On the Doorsteps of Europe: Asylum and Citizenship in Greece

Heath Cabot’s On the Doorsteps of Europe examines how asylum seekers transform the Greek body politic. This story is a tragedy in the dramatic sense, marked not only by suffering but also by transformation and catharsis. The central object of this beautifully written ethnography may be the legal process of asylum; its contributions go beyond juridical confines to treat fundamental questions of how difference and belonging operate in contemporary Europe. The book teases apart the nexus of language, performance, governance, and urban social relations that conspire to create the figure of the refugee to make an original contribution to the anthropology of humanitarianism, law, migration, and citizenship.

The book is structured according to tragic form in three Acts: Governance, Judgment, and Citizenship, as Cabot progressively traces the extra-legal “excess” of the asylum process. The immigrant-stranger, Cabot argues, is not only an excluded outsider who suffers on the margins but, as a figure who crystallizes ethical dilemmas, also constitutes “the beating heart of the polis” (p. 20) who has long had a central role in Greek political drama. As this provocative and rigorous ethnography illustrates, the stranger has transformative potential as a liminal figure who exceeds the clutches of regulation, existing in the space “between the world that is and the world that may (or may never) emerge” (p. 19).

The tragedy unfolds in contemporary Athens, at the crossroads of an economic crisis (which was at an apex during Cabot’s fieldwork) and the European crackdown on clandestine immigration. The center of the ethnography is the office of what Cabot calls Athens Refugee Service, a well-established organization that helps individual asylum seekers and lobbies for policy change. While Cabot’s primary fieldwork was based at the NGO’s offices, many of the threads that begin there take the ethnography into the thick of urban social life. This approach enables an analysis that leaves the realm of humanitarian discourse to be grounded in social relations. It also reinforces one of the book’s key contributions to anthropological understanding of the legal process of asylum: it is not so much about law-making and adjudication, but rather about the interactional excess produced in the social dramas of the asylum process.

Cabot’s ethnography provides a complete picture of asylum by drawing on an impressive array of sources and approaches.  For example, the contradictory effects created at the intersection of EU policy and Greek bureaucracy are developed in a chapter which examines the career of the pink cards refugees-in-waiting obtain. The document maintains the asylum seekers in perpetual limbo, but also gives them a position from which to make claims on the state. Paying careful attention to the materiality of these ephemeral documents, Cabot shows how beyond making people legible to the state in order to manage populations, pink cards allow analysts to “see how diverse actors and objects reinforce, undermine, and reconfigure regulatory power ” (p. 69).  Like the legal limbo of the pink cards, many other elements in the asylum process and Greek political life seem to be in a betwixt-and-between realm of indeterminacy.

The third, fourth and fifth chapters offer an important corrective to much of the work on humanitarianism that focuses on how aid and human rights organizations serve to reproduce the state order of things. Entering into the thick of these encounters, Cabot rightfully refuses either to celebrate the workers as good or critique them as instruments of humanitarian reason. As the interactions and narratives of aid workers and asylum seekers illustrate, negotiating aid and refugee status may produce felicitous deliberation that bridges social divides. In other cases, however, these encounters produce unintelligibility, reinforcing the gulf that separates citizens from aliens. These chapters underscore the affective, intersubjective, and performative aspects of the asylum process, drawing on a diverse array of conceptual resources from critical theory to linguistic pragmatics and Greek tragedy. Cabot takes into account the asymmetrical power relations embedded in these relations, but compellingly argues that the asymmetry does not determine if or how the refugee is recognized.

The final act, Citizenship, is nothing less than a re-conception of the politics of belonging at the heart of the asylum process. The act begins with a recent law reinforcing the ethnos, a sharp delineation between Greek and non-Greek, but concludes by demonstrating how strangers transform the polis from within. This transformation is invisible if examined from the perspective of the state’s account of itself. Instead, as Cabot shows, it emerges in the intimate daily life of the Greek capital, the “crucial sites where belonging is constituted” (p. 192), as well as through the concerted action of asylum seekers who “reclaim and remake regimes of laws and rights” (p. 199). Through these struggles, the “citizens of Athens,” as the final chapter is called, transcend ethnic and legal classifications to transform what it means to Greek “from the inside out” (p. 192).

The final acts ends on a cautiously hopeful note, as some strangers become friends and loved ones, able to make claims on the polis that go beyond the asylum framework of the so-called aliens from which they began. This is a profound transformation. But must it always be from the grounds of shared humanity as Cabot proposes? Or, as much of the ethnography attests, do these strangers maintain a liminal position that escapes the confines of universalism and speaks instead to the stubborn maintenance of difference that human rights regimes attempt to erase? The transformative encounters of the book suggest that there is a space where difference can exist in this new politics of belonging, a space that many European states attempt to foreclose.

On the Doorsteps of Europe is a pleasure to read and think with because of Heath Cabot’s refreshingly thick ethnography, theoretical imagination, lively jargon-free writing, and ingenious structure make. The only potential shortcoming of the book is its recourse to radical indeterminacy as the dominant outcome of the intricate relationships it depicts. It would have been interesting to know what the author thinks are the substantive results of these asylum encounters, even if they are still inchoate. Nonetheless, On the Doorsteps of Europe provides an original and refreshing analysis of the politics of difference in Europe. It is an ethnographic tour-de-force that combines anthropological theory with Greek tragedy to illuminate the practical ethics of contemporary citizenship.

Julie Kleinman, Oberlin College

Cabot, Heath. On the Doorsteps of Europe: Asylum and Citizenship in Greece. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014. Read more at University of Pennsylvania Press.

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