As supported by literature on neoliberal subjectivities, the creation of the market-like society takes place while competition, self-government and entrepreneurship become integral parts of individuals’ lives. In relation to governing refugee lives, we see a fractioning of the label ‘refugee’ into at least two categories, those being the ‘genuine’ and ‘vulnerable’ refugee in need of protection, and the ‘bogus’, profit-maximizing ‘economic refugee’—disguised as an asylum seeker. Law, policy, and the media all intertwine to categorize certain groups, including Serbian asylum seekers, as the latter (De Genova, 2013; Moore, 2013; Threadgold, 2006; Zetter, 2007). The question remains, in the perception of my interviewees, is there anything entrepreneurial about seeking asylum in Germany?
To be a refugee but also a neoliberal subject is presented as immoral, in line with Kmak (2015), under the current refugee regime in Germany. This distinction is internalized and evident for my interviewees, who never regarded themselves as refugees but as Asylants (Serbian: azilant). This is a derogatory term for asylum seekers in Germany. In several instances, being in Germany was describes as “coming on Asylum” (Serbian: doći na azil). It is used to express what “our people” (E., Int.1, Line 101)—generally referred to as people who speak a language common to Serbia—do in Germany. This finding is also interesting because of the construction of this expression, which insinuates sitting on something or making use of something. Moreover, the so called ‘economic refugees’ from SCO are targeted for accelerated procedures which aim at enabling quick identification of their assumed ‘bogus’ applications and effective removal upon rejection. The data points to clear expectations of such outcomes, namely the understanding of their conditions as short-term in nature, with a certain end in the future. This corresponds to the current policy practices of accelerating procedures for those applications considered as ‘unfounded’ under the current refugee regime in Germany. E. often referred to a point of departure embedded in her status as an asylum seeker from Serbia by saying “everybody leaves in the end”. To be an ‘azilant’ is also understood as something violent, a prolonged experience, and a label which will remain once they are back in Serbia. A great deal of codes are wrapped around “leaving”, or the expression of the urge to go back but also fearing to do so. Relevantly, E. explains how she needs to make sure to buy her kids good things such as smartphones while in Germany, especially the oldest daughter, since she understands the most. This way she hopes to prepare them for the stigma which awaits them once they are sent back to Serbia, as they will be the labelled as the ‘azilant kids’. This all points to the fact that the negative images surrounding them in Germany are expected to be a prolonged experience. This finding is in line with Sigona (2003) who explains the enduring and harmful nature of administrational labeling. To fight this image, E. equips herself with symbols of good status, like the latest smartphones or a tablet she bought for the children to play with.
Field data points to a striking understanding of oneself in regards to other asylum seekers and refugees. There is a general mistrust in people surrounding them. The accommodation centers are often overcrowded and there is a lack of privacy. People report being unable to lock the doors at night, and feeling unsafe despite the presence of security guards at all times. Feelings of mistrust are manifested through the expression of concern about scarce resources. For example, E. reports that she is overwhelmed with others “snatching like animals” or “grabbing out of my hands” basics such as food and cosmetics. She never leaves anything lying out of her sight because “it would just be gone”.
To assume that looking for economically gainful experiences is the single reason for seeking asylum in Germany is, I argue, misleading and simply incorrect. It may appear so on the surface, but it does not take much digging to uncover a whole series of intersecting struggles experienced before the decision to flee. One example is the reality of living in Serbia as an ethnic minority, let us say as a Roma Serbian person—faced with discrimination on every level of existence. For example, J. explains: “I am a Roma, it all started in the school. Kids pick on you, molest you, they don’t like us there. So I dropped school early.” Roma people are deprived of school education in Serbia, despite the popular understanding backed by the stereotypical, racist views that schooling is not for them, or that Roma parents use children to work for them. It is, in fact, at the level of institutional discrimination where it all begins. Relatedly, P. explains: “they would only give me a seasonal job […] Nobody ever hires a Gypsy for long term”. Labour market discrimination is an ongoing problem. In a similar vein, N. talks about his job in Serbia depending on who they vote for in the local elections : “if you are voting for Rasim, then you have a job”. Party membership and affiliation remains a crucial step to employment for many, especially in the regions where poverty and job scarcity are higher. The concept of the neoliberal subject trying to maximize profit is profoundly incompatible to the project of understanding asylum seekers. Seeing them as “savvy entrepreneurs” in the sense of Walters (2010), who strategically looks for ways to maximize profits through asylum seeking, does not take into account the complex questions of political and discriminatory constraints which bring people to flee.
Jelena Jovičić, MA Social Sciences