On doing being "normal": unaccompanied refugee youths' attempts to escape exceptionalisation
Annika Lems (Max Planck Institut for Social Anthropology)
Paper short abstract:
In this paper I will examine the exceptionality of the figure of the unaccompanied minor as the product of "crisis talk" in Switzerland. I will zoom in on the strategies young people deploy to challenge these ambiguous categorisations and the precarious labour going into being "ordinary".
Paper long abstract:
During the summer months of 2015 the figure of the unaccompanied child refugee became the human face of the European "migration crisis" in Switzerland. While the categorisation as exceptional humanitarian cases or "perfect victims" (Ticktin 2016) gave unaccompanied minors access to opportunities asylum seeking youth over the age of eighteen did not receive, it simultaneously created the pressure to act according to specific expectations in order to fit in the picture of the dependent, innocent child refugee. In this paper I will examine these dynamics and suggest that the logic of "crisis talk" provokes the production of unstable and depoliticised exceptional humanitarian categories that constantly run the risk of morphing into their extreme opposites, thereby justifying a distinct biopolitics of exclusion. Based on insights from seventeen months of in-depth ethnographic fieldwork with unaccompanied refugee youth in Switzerland, I will show the strategies the young people deployed to challenge these ambiguous categorisations that continuously swing back and forth between treating them as vulnerable victims in need of protection and as threats to the economic and cultural integrity of the Swiss "national order of things" (Malkki 1995). I will pay particular attention to the young people's desires of being "normal" teenagers and to the ways they thought their exceptional status excluded them from fully participating in Swiss society. By zooming in on the experiences of one young woman from Eritrea, I will show the precarious social and emotional labour going into "doing 'being ordinary'" (Sacks 1984).
De-exceptionalising displacement in times of crisis