The management of human bodies is implicated in legitimated forms of violence as their movement across borders is administered. Anthropologist Chowra Makaremi, with this short text and video, works through the strangely technical choreography of “non-lethal” force and its implementation for detaining people at borders.
Passengers denied entry at Roissy Airport in Paris are either immediately put back on the airplane or detained in the “waiting zone” pending their admission; though for many, pending their removal Those who are immediately denied entry on arrival often leave alone as ordinary passengers, those due to be deported from the waiting zone are escorted onto the aircraft by the Air and Border Police (PAF). The PAF do not usually use physical force if a person opposes deportation; unless, that is, the deportee is soon to be released on legal grounds (as the maximum twenty-one-day detention period comes to an end, or before a court hearing). In this event the authorities seek to deport the person urgently. Here, the deportation is carried out by a mobile escort unit specialized in this task, whose agents resemble the French National Riot Police (CRS) in both technique and appearance. The deportee is forcibly put on the airplane, if necessary with their arms and legs bound in Velcro straps, possibly gagged, and carried onboard horizontally. The deportee is escorted back to their country of departure (if known) otherwise country of origin or designated country of deportation, and handed over to the local police authorities. What takes place during this confrontation between non-consenting individuals and the police who enforce this administrative decision? How has society problematized this practice of forced removal, and how has it evolved?
On August 25, 1991, Mr. Aramum, a Sri Lankan asylum seeker, died after a deportation attempt. The two policemen in charge of his removal were prosecuted for homicide by the deceased’s family, with the judicial backing of defense of rights organizations. After a trial lasting almost ten years, the police officers were acquitted in June, 1999. But, in anticipation of the judgement (and preventatively defusing the political fallout of the possible condemnation these officers faced) a decree was issued on January 29, 1999, concerning the organization of the border police. Its Article 4 announced the creation of a police unit specializing in forced removals: the National Escort, Reinforcement, and Intervention Unit (UNESI). The UNESI is a “mobile” unit, with a specific recruitment procedure and training. By professionalizing the exercise of force and specially adapting it to forced removals, the state hereby sought to technify what had proved to be potentially fatal violence. The use of force was defined in a double standardization: removal procedures were codified, and the equipment used standardized (“preferably textile handcuffs, or metal ones if necessary, Velcro-type straps, and immobilization belts”) This administrative response reframed the question—of the legitimacy of state violence (and the “kill-ability” of the deportee) raised by Mr. Aramum’s death during deportation—as one of the use of violence-training and technical handling of deportable bodies; the exercise of force was sequentially divided into “professional technical responses.” These responses were established by reducing the deportee to a body-object, as recounted by an Ivoirian refugee held in the waiting zone, who underwent several removal attempts:
They always wake you at 4 a.m. They take you to a room, a CRS officer shuts the door, says ‘Have a seat, sir,’ and when you sit down, suddenly grabs you by the neck. One of them grabs you by the neck, they immobilize you and force you to bend down. With tape, they bind you here, around the thighs. Your arms are bound behind your back and then they carry you like, err, like they were carrying an object. And then they throw you in the back of a CRS van along with others. Whether you’re a man or a woman, they tie you up like that [...] drive in the direction the plane, take you through the back doors, and there, they’d carry us onto the plane again to try to deport us
The creation of the UNESI followed the same process of “state handling of legitimate violence” as that which had led to the formation of the riot police: the creation of a special unit, the standardization of technical means, and a protocol to “codify action. Reframing bodily restraint within a physical economy seen as a question of “dosage” and application, this new reading of violence was inscribed in a fascinating bodily mechanism:
[T]he restraint and phonic regulation technique, whose 3 to 5-second application should not exceed 5 minutes, […] consists in the police officer placing his/her arm around the back of the deportee’s neck and around their throat, grabbing the latter’s clothing, while the second arm completes this ring, or ‘choke hold’ on the lateral side of the neck, and while the escort’s forehead presses on the deportee’s temple. It is hereby indicated that this technique physically destabilizes deportees by altering their sensory bearings, reduces resistance thanks to the force exerted on the head and the neck, and, through the phonic regulation, reduces their ability to shout. But, the risks of traumatic injury include ventilatory and/or circulatory distress, organ failure and risk of death. [...] In order to prevent the medical risks stemming from the deportee’s state of agitation and detainment on the plane, the practice of non-regulatory holds, and notably compression of the thorax, pinning down or pressure to the torso, and the trussing of limbs is strictly prohibited
This mechanism institutes the oxymoron of an exercise of force stripped of any notion of violence. Constraining a body that is forcibly put on a plane and kept there is transformed into a methodical and “regulated” neutralization operation. In the logic of this impersonal and conscientious mechanism (for the “dosage” is so as not to kill), the foreigner to be “removed” is a being subject to emotional outbursts, whose “agitated state” represents a danger. Subjected to the regulatory procedure for constraining the vital functions, the “agitated” body reacts, palpitates, and collapses. Deaths during deportation are the result of heart failure, and death certificates follow the schema of a violent and irrational exertion on the part of the deportee, cries, biting, and then the sudden collapse of the body, rolling back of the eyes, and frothing at the mouth: malaise and death
The rabid figure thus turns the exercise of state force into the “handling of violence.” Moreover, it has medical grounding: all the technical recommendations in the instruction manual are drawn up with the advice of doctors Before removal, the police officers have the deportee medically examined; the waiting-zone doctor thus establishes a medical certificate, which the officers keep in the file of the deportee, who they then remove.
However, on closer examination this de-escalation and restraint operation, which is in reality a physical struggle between the police and deportee, re-poses the question of violence through the definition of “force” identified by Simone Weil:
Force [...] in the face of which human flesh shrinks back. Force is that which makes a thing of whoever submits to it. Exercised to the extreme, it makes the human being a thing quite literally, that is, a dead body. [...] The force that kills is summary and crude. How much more varied in operation, how much more stunning in effect is that other sort of force, that which does not kill, or rather does not kill just yet. It will kill for a certainty, or it will kill perhaps, or it may merely hang over the being it can kill at any instant; [...] From the power to change a human being into a thing by making him die there comes another power, in its way more momentous, that of making a still living human being into a thing
How, then, to analyze the relationship between democracy and violence? What type of government is created in these operations involving handling bodies and lives, these operations to identify, sort, and exercise force, in which national—and ultimately political—lines are reconfigured?
While on the plane, the police act before the eyes of the airline staff and at times the passengers, while whatever takes place before and after remains out of sight, free from witnesses, and technical guidelines. In the event of a failed escort, “professional technical recommendations” give way to brutal retaliation.
All five of us were meant to have been deported (we’d arrived together). [...] After being taken off the plane, we asked: ‘where are the women?’ [...] We saw they were in the van. The guys who removed them pissed on them in the van. The floor was all wet, I didn’t want to lie in it. [...] ‘Get in!’ They threw my case at me and beat me all the way from the plane back to the waiting zone. There were two of them. One punched me in the stomach, the other hit me over the head. They made me lie like this [lying on the floor with arms and head in the air], like doing sit-ups. They punched me in the head, and I was forced to stay like that all the way back to the waiting zone. They punched me in the stomach and all. It was the same for the women too. They beat us all over, kicking us with their regulation boots, there were five or six of them. They said it was my fault, they insulted us, calling us ‘niggers,’ ‘monkeys,’ things like that, and ‘go back to your prison, you blacks.
This unleashing of violence, thus far contained in technical procedure, is delocalized to places out of the public eye: the corridors of the airport, the van on the way back to the waiting area, or in the air terminal police station. A unionized steward thus recounts:
At one point the staff complained of the noise coming from the police station, people yelling, shouting, things like that. But we barely spoke out about this affair. We censor ourselves, are careful about what people tell us, even if everybody was convinced that beatings do go on in the cells. What really happens is after: when people have refused to leave, but get beaten at night in the cells. [...] but we don’t have a very clear idea of that. We have a clear idea when people show us a red, swollen eye, a face wound, or drop their pants to show us their testicles
The deportee is escorted directly to the aircraft to board before regular passenger boarding. Nowadays, the only witnesses to the violence inflicted while boarding, or especially while being taken off the plane if the deportation attempt is aborted, are security staff, baggage handlers, and so forth working in the aircraft hold. But the airlines subcontract these jobs out to private companies, the status of whose employees is more precarious than that of the flight crews. Union membership, notably, which has been instrumental in raising awareness and opposition to police escort practices, is minimal or non-existent among the runway staff. Moreover, authorization or non-authorization to work airside is given by the police department. Control is practiced behind closed doors, witnesses to which are employees whose job status is rendered precarious by the system of subcontracting out services. This recent configuration gives police practices a new confidentiality, there. It is here that the social opposition to airport detention was initially born, out of a coalition of rights defense organizations and staff witnesses to these realities (the Air and Border Police union, the Air France unions, the Magistrates union, and so forth). This behind-closed-doors violence—this blind spot where the tension pent up during “restraint” operations gets unleashed—has become hard to document and remains outside the public debate on police practices vis-à-vis deportees.
Border power relations are not limited to the exercise of violence, be it technified or vented, but are more widely and systematically inscribed in a form of control that consists of prior avoidance of the use of force by reconfiguring the expellable bodies. This control is embedded in the network of spaces that comprise the airport terminal, police station, and detention center. Michel, after being detained a first time, was escorted to Turkey where he was denied entry and sent back to France, where, for the second time, he spent fifteen days in the waiting zone. He describes his first deportation as follows:
The first day, I refused. [...] When I was taken back to the terminal, as the flight to Istanbul was at 11 a.m., they said: ‘We’re taking you back to the hotel’ [the name the police give the detention center]. But I wasn’t sent back to my room, they kept me in one of the cells. When they called people for food, they left me in the cell. Taped up here, without being given any food, I was very weak, I couldn't sleep. [...] The next day, they came back again. This time they escorted me, taped up and all. This time I said: ‘I don’t refuse to go. So long as it’s to Istanbul, I’ll go. As I was already weak, I didn’t want to be deported by force. I couldn’t resist. I got on the plane. […] This time, I didn’t make a noise, I was so weak, I stayed there quietly, but under escort, and taped up
In the “cell” to which Michel refers, deportees who have resisted their deportation in any way—stripping at the foot of the plane, defecating on themselves, or being violent to the escort or to themselves—are held in custody. “Restraint” now increasingly rare due to the shocking use of an alternative use of force which attempts, rather, to defuse the physical resistance of these bodies beforehand, making do with the lack of resources. The deportees eat badly and sleep little, but not because of objective accommodation conditions When the expellable body “goes rigid and opposes with all its force,” as in the case of Mr. Aramum, the aim is to preemptively exhaust and weaken it.
You know when you go to the airport you don’t come back any time soon. That is, when the plane has gone and people refused to board, they are left in the airport until late, until maybe 11 p.m. Then you are taken back to the hotel, you sleep a few hours, and at 3a.m., it’s obligatory wake-up time. They call the register. They call people’s names over the mic. Even if it doesn’t concern you, when the police shout, you wake up and there your heart starts beating: what’s going to happen to me? Where are they going to take me? [...] You haven’t slept, what state will you be in tomorrow? Morally, what state will you be in
In this situation, the weakened body, no longer physically able to oppose deportation, may turn on itself.
On December 22 , Gabriel, a rejected asylum seeker due to be deported to Ivory Coast (at the time in the middle of a civil conflict), slit his throat with his shaving foam can, which had escaped the vigilance of the police when searching his belongings. He was immediately taken to the waiting-zone infirmary where he received four stitches, while waiting to be transferred to hospital. After being seen by a psychiatrist, Gabriel’s state was judged ‘compatible with removal.’ With his medical certificate of compatibility, he was taken back to the waiting zone in the evening of December 22, and taken to the airport terminal to be deported the same evening at 11:20 p.m. Refusing to board, Gabriel was placed in solitary confinement in a small cell of the police station, until a second removal scheduled on Thursday, December 23 at 3:10 p.m. Refusing to board again, Gabriel was placed in confinement again, where he had to share his bed with a man brought back from being escorted, and who had defecated on himself. On the morning of the third removal, scheduled for December 24 at 4:10 p.m., Gabriel agreed to return to Ivory Coast. However, the deportation did not take place, as the plane was full
A Nigerian asylum seeker threw himself down the stairs of the infirmary. An Angolan asylum seeker stopped feeding her four-year-old daughter so that she would collapse. Concretely, this self-inflicted violence leads to hospitalization, which means being released. Yet can it be described as a resistance strategy? Can the body that exposes itself in this way be considered a “resource”?
These situations disrupt all observations and analysis, forcibly establishing a horizon where it is no longer possible to think of alterity: the exercise of force that objectifies bodies; the self-abandonment that dispossesses them. The body thus becomes the point of application for border controls in an ambiguous control area, the limits of which are hard to define. Here, notions of “action” and “subject,” which found the relationship between power and the person on whom it is exerted, risk at any moment spiraling into an “out-of-bounds” where the democratic government experiments with its power to make “a still living human being into a thing.”