“…[O]n the road the police picked us up… and that same night we were here in Jakkalsdrif behind the wire… ‘Because we are not going to have people wandering around being a nuisance’.”

John M. Coetzee’s novel Life & Times of Michael K. describes the attitude towards Jakkalsdrif Camp’s residents. By establishing this camp, the authorities aimed to cope with what they perceived as an unbearable situation: people who wander around and are therefore uncontrollable, undermining the social order. At the same time, however, the camp people’s new visibility was seen as a threat by the residents of the adjacent town:

“They ran a big campaign against the camp at the beginning. We breed disease, they said. No hygiene, no morals. A nest of vice, men and women all together.”

This dialectic view of a group of people as both “beyond control” and having a prominent and animalistic presence in public space lies at the heart of our new article. This article analyzes the discursive process of criminalization of African asylum seekers in Israel. The Israeli case illuminates the way that marginalized social groups are constructed as a criminal threat, thus becoming a focal point of moral panic. Using content analysis, in-depth interviews and observations, we assert that the criminalization of asylum seekers is facilitated by their portrayal as “infiltrators” who are beyond state control. State authorities’ ostensible inability to keep asylum seekers under surveillance is dialectically constructed along two main axes: the private space axis and the public space axis.

On the private space axis, a parallel was made between the “essence” of asylum seekers as people who live beyond the state authorities’ field of vision on the one hand, and their criminality, which, so goes the claim, is conducted primarily in the private sphere and directed against vulnerable women and children, on the other hand. According to this portrayal, the hidden criminality of asylum seekers is beyond the police’s normal possibilities for action, the unidentified and faceless offenders are beyond the police’s means of identification, and the offenses, assumed to be exceptional in severity and cruelty, are beyond the police’s existing knowledge and experience.

However, those unidentified people over whom it is so difficult to exercise control are the same people who become especially threatening when they are seen in public spaces. Asylum seekers are viewed as polluters and violators of physical-spatial borders, bodily borders, borders between the private and the public domain, and social and cultural borders. State authorities portray asylum seekers as a massive, animalistic and frightening public presence that they cannot control. However, the fact that their presence is not explicitly criminal makes it difficult for law enforcement agents to respond in familiar ways.

We call this intersection of the private space axis and the public space axis conspicuous invisibility.

The connection that the moral panic makes between “the offense” of crossing the border and the asylum seekers’ imputed criminality helps portray them as an uncontrollable threat. In other words, the “illegality” embodied in the asylum seekers by virtue of their “infiltration” was projected onto their “criminal essence” within Israel. In addition, the racializing rhetoric that emphasizes the pent-up potential for violence by asylum seekers is another means of producing fear regarding the state’s inability to control their behavior. Finally, a link was made between asylum seekers, Palestinians and terrorism. This link blurred the lines between criminal threat and security threat and served to further fuel the moral panic regarding asylum seekers.

Read the full article here.

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