My research spans various fields, including migration and diaspora studies, political theory, peace studies, and decoloniality. In my PhD thesis, titled The Realities of Eritrean Refugees in a Carceral Age, I argue that Eritreans face multiple challenges. Firstly, they are born into a state of lawlessness and rightlessness, which drives them to flee their home country. Secondly, once they leave, they encounter exclusive biopolitical and necropolitical entanglements. Lastly, they are treated as disposable bodies, subject to ongoing exploitation, violence, and removal without any accountability. Currently, I am in the process of transforming some of these findings from my PhD into a book titled The Refugee Abyss.

Through empirical, theoretical, and philosophical analyses, the book offers insights into ways to conceive of a theory of transition from violability, coloniality, and destitution towards healing, restoration, and decoloniality. It employs an approach that I call the Journey, integrating philosophical concepts into a framework for decolonial inquiry. The Journey signifies a movement from open wounds to scars, revealing the disfigurement and pain caused by power matrices while imagining decolonial futures. It is a gesture for restorative thinking, tracing, creating, and being in the world. The Journey insists on a reconstitution of knowledge, being, and power across temporal, spatial, and historical dimensions. It proceeds in four instances: the open wound, the structure of the abyss, the conditions of the abyss, and restorative praxes.

The book begins by unmasking the open wound as its opening chapter. The Journey refuses to commence from the ‘system’ or ‘systemic’, instead foregrounding lived experience, tracing the lived, witnessed, and unmarked. The open wound serves as a trace that allows embodied subjects to grasp the world in exteriority and gives rise to displaced voices and profound questions. This foregrounding is necessary for the emergence of creative subjects, shedding masks, excavating sediments, and exploring buried questions.

In the second instance, the book focuses on the structures of the abyss constituted by coloniality. Coloniality, originating in the abyss of slavery and colonisation, has evolved to conceal its mechanisms of inflicting open wounds and continues to project its physical and metaphysical matrices of power globally. It represents the matrices of power underlying the knowledge, power, and ways of existence that shape racially classified and differentiated humanity, where some lives are deemed more qualified than others, and some are relegated to realms of what I termed (de)humanity. The coloniality of the refugee constitutes an abyss of underlying violent structures that constitute the refugee as a form of (de)humanity.

In the third instance, the book traces the conditions of the abyss. It delves into the process of (un)becoming a refugee, examining decisions to exile and cross (b)orders. This discusses how the rule of no-law nor rights creates the conditions for exile. In this abyss, dominated by the rule of no-laws nor rights and violent (b)ordering, to move is to risk life to find life elsewhere or die. To stay put is to die, even if it is death in life. Furthermore, in this instance explores the concept of (de)humanity, specifically focusing on the notion of bellies. It draws a parallel between plantations being the bellies of the slave abyss (Hartman 2016), and the modern-day “asylum colonies” representing the contemporary equivalent. The term asylum colonies refers to a precarious condition of double negation; the negation of being, as refugees’ human condition is reduced to unliveability and ungrievability, and the negation of knowledge, as their precarious existence is unknowable and unrecognisable. Asylum colonies encompass various carceral coordinates, including the border, refugee camps, torture camps, deserts, boats, and the asylum system. These carceral coordinates collectively represent the bellies of the refugee abyss, continuously engulfing displaced individuals and silencing their voices. Inhabitants of asylum colonies are treated as voiceless nobodies, their displaced voices unheard.

The fourth instance marks a shift in the journey, transitioning from wounds and theory to scars and restorative praxis. Even in the darkness, violence, destitution, and solitude of carceral spaces, as Glissant poetically articulates, ‘the trace was lived as one of the places of survival’. The refugees carried seeds of survival along with their wounds. The trace of life in spaces devoid of rights and laws is evidence that life was not lived outside of rights and laws, but rather without them; death was inflicted with rights and laws. These seeds of survival reorient the journey away from the violence perpetuated by the structure and conditions of the refugee abyss.

The book concludes by reflecting on what I call the untamed life, which implies that which emerges beyond scars. The untamed life proclaims the unfamiliar and the emergent, birthed from the traces of open wounds, scars, ruins, and (de)existence.

© 2024. Hyab T. Yohannes.