Rejecting ‘Nationality Swapping’ and ‘Imposter-Children’ in Refugee Politics

By Stephanie J. Silverman

This month saw France violently demolish the migrant settlement known as The Jungle. Situated on the shores of Calais, facing the Cliffs of Dover, the camp had become home to between 7,000 – 10,000 mostly African, Middle Eastern, and Southern Asian people, including men, women, families, and unaccompanied children. Despite its being physically wiped away, The Jungle remains a symbol of Europe’s failure to deal humanely with African and Middle Eastern asylum seekers.

Amongst the thousands who had been warehoused in the Jungle were a couple of hundred unaccompanied minors. Home Secretary Amber Rudd said that almost 200 children were brought to the UK in the weeks preceding the camp’s demolition, including about 24 Afghan male youth between 14- to 17 years of age who will join family members already settled in the UK.

Yet, even these modest efforts are being publicly demeaned, and the identities of the asylum seekers are being questioned. The Conservative MP David Davies said of the Afghan nationals:

These don’t look like ‘children’ to me. I hope British hospitality is not being abused. These young men don’t look like minors to me. They are hulking teenagers who look older than 18. I’m all for helping the genuine children but the well of goodwill is rapidly being exhausted here. … I’m also curious that there are no young women – I would have thought they would be much more vulnerable. I worry that once again British hospitality is being abused.

Certain sections of the media are also unearthing rumours that they are actually adults. Importantly for my purposes, they are all implying that this discrepancy is suspect and even dangerous.

In a forthcoming research paper (“‘Imposter-Children’ in the UK Refugee Status Determination Process” for Refuge: Canada’s Journal on Refugees), I sketch and analyze an emerging figure in the resettlement debate, whom I cynically dub the ‘imposter-child’. I am referring to the state and media’s antagonistic or at least dubious assertions that some adult asylum seekers claim to be unaccompanied or separated asylum-seeking children specifically to receive preferential treatment in the refugee status determination (RSD) process.

By way of background, any person has the legal right to make an asylum claim. The RSD system vets that claim through an adjudication process. If the claim is found to be genuine, then the asylum seeker is entitled to receive refugee protection; if not, the ‘refused claimant’ faces detention and removal. Children, however, are the last exception to the in/out rules of the RSD. Regardless of the RSD outcome, young people are often given temporary leaves to remain as well as access to housing, education, and medical care until they ‘age out’ of childhood. ‘Imposter-children’, or people whom authorities suspect of being over 18 years of age, must first ‘prove’ their minor ages or risk being labeled a fraudster at best, and removal orders, at worse.

I am interested in why so much energy is expended on detecting, identifying, and ejecting ‘imposter-children’. In particular, why young male Afghans are on the receiving end of this suspicion. I argue that the negative attention results from their intersectional identities: namely, youth + male + Muslim + racialized appearance + independent migrations. They are not the traditional objects of compassion. They are also not from Syria, and they are not waiting in the Jungle or other camps for many years, on the off chance of being resettled through official channels. In this way, the young male Afghan migrants are at least triply stigmatized: first by their gender then their nationalities and then, finally, by their ‘impostor age’.

Here I would like to explore an idea relation to ‘imposter-children’: that asylum seekers’ national identities can be fixed through technologies. ‘Nationality swapping’ names the suspicion that someone from one country is posing as a national from another. Like age, ‘nationality swapping’ is predicated on some dubious assertions: (1) that you can verify a biological concept with technology; (2) that one population is more ‘deserving’ of asylum than another; and (3) that nationality is a static thing.

If ‘nationality swapping’ is believed to be real, governments circumscribe their offers of asylum. One example is from Israel. In 2011, the Israeli Government believed that its creation of ‘group protection’ for Darfuris and Eritreans claiming asylum contributed to a spate of ‘nationality swapping’ by imposter-Darfuris and imposter-Eritreans. The official response was to initiate DNA-documentation procedures to identify true Darfuris and speed up removals of the imposters. Knock-on effects of this culture of suspicion towards African asylum seekers may be linked to the rising popularity of the term ‘infiltrators’ and an incredibly low rate of asylum granting to Sudanese and Eritreans.

Another example is from the UK. In 2009, the UK Border Agency signed off on testing the so-called Human Provenance Pilot Project. The Project was meant to vet asylum claims via genetic ancestry testing and isotope analysis. At the time, Somalis were thought to be bona fide asylum seekers but Kenyans were believed to be ‘economic migrants’; as such, spontaneously arriving Somalis’ asylum claims were adjudicated through the UK RSD process whereas Kenyans were subject to accelerated adjudication procedures. East Africans on the whole were the targets of the Project’s saliva, nails, and hair testing. The Project eventually took and checked the DNA of some 100 individuals claiming to be from Somalia.

The Human Provenance Pilot Project came under intense criticism from scientists and other experts challenging the extraction of DNA to ‘prove’ someone’s race and place of origin. As Benjamin concludes, “genes don’t respect national borders, as many legitimate citizens are migrants or direct descendants of migrants, and many national borders split ethnic groups” (2015, 135). The Pilot was not renewed, but neither was it publicly acknowledged as a moral and scientific misstep.

The use of DNA testing to ‘catch’ nationality-swappers illustrates how governments are seeking out tools to arbitrate identity, no matter the lack of scientific veracity. Likewise, imposter-children are being rooted out to create a need to justify heavy-handed asylum and immigration enforcement mechanisms. As surely as The Jungle will rise again in a different, probably more dangerous location, so, too, will young Afghan males continue to com under suspicion for their race, gender, agency, and, indeed, age.

Stephanie Silverman is the 2015 Bora Laskin Fellow in Human Rights Research, a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Ottawa, and an adjunct professor in Ethics, Society, and Law at Trinity College, University of Toronto.

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