Refugees in Lesvos

Above: Syrian and Iraqi refugees arrive from Turkey at Skala Sykamias, Lesbos, Greece, 2015. Credit: Ggia.

Migrant camp outside Calais, France, 2015

Above: Migrant-refugee camp outside Calais, France, 2015. Credit: Nicolas Pinault.

Refugee Camp

Daily life increasingly resembles life during wartime, and in particular Virilio's recollections of WWII, "war had everyone on the move ... made everyone a passerby, an alien, or a missing person (WC: 36)." Displaced persons, refugees, asylum-seekers, the homeless, gather in refugee camps which quickly become shanty towns. For Virilio, an architecture scholar, these camps "will never make authentic cities, no matter what their demography, any more than the [South African] townships [i.e., shanty towns] made true suburbs (FI: 28)." In other words, the refugee camp, much as the shanty town, is fundamentally limited in its possibilities for development--it is intrinsically dysfunctional and inadequate. The refugee camp or shanty town is liminal, in limbo, neither truly temporary nor realistically permanent--the residents of such ad hoc communities are living in a distressing condition of awaiting decisive change often without the protection of the law.

Because of ongoing mass movements of displaced people, the main rail stations of the city have become its de facto centre; these sites are no longer defined by the steady stream of commuters entering and leaving (these are now a ghostly presence), but rather as a focal point for those on the move, especially economic migrants who are "the exiles of outsourcing (FI: 5)." The camps that are often established close to major stations (and airports) are "transit megalopolises, terminals ultimately ungovernable, as we see in Paris, Berlin, Moscow (FI: 20)."

Present day images of trains crowded with hundreds of migrants or refugees can put us in mind of the Stalin-era trans-Siberian trains carrying Russian prisoners to the forced labor camps or Nazi-era Germany, where so many trains carried Jews to concentration camps ("propelling people towards genocide"). For Virilio, present day images of thousands being carried by train invert the horror of such pictures since those on any such trains are being carried away to a supposedly (hoped for) brighter future in the ultracity or the "the all-too-real megalopolis of the included (FI: 3)." However, what the two scenes definitely have in common is that those on the trains know very little about their destination and are stymied at every moment by rumor, and disinformation.

Virilio offers the statistic that in 2009 up to twenty million people applied for entry into the EU's Shengen Area (population four-hundred-and-fifty million), with such figures, "you get a pretty good idea of the growing size of the massive flows of people who will soon be set adrift from their social moorings as well as their territorial ties (FI: 25)." The root cause--for at least some--of the mass movements of people today is an attraction to the developed megalopolis due to the "evil spells" of the pervasive ideology of Progress (FI: 26)." For Virilio, the pressing issue--and one that no single State has under control--is that many economic migrants on the move hold deluded, inaccurate, and mistaken ideas about life in the country they are travelling to--and their prospects upon arrival.

For Virilio, one basic-and-defining tension and polarized opposition, in the twenty-first century, is--and will continue to be--between the shanty-town-dweller (in limbo and in distress) and those living out-of-reach in the luxury citadel-penthouse, or gated community in the "all-too-real megalopolis of the included (FI: 3)." Both social groups or demographics are increasingly subject to delusional even psychotic beliefs: the former tends to hold completely unrealistic beliefs about the quality of life that awaits in the host (or reception) country, while the latter tends to paranoid fears and suspicions.

The rail system is no longer so much used for the transportation of goods (these are carried today by vast container ships) and is becoming the sole reserve of peoples travelling en masse away from a natural disaster, a warzone, or another catastrophe. The great numbers of displaced persons on Earth has created a situation that is really beyond State control, to the extent that "no metropolitan geopolitics will be able to deal with it (FI: 27)." In this way, mass movement of large numbers of persons is undermining--or deconstructing--the State's sovereign borders (FI: 27).

State control is ceded in some instances, leaving some geographical regions to become largely lawless, with the refugee camp or shanty town being only the most glaring and apparently newsworthy example. These are zones of uncertainty, or zones of insecurity which tend to drift towards control by gangs (who challenge and usurp the State's monopoly on the use-of-force). Virilio introduces a phrase from French novelist Balzac, "neutral spaces, spaces without genre, where every vice, every misfortune [in Paris] takes refuge." The shattering reality of the shanty town is that the operation of law is neither definitely in place nor definitely abandoned: it is uncertain, just as the future of the camp dweller is undecided (SD: 33).