The impact of framing and deportation
Recent media attention for the deportation of an Afghan man does not only show the importance of framing in the migration debate, but also demonstrates that we know very little about what happens to people after their forced removal.
Although national immigration policies in the Netherlands increasingly emphasise restriction and expulsion, actions on the local level often focus more on support and protection. The same paradox is visible in public perceptions about deportations: while very few people protest deportations in general, this often changes when their friendly neighbour is told to leave. In such cases supporters try everything to draw attention to the case and frame the person in question as a well-integrated and westernised person beloved by the whole town.
Deportation to Afghanistan
Last month the deportation of Afghan asylum seeker Feda Amiri was the subject of heavy debate. He was excluded from asylum based on his work for the KhAD (the Afghan police) in Afghanistan during the Soviet regime. Because of the widespread torture and murder under the Soviets, the Netherlands considers everyone who worked for the KhAD a war criminal unless they can prove otherwise. Amiri had been in the Netherlands for eighteen years with his family because return to Afghanistan was considered too dangerous, but was eventually deported earlier this year. Emotional pleas by his daughter resulted in attention from various media outlets, especially when she travelled to Kabul searching for him after she had heard nothing from him after his return. She eventually found him in a hospital and claimed he had collapsed at the airport after having been injured by escorts during his deportation.
What followed were desperate attempts by the various actors involved to influence his public image and make sure he was seen as either a victim of state abuse or a war criminal and liar. The debate revolved around the question of whether he indeed was guilty of war crimes and if he really had been injured by Dutch agents and was in grave danger in Afghanistan. Initial news reports were quickly countered by articles contesting his sincerity. For example, one journalist wrote that Amiri was hospitalised in an expensive private clinic far away from the airport, while “he earlier claimed he did not know anyone in Kabul and had no money.” The article ends by stating that “the case is extra painful for politicians and other Dutch people who have defended him.” Another article stated that the claim that he was abused during his deportation is “unlikely”. Yet ten days later it was reported stated that during the deportation the escorts had used force and violence. By now it had become impossible for the casual reader to determine what had really happened.
Lack of knowledge
This demonstrates two things. 1: framing plays an important role in the immigration debate, especially when an individual’s case attracts ample media attention. But although every year several thousand people forcibly leave the Netherlands (the exact numbers depend strongly on the definition of ‘forcibly’), only a few individual cases receive widespread attention from the media – and thence the public and politicians. 2: we know very little about what happens to people after their deportation. Although the EU Returns Directive states that “Member States shall provide for an effective forced-return monitoring system”, this rarely happens in practice. And whereas scholars in the United States have started to pick up on studying the experiences of forcibly returned migrants, in Europe this is still a largely underexplored topic. In an age where also European governments appear to have taken a “deportation turn”, it seems timely to start taking this up.