Current Advocates of Illegals

When Democracies Violate Human Rights and Film and Fiction Speak Up for the Mute

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2009

19 Pages, Grade: 1,7




Accusation: Democracies Violate Human Rights

Advocates of Human Rights
Dirty Pretty Things, directed by Stephen Frears
Refugee Boy, written by Benjamin Zephaniah
A Distant Shore, written by Caryl Phillips

The Trial and the Jury

The Judgment


Writers, screenwriters and directors are magicians; they can carry us off to the most mythical and enchanted worlds, they can make the sweetest dreams come true, and they can make us dream and hope. But sometimes they are advocates, even more than they are magicians; they make us see invisible things, while they are showing us the real world and, in some cases, the real world is far from a sweet dream and without hope.

“To reveal the invisible […] not only changes the way we see the world, it changes our responsibilities in it”(Hovet, The Invisible London). That is what they sometimes need to do, make us feel responsible. For that reason current authors and directors show us the invisible world of illegals, they give faces and stories to ghosts that often are misused from politics and media to create fear. Fear that is needed to justify the state of exception and the state of exception is needed to maintain or expand political power.

This paper is concerned with the film Dirty Pretty Things directed by Stephen Frears, and the novels Refugee Boy by Benjamin Zephaniah and A Distant Shore by Caryl Phillips. It uses them as representatives of the attempt of writers and directors to give voice to the group of illegal immigrants who do not have a political voice by themselves. As Frears phrases it, “Asylum is a huge political issue and the government doesn’t handle it very well. […] There’s no attempt made to explain the problem, to explain that these people are serious.” (Lucia, Interview 9) Thus, the authors try to explain the problem and they have obviously another point of view than their governments. To what extent the self-appointed advocates defend the interests of illegals and in how far they can change prejudices, distorted images and, at least, political decisions should be discussed in this paper.

The emphasislies here on Great Britain as one major representative of the western countries, for the novels and the film deal with situations in the United Kingdom. Further­more, the change in immigration policy in the last decade there was and is largely and controversially discussed.

Accusation: Democracies Violate Human Rights

The history of democracy is a long and a violent one. Many men have lost their lives fighting for their ideal – anequitable right for every human being, the human rights. In some cases it seems they died in vain, for the history of violence goes on, still today. But not only in countries were democracy is very young or on its way to be born, but also in the countries were democracy has its longest tradition, in the United Kingdom and the United States, as well as in other western countries. In these countries still people are outlawed and loose their human rights, although they are undoubtedly human beings.They do not even commit a crime or harm anybody, why do they become illegal then? Can men be illegal?

To answer these questions, Giorgio Agamben’s theories can be fruitful. Agamben refers to illegals as ‘ hominesacri’ (Agamben, Homo Sacer 8). The term ‘sacer’ goes back to the Latin word ‘sacrum’, which could mean both ‘sacred’ and ‘set apart’. This already shows the ambivalence of the term. On the one hand he is set apart from society, an outlaw; he can be killed without prosecution. On the other hand he must not be sacrificed for religious purposes and although he is excluded from law, he plays a crucial role in forming legality: He repre­sents the state out of law and hence enables law to define itself by contrasting itself to its opposite, the ‘ homo sacer’. Still today, law codes are listing what is forbidden in order to state what is legal, they negatively define themselves.To identify the ‘self’, the ‘other’ is needed. Illegals are the ‘others’.

What helps to demonstrate this complex contradiction is the distinction Agamben makes (Agamben, Homo Sacer 1) using different words for ‘life’ from the ancient Aristotelian parlance: zoē and bios. Zoē represents the bare life, life as such, as all animals are living naturally and physically their lives. Bios, however, terms the higher life of political partici­pation that is reserved for men. Understanding this as a pyramid zoē is a basis that all living beings share, whereas bios is formed by the additional capacity of men to form a state and a society. Figuratively, zoē can be understood as the voice, the possibility to perform sounds, and bios as the language, the possibility to communicate content. Language is the basis of political participation; that is why this work refers to illegals as mute:If they are not part of the legal society, they do not have a political voice.

To outlaw somebody, to exclude him from the polis, reduces a man from bios to zoē. In ancient times it was possible to exclude someone from the polis, since there was still a state of natureelsewhere, as Hobbes describes the state before the polis or the civil society (Hobbes, Leviathan 51). Today, things are different; everywhere around the globe is polis, nowhere a space out of law can be found. This is what Foucault has in mind, when he utters: “For millennia man remained what he was for Aristotle: A living animal with the additional capacity for political existence; modern man is an animal whose politics calls his existence as a living being into question” (Foucault, La volonté 188). The development from ancient times to modern times, the merging of the two terms for life into one, is what Foucault calls ‘biopoli­tics’. That means that “natural life begins to be included in the mechanisms and calculations of State power” (ibid.).

The still existing contradiction of bare life and political life lead to major problems in some cases, as it will be seen in this work concerning illegal immigrants. In the following will be shown how the problems in connection with illegal immigrants are regarded from govern­mental authorities.

At the latest since 9/11, the western world lives in constant fear. Fear has turned out to be the most important and most influencing political factor. As the American Patriot Act or the Italian State of Emergency demonstrate, fear has become an excuse to declare a state of exception. As Agamben states in his homonymous book (Agamben, State of Exception87), the state of exception is the beginning of the end of democracy. He has incriminating historical evidence on his side: The terrors of the Nazi regime were politically commenced by Hitler declaring the state of exception, among other things because of the disputed events of the Reichstag fire. In the state of exception it becomes also possible in a democratic state to violate or at least to neglect first principles of the democracy.Carl Schmitt, one of the top-ranking state philosophers of the last century and a confirmed National Socialist, defined sovereignty as “deciding on the state of exception” (Carl Schmitt, PolitischeTheologie 12). In order to manifest or expand their power and to be sovereign, political leaders of modern democracies still precariously rely on the state of exception.A closer look on governmental statements reveals that to suppress inconvenient affairs, as the migration policy, and to gain acceptance for inhumane political decisions, fear is misused today:

For instance, David Blunkett creeps cunningly the word ‘invasion’in the Home Office White Paper of 2002, when he describes the hardships of refugees trying to flee to Britain. Or Jack Straw, who, in the same paper four years earlier, describes the problems of immigration control and casually mentions substantial costs of immigration to the taxpayers. Straw further distinguishes radically between “genuine refugees” and “economic migrants” and conveys asubconscious image of real and honest refugees in contrast to the untruthful and exploiting ones, who “are abusing the system by claiming asylum” (Straw, White Paper). Given starvation as one consequence of economic crisis, this image of bad immigrants is unsustai­nable. In all of those white papers the British government constantly focuses the perspective on the disadvantages for the taxpayers and the problems caused by asylum seekers, instead of focusing on problems of the refugees and making us aware of their, for the most part, serious background.Although these articles seem not to offend theasylum seekersovertly, they negatively influence the public in their perception of refugees.

In Italy, immigration is seen as such a crucial problem that Berlusconi even declared a national state of emergency in 2008 because of “the continuing inflow of refugees by boat from across the Mediterranean Sea” (Arens, National State of Emergency).

All in all, the rhetoric of the governments reminds of Walter Ulbricht’s assertion:“Niemand hat die AbsichteineMauerzubauen”(Nobody has the intention to construct a wall)[1] (Walter Ulbricht, Encarta).It is hardly believable that the governments of the western world care for the interests of refugees, for humanity and solidarity are not beneficial in the most cases. Even then they try to gain as much benefit from immigration as possible, as Blunkett’sutterance “[t]o ensure […] the positive contribution of migration to our social well-being and economic prosperity” (Blunkett, White Paper) reveals. Such beneficial immigration policy is especially seen in Australia, where legal immigrants havea better educational background than the national average (Prenzel et al., PISA 2006 20). When the governmental statements cannot believed to be true, what to believe then?

Objectively, it cannot be questioned that many people all over the world suffer from political or religious persecution, conflict, war and violence so that their life is in real danger. Sending those people back to their home countries almost equals killing them directly, not to mention the refugees who under most adverse conditions are dying in refugee detention camps in modern western democratic states. This obviously violates the human right of the protection of human life. The detention of the help seeking refugees,taken by itself, violates the human right of liberty. If these most cardinal human rights are violated, it is unnecessary to examine whether others, such as the equality before law, the right to food, to work, to education and to participate in culture or the freedom of expression, are observed.


[1] Walter Ulbricht, the de facto head of state of the GDR, uttered this at the 15th of June 1961, not even two months before the GDR started constructing the wall.

Excerpt out of 19 pages


Current Advocates of Illegals
When Democracies Violate Human Rights and Film and Fiction Speak Up for the Mute
University of Tubingen  (Seminar für Englische Philologie)
Illegality in Theory, Fiction and Film
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Kommentar des Dozenten: "Insgesamt überzeugend, und wie ich finde, erfrischend 'engagiert'"
Illegality, Refugee Boy, A Distant Shore, Dirty Pretty Things, Human Rights, Immigration, Stephen Frears, Caryl Phillips, Benjamin Zephaniah, Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception, Homo Sacer, Outlaws
Quote paper
Raúl Gaston Krüger (Author), 2009, Current Advocates of Illegals, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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