Refugees are at the center of a dispute that threatens to fracture German Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition government. Photo: iStock
Representational image: iStock

Waiting entails a host of emotions. It may involve hope, anxiety, boredom, anger and even fear. Waiting is always in relation to a certain understanding of time that we have, but not just that. It may even persuade someone to take his or her life when waiting entails possibilities of losing a home or citizenship or being put in a detention camp.

In essence, waiting is pregnant with possibilities.

If one contextualizes waiting to belong to a place or find work, it can be a very traumatic experience, which is unfortunately currently shared by many across the globe.

In Europe, large numbers of people from Asia and Africa are “waiting” at the borders to get access to a better life. After the crisis in Syria, the migration of a large number of refugees to Europe made headlines, but there are more “silent” migrations that hardly make news.

One such case of waiting is seen in the French port city of Calais, where migrants wait to cross the English Channel and reach the UK.

Anthropologist Vincent Joos and photographer Eric Leleu have been documenting this process for some time and their interviews reveal a tale of uncertainty for the migrants.

One man told Leleu that except for about 300 kilometers in Turkey, he had walked all the way from Afghanistan to reach Calais.

Speaking about the time he spent with the migrants, Leleu said that very often, after an initial conversation for an hour or so over a few cans of beer, he would wait with the migrants until dusk. They would attempt to cross the border illegally, either by hiding in trucks or in rail cars. They were unsuccessful most of the time, after which they were arrested for a brief period and then released.

However, this does not stop them from trying again. They wait for that one time when they would be able to cross the channel.

People are also waiting on the US-Mexico border.

In an attempt to escape poverty and joblessness in Honduras, hundreds of people started traveling to the US-Mexico border last October, forming a large migrant caravan.

They reached the border city of Tijuana in the last week of November, and since then most of them have been waiting in makeshift camps and seeking asylum into the US. There were nearly 5,000 people in this caravan, one-third of them under the age of 18.

In Southeast Asia, the Rohingya refugee crisis is another example of waiting, an end to which does not seem to be in sight.

Forced to leave Myanmar after what has been termed as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing” by the United Nations, the refugees have been living in makeshift camps in Bangladesh. They are waiting for a place they can call home and live without fear of persecution.

A few of them were also deported from India after being identified.

In the state of Assam in northeast India, after marking more than 4 million people as non-citizens through the National Register of Citizens (NRC) process, “waiting” for many had become a part of their everyday struggle. This trauma has driven many to commit suicide.

Normalization of detention camps in Assam among the masses, media and intellectuals alike only adds to the dystopia.

If one reads the testimony of Hanif Khan, who committed suicide on the last day of 2017 after not finding his name after the first draft of the NRC, it became evident that this wait drove him to the rope.

Khan was traumatized as there was news of beefed-up security measures regarding when the list would be brought out.

With that in mind, the sight of any security personnel or convoy made him anxious, and in one instance, as narrated by his widow, he ran 20km to his home, leaving the car he had been driving behind. He was scared that he would be separated from his family, and the sheer possibility of public humiliation and knowledge of being turned into a foreigner did not settle well with him. This waiting and the final news of his omission from the first draft of the NRC became too much for him.

Cases of suicides related to the NRC have touched 40 and counting.

The weft and warp of the history of Assamese cultural nationalism with its xenophobic and chauvinistic shades cultivated the social fear that is intrinsic to the NRC process.

This kind of waiting also collapses the idea of a home. Waiting for citizenship, or even when a settler is told that he is a migrant and does not deserve the soil he stands on, can make one feel not only like a second-class citizen but even a lesser human being.

Waiting for citizenship has become a common phenomenon across the globe. To borrow from anthropologist Catherine Besteman, it is situation of “global apartheid.”

Co-authored by Parag Jyoti Saikia, a PhD student in anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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