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Paperwork, data and drudgery: the invisible work of asylum claims

Datafication, the process transforming our everyday lives into quantifiable and analysable data, is also transforming borders, migration, and asylum. Data collection, storage and exchange have become key principles of border security, with a growing range of technological tools being employed.

Scholars and NGOs have paid significant attention to this process and the implications of data extraction and circulation on migrants’ lives and rights. For example, biometric data such as fingerprints collected from migrants and stored in the database EURODAC determine where people can file their asylum application and build a new life.

However, less is known about the extensive collection of data that migrants themselves have to perform in the process of making asylum claims. This involves digital and analogue data such as photographs, documents, medical records, and other paperwork used to substantiate people’s asylum claims. In an asylum system marked by hostility and suspicion, these forms of material evidence have gained increasing significance and can make the difference between a positive decision and a rejection.

But what does it mean for asylum seekers to have to provide data about their lives? Which data is considered ‘credible’ and legitimate for the granting of international protection? Crucially, what equipment and resources, not to mention time and effort, are necessary to collect this data and put together a ‘convincing’ asylum application?

Collecting, assembling, ordering: Asylum-seeking as ‘invisible work’

My current research with Professor Claudia Aradau within the ERC-funded project ‘SECURITYFLOWS’ addresses the above questions by drawing attention to the ‘invisible work’ that asylum seekers need to perform in order to turn their lived experience into data.

The concept of ‘invisible work’ has its roots in feminist writings on the unpaid and unrecognised work performed by women in the private sphere, but it has recently been expanded to encompass a wide range of feminised and non-feminised, unpaid and underpaid activities. Scholars of Science and Technology Studies and Media and Communications have also adopted the concept to describe the ‘invisible work of data’ and highlight the contrast between the image of data as ‘a fluid entity that circulates seamlessly through the world’ and the significant work and financial resources that data production and circulation takes behind-the-scenes.

Building on this research, and adopting anthropologist Tina Shrestha’s conceptualisation of asylum as work, as part of our project we draw attention to the work that asylum seekers perform in collecting, assembling, and ordering different forms of analogue and digital data to build a ‘credible’ asylum application. In doing so, we reflect on how common understandings of ‘work’ depend on who performs that work. Indeed, similar tasks are considered work when performed by lawyers, judges and other state officials, but not when undertaken by asylum seekers.

Yet, the work of collecting, assembling, and ordering data to substantiate asylum claims requires significant resources, effort, and time. As pointed out by an immigration lawyer we spoke with, the ability to retrieve data depends on factors like asylum seekers’ country of origin, economic possibilities, and education levels. For those who have the means to gather material to substantiate their claim, the process can take months. Additionally, preparing for hearings and ‘translating’ some of this material into a form that decision-makers can understand requires preparation and, at times, new knowledge and skills. For example, asylum seekers may need to learn to navigate online maps that are incomplete or written in a language/script that they are not familiar with.

Finally, the invisible work of seeking asylum stretches over long periods of time. Recently, the Refugee Council has reported that the average waiting time for an initial asylum decision is between one and three years, while some of the appeal cases we have analysed lasted as long as ten years. Scholars have described this prolonged waiting as an existential limbo or liminal space marked by insecurity and immobility. Yet, asylum seekers are not passive subjects who ‘just wait’ for a decision to be made. While waiting, they gather evidence, recall witnesses, prepare for and participate in hearings, and so on.

We think that it is important to recognise the extensive and continual work involved in seeking asylum and the resources that it requires. Attending to these forms of invisible work is crucial to understanding the challenges that permeate asylum-seeking beyond the migratory journey. It also counters problematic depictions of asylum seekers as passive subjects who are ‘just waiting’. Finally, we believe that rendering the collection and assemblage of data as ‘invisible work’ rather than just ‘doings’ has political implications for how we understand the uncertainty and precariousness enforced on asylum seekers.

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