A juxtaposition in my news feeds today:
First, the infamous Edward Snowden, having received temporary asylum status in Russia, seems to have finally left the purgatory of Sheremetyevo Airport’s transit zone. There’s some discussion about where he might end up: privileged enough to take up a tech job reportedly offered by the social networking site VKontakte, or just another asylum seeker destined to end up in a rotting trailer in a Perm asylum camp (via Susan Armitage)? One can guess that the latter is unlikely–Snowden is a public figure whose movements are (at least for now) of great interest to the international press. He also possesses some symbolic value to the Russian state, and perhaps could be useful in the future as a bargaining chip with the US. All of these factors appear to give him a relatively privileged status among those who cross borders without documents. Yet the fact remains that without a secure right to permanent residency anywhere, with his citizenship in a sort of limbo, he is vulnerable. Whether the Kremlin decides to house him in a prison camp or a penthouse, he has relatively little choice in the matter.
And this, of course, is true of all migrants without proper documents, bringing us to the second story: The Russian authorities (and not for the first time) have been arresting migrant workers at markets in Moscow, and have now relocated over a thousand of them to a temporary camp, according to Echo of Moscow. They will be questioned about “various crimes” in which they might have participated, and then most likely deported. (Such practices are not, of course, unique to Russia.) This is what vulnerability looks like without the relative protection afforded by international attention.
Sometimes I am tempted to imagine documents–visas, work permits, passports–as a sort of protective armor against the state. Those of us who have them for the places we currently live may feel a sense of security, knowing that they prove our right to exist in a given place. I don’t think this should be considered an illusion, not entirely. Having US citizenship and the documents to prove it, I can take or leave a job, go to the hospital, even making trips over the border and back, all the while feeling more or less secure in knowing that I won’t be put in a holding cell somewhere. This is a real effect, and for millions of people around the world who don’t, for one reason or another, end up on the wrong side of their state, it lasts. Perhaps this is why figures like Snowden are necessary, to show anyone who might begin to doubt that this small armor can be stripped away in a moment, if one’s state wills it.