Review: On the Doorsteps of Europe: Asylum and Citizenship in Greece by Heath Cabot

Cabot, Heath. On the Doorstep of Europe: Asylum and Citizenship in Greece. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 2014. 257 pages.

Reviewed by Julien Cossette
Masters student | York University, Toronto, Canada

Download PDF: CH2(1).137-143.Book Reviews


This review begins where Heath Cabot’s On the Doorstep of Europe: Asylum and Citizenship in Greece, ends: among hunger striking migrants in Athens’ Syntagma Square. For approximately three weeks at the end of 2014, a few hundred Syrians occupied the square across from the national parliament, appealing to a sense of shared humanity in their demands for rights and acceptable life conditions. This protest was marked by their lucid recognition that the current socio-political and economic situation in Greece offered them nothing but an unpredictable present and future. Significantly, this action shared the form and many of the demands — transnational mobility, protection, well-being — of the hunger strikes and other acts of resistance narrated in the last pages of Cabot’s monograph.

As I write this review in early April 2015, the Greek government — now led by the newly elected left-wing political party SYRIZA — is considering its options in regards to its loans from the International Monetary Fund. The country is on the cusp of a potentially transformative moment, one which might have uncertain effects on Greeks and migrants alike. As Cabot aptly intimates, multiple facets of Greece’s social, political, legal, and economic landscapes are “moving target[s]” (2014:16). Recent events and ongoing processes, I argue, are not only a testament to the timeliness of her compelling and engaging new book. Rather, they highlight as well the necessity of further research inspired by her lead.

Based on a rich multi-year fieldwork, On the Doorstep of Europe is thoroughly engaging and full of fascinating stories, vignettes, and anecdotes. This work draws insights from multiple sites of witnessing and participation, and weaves a number of ethnographic — and I would add poetic — threads that stem from the author’s volunteer work with an asylum-related NGO office in Athens. Cabot consequently offers a vivid ethnographic account of the political asylum regime in Greece, crucially exploring the encounters between a variety of actors: asylum seekers; NGO lawyers, advocates, and aid workers; police officers; state adjudicators; and other bureaucrats. She charts how these actors negotiate and re-interpret the political and material constraints, as well as the moral and ethical difficulties, of this legal process — and its attendant ramifications — in a European context. To this end, her attention is also turned to the inseparability of the bureaucracy of the asylum procedure from what she calls “mythopoesis,” the wealth of epistemic practices that strive “to make sense of radical uncertainty, unpredictability, and even absurdity” (2014:9).

The metaphor of the tragedy informs the analysis and the organizing structure of the book, which is creatively divided into three “acts”: “Governance,” “Judgment,” and “Citizenship.” In part through its judiciously distributed references to Aeschylus’ play Eumenides, the book puts forward an evocative analytical device to make sense of what grows out of the encounters between ngo workers, asylum seekers, and other actors. Cabot draws on Butler’s analysis of Antigone to emphasize some critical elements of the genre of tragedy: the dangerous threat posed to the normative order of things by the ostracized hero and the transformative moment of the trial. Such instances of judgement — violent, yet potentially creative and cathartic moments that follow from ruptures — stand as core elements of Cabot’s ethnographic work. These are “generative,” she argues, “producing multilayered and dialogical ethical engagements” (2014:106) through which NGO workers and asylum seekers try to find ways to handle the moral-ethical dilemmas they face at various levels: “individual ethics, community politics, and national and supranational governance, contest, and collaboration” (2014:222). Such moments of judgement may emerge from “trouble cases,” which Cabot evokes as forms of disruptions to “law’s normative and regulatory properties: through ‘crises’ in the fabric of law, legal and sociopolitical orders become open to” (2014:19) re-articulation and reformulation. Importantly, her analysis highlights the concurrent emergence, in these situations, of new openings, thresholds, and transformative possibilities that challenge existing categories and forms. Suitably, then, the third and final act of her book is not one of closings, but of openings. Cabot ends by cultivating an attention to potentialities and shifts-in-the-making that alter the conduct of civic life. In the midst of exclusion and violence, these new forms of inclusion deeply matters for those involved.

In the first act, “Governance,” Cabot considers how governance emerges through the multidirectional entanglements of people, practices, and objects. She presents a thorough examination of the asylum crisis in Greece, noting how it is marked by systemic issues with border management, accusations of inadequate conditions of reception, racist and xenophobic violence, imprisonment and violent policing, and a slow adjudication process that results in backlogged cases and applications in a state of limbo, among others. Cabot resists, however, a facile and over-encompassing analytical finger-pointing at the financial crisis. Instead she highlights other elements at play, including Greece’s geographic location and its marginal positioning in the moral-political landscape of Europe. In her discussion of the charged dilemma NGOs face between investing primarily in advocacy or in immediate legal work, she further points to the double-edged characteristic of critiques, emphasizing how they encourage change while simultaneously reinscribing the country’s political and moral marginalization.

Cabot also importantly focuses on documents as technologies of governance that acquire a life of their own and exert their own social, legal, and political effects. With the goal of accounting for the varied states of limbo in which migrants are thrown, she attempts to track, with difficulty, the seemingly arbitrary delivery and unpredictable movement of pink cards. In theory, she explains, the pink card grants asylum seekers temporary stay in the country and minimal assistance while their application is in process. In practice, however, Cabot demonstrates how different actors seek to strategically interpret and reinterpret its meanings — as well as the limbo it tends to represent — for their own needs, sometimes imbuing the legal document with hope.

“Judgement,” the second act of On the Doorstep of Europe, elaborates on moral and ethical questions around recognition, eligibility, and support that emerge from the asylum process and NGO assistance. With sensitive attention to the consequences of decision-making, Cabot emphasizes her interlocutors’ dialogical attempts to comprehend shifting and flexible legal processes and to negotiate eligibility for citizenship and limited non-governmental services. These decisions, she argues, reflect first and foremost “the sociabilities and sensibilities of NGO encounters” (2014:110). Referring to the law as a theatrical stage, she focuses on Brenneis’ notion of “social aesthetics,” noting how practices of recognition and eligibility determination are influenced by the performances of her participants as both actors and audiences. In other words, cases are co-produced, shaped through the interactions of various participants, and marked by tensions that revolve around issues such as legal literacy, knowledge and epistemologies, legibility, agency, storytelling, and discourses of victimhood. Cabot also highlights the creativity of these engagements which, she states, “may produce a surplus of ethical and affective labor that opens up unpredictable possibilities for reflection, action, and sociality” (2014:74) even as tensions may be left unresolved. Ultimately, she highlights how “law does not simply produce but shapes and (re)configures social realities” (2014:147), noting its instability and elasticity in the face of borderline cases that blur the lines and open gaps to be strategically used.

As mentioned earlier, Cabot’s third act, “Citizenship,” points to sites of new openings and possibilities where notions of city and nation are being reconceptualized and articulated anew. She follows alternative stories — some highly visible, others from the margins of recognisability — that importantly illustrate the formation of new imaginaries and the finding of hope — or something close to it — in difficult circumstances. Highlighting the instability of notions of citizenship and the fallacy of a “monolithic image of Greekness” (2014:175), she dwells on emergent radical possibilities and solidarities that are materializing in this Athens-in-transformation. The author also emphasizes the increasing presence of migrants who are striving for a transparent and accountable asylum process by actually rearticulating “regimes of laws and rights” (2014:199). They have been claiming their status as “citizens of Athens” (2014:197) at a historical moment that is marked by growing civic unrest and claims for political voice in the Greek public sphere.

To conclude, On the Doorstep of Europe stands as a strong piece of ethnographic writing. Sprinkled with poetic elements that metaphotically reference Greek tragedy, the book offers an engaging reading experience that may well succeed in inspiring “active emotional and intellectual engagement,” as Cabot (2014:x) modestly hopes. It is bound to become an influential book for scholars working with undocumented migrant populations in Greece, and her resistance to an analytical attachment to the metanarrative of the Greek debt crisis is particularly laudable in this regard. Deeply ethnographic, her insights are also transferrable to other research sites and contexts, for example: asylum process and migration; political violence; NGO ethical and moral dilemmas; technologies of governance; and creative “survival”. I would also suggest that readers interested in ethnographies of law and bureaucracy will find Cabot’s work on the performative encounters and social aesthetics of legal processes insightful. Beyond the content of the book, the student of anthropology may be inspired by the author’s use of the ethnographic form, particular in terms of her methodology and what she has to say about ethnography and fieldwork, as shared through short reflections and passing thoughts. For example, she highlights how life histories, whether collected in the context of determining NGO eligibility or for ethnographic purposes, are always co-produced — implicitly or explicitly — by all of the actors involved (2014:116–117). While On the Doorstep of Europe is currently available solely in expensive hardcover and e-book formats, the prompt publication of a paperback edition would valuably facilitate the accessibility of this must-read work to an even greater sphere of scholars.

Publication Information

Volume 2, Issue 1 (2015)
ISSN 2292-6739 (Online)


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