The Unbearable Weight of Staying

by | 4 Jul 2016

On the paradoxical semantic ambivalence at the root of the unrooted concept ‘host’

The Host (Cropped)

On Wednesday 22nd June 2016, during Refugee Week, Adbul Rahman Haroun was sentenced to nine months in prison under the Malicious Damage Act 1861, prosecuted for ‘dangerous obstruction’ of traffic. This ‘obstruction’ of which it speaks concerns the evasion of high speed trains going through the Channel Tunnel during his 31 mile walk in 12 hours of near total darkness, in August 2015. After first escaping persecution in Sudan in 2004, making the perilous journey to Europe and then jumping the fence in Calais following months in the refugee camp, Haroun was arrested by the police at Folkestone. He was detained at HMP Elmley in Kent until January 2016, despite being granted asylum on Christmas Eve. Due to his prolonged detention, the decision was made to allow him to ‘walk free’ from the court. This case illustrates the paradoxical semantic ambivalence at the root of the unrooted concept ‘host’. The ambivalent hostility towards Haroun, through the enactment of a symbiotic legislative process of punishment and asylum, demonstrates the paradox at the crux of the narrative of the ‘host country’ and international refugee law.

The 1951 Geneva Convention makes no explicit reference to the ‘host country’, preferring instead the term ‘contracting states’ when referring to the relationship between refugees and the right to seek asylum. Whilst at first, this alternative phrase seems to present a cold, economical perspective of obligation it insists upon a dialogic role of responsibility which the complex semantic etymology of ‘host country’ can exist without. Although the term itself is used frequently in commentaries on international refugee law—indeed, it had a role in defining the draft legislation for the Geneva Convention, when member states were setting out the nature of the depth of the responsibility each ‘host’ would owe to a refugee on their territory—however, prior to the post-war period it appeared to appear more prominently in economic debates about the movement of capital across borders.

The word ‘host’ thus echoes its ambivalent origins in the Old French sense of those accepting guests for pay (hôte) and the Latin hospitem as ‘guest’, representing the bind of welcoming the stranger whilst recognising the line between guest and master. The use of the term ‘host country’ in this historical context resonates uncomfortably in the language of the prosecutor in Haroun’s case, who argued that his “disruptive” actions had a “significant economic consequence”; here, then, the act of ‘hosting’ is territorialised through its ability to sustain investment, without disruption. Similarly, in terms of European legislation, the term ‘host country’ is omitted both from the European Convention on Human Rights, and from the 2004 Council Directive on the status of Refugees.

The drafters of the 1951 Convention intended, it can be said, to attempt to resolve the issue of large scale post-war refugee populations, as a means to respond to those left “in an unacceptable state of limbo” (Barsky 1994: 29) but, simultaneously as a process of ratifying relationships between previously inhospitable neighbours. It can be argued that this enmity did not dissipate, but rather shifted onto the body of the refugee. The act of hosting, thereby evokes this transplanted state of tension onto a living remnant of the failure of the border. This can be seen in the way in which the refugee has been renamed over the course of history: just as immigrants went from being described as the ‘uprooted’ to the ‘transplanted’, and are now—depending on their economic relationship to the host, their hierarchical level of citizenship and their distance (or otherwise) from persecution—defined as ‘transnational’.

Of course, the status of refugees seeking protection evokes temporality in a different way, through the concept of ‘return’: “host governments receive them as temporary guests, and expect refugees to return to their country of origin when conditions permit” (Kibreab 2003 25). The UNHCR recognises the refugee as a being ‘in a state of limbo’: it is a post-emergency state, and a time-limited waiting period where the host is ever-ready, but only “to be master at home…to be able to receive whomever I like there” (Derrida 2000: 54). For Jacques Derrida, drawing on Lévinas, the condition of hospitality depends on the notion of sovereignty, but this can only exercised at the risk of revealing a temporal closure which defines the power of dominium, or “the claim to guarantee the private domain…by controlling it and trying to penetrate it to be sure of it” (55). It is an irredeemably violent disjuncture which propagates the unfolding policy of hostility from its most implicit manifestation in the polite yet restless queue waiting beyond the yellow line at passport control; to the body of Aylan Kurdi washing up on the shore, displayed as a victim of the unknown eddies of a violent passage to produce an affect in an expectant host rather than evidence of the violence of the force of law and “an ethics of hospitality within is limited and contradictory” (65).

Derrida divides the concept of hospitality into two: the first, unconditional, the second, conditional and juridico-political. The former is intrinsically binding, conditional upon a residence that has spatiality as its guiding principle, singular: and crucially, impossible. The second is temporal, plural and evoking the explicitly hostile act of distancing: “If I say ‘Welcome’, I am not renouncing my mastery” (Derrida with Caputo 2002: 110). It is often mischaracterised as a determination of all strangers as parasites prior to a welcome, but Derrida recognised that the act of ‘hosting’, whilst imposing a contract, does not negate the failure of the ideal: for him, this arrival must always display its juridical violence in order to extol the virtues of the host within a dogmatically temporal moment, a crisis of responsibility under the law of heteronomy (Derrida 1999).

The concept of the ‘host’ is a multi-faceted beast, implying as it does a complex ambivalence between enveloping, devouring and harbouring those it—passively— ‘hosts’, and a tentative offering of space, albeit without roots, to a worn-out stranger. In either context, however, it cannot escape its implicit temporal connotations: ‘to host’ must always be a temporal condition insisting on a brief, disjunctive moment running contrary to the habitual order of events.

Whether this word is applied to the ‘hosting’ of a corporate or sporting event, or to a battered boat of weary refugees seeking asylum—and cognisant of the scale of hostility that fluctuates dependent upon which of these particular circumstances the role of the ‘host’ is (actively or passively) defined, the nature of transient temporality is evoked. In all instances, the paradox of temporality is that, despite these implications of an exteriority achieved through brevity, the very concept of ‘hosting’ a stranger always results in a remnant.

In this way, although the power to expel is, as Derrida would have it, part of the conditional entitlement of acting as ‘host’, it is an act that can never be fully accomplished. It is, thus, by its very nature, caught up in the manufacture of temporal disjuncture, seeking to clearly define a distinct sense of ‘here’ that is revealed as a complex authorial narrative of openings even whilst it is being nailed shut. We can see this in every debate about a post-Brexit Britain: the insistence on the need to contain and expel dismantled through the paradox of global capitalism and its abyssal shadow lines, the missing ropes both pulling in refugees and tightening around their necks.

Emma Patchett is currently Visiting Research Fellow at the Menzies Centre for Australian Studies, King’s College London. Her research focuses on forced displacement in law and literature.


— Barksy, Robert. Constructing a Productive Other. John Benjamins, 1994.
— Caputo, John. Deconstruction In A Nutshell :A conversation with Jacques Derrida. Fordham University Press 2002.
— Derrida, Jacques. Adieu to Emmanuel Levinas. Stanford University Press, 1999.
— Derrida, Jacques in conversation with Anne Dufourmantelle. Of Hospitality. Trans. Rachel Bowlby. Stanford University Press, 2000.
— Kibreab, Gaim. “Displacement, host governments’ policies, and constraints on the construction of sustainable livelihoods.” International Social Science Journal175 (2003): 57–67.

The title is taken from a poem of the same title, by Warsaw Shire (The Unbearable Weight of Staying)


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