Reflections at the start of Refugee Week: The end of Europe as a community of values – not caused by Brexit but the journey of the Aquarius?

Remember 2015? Then, a perceived unprecedented number of refugees and migrants entered Europe, more than one million people according to available data, while almost 4000 drowned on their journeys. We saw long queues of people stranded at the borders of mainly Eastern European countries, pictures that for many evoked scenes of refugee movements after WWII.

Berlin, refugee football competition photo: Stefan Boness,

But the year 2015 also saw a courageous German chancellor, Angela Merkel, deciding against many in her own political party to open German borders and do the morally right thing: let those stranded in, to be welcomed and processed in Germany. Yes, initially the German asylum system as well as many of its welfare institutions were somehow overwhelmed, but the slogan ‘we will manage’ and a wave of bottom up solidarity by German citizens, NGOs and the business sector seemed to vindicate that optimism, and localised solutions were mostly found for those in peril. And in fact, Germany has managed pretty well, even if right-wing propaganda suggests otherwise.

The situation now, three years later, could hardly be more different. In a general election last year, a right wing party got a by German standards high percentage (almost 13%) of the vote, and the poisonous agenda of its anti-immigration stance has started not only to infiltrate but to distort and poison all wider public debates. In fact, it has captured public discourse in a way that almost no topic makes the national news, but daily shots at migrants, refugees and in particular at Merkel’s humane response to the events of 2015 dominate – even if actual arrivals of refugees and migrants has been paltry since 2016. But now a rift goes through German politics including right through Merkel’s own party – her right-wing interior minister advocates in favour of turning refugees away from German borders unilaterally, while Merkel works for a joint EU solution – and the rift might bring down the government and her chancellorship to a premature end. This unilateral move would not only contravene EU laws on the freedom of movement (the same laws Brexiteers object to), but more importantly make the right-wing fringe suddenly the driving force in German policy, with wider implications for the EU as a whole.

It could ultimately mean the end of the European values that Merkel tried to uphold and defend quite courageously in 2015 – even if even then EU borders were already deadly for too many. The symbol of a visible breakdown of these values can be seen in the recent journey of the Aquarius, a migrant rescue ship that carried 629 people and was forbidden to enter the nearest port in Italy by Italy’s new government that includes a far-right anti-immigration party that vowed to close all Italian ports to ships carrying refugees, in addition to starting deportations – a policy move not dissimilar to the ‘hostile environment’ policy Teresa May introduced as Home Secretary when she among other things sent buses across the land basically telling refuges and migrants to get lost, or else!

For the Aquarius a solution was eventually found in that Spain’s new socialist government agreed to accept the vessel – even if that involved a transfer and arduous journey for those on board. Not surprisingly, the Aquarius has since been followed by two other ships in similar limbo, and a general solution is nowhere to be seen. These latest events demonstrate once more the inability of Europe to act as a community of values, and to agree on a system that shares the care for refugees and migrants among all members states in a way that does the least harm. In fact, the UK was a front-runner in jeopardising any such system, with its refusal to take in refugees at the height of the Syrian war. Maybe Brexit voters should re-consider, now that the rest of Europe seems to follow the UK’s ‘putting up the drawbridge’ example? Instead of having ‘jungle-camps’ in places like Calais, keep refugees circling around on ships until the decide to turn back?

This is not the first time that ‘Europe kills’, literally or figuratively, as the number of drowned refugees each year attests to. And to now put the sole blame on Italy’s new right-wing government is not entirely fair – but rather disingenuous. Italy has in many ways been left alone to deal with refugee arrivals for far too long, and many of its coastal and island communities have in fact been marvellously welcoming, often sharing meagre resources.

It is in many ways a sad beginning for refugee week. I continue to believe in the wider dynamics of bottom up solidarity, like those shown for example on Italian and Greek islands, or at German railway stations, in its parks and homes, and in so many other places all over Europe. But it might also be time to acknowledge that if we are living at a juncture where the consensus that we have a moral duty towards the suffering stranger is evaporating, other means of political action might urgently be needed. Otherwise, our own humanity is at risk.

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Memories of a journey to Senafe – in light of the recent Ethiopian peace offer to Eritrea

It was May 2001. Not so long ago the fighting phase of the 1998-2000 border war between Eritrea and Ethiopia had ended, and now a UN peacekeeping mission (UNMEE) was on the ground in order to ensure the 20 kilometres security zone inside Eritrea remained that: a zone without soldiers and army-weapons. Of course, this was sort of impossible, as most Eritreans belonged to the army in some function or other, and many people wore army fatigues as their everyday closing, whether active soldiers or not.

Senafe 2001 Photo: Stefan Boness,

We were in Asmara then and wanted to travel to Senafe. One needed a permit, not from the Eritrean government side but from the UNMEE office, as Senafe was inside the security zone, in fact almost at the border. It was also forbidden to stay over night, thus the nearest place one could stay was Adi Keih. The UNMEE permit was easy enough to get, and off we went.

After having checked into a hotel in Adi Keih, we drove off in the direction of Senafe. I had met a few of the people I had known there in Asmara, people who had fled or were evacuated when fighting reached the area. New health and education facilities in Senafe lay in ruins, and the little hotel where I used to stay and where the owner made the best spaghetti with chillies ever was burned to the ground. People started slowly to return from the adjacent countryside, some de-mining activities were under way, but overall Senafe looked like a ghost town.

Demining around Senafe 2001 Photo: Stefan Boness,

Slogans on the wall, partly in English, told everybody in no clear terms what the Ethiopian army who had passed through thought about the Eritreans as a treacherous friend turned enemy. On and on we drove, as the only time papers were checked was when we entered the UNMEE security zone. Suddenly we seemed to be in what was possibly (and in all likelihood) already Ethiopia. It was eerie and spooky, the only living creatures were some stray dogs who went through the shells of former houses in search for food.

We thus turned around, visited a de-mining project on the way back to Adi Keih, and chatted to some Canadian UNMEE troops who had not really much to do, so they started clearing the rubble from one of the destroyed primary schools that they would later help to rebuild.

This was the last time I was in Senafe. Future visits were made impossible not by UNMEE (who stayed in the country until 2008) nor by renewed fighting, nor the fact that the Ethiopian side failed to implement the cessation of hostilities agreement that was to be final and binding, in particular failed to withdraw its troops from Badme, one of the symbolic flashpoints of the war. No, it was made impossible by new Eritrean travel restrictions that accelerated over time and prescribed a limited number of places foreigners were allowed to visit with a required travel permit – for security reasons, or so the official narrative goes.

Senafe 2001 Photo: Stefan Boness,

The recent announcement by the new Ethiopian PM, to end the stalemate on the border issue with Eritrea that includes the offer of Ethiopian troop withdrawals from areas such as Badme, I thus warmly welcome. Of course, we have all grown sceptical and cynical, and esteemed colleagues and friends have already given their dismissive interpretation to the announcement – the Ethiopians do not mean it yet again; nothing will change from the Eritrean side and so forth – and sadly that may turn out to be true.

Also, we should remember that the (physical and symbolic) border between Eritrea and Ethiopia did not overnight suddenly become a point of contestation, when the actual war broke out. Rather, one could go back a long time in history to find between the supposedly ‘one people’ now artificially divided a sense of hatred and suspicion on both sides – be it in the assumed superiority felt by some Eritrean highlanders towards their Tigrayans counterparts; be it in the pleasure with which Ethiopian border guards harassed Eritreans on their way to Tigray post Eritrean independence – witnessed by myself for the last time in 1997, when travelling with fellow Eritreans from Asmara to Adigrat.

Senafe area 2001 Photo: Stefan Boness,

But the time may have come to put this aside, to remember the equally strong bonds and connections among peoples from both sides of the border, and at least give the Ethiopian initiative a chance. Little comment has come from the Eritrean side thus far, and overcoming the stalemate with Ethiopia would without doubt lead to political change in Eritrea that many in its current leadership are bound to strongly resist. But change will come eventually, and for once there might be a chance, however slim, that this rather courageous announcement from the new Ethiopian government will accelerate such change. If that makes the Horn of Africa as a whole a more peaceful environment, in the current geopolitical climate, is another question. But who knows, maybe I find myself on a trip to Senafe and beyond again sooner than I imagined possible.

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In light of the election victory of Victor Urbán: Post-socialist politics of solidarity revisited

In February 2008 I was invited to a curious event in Olomouc, in the Czech Republic. The event, entitled The relevance of research institutions to development cooperation, brought together academics from key institutions where Development Studies as a subject was taught in Western Europe – and I was representing what was then IDPM and is now the Global Development Institute at the University of Manchester. With me were academics from other Development Studies institutions across Western Europe, joined by colleagues from the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary. The latter, described as ‘New Donors’ at the time, all to different degrees had started or were about to start programmes in Development Studies in order to become ‘better’ New Donors, and hoped for advise and practical recommendations from us, their Western European counterparts. Why am I reminded of this event now?LegaciesC1

This is the case for two reasons: One reason is the decisive victory of Victor Urbán in the recent Hungarian elections, based partly on the simple message to keep foreigners out, close borders and focus on restoring the greatness of Hungary as a nation. This was commented upon by a German politician with the words that those countries in Eastern Europe (meaning Hungary but also referring to Poland and the Czech Republic in particular, all characterised by similar dynamics) had more than 40 years of development to catch up with and while one could not condone such narrow-minded views that focus solely on national restoration, one could surely understand those views – well, the Cold War ended in 1989, not yesterday!

The second reason is a book review of my 2014 book Legacies of Socialist Solidarity that has just come out in the Journal of Development Studies, written by a scholar of Eastern European background now based at Maynooth University in the Republic of Ireland. Her review stands out in that it is the only of numerous reviews of my book that reminds the reader of the multiple acts of solidarity and exchange, of what I call a form of ‘socialist cosmopolitanism’ in some of my own work, that characterised the period of socialism in Eastern Europe. Far from being ‘lost years’, this was for many a period of development alternatives and different forms of solidarity and engagement with the ‘Third World’. Yes, like Western development aid it was messy and characterised as much by self-interest as by ‘true’ solidarity. But, as I also discuss at length in my book, the East was not this blank slate, a space best described by non-development that was now brought back into the brave new world of the ‘end of history’ narrative following in the footsteps of Fukuyama.

Already when I attended the above mentioned event in Olomouc the term ‘New Donor’ irritated me greatly as a fundamentally misguided description of the past and the present. I am truly grateful to Ela Drążkiewicz, the reviewer of my book, for focusing on this misconception in her review, a misconception that defined Eastern European aid providers as emerging in contrast to Western players who were traditional donors (and who were to be seen as THE model, as the framing of the event in Olomouc as one example demonstrated). Yes, when Eastern European states joined the EU in the early 2000s, they were required to establish Official Development Assistance structures that would replicate OECD/DAC models, as Drążkiewicz points out. And their labelling as ‘New Donors’ made their inferiority visible for everybody to see, being presented as lacking experience and as needing to follow the guidance of the ‘mature’ Western donors.

In my book I come to the conclusion that the legacies of what was before, the rich history of socialist countries’ involvement in development cooperation and the ‘Third World’ more generally often only lives on in the lives of individuals who were part of it – and election results like that in Hungary seem to vindicate such an interpretation, as hardly any political party exists in many former socialist Eastern European countries that advocates a different interpretation of history and solidarity, and gains broader electoral approval. Nevertheless, and this is the second point I am grateful for in the review, we should be vary of those who simply prioritise Western approaches to foreign aid practice over socialist ones, or other conceptions of development alternatives – and by extension indirectly accept xenophobia, anti-immigration resentment and anti-solidarity policies. In times not only of election victories like those in Hungary but also Brexit and renewed vilification of certain countries based on Cold War rhetoric, a reminder that different forms of solidarity, whether inspired by socialist, humanist or cosmopolitan beliefs, is badly needed.

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The Global Compact for Migration and #Refugees4Sale

The week that saw the release of Zero Draft of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration also saw multiple protests in front of Rwandan embassies in many countries, including the UK, Germany, Israel. Under the slogan Tell Rwanda No Refugees4Sale these protests were aimed at the new Israeli Prevention of Infiltration Act that was passed in December 2017, and its policy implementation. Starting on Sunday 4 February, a day before the publication of Zero Draft, expulsion orders were issued to African migrants/refugees mainly from Eritrea and Sudan: the order gives them the choice to be sent to a ‘third country’ by the end of March, or face detention and imprisonment. The ‘third country’ is not been named but it is common knowledge to be Rwanda and Uganda. The receiving countries reportedly receive US$ 5000 per refugee they accept, while the refugees themselves receive a plane ticket plus US$ 3500 each.

These protests go to the heart of what is lacking in the Global Compact, and they ultimately go back to the age-old question of guaranteeing supposedly universal human rights in actual political space. This space is controlled by nation states and based on increasingly exclusionary politics, not only in Israel but the world over, as a brief look at such different settings such as Hungary, Poland and the US among others testifies to.

The Global Compact is unlikely to change that in any fundamental way, as it is a ‘non-legally binding, cooperative framework’ that ‘upholds the sovereignty of States’. And while it does acknowledge that ‘migration has been part of the human experience throughout history’ and recognises the potential of migration to be a source of prosperity and sustainable development, its overall reading of migration and mobility is not one of a core human activity but one that presumes staying put is the norm. Thus it is mainly aimed at combatting the structural factors (Objective 2) that make people leave their country of origin and ‘compel them to seek a future elsewhere’ – not recognising the agency of migrants who might have multiple reasons to leave, nor the value of migrants journeys in themselves as a core aspirational activity.

It should thus come as no surprise that many of its solutions centre on securitization wrapped up in a positive spin, such as in Objective 4 to provide all migrants with proper identification, resting on new registration schemes and the sharing of biometric data – much more a measure of control than of enabling journeys.

Looking in a bit more detail at the Israeli example of dealing with refugees and migrants provides a useful prism to interrogate initiatives like the Global Compound – and raise doubts that it will actually improve the lot of those on the move for different reason and out of different motivations.

Israel has a very small number of African asylum seekers who entered the country from 2005 onwards through its border with Sinai – a route that has been practically closed since 2013 thus almost no newcomers have arrived since. Out of once around 54.000 African refugees, 35.000 remain in the country. The majority has lived there for almost a decade now, they speak fluent Hebrew, have children born in Israel, have work and are what one can only call integrated.

But the Israeli state sees them as a danger to its Jewish character, therefore the new push to get rid of them once and for all. This has triggered the various protest in front of Rwandan embassies, in itself rather odd, as it is Israel that does the deportations and the ‘selling’, if one wants to put it that way. Leaving that issue aside for the moment, the deportation policy – as that is what it really amounts to, has been sanctioned by the Israeli High Court. The Court ruled that indefintite detention in itself was illegal and needed to be reduced to 60 days – but that quasi-deportation to ‘third countries’, as long as it was ‘voluntary’, could go ahead. The refugee-cohort now threatened with deportation is not the first one to be flown to Rwanda from Israel. Researchers who have followed the plight of previous groups have revealed their subsequent plight – an often circular and rather desperate movement from one country to the next. The lucky ones eventually make it to Europa, others are stuck in limbo.

Looking at the provisions of the Global Compact, Israeli behaviour can easily be justified through it. In objective 13 the Compact speaks about using detention as a last resort, and working to create alternatives. Indeed, Israel provides this alternative in the form of a plane ticket to an unsafe destination. The Global Compact also has as a further objective 12 to strengthen mechanisms for status determination – assumingly based on new biometrical data. In Israel, the system of processing asylum applications for African refugees has been slow and often inaccessible – and a merely 11 recent African refugees have been given that status.

Ultimately, even if Israeli policy towards this group of African refugees and migrants might contravene the spirit if not the letter of the Global Compact, state sovereignty has the upper hand. And when listening to an Ethiopian born member of the Israeli Knesset in an interview to i24news saying that the deportations are fine because ‘they came from Africa, and they are going back to Africa’ one doubts more generally that initiatives like the Global Compact will succeed in making mobile everyday lives better.

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Tell Rwanda no #Refugees for Sale, but is not Israel the culprit? – race and protests for refugee solidarity

As a consequence of the reported agreement between Israel and the two African countries Rwanda and Uganda – both countries officially deny such a deal is in place – to allegedly take in refugees form Eritrea and Sudan that currently reside in Israel, a number of protests have been and will be held. One of those, to be held in front of the Rwandan embassy in London on 7 February has the sub-slogan: Tell Rwanda no #Refugees for Sale.

Wait a minute the uninformed spectator might wonder: Rwanda is selling refugees? Well, not quite. Israel wants to get rid of the rather small number of 35.000 refugees from Eritrea and Sudan that still reside in the country, many, while without official recognition, living and working in Israeli cities. To this end, it ‘offers’ those refugees a plane ticket, US$ 3500 and allegedly pays Rwanda (and Uganda, but Rwanda seems to be singled out for protest) US$ 5000 for every refugee it accepts. Those refugees who receive this ‘offer’ need to take it up before 1 April 2018, otherwise they are threatened with detention.

Thus, clearly, if one insists on using the trope of ‘selling refugees’, in itself rather controversial, Israel is doing the sale. Following this logic, the protest surely should take place in front of the Israeli embassy? Not least because this policy of deporting (a word that seems to do more justice to what is happening than selling) refugees to Rwanda is not new, and from the stories we know of past journeys it has emerged that a well-structured processing operation is under way once these refugees arrive in Rwanda, and none of the rights to asylum promised to them by Israeli authorities have actually materialised. While it is not proven how far Israel’s involvement in this deportation-chain goes, as the policy has its origins in the Israeli un-hospitality and its denial of refugee rights, that is where protest should start – and it would at least be fair to give the Rwandan claim that they are not part of the deal a fair hearing.

As it happens, the protest announcement in front of the Rwandan embassy comes a few days after Holocaust memorial day. One of the more disturbing facets of marking that day over the years has been the tendency to conflate increasing anti-Semitism (for which there is ample evidence and which needs to be strictly condemned in all its forms) with critiques of Israeli state policy. This is quite disturbing in itself – as it ultimately only regards critique of Israeli policy by Israelis or Jewish people as legitimate, and all other critiques can be brushed over as ‘anti-Semitic’. Thus, maybe here is one reason why protests in front of Israeli embassies are rather avoided.

But I think an additional dynamic is at work here, a dynamic ultimately rooted in racial ideology. On the one hand there is the racism of Israeli politics itself towards African refugees in particular, a racism that also extends to those who are legitimate Israeli citizens, like Jews from Ethiopia. But racial dynamcis seem also hidden within the movements for solidarity with those refugees, and they come in different forms and guises.

There is the narrative of many of those who advocate on refugees’ behalf based on unreflect accounts of horror in their home countries. Eritrea in those accounts is painted as the most horrible place on earth, a picture that has little to do with the complex reality of a postcolonial state that achieved independence in the age of globalisation, but makes a simple reading of good versus evil possible – evil African dictators versus good white saviours of their innocent African victims. This is not dissimilar to the narrative propagated by the Save Darfur campaign in relation to Sudan that has been aptly analysed as based on racial and colonial stereotypes by Mahmood Mamdani, a narrative that has more to do with the white saviour complex than the complex realities of Darfur.

These dynamcis are carried into the protests against the latest deportation threat, where the focus is not so much on Israel, but on Rwanda, another African polity where the lives of those refugees will be nothing but horror. Here we go again: bad Africans do bad things to other, by implication innocent African victims. This story of ‘bad Africans’ and ‘innocent victims’ distorts reality at various levels. It becomes even more problematic when it relates back to for example the history of slavery, as in a recent protest in front of the Rwandan embassy in Israel (see my latest blog). The African slaves once sold to work on sugar plantations in the Caribbean are now sold to work in the tea plantations of Rwanda? Of course not!

Still, some of those deported to Rwanda in the past faced a difficult future, and clearly no refugee should be deported to a place where their safety cannot be guaranteed – thus as long as this guarantee is missing, planes to Rwanda should be grounded. There might also be those who actually made a successful life in Rwanda or through moving on – but they do not make the news, or for those who move on, only the stories of their horrid journeys do. This focus on the horrors experienced during their post-deportation journeys adds another troubling dimension to the story of the ‘bad African’: It creates, whether intended as such or not, a kind of hierarchy of deservedness, implying that we owe them compassion because of their past suffering. From the refugees I met in Israel during my own research, a few had been kidnapped and tortured on their way through Sinai when the Israeli border was still open. But most simply paid the people smugglers and had a not always pleasant, but also not inherently unsafe journey (in particular when compared to the other option available to them at the time they decided to come to Israel: the boat route across the Mediterranean). Both groups of refugees, no matter how their journeys unfolded, should receive the same rights and protection.

Israel has a small number of mostly well-integrated African refugees, and almost no newcomers have entered the county since it built its border fence with Egypt in 2013. It would be easy to integrate them, they pose no threat to the country in any way, as the government claims, but many make valuable contributions to Israel’s labour market and society. The racialised refugee and citizenship policy of the Israeli state is responsible for their current plight – thus why hold a protest in front of the Rwandan embassy? And what would be the case if not Rwanda, but let’s say Germany, would have offered to take those African refugees in, and be paid the US$ 5000 per head that allegedly Rwanda is receiving? Would we see protesters in front of the German embassy against #Refugees for Sale. I very much doubt it.

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‘Slaves for sale’? – Visual performances of protest and vanishing global solidarity

It may be that the presence of US President Trump was the talk of the town in Davos. Or French President Macron with his meandering speech that included to put Europe on the map (again?) as a force for global good. But there was another encounter that related back to the phase in history when ‘Europe’ might have wanted to civilise the world but in fact created colonial oppression and facilitated for example the slave trade (and its justification). The picture in Davos that harked back to those themes was the handshake between Rwandan President Kagame and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Apparently, or so a lot of headlines suggested, that handshake sealed a deal for Rwanda to take in African refugees that Israel wants to get rid off – at a payment of US$ 5000 per head to the Rwandan government.

Both sides have long denied that there is a deal in place, and now confirm procedures will comply with international law – which in itself is not possible as Israeli refugee policy has contravened such law repeatedly over the last decade. Also, Eritrean and Sudanese refugees have been flown to Rwanda (and Uganda) from Israel before, quasi voluntarily and enticed by a payment of US$ 3500 per person, and often experienced violence, blackmail and extortion after their arrival.

When the Israeli parliament approved a new deportation law in December 2017 that included more restrictions on refugees and migrants living in Israel, and threatened future imprisonment for those who do not leave ‘voluntarily’, protests against the new policy gathered pace and extended to parts of Israeli society who in the past were not engaged in the question of African refugees in the country.

In parallel, protests by refugees and migrants themselves increased and took various forms – most dramatically perhaps in a recent protest by Eritrean refugees that made it into most international media outlets: the ‘Slaves for sale’ performance, here reproduced in a screen shot from the Morning Star.

screenshot Morning Star

On the one hand, this protest is a powerful performance of injustice, and a powerful symbol that harks back to one of the great injustices suffered by African people in particular in history, but does the narrative hold? And does it help or rather hinder wider conceptions of global solidarity?

Looked at from a more historical lens, the situation the mainly but not exclusively Eritrean and Sudan refugees in Israel find themselves in is in no way new or unique. It is yet another expression of the fact that universal human rights lack enforcement in actual political space as perhaps most famously Hannah Arendt has commented on.

When I first saw the pictures of the ‘Slaves for sale’ protest, I felt a strong sense of unease, for a number of reasons. Suddenly, all the decades of work on agency in forced migration seemed blown out of the window. We are presented with by implication innocent victims with no say over their future who simply wait to be sold on. We do not know how they came to be in this situation – presumably they came to Israel against their free will already? There have been reports that Eritreans in particular were abducted in Sudan by Bedouin tribes in the past, sold on and somehow ended up in Israel against their will. It might be that some of those who protested here experienced that fate. In my own research among Eritrean refugees in Israel, all people I encountered in Tel Aviv came there by choice – often a choice between a number of not very enticing possibilities, but a choice nevertheless. And even at a time when the Israeli border with Sinai was still open, but Eritrean networks in Israel warned their compatriots not to come, many still did do so – aware of the dangers of kidnapping in Sinai, aware of the fact that the wider Israeli public and many leading politicians were rather hostile to their arrival.

This could only mean, the narrative by activists proclaimed, that conditions in Eritrea were so bad that even those dangers did not deter people, conveniently ignoring the fact that once people had actually left Eritrea, they had agency on their migration trajectory. And here is a second reading of the ‘Slave-protest’ in the competition for maximum global exposure: Eritrean refugees and activists have advanced the narrative of ‘slavery’ they are being exposed to in their country of origin, in a similar vain as Darfurian activists come with the narrative of genocide. For both tropes, evidence on the ground or the lack of it has little relevance, but these tropes allow prime position in the global hierarchy of suffering.

Yes, the Israeli regime of deportation and detention, and the fact that it is almost impossible to even launch an asylum claim let alone become recognised, are all serious flaws of International Laws Israel has signed up to in principle. There are many ways to engage with these unjust policies on the ground – as increasing sections of Israeli society are doing – and try to fork out actual political space for the rights of those who came as asylum seekers or migrants to Israel, to practice solidarity with all who deserve it, be they from Darfur, Eritrea, Nigeria, Cameron or elsewhere.

I doubt that symbolic hyperbole like in the performance of slavery is going to achieve that – aside from its arguably rather un-historical analogy. We live in a visual world of fast moving pictures and imaginaries. We might be captivated by a particular noteworthy performance such as in the ‘Slaves for sale’ staging of refugee plight, visible in the fact that the picture appeared in many international media, not quite as widespread as the picture of Aylan Kurdi at the time, but following a similar logic.

But attention moves on, as not least the case of Aylan Kurdi has demonstrated – and to raise wider awareness again in the future needs to rely on even more hyperbolic performances. This will do little for ensuring the rights of all those stranded within countries or at international borders, and who in everyday struggles simply try to get on with their lives – or to go back to Hannah Arendt, to secure universal rights in actual political space, and move a step closer towards global solidarity.

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Mind the gap (year)! – in defence of the travelling explorer or: my first encounter with Asmara

Photo: Stefan Boness,

It has become all the rage: visit a slum to find yourself. Hug orphans in some poor African country – and you do something good and have fun at the same time. Oh, and it should not be forgotten – you pay a hefty sum to the organisation that has arranged your good-doing, with only a tiny amount going to those you are keen to help. Three weeks to help out in an orphanage in Argentina? That would be Euro 890 (without your flights and cost of living). No lack of takers, and the organisations that offer such services have mushroomed over the last few years.

The gap year culture has been critiqued from various sides – not least by organisations who claim to do serious development work and only send those out who have relevant skills and experiences, and I do not wish to add to those critiques here. Nor do I want to repeat the well rehearsed argument that many gap-yearers behave like a new brand of colonialists – which is true in many cases but not what I aim to engage with here.

And already before the current gap-year-wave it was the case that orphanages in particular were a magnet for do-gooders. I remember in Rwanda in late 1994, how American church based organisations descended on various orphanages in the country, thus creating a demand for the latter leading to a situation where children with parents or close relatives still alive were put into orphanages for a while. Such tendencies seem to have increased all over the globe with the gap-year culture, as demand for cuddling orphan children is bound to produce the needed supply.

What I want to do here is to advocate for a tradition that is much older than the ‘gap-year’, and encourage youngsters who just finished high school or other forms of school-leaving age activities to explore the world on their terms, to follow their curiosity and do so in a way that does less harm to the planet and its people, in particular those regarded as ‘vulnerable’.

Such a way of travelling and exploring, not with its value for a future CV in mind where ‘international volunteering’ seems to have become one pre-condition for a successful career, is bound to prove valuable for any future life trajectory even if in often roundabout ways. I was reminded of this when I was asked to contribute a chapter to a book on Asmara, the capital of Eritrea. It prompted me to rethink how I became involved in Eritrean affairs in the first place.

It were the early 1980s, I had just finished the German equivalent to A-levels, and set off travelling, initially with a friend, with little money but a lot of curiosity. Setting of by train and through hitch-hiking, a very common way of getting around then, I eventually found myself living in Cairo, partly working as an extra for an Egyptian cinema production that needed European-looking people for some disco scenes. At some point I ran out of money, and did what many fellow explorers in a similar situation did back then: took the bus to Eilat in Israel to work in one of its hotels for a few weeks. In need of accommodation, I ended up renting a room in the flat of an Eritrean who, like many of his fellow countrymen, worked in the construction industry.

Mike, as he shall be called, had fled the Eritrean liberation war that was then in full swing, as he was reluctant to get involved in politics of any kind, and wanted to join his sister who was living in Italy. At the time, his UN-issued laissez-passer papers allowed him to go as far as Israel. Israel then was the dead end of a long journey, and quite a community of Eritreans in similar situations had gathered in Eilat. Mike, during the three months I came to share a flat with him, instilled in me vivid imaginations of a beautiful city in the Abyssinian highlands, Asmara, and when we eventually parted company it was with the words then common among Eritreans dispersed throughout the world: ‘Until next time in Asmara’, an expression of hope that one day Eritrea would be free and we could all gather there. In relation to Mike, who over the coming decade I lost touch with, next time never came – even if during my first visits to Asmara in the 1990s I kept looking our for his tall figure, and always expected him to somehow show up on the passeggiata, the routine evening walk on Asmara’s main street, one of those Italian traditions that have survived in post-liberation Eritrea.

Thus, while it took me about a decade to eventually set foot into Eritrea, it was the time I spent with Mike and his friends that left a profound imprint on my future life, even if I did not anticipate this during the time we spent together. When I returned from my travelling explorations to study in Berlin, I became involved with the Eritrean diaspora community there, and eventually, and after quite a few detours, I would become a scholar of Eritrea and the wider Horn.

And while I never met Mike again, our encounter in 1984 made me return to Israel to conduct research among new cohorts of Eritrean refugees there between 2010-2013. Coming full circle one could say – even if I never anticipated that my vagabond years would become such a meaningful guide to my life as first a journalist and then a researcher.

My book chapter that inspired this blog, ‘Until next time in Asmara: A City of Aspiration, Despair and Ambition’, has been published in the book Architecture in Asmara: Colonial Origin and Postcolonial Experiences. Volgger, P. & Graf, S. (eds.). DOM Publishers, p. 432-439.

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