done “something stupid” (committing theft and getting caught as the single one out of a group), he was sent to prison. At the end of his six-month sentence, shortened further due to good conduct, he was picked up and detained by the Border Agency. When I first met him, he had been in captivity for almost a year in total. In the second half of that time (which he spent in immigration detention), he had only haphazard contacts with a lawyer who proved to be unreliable. Z. never fully comprehended what his situation was and why he was in detention. One aspect seems to have been that his home country’s embassy refused to provide documentation on his identity.
In the period of life that Z. spent in different prisons, I went to university. Having graduated from my German school, I decided to pursue a Master’s degree in London. Comfortably applying for a place at the college via the internet and supplied by my government with a generous scholarship, I still felt almost like an explorer when I got off the train and walked to the hall of residence, suitcase in hand. At the time, I gave little thought to the fact that I had crossed several international borders, barely flashing my ID card when I boarded the train. Instead, I immersed myself in the colourful, multicultural world of student life in London, enjoying cultural differences in a pleasant, clean and safe way. I was able to visit my family at home almost as much as before when I had been studying in the same country.
Some of my early visits to Z.’s prison were characterised by frustrating misunderstandings. He demands that I call him on the phone before coming in, even though we have a fixed evening each week. At times I forget to call beforehand or don’t get through to him on the phone. This means sitting in the depressing waiting room for an hour, waiting for him to come down after having travelled one and a half hours on buses and suburban trains from central London. Two times he refuses to show up. I get angry at him and demand an explanation on the next occasion. I also feel confused and wonder if this is some sort of power game between he and I – or him and the outside world – in which his only trump, his only free choice is to leave his room to come to the visiting hall or not. He apologises and says that he has been in a bad mood, depressed. Some of his muttered remarks point to a medical condition, he mentions having run out of some pills that he used to take and complains about how it takes a full two weeks to see a doctor in detention, regardless of what the problem is. But he also stubbornly rejects the idea of trying to seek medical help himself because in his view the general situation would not change anyway. When he wears a short-sleeve T-shirt at a later occasion, I notice that his own name has once been carved into the inside of his forearm, leaving the word written in scars.
When Z. and I talk about my own life, I feel at pains to describe to him what I do. I try to tell him that it’s hard work to sit in the library and to read and write abstract texts. I shift uneasily in my chair after having attempted the desperate joke that I, too, don’t get out much in summer. He mostly sits inside and watches football on TV or reads newspapers. On other days, he is just frustrated and says that everything is useless. As I try to understand his situation better and ask what would happen if he were to be deported, he explains smirkingly that North Africa is level zero, the European continent level five and Britain level ten, like in a computer game. The dry thought sinks in that he would just hit the “restart button,” i.e. try to cross the sea again if he were to be thrown out of this country that kept him imprisoned without charges for months and months.
So what is this Europe, what is the final goal of Z.’s quest? Why did this space of managed cultural diversity give me so many opportunities and privileges while people like Z. are picked out, separated and imprisoned? It is sometimes easy to see the European process of unification as some sort of utopia in which human beings equally share common entitlement and responsibility regardless of any personal difference. The nation state and its firmly controlled external borders are supposedly transcended as people move freely, participate in a common labour market and enjoy higher education in their neighbouring countries.
Yet as the European utopian space itself has borders, individuals inside and outside have to be managed somehow. And so on the flipside we find a militarised naval border police in the Mediterranean that is unaccountable to elected governments (though it is responsible for exposing refugees to outrageous conditions in detention camps along the southern coasts) and the central digital collection of asylum seekers’ finger prints that serves to criminalise refugees. Z.’s experience of arbitrary detention in the UK can be added to the list of measures that violate the human rights of migrants and are undertaken by authorities in the name of the security of European citizens.
Currently, as one economic quake chases the other in the European Union, less and less is heard of border issues. We try to consolidate and hold together what years of internally shared economic growth in segregation from southern and eastern neighbours have brought us. In the eyes of young middle class students such as myself, migration becomes an easy-going occasion of cultural enrichment as we float freely within our smart borders. Meanwhile, people such as Z. are camping out in the streets of my own home country to protest their desperation at their treatment by a government which claims to represent me.