Processing Asylum Seekers

  • Steven Loyal
  • Stephen Quilley


This chapter extends our use of the concept of social closure by examining both the strategies used by state officials and the counter-usurpation strategies employed by asylum seekers. The very obvious power differential means that it is the state that is always hegemonic in the processing system. Like all other social processes, a social closure can be seen from two very different perspectives. On the one hand, there are asylum seekers aiming not only to escape persecution but also to gain access to the state and its resources and to acquire a better life. In the context of restricted alternative avenues for legal entry, some non-EU nationals undoubtedly use the asylum system to gain entry. For many, the distinctions between economic and political motivations are often moot, and choices relative. On the other hand, there are bureaucrats who act and speak on behalf of the state. Such officials embody the power of the state, its authority, its power of naming and judging, or what Bourdieu referred to as the central bank of symbolic capital (Bourdieu 2014). The state, he argues, has an almost magical power not only to provide titles and make official declarations but also to endorse and back all acts of nomination, credentials, and guarantees—making both positive and negative judgements, and solidifying and consecrating extant social divisions in the social world. These ‘acts of state’ employ a public power—res-publica. State acts are by definition public rather than private and more abstractly represent ‘the people’ or members of the nation-state community. With reference to immigration, the raison d’être of such officials is to slow the flow, to filter, and to restrict entry. This is especially so when these officials construe asylum seekers as an economic, ideological, and social threat to the resources of a small state. As Bourdieu (1977) sought to show, in particular fields and struggles, and according to their position in social space, actors employ ‘strategies’ to either maintain or improve their position. These are not conscious and instrumental strategies as modelled by rational choice theory. They are rather ‘embodied’, that is, incorporated into the body and personality as dispositions (or ‘habitus’). Human agents enter any field of struggle with given endowments, either incorporated within the habitus as dispositions and competencies or in an objectified state as material goods. The form that strategies take and the type of agents involved (individual, institutional or collective) are historically and socially determined by the logic of the field. In this case we can talk of a ‘field of refugee practices’ or ‘field of migration’. By foregrounding ‘strategies’ we do not imply either that the narratives used to establish refugee credibility are necessarily false or alternatively that they are true. For the most part, we bracket out such considerations. Rather, we argue that, given their dominant position in setting up the game and structuring its rules, albeit referring to UNHCR guidelines, state officials are often able to operate a form of socio-territorial closure which denies asylum seekers refugee status. This power is not, however, wholly arbitrary but is regulated through international norms and rules and ultimately enforced by judicial sanction. Nevertheless, the power to define rules and interpret them, within limits, and make accounts count, is important.


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Steven Loyal
    • 1
  • Stephen Quilley
    • 2
  1. 1.University College DublinDublinIreland
  2. 2.University of WaterlooWaterlooCanada

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