From Rights to Favour? Didier Fassin on the ‘Moral Economy of Asylum in Contemporary Society’
Some notes by Johannes Paulmann (IEG, Mainz)
The anthropologist and sociologist Didier Fassin (Princeton) opened the 21st Berlin Colloquium on Contemporary History at the Einstein Forum, Potsdam, on 3 December 2015. In his public lecture Fassin analysed the recent shift in representing individual refugees and the legitimacy of their claims – a shift, as he explained, from a right to asylum to granting asylum as a favour. How are we to explain the accompanying changes in recognition rates and in the manner of accepting refugees?
Fassin sees the convergent logics of two developments at play. On the one side, the political economy regarding immigration changed during the 1970s. Until then workers from abroad were invited and welcomed into an expanding west European economy. With the onset of economic crisis and the slowing down of growth, immigrants were regarded as superfluous in the labour market. However, this perspective is not a sufficient explanation. It took also, on the other side, a change in terms of moral economy, the logic of which shifted from a matter of compassion and admiration for those persecuted to suspicion and hostility towards immigrants during the 1990s when the Cold War ended, the control of borders within the EU was abolished, far right movements rose, and the social integration of refugees or migrants became a matter of public debate.
Fassin adapts here historian E.P. Thompson’s idea of the ‘moral economy’ but neither regards it as a code particular to a group, such as rural workers during the industrial revolution, nor understands it as something long lasting and stable. He rather uses the notion of a moral economy to describe the production, circulation and appropriation of values and affects within the realm of specific problems, in his case migrants wishing to enter a country. The moral economy regarding ‘refugees’ has changed several times during the period since the Second World War. While I would disagree with the historical periodization of the affects and the way Fassin links them to particular groups, for example concentration camp survivors, Latin American resistance fighters or civil war refugees from the former Yugoslavia, the elements he detects certainly were central to the evolving moral economy: commiseration, respect, admiration, compassion, and mistrust.