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 10 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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Reflections on the Effectiveness of UN Peacekeeping Missions: local encounters in Darfur

UNMEE mission in Eritrea
Photo: Stefan Boness,

On 13 Jan 08 at approximately 18:30 hrs a UN WFP driver was shot and wounded in an attempted carjacking. The UN WFP driver picked up a UN WFP radio operator to commence night shift in the Hai Elmitidad area in Geneina town. Four unknown bandits, three armed in military uniform, one unarmed in civilian clothing, approached the vehicle and one of the unknown armed bandits fired without warning a single shot into the vehicle. The bullet went through the side window and injured the upper arm of the UN WFP driver. The driver accelerated to leave the location and communicated the incident to the UN WFP radio room. UN WFP security assistant advised that the driver sought medical treatment immediately at the nearby El Geneina hospital. After initial treatment, the staff member was taken to the UNAMID clinic by UN WFP Security/UNDSS. The staff member suffered a non life-treating gun shot wound without fracture to his upper arm and was admitted to the UNAMID clinic for observation.

The above is a slightly abbreviated entry in the UNAMID Joint Mission Analysis Centre (JMAC) dataset from 13 January 2008. The dataset describes security incidents of any kind at the micro level in Darfur, the area of operation for the UN-African Union hybrid mission in Darfur, UNAMID.

The driver in question described in this incident report has possibly many roles: as a local who has secured a good employment position, as working for any UN organisation – in this incident the World Food Programme (WFP) – usually pays well. He – it as a safe bet to assume it is a man, as women do not usually occupy jobs as drivers for any UN entity in the context of Darfur – might be a member of an ethnic group regarded as rebellious by the central government in Khartoum (and thus deliberately targeted). He might simply have been targeted because those who attacked him wanted to carjack the vehicle, a very common occurrence in UNAMID’s deployment environment. Or he might simply have been at the wrong time in the wrong place. Maybe he was targeted within a broader scheme to make work difficult for any UN entity, eventually forcing them to leave or at least put enough pressure on them to abstain from certain activities. Indeed, a former employee of UNAMID’s human rights section told me in February 2016 that at some point during his employment with UNAMID, patrols to check reports on human rights abuses had largely ceased – due to fear of cars and equipment being hijacked (he showed me pictures of a huge car-park full of white landcruisers at Nyala supercamp in Darfur that he said were not moved sometimes for weeks)

The driver on this occasion can be considered lucky, as he had no life-threatening wounds. But attacks like this raise a number of wider questions, not only about the protection of civilian mandates that is at the centre of most peacekeeping missions. It also raises profound questions about the actual conflict missions like UNAMID intervene in, and questions about what drives local populations to behave in particular ways: to either seek employment with the UN, to stay put and carry on with their lives as if UNAMID was not there, to move to an IDP camp within the region, or to up sticks and go on the well-travelled track to neighbouring Chad (or somewhere else).

It also raises important questions about the encounters that happen between UNAMID and the populations that are to be protected. Datasets like those in the JMAC database depend on forms of interaction between local communities and UN missions, UNAMID in this case, but how do such encounters happen? Evidence suggests that most encounters with UNAMID are highly choreographed and mostly either with people who themselves are sheikhs or organized through sheikhs, and in addition complicated by the language issue.

As a Darfuri interviewee in a Chadian refugee camp said in May 2015, representative of wider perceptions in this regard: ‘They [UNAMID] met the sheiks and when people see them at the sheikh’s house everybody can come [ … ] if somebody is good in English they can talk to them directly.’ This distance from normal civilians and their grievances is only one facet of a wider story of incomprehension, not necessarily from lack of trying, but partly caused by the wider parameters behind the deployment of UN peacekeeping missions. As one of the sheikhs who had frequent encounters with UNAMID said in Chad: ‘Their [UNAMID’s] questions were naïve and came too late […] sometimes they carried out investigations two weeks after an incident.’

And then there are incidents like the one described from the JMAC dataset in the vignette above, even if in this case we saw not a direct attack on UNAMID but on another UN entity – but for many locals this difference is rather peripheral. In reflection on the wider usefulness of UNAMID in terms of bringing security violations out in the open and potentially address those, another Darfurian interviewee in Chad said: ‘They [UNAMID] were unable to protect people, but when informed about an incident they come to investigate and report it. [ … ] Sometimes they were unable to protect themselves. It is good to provide them [UNAMID] with information because they have the means to report to the outside world and put pressure on the government. I trust UNAMID more than the police in Sudan’.

In fact, many of those interviewed in Chad in 2015 who had fled Darfur around the time the above vignette was recorded, around 2008, had a number of concrete experiences when they witnessed attacks on UNAMID. One such attack that featured in a number of accounts was in broad daylight at the market of Furbaranga. A UNAMID vehicle with five staff inside was attacked according to those eye- witnesses, one military officer shot and the others ran away and the vehicle was ultimately carjacked. Many thus came to a conclusion along the lines of this farmer from Mokjar who said: ‘UNAMID were unable to protect their own staff and property. UNAMID staff were killed and their vehicles were looted all the time’.

What room for manoeuvre do those dynamics leave for a mission like UNAMID that finds itself between the proverbial rock and a hard place? In a recent article in International Peacekeeping from which some of the above data is drawn I argue that local knowledge and awareness of the ways in which insecurities are experienced in concrete in everyday encounters add an important and vital dimension to the protection of civilian component of every peacekeeping mission. In addition, rethinking more direct engagement with local population groups that allows systematic inclusion of conflict narratives from all sides into UN reporting would not only contribute to the creation of trust between UN peacekeeping forces and local populations, but also has the potential to contribute to long- term conflict resolution strategies and mediation efforts grounded in local realities.

Please feel free to email me for a copy of the article.

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A seismic break in German political consensus – why one should not underestimate the rise of a right-wing party

Maybe one day our grandchildren will ask us: what did you do when a Nazi party returned to the German parliament? A modified question of this version was asked by my generation to their grandparents and parents: what did you do when ‘Auschwitz’ happened, ‘Auschwitz’ having become the metaphor for the barbarity of the ‘Third Reich’, including not only the extermination of the Jewish and other populations but also the extermination war in the East and much else.

AfD election poster: ‘Stop islamisation – vote AfD’ Photo: Stefan Boness,

Hopefully it will not get that far, and the ‘Nazi-party’ will disappear again before future grandchildren are born, but the result of the recent German general election, where it came third in the overall popular vote, even if not unexpected, still came as a seismic shock to many. Those who ever went to an rally by the Alternative für Deutschland, the Alternative for Germany or AfD, saw the writing on the wall. And those who went to a pre-election rally by chancellor Angela Merkel saw it even more: Bussed in cohorts of AfD supporters voiced their hate and anger, demanding Merkel be put into jail or into a mental asylum for destroying the German race – not least through the brief period of open-door refugee policy in the summer of 2015, when otherwise a humanitarian crisis would have unfolded on Germany’s borders. The fact that since then, German asylum policy has actually become much more restrictive, that it did a deal with Turkey to keep refugees out, and that Germany is a strong advocate for EU policies that destroy the boats of people smugglers, securitize the Mediterranean and support questionable regimes on the African continent to keep refugees there does not feature.

But the AfD is not a party concerned with evidence, nor does it actually want to be in a position of power and having to take responsibility. It already sits in a number of regional parliaments, and little is seen from its engagement in day-to-day politics. But that is precisely what makes it so dangerous: It gets its adrenalin from demagogy and hatred – and thus appeals to all those who have some axe to grind. And it blames all that is wrong with Germany on the fact that it has lost its racial character – ‘we want our nation back’ (Volk in the original, a term with very specific race-based connotations in the German language).

While the party claims to be a perfectly normal political party that is incorrectly put into the far-right corner and ‘insulted’ as being a ‘Nazi-party’, a look behind the scenes provides ample evidence of its racial ideology and its longing for re-evaluation of German history – in some ways a version of Trump’s ‘Make America great again’, even if such a choice of words would not be acceptable in Germany precisely because of its history – not yet, anyway. No, the AfD is more subtle than that. One of its leading members simply calls for stopping to atone for Germany’s past – while in the same breath praising the Wehrmacht (Hitler’s army) for its bravery. Berlin’s holocaust memorial he calls a national monument of shame that no other nation would allow – and combines this with a promise to re-write German history books if the AfD came to power. But coming to power is not what the AfD is about, at least at present – it is, rather more dangerously, trying to dilute a political consensus that has served Germany and the whole of Europe (and the world) so well since the end of WWII.

The AfD is not simply made up of older, white men with reactionary understandings of the past. One of the lead candidates of the AfD in this election was a 38 year old Lesbian woman who formerly was a member of the Liberal party FDP. She can express her views eloquently and in perfect English – having in the past for example worked for investment bank Goldman Sachs, and uses the fact that she raises two children with her female partner as proof of the tolerance of the AfD to different lifestyles. She thus appears to be one of the respectable faces of the AfD, far removed from the hatred shouting crowds on the streets. But underneath her views are as full of contempt as those of her colleagues. She has referred to the German government under Angela Merkel as ‘pigs’ who were nothing more than puppets of the allied powers, aimed at destroying the German race through Überfremdung, a term from the Nazi era that roughly translates as foreign infiltration. She and others like her, in particular some of the high profile women in the AfD, repeat again and again that they are not right wing or a ‘Nazi-party’, but simply formulating common sense – and the more this mantra is being repeated, the more it becomes part of normal political discourse – and here is where the real danger lies.

Already in Saxony, the AfD became the biggest party with about one third of the vote. Of course, not all people who voted for it, in Saxony or elsewhere, are Nazis or subscribe to Nazi-ideology, and we are not in the 1930s again. But to make the discourse of racial politics that is built on the exclusion of everything non-German become mainstream is an ominous sign.

It remains to be seen how the AfD will take up its role in the federal German parliament. After the first exit polls came in, one of its main candidates, to the roaring applause of AfD supporters, proclaimed that the AfD will chase and hunt down the new government, however it may look (likely to be a coalition made up of three parties under the leadership of Angela Merkel). This proved too much for one of the AfDs important members Frauke Petry, who won a direct mandate in her own right and not through the party list. The day after the election she made it known that she would sit in parliament not as a member of the AfD parliamentary group but an independent, because she wanted to make politics and not engage in insulting rhetoric. But then this is the same person who, together with another of the female and on the face of it more ‘respectable’ party colleagues, not so long ago said if needed, the German army should shot at refugees, including children, at the German border, rather than simply let them in. What a ‘moderate’ AfD politican may be is thus open to question.

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Writing about Africa – in defence of more journalistic inspiration for academic writing

In a contribution for a book on Africa’s media image in the 21st century, Michela Wrong provides a strong defence of Western journalists writing about Africa. One of her expertly made arguments concerns the different roles academics and journalists may have – one concerned with all possible nuances, the other to sum up those complexities in a shorthand headline or story that readers without that nuanced knowledge can understand. Some complexity might get lost in the latter, but that does not necessarily mean a simplistic picture (certainly not when the journalist is skilled in his or her profession).

Get out, anti-Merkel demonstration Brandenburg Photo: Stefan Boness,

Yes, there is also the commercial pressure to see stories of suffering and horror in particular out of Africa published, but journalists like Michela and, it should be emphasised, many of the local journalists on the African continent, at least if they live in countries with a lively media scene, do an excellent job in combining what I will call ‘good-enough nuance and detail’.

When reading Michela’s piece, something else crossed my mind – and as a former journalist turned academic (albeit of feature stories and working with a freedom then that would let me starve today), this is something I feel I am in a unique position to comment on: Often, when taking a ‘journalistic approach’ to academic inquiry, at least in the social sciences, one gets it right. This may start with uncovering a story or a theme by accident, and as an academic one might in this day and age write a preliminary blog on it. The next step might then be to conduct more in-depth research, maybe apply for a research grant big or small, depending on what the issue in question may be. Three years or so later, a nuanced piece of research might have emerged that not only comprehensively engages with all that was written before, but provides new empirical evidence and/or theoretical insights . A number of articles will be published in so-called high impact academic journals usually behind a pay-wall – unless ‘gold-access’ can be paid for with said research grant, and new blogs will be written in order to advertise those and communicate at least some of main findings to the wider world (not least to those without access to academic journals).

It would be an interesting exercise to investigate how different the arguments in the post-research blog are from those that got one interested in the first place. Yes, there is now more thoroughness behind one’s claims that replaces the initial anecdote, but so what? Wait a minute, the academic might say, we need thoroughness, proper methodology, clear theoretical underpinnings to explain the world to those who do not have the luxury to spend their days thinking about how the world works – and yes, I would fully agree, up to a point. But at the same time it would benefit us all to recognise that methodological rigour is often treated too easily as of value in itself, and often does not provide deeper explanations or helps to make the world a better place.

Thus I could end here, agreeing with Michela that to attack Western media as one-dimensional and lacking nuance and depth when coming to ‘Africa’ has become an almost obligatory and rather unhelpful trope. It might also be a way to justify a rather plush academic existence.

But then I was reminded of the other side of the coin, at en event of the initiative of the German Business sector to integrate refugees into Germany. At the event, a number of representatives of various companies spoke frankly about their efforts, the successes but also the failures – and Germany did indeed do remarkably well as a whole in its efforts to integrate the around 1.3 million refugees who arrived in the country in 2015/16.

In one part of the programme the question was raised if that was the end of the contemporary movement of refugees and migrants in such large numbers, or if we were simply witnessing a pause in a movement that would gather pace again. One of the people to whom this question was addressed was the Africa-correspondent of a major German business newspaper, who joined from his duty station in Cape Town.

I could not quite believe what I was hearing when this correspondent described how dramatic the situation in ‘Africa’ was (Africa is a continent, remember?), characterised by ‘pure poverty’ that would drive Africans to ‘stream in hordes across the Mediterranean’ in the years to come, and a German chancellor stupid enough to take selfies with refugees, not understanding that ‘the African needs a figure of authority’ (‘Führer’ was the original word used) and wanted to be close to such a figure, thus sending the message that in Germany you can look the leader personally in the eye, inviting indirectly all to come. I was left speechless by the fact that the audience applauded that presentation – as this was an audience of knowledgeable people who engaged with refugees and were driven by the quest to make a positive difference – not part of the mob that in the German election campaign is bussed around by a new right-wing party to shout out its hatred against anything non-German and against Angela Merkel in particular, largely based on her decision to open the German borders to refugees in 2015.

This racist attitude of a leading journalist maybe part of an emerging zeitgeist more generally, for example visible in a recent comment piece in TWQ on the defence of colonialism. This brings me back to the start of these reflections, the different but also overlapping roles academics and journalists may have – and neither is by definition free from one-sided bigotry. Academics, if it is indeed their role to provide a framing that explains the world, need to do so in a way that not only dwells on nuance and methodological detail, but can be understood by the man or woman in the street with an interest in a topic but little care for those details. This does not make it worse or less rigorous – and to admit that often the gut feeling we have at the outset of a piece of research was right in many ways meets the readers where they are: at a point where they are gripped by an issue, but might feel they know too little to counteract a seemingly easy explanation, even if the latter is profoundly un-emancipatory. It sends the message: trust your gut feeling for now, even if you feel you do not know enough (yet) to properly justify it! Even without being aware of each detail in the argument – there are multiple ways to state that colonialism was and is in essence contemptuous and  inhuman (instead of simply demanding the withdrawal of a piece that celebrates it, as that denies the potential for antagonistic debate that is necessary for emancipatory politics).

Good research and good journalism complement each other, in an ideal world – and should speak in a joint voice much more than is often the case. One may hope that the ‘impact’ agenda might facilitate more joint engagement with the general public – even if too often ‘impact’ seems to be geared towards speaking to ’decision-makers’ or people with policy influence, who more often than not live in their own bubble – a bubble far removed from the reality of those who see no other option as shouting out their hatred in the street, be it in relation to migration policies or Brexit.

This post has been re-posted as a Global Development Institute blog:

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