Stuck in Limbo: (In)Hospitality of the West Towards Migrants

By: Shubhangi, Isha and Gayetri
Subverting the norm of hospitality at borders does not always require physical force– increasingly it is being done by states weaponizing time. Deploying temporal measures not only situates migrants at borders in a timeless limbo, but it also takes away from them agency and creates new conceptions of the ‘other.’

Standing between the frigid, steely benches of an ICE detention centre, 6-year-old deportee Roberto Ramirez is hauntingly emblematic of the Guatemalan migrant ordeal in the United States and, largely, of migrants worldwide – signifying the peculiar paralysis of being stuck in a zone where time ceases to exist in the ways it operates for those not subject to similar injustices of the border politics of the Global North. In this paper, we seek to understand the passive subversion of the norm of hospitality by states through the weaponization of time against migrants as symbolized in Nick Oza’s portrait. In doing so, we also analyze underlying themes of coloniality and the denial of agency to migrants during the period of protracted limbo and permanent temporariness that characterizes their state of waithood at the metaphorical or physical border.

The norm of hospitality, originating from Kant’s idea of cosmopolitan rights, asserts the right of a stranger to be treated without hostility in a foreign land as long as he occupies his space peacefully. Not only is this norm rooted in power dynamics, but understanding it through the mainstream rhetorical lens of cosmopolitanism decontextualizes the role of the Global North in historically creating innumerable hurdles for these migrant lives at the border. The position of being a host is inevitably one of privilege: that includes dictating the boundaries of what their guest can or cannot do; even the most well-intentioned hospitalities posit control on the guest, locking them in a position of desolate dependency and vulnerability as a stranger in the host territory, or, the ‘other’. Moreover, focusing on these abstract notions of Eurocentric hospitality quenches the colonial fantasy of sheltering the helpless, backward ‘other’, instead of holding the host nations accountable for the violence and trauma that created forcible conditions for them to migrate in the first place. Their past is conveniently forgotten, their present is rooted in existential immobility, and their future, permanently postponed.

States tend to deploy time as a weapon in order to control border crossings by, in our case, migrants or refugees. Firstly, the pace and rhythm of the time – in terms of “speed, slowness, stoppage, and delay”- can be deployed as a means of such border control. Tactics incorporating speed include the deployment of rapid border intervention teams in order to intercept potential refugees before reaching a territory that can provide protection and the shortening of application timelines for onshore asylum seekers among others. Slowness, on the other hand, is characterised in the “permanent temporariness of encampment”. Further slowness can be deployed in terms of stalling techniques or protracting the bureaucratic processes for migrants which could result in prolonged periods of stasis and waiting. Such tactics of usurpation of the time of the migrant for migration control form a part of the state functioning.Opening up borders wrapped up in bureaucratic and political interests, is a form of conditional and reluctant hospitality as well as arguably an attempt at ridding the colonial world of any previous responsibility in tormenting migrant lives. While there is evidently a rising pro-refugee sentiment in the West, perhaps it is worth questioning whether this is a result of genuine cosmopolitanism or disguised colonial moral redemption – whose humanity is at stake in this ongoing humanitarian crisis?

The host state utilizes a range of logics that serve to rationalize the extended periods of wait time among other injustices against the migrant as a means of border control; some migrants are classified as ‘not ready’ to be admitted into state borders because they are not deserving enough while at other times they are not qualified enough to meet the requirements of the skillset that legal migration rules demand. This serves to center disproportionate attention on their propensity to participate in organized crime and radicalization, creating a justification for increased policing on borders and stricter border control norms, which contribute to the protracted nature of waiting. But this framing misses the fact that migration is not a simple phenomenon arising out of infrequent periods of conflict or underdevelopment wrought upon by incomplete globalization. Instead, it is a product of historical practices of colonialism that systematically disempowered colonized countries while simultaneously positing power in the hands of the colonizing countries, and the consequences of these legacies are visible in large scale migration practices. Temporality also helps indicate the colonial rationale that serves the justification of the protracted waiting period of the migrant. The conceptualization of progress and development as temporal categories – whereby certain people or places are conceptualized as belonging to a backward stage of time – are used to rationalize the injustices, violences and protracted state of stasis for the migrant at the border. The characterization of the colonized as primitive savages and the promise of bringing them into civilization enabled the justification of the injustices towards the colonized subaltern. Similarly the protracted limbo at the borders among other injustices towards the migrant are rationalized through the promise of conferring citizenship in the future. Borders therefore become not only a spatial but also a temporal distinction between the advanced, progressive, and contemporary state and the primitive, disorderly, and timeless regions beyond it. Thus, the norm of hospitality gets passively subverted through seemingly innocuous processes of bureaucracy that impose extended periods of waithood. Oza’s portrait alludes to this ‘stuckness’ in time and space indefinitely, which is a consequence of the processes that seek to deliberately, and covertly, slow down movement.

Further, the linear progression of time helps mitigate discontent (by seemingly culminating in the acquisition of the promised citizenship in the future) as well as dissent (because patience makes a prerequisite for qualifying as a future citizen). The future that the migrants spend their time planning and working towards is a contingent one– and this contingency is a product of their unique and diverse circumstances. As McNevin highlights, for some it can mean hoping to gain refugee status, which often entails a resettlement process that involves new forms of displacement; for others, waiting on borders means awaiting a process that eventually leads to repatriation to countries where their homes no longer exists, or are no more secure than when they were abandoned. But neither is there any certainty attached to the desirable fruition of these possible outcomes, nor is there any economic significance attached to the actions that migrants undertake while trapped in this period of waithood. The timelessness that is thus a prominent feature of the way that time is perceived by migrants primarily works to refuse agency to the migrants that seek to cross borders, because the processes that determine the suitability of their condition of entry are malleable to the whims of the state, often arbitrary in nature.

Hostility and hospitality, thus, often overlap in the Western state behaviour towards migrants and refugees – implicitly intertwining to passively prolong their wait for citizenship. While discourse regarding the norm of hospitality remains dominant in global politics, Western states weaponize time to rid themselves of responsibility of the past as well as the present – dissociating themselves with colonial violence of the past while circumventing the norm of hospitality in contemporary affairs. In doing so, these states arguably degrade and delegitimize the norm of hospitality: which results in, among other things, the lives of Roberto Ramirez and countless others being endlessly stuck in limbo.


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Danewid, Ida. “White innocence in the Black Mediterranean: Hospitality and the Erasure of History”. Third World Quarterly, (2017) 38:7, 1674-1689. 2017. DOI: 10.1080/01436597.2017.1331123

Derrida, Jacques. “Hostipitality”. Translated by Barry Stocker and Forbes Morlock. Angelaki, (2000) Vol. 5 (Issue 3): pp.3 – 18. 

McNevin, Anne. “Time and the Figure of the Citizen.” International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society, (May 2020).

Oza, Nick, photographer. “Immigration Customs and Enforcement dropped off more than 100 migrants mostly from Guatemala at the Phoenix Greyhound bus station at 2115 E. Buckeye Road. Roberto Ramirez, 6, was in ICE custody with his father, Gaspa Ramirez. He claims that treatment by officers was bad and children were getting sick because of cold weather.” Photograph. Phoenix, Arizona. Arizona Republic, (December 2018)