Migrant lives: living between aspirational worlds in times of (in)security and immobility

That mobility is a core human endeavour is often forgotten, but the last decade has in different ways put the limelight on movements but also immobilities. There was the visible movement of refugees from Syria that in particular in 2015 put people’s flight from devastation and their aspiration for a better future into the daily news for a while. Since February 2020, thus roughly a year ago, immobility has become a key news item, as COVID-19 has resulted in multiple external and internal travel restrictions, impacting on the lives of internal and externals migrants in multiple ways.

This is thus an opportune moment to look at the lives of some of those who were part of the 2015 movement of people, people like Marwan, whose journey from Syria took him to Berlin. I spoke to Marwan (not his real name to protect his anonymity) in January 2019, thus before COVID-19 – but for him, certain forms of immobility were part of his everyday life, even though he had, in many ways, started his life ‘completely new, it is really a new life’. Marwan had studied architecture in Syria, but people warned him that it was difficult to find a good job in this field in Germany, in particular as he had not fully completed his degree. As his main objective when coming to Germany was to find ‘a profession for the future’, he moved to the IT sector, joined courses in coding in parallel to studying intensive German, and in due course secured a permanent job as early as 2016 (having arrived in Germany at the beginning of 2015).

In many ways he feels ‘not so alien’ in Berlin. ‘I enter the underground and I hear five different languages, three I can understand, that gives you a good feeling’ he says. He has similar problems as native Berliners: his rental agreement runs out at the end of the year, and he dreads having to find a new affordable flat  – one of the big social problems in Berlin more generally. But one thing still makes him different: While seen from the outside, he has many friends from all wakes of life, and is highly respected and valued at his workplace as equal, he only has restricted leave to remain that needs to be renewed every three years. Thus, while he would like to eventually pursue a university degree in IT, he feels he does not want to start studying and then potentially be sent back, as he does not want another interrupted university degree.

In many ways, in spite of filling a needed position in the labour market, speaking excellent German and possessing the necessary formal qualifications to prove it – thus one could say being the perfectly integrated refugee – he lives in a state of limbo concerning his future. While the engagement with and willingness of his employer to employ refugees was very important in his trajectory, this has thus far done little to challenge wider dynamics of German policy towards refugees and migrants, whatever the demographic dynamics and labour market needs may be. For Marwan, securing employment was the focal point for his new life. Immediately after his arrival he started to take intensive German lessons, but ‘I really learned much more in the working environment every day’ he says. The chance of employment was in multiple ways key to arrive where he is now, feeling reasonably comfortable instead of alien with his life in Berlin.

When asked about an eventual return to Syria he says ‘it is good to have the possibility in your head to return, but at the moment this would not be possible’, as he would either be recruited into the army or imprisoned. But not having permanent leave to remain or a passport has repercussions for his personal life ‘between different worlds’ as he himself describes it, and his connections to his family: His papers allow him to travel in the Schengen area but not further. Marwan’s parents and two siblings are still in Syria, and they can travel to Lebanon, but his papers do not allow him that journey. Thus a brief reunion they had planned there came to nothing, so his transnational lived citizenship runs against the border of a travel permit that ends at the fringes of Europe. More generally he says: ‘I would feel much better if I had permanent leave to remain, as there always remains this feeling of insecurity’.

Not being able to see his parents for the foreseeable future also means for Marwan that ‘I continue to live between ‘worlds’, and while ‘I would like to call Berlin my home now, the insecurity about papers creates a bitter taste’. As does the fact that travel to a place where he can see his family seems impossible for now, independent of COVID-19 restrictions.

Marwan’s experiences are not isolated, but relate to wider findings that in particular opportunities to find valued employment have the potential to fulfil refugees’ future aspirations to an important degree. At the same time, regimes of immobility, whether based on explicit travel restrictions, or refugee and migration policies, fail to adequately take into account contemporary forms of mobility, and transnational lived citizenship. In the end, they leave migrants stranded between the worlds.

For a more in-depth discussion about these issues see the article: Reshaping conceptions of citizenship in Citizenship Studies (email me for a copy of the full article).

This blog is part of a research project entitled: Moving the goalposts of citizenship? German business sector engagement and refugee integration, funded by the British Academy.

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After UNAMID: Who will offer protection to civilians and the displaced in Darfur?

On 31 December 2020, UNAMID’s mandate in Darfur came to an end. While it will take until 30 June for all UNAMID staff to have left Sudan, the mission does not have a mandate any longer to intervene in the complex scenario of Darfur.

The decision by the UN Security Council to bring the mission to a close was met with various protests across the Darfur region, as many people fear a security vacuum. Indeed, already a number of attacks against civilians have reportedly occurred since New Year’s Day in Darfur, while militias have besieged one of the UNAMID sites in Central Darfur with reportedly the intention of looting the building. As national security forces of the new Sudanese government have in previous months failed to protect civilians form attacks, their fears seem more than justified.

On the one hand, this may come as a surprise, not least as UNAMID has repeatedly come under attack for its failure to protect civilians – even though such protection was at the core of its mandate. UNAMID has in the past even been accused of downplaying atrocities against civilians in order not to jeopardise its relationship with the previous Sudanese government under Al-Bashir. More generally, it found itself in the insolvable conundrum to carry out its mission in a setting where the host-government was always less than accommodating. This hostile attitude, as I argued elsewhere, hardened even more with the indictment of Al-Bashir and some of his key lieutenants by the International Criminal Court.

But that is only one side of the picture. UNAMID, like many other UN Peacekeeping Missions, has been constrained by the sheer nature of its operational structure. The latter, as I have argued in detail elsewhere, has impacted most directly the interactions with local civilian populations, and through that the analysis of the various lines of conflict in Darfur. Still, and as also repeated by local civilians, including those disappointed with UANMID, without the mission their situation would have been even more dire or precarious. And after all, or so it was felt by Darfurians, UNAMID reporting, however ‘censured’, made its way to the global political stage and resulted eventually in the ICC indictment. The verdict on the usefulness of this indictment at the point in time when it came about might be contested, but it did send a signal of hope to those who had suffered under his regime that justice might eventually be done, or that at least their suffering was not forgotten.

The resident of a Darfurian refugee camp in Chad sums up the ambivalent attitude of local civilians to UNAMID quite well: ‘We had nowhere to go to speak about incidents. The only option was to report to UNAMID. And UNAMID, when they heard about an incident, they used to visit the place where the incident took place, gather information about what has happened, speak to people, but usually they did so very late, after several hours and maybe days. The problem was, they never went after the perpetrators. Still, the UNAMID work of reporting incidents and coming to visit places where incidents have taken place made perpetrators feel that they have to be careful as their actions might be reported and they might beheld responsible’ (Interview Darfurian refugee in Chad, Goz Beida Refugee Camp, 19 May 2015).

Demonstrations by Darfurian residents against the withdrawal of UNAMID expressed their belief that UNAMID served as the only protection for the displaced, even if often imperfect. ‘No One on the Earth Cares if We Survive, Except God and Sometimes UNAMID’ this belief was summed up in a 2016 report. Following UNAMID’s departure, the government of Sudan plans to trains and send a garrison of more than 10.000 troops to Darfur to contain violent attacks and provide protection for civilians. In addition, the United Nations Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan (UNITAMS), established in June 2020 to support the Government of Sudan on all issues related to security as well as political and economic challenges, is supposed to provide support. If this will make up for the withdrawal of UNAMID, and help establish protection for civilians, remains to be seen.

The final verdict on UNAMID only time will tell. For now, and in spite of its many shortcomings, not only in relation to the protection of civilians but also in relation to such protection of its local staff as I demonstrated here, it seems fair to say that UNAMID’s presence did make a difference – even if not on the scale and scope hoped for or expected by those it aimed to protect.

This blog was reposted as a Global Development Institute blog here.

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The end game – or just the beginning? Some thoughts on the Ethiopian federal offensive against Tigray

Often it is all about history when conflict erupts in the Horn (or anywhere else for that matter). The narrative of the start of the conflict is a frequently rehearsed one: allegedly the TPLF had attacked a federal military base. This may or may not be true, who can tell? But it is a similar narrative to one when the 1998-2000 war between Eritrean and Ethiopia started: Then, allegedly, in a disputed border area, Ethiopian troop had killed Eritrean soldiers – and this required a firm military response. Ultimately, here were the Tigrayans again, in the form of the TPLF now, who were pushing above their weight and needed to be put into their place.

This time, it comes at the back of three decades of TPLF-dominance of the whole of Ethiopia, a dominance that sort of ended with the death of Meles Zenawi, but its real end came from April 2018 when Abiy took office. Much has been written about the dynamics since, the ways in which the TPLF increasingly challenged federal government orders and withdrew its engagement – in some ways a rehearsal of a sort of strategic retreat to its heartland. More generally, Tigrayans have a proud, even if often unsuccessful, history of contesting the power of the centralised Ethiopian state, a state that in fact has been in flux for much of its history.

The immediate reaction of the international community, as in most such cases, centred on calls for a ceasefire and some form of national dialogue. But such calls seem to fail to understand the underlying dynamcis behind the Abiy’s decision to call in the army. A national dialogue was already passé once the TPLF declined to stay in the fold of the new party Prosperity Party Abiy formed to replace the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), the coalition that had emerged in the war against the Derg and had been the vehicle for the Tigrayan (de-facto TPLF) grip on power.

The TPLF was never likely to respond kindly to being purged from key positions of influence. At the same time, Abiy used a similar rhetoric as TPLF arch-rival Eritrea, in accusing it of treacherous behaviour. It now seems in the same way as Eritrea and Ethiopia would not have made peace under the old TPLF-dominated leadership of the EPRDF, the same is likely to be true between the TPLF and Abiy. The TPLF (or most of it) does not want secession but rather remain a respected part of the future of Ethiopia – but believe this cannot be achieved as long as Abiy is in power, which makes negotiations with him pointless, from their perspective.

Abiy may hope the federal army’s military power will be enough to win the day, and that federal troops will manage to topple the TPLF this time, unlike when they fought the Derg and prevailed. Then, of course, the TPLF could partly draw on EPLF support, even if the relationship between both movements was always characterised by complex contradictory dynamics. Now, Eritrea is perhaps the only power in the region welcoming Abiy’s move, as both are united by a deep distrust or even hate of the TPLF. Whether Eritrea plays an active role in the current military action is hard to verify, as claims and counter-claims circulate on social media and in other networks, claims that speak more to the ideological beliefs of those who put them out than the truth. What seems likely that at least the Eritrean side allows federal Ethiopian army staff access to its territory to recuperate.

But even if on the surface the federal troops prevail and march into the regional capital Mekelle, this is unlikely to be the end of the story. Not only does Tigray have battle-hardened regional forces, but the TPLF has reportedly also taken control of some of the Ethiopian National Defence Forces Northern Command in Tigray, plus military hardware. One can easily imagine how some of those forces may withdraw to remote locations in the province, ready to strike again in future, at a suitable time, even if Mekelle was taken. Thus any victory now may simply be the pause for the next battle. And as could have been seen from relations with Eritrea and the deep hatred that now connects the TPLF and the EPLF, former brothers in arms often become the deepest and most intransigent enemies.

While other regional forces may all be horrified by the prospect of a wider civil war in Ethiopia, what way Sudan may respond seems less clear. For now, Sudanese forces at the border seem keen not to get involved, but refugees from Tigray are allowed across the border. They come in large numbers and bring horrible stories of random killings with them. And history may repeat itself in other ways again: With crops failing and a locus pest already prevalent in Tigray, a famine-like situation may be on the horizon. For those old enough to remember, memories of the 1984 famine will resurface, a time when the EPLF hindered food supplies to the TPLF, one of the epicentres of that famine, and salvation came with a new road the TPLF built to Sudan. Today, the Ethiopian federal government is depriving Tigray of resources, a move likely to deepen animosity against that government.

Already an immediate toxic buy-product of the military campaign is a sense of deep insecurity for Tigrayans wherever they live, as all now seem to be regarded as a kind of fifth column of the TPLF. When speaking to Ethiopian colleagues and friends in the diaspora who are of Tigrayan background, they are all deeply worried about relatives and friends back home. Even those who have few links to Tigray but were actually born or lived most of their lives in Addis Ababa seem now reduced to an ethnic identity they often have little connection to. For the future of Ethiopia as a federal state where everybody can live in dignity, this is a bad omen indeed.

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‘Collateral damage’ of UN Peacekeeping Missions: stories from Darfur

Peaceful Encounter: Picture from the United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE) 2001. Photo: Stefan Boness, http://www.iponphoto.com

It was a cold day in February 2016. I arrived at the main train station in a UK city and took a taxi to an address in a suburb. The taxi driver looked at the postcode and asked if I was sure that was where I wanted to go. When I said yes he shrugged and started the 25-minutes drive.

We then arrived at a four-storey block of run-down flats, surrounded by other blocs of equally run-down flats. ‘Are you sure you will be OK’ the taxi driver asked, to which I nodded. I got out of the cab and rang the doorbell that had the name of the person I was looking for on it. No answer. I thus got my mobile phone out to ring the number I had been given. At that moment another resident came out of the block, looking slightly suspicious at me but letting me in, and confirming that the person I was looking for did indeed live there.

As I stood in front of the entrance door of the person I wanted to visit and heard the phone that I was still calling ring inside, the door opened once I had confirmed who I was. I was warmly welcomed in, given hot tea and snacks, and received curious looks of the two children who came running in and out of the room. The flat was cold, the heating broken for ages I was told, and the kids sneezed and coughed too often for my liking.

I had entered the flat of a former worker for the hybrid African Union/United Nations Peacekeeping Mission in Darfur, UNAMID. My host had worked for the human rights section and it was that work that eventually forced him to flee. Here was a professional with a university degree and a professional qualification – the latter not recognised in the UK. Somebody who until recently had a house, a car and a driver for his work, who employed a housekeeper and childminder, and whose wife was also a professional, was now sitting in a cold and miserable flat in a UK city. In the neighbourhood predominately local people without a job lived, he told me, many drank too much at times, thus as a ‘foreigner’ one never felt completely secure – that is why he never opened the door unless he knew exactly who was in front.

Still, he was happy and relieved that he was now living here, in safety in the UK, that his claim for political asylum was successful and that he could bring his wife and children from Sudan to join him under family reunion laws. Even though his qualifications were not recognised here, thus he needed to start from scratch to build a life for himself and his family, he was cheerful and confident it would all work out in the end.

My host that day is one of many people like him in the UK, people who once worked in vital data collection roles for UNAMID and subsequently were threatened by the Sudanese authorities. Some were imprisoned and tortured, for others their families suffered, others again were ‘only’ threatened but lived with that threat on a daily basis until it became simply too much to always be in danger. They all have different stories and personal histories, but what unites them all is that it was their work for UNAMID that put them into danger. In most cases, UNAMID failed to address their safety and security concerns, and for most it was left to themselves and their own devises to find a way to safety.

Their stories thus point to a big oversight of UN Peacekeeping Operations: Their reliance on local staff in particular for sensitive data collection in a mission’s human rights and civil affairs sections, but little systematic policy in the way of protecting such local staff. In fact, local staff are rather seen as civilians whose security in the first instance should be guaranteed by the state of which they are citizens. An impossible position for many local UN Peacekeeping staff, in particular if they work for a mission that is regarded as a threat by the host government, as has been the case for UNAMID during much of its existence.

My host on this cold February day remained up-beat overall. His kids now go to school locally doing rather well, he is retraining to in the future work in an IT-related job – even though he does not know when he will be able to work and earn money. He is slightly worried about the debt he incurred when bringing his family over to join him, debts that he needs to repay sooner rather than later, but some solution will be found. For now the most important thing is to have permanent residency papers, thus proper UK citizenship is around the corner. Everything else will evolve from there.

Please see my latest open-access paper in International Peacekeeping: ‘Protection of Civilians Mandates and ‘Collateral Damage’ of UN Peacekeeping Missions: Histories of Refugees from Darfur’, for a full analysis of these issues.

This blog was republished as Global Development Institute blog.

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The borders that bind and divide: what future for hybrid identities in the times of Corona?

Cycling in the direction of the border between Eritrean and Ethiopia in Senafe. Photo: Stefan Boness, http://www.iponphoto.com

At a time when borders seem a key salient feature of our time, but perhaps that is what they have always been, two timely special issues came out recently in the exciting open access online borderlands journal, based on a conference entitled Technologies of Bordering: creating, contesting and resisting borders convened by my colleague Uma Kothari and Elise Klein, then of the University of Melbourne, in Melbourne last July. The conference explored how borders are pervasive spatial, political and social features in contemporary society, but also throughout history. At the same time, borders have frequently been actively contested and re-negotiated. Different forms of bordering technologies have promoted and prompted various strategies of evasion, resistance and solidarity, from the forging of documents and the transgressing of borders, to the rejection of borders through acts of political refusal and sovereignty. Importantly, borders have also been used and incorporated into people’s lives and livelihoods, providing opportunities, progressive spaces and new ways of being, often based on hybrid identities that transcend (national) borders of any kind.

The conference itself now seems like out of a different world, as such international gatherings that thrive on direct communication and conviviality, on in-depth personal discussions but also on shared lunches and dinners, seem as remote as the moon landing at the moment. Australia, were the conference took place, is practically closed to visitors beyond its borders (whatever the reason for their visit may be), and may eventually join a bubble with New Zealand as an (almost) Corona-free zone were people can travel – shutting out the rest of the world. How viable or even sensible such a strategy, based on unreal phantasies of control, is going to be, readers may decide for themselves – it perhaps depends on which side of this new travel-restriction border one is on how one may judge the proposal.

This brings me to the heart not only of the conference theme, but of issues around borders in general: They tend to have these dual functions, of providing something deemed positive, like a (hoped for) virus-free environment; security; protection from negative outside forces and the like, while at the same time often being coercive, brutal, violent and in contravention of basic human rights and dignity, when for example refugees and migrants are left in perpetual limbo outside or between borders.

In my contribution to the conference that just also came out as an article in the second special issue of borderlands, I take up this theme of how borders as a force for good, an aspirational drive, then often turn oppressive and destructive, not out of necessity, but by political actions. I do so in taking a novel look at the borders that were created by colonialism, with a concrete focus on Italian colonialism in the Horn of Africa – but similar dynamics can be observed in other settings were colonial borders acted as a means to demand liberation and emancipation at different periods in time.

Usually, colonial borders have predominately been discussed as artificial, dividing communities, people or ethnicities that otherwise would belong together (on whatever grounds). But such an interpretation of colonial borders, I argue in my contribution, overlooks another important aspect of colonial boundaries: their role in creating nations as ‘imagined communities’ who in making reference to such borders can lay claim to a distinct national identity. While such an identity can be exclusionary and trigger conflict, it can also have a much more positive and ultimately hybrid function. In analysing the borders Italian colonialism created in the Horn of Africa, with particular reference to Eritrea, I demonstrate these multiple roles colonial boundaries can occupy. I eventually come to the conclusion that the acceptance of borders as markers of identity can be a prerequisite for finding innovative ways to overcome state-to-state conflicts, but also exclusions in the everyday lives of borderland groups or people with hybrid identities. In that sense, the example of Eritrea could hold wider lessons for addressing postcolonial disputes and exclusion around borders and boundaries, all the more so if institutional arrangements are put in place that allow fluidity in everyday encounters.

To occupy oneself with colonial borders might seem a remote subject in the times of the Corona-pandemic, in particular for those whose lives run up against borders that are suddenly impossible to cross, often for reason that have little to do with medical advise or even common sense, but with a politics of exclusion and nativity. A pertinent example here is the UK, where the newly to be introduced quarantine rules seem geared more a move to shore up the ideological agenda of anti-immigration and a hard Brexit. But what the case of Eritrea, not only in relation to its borderland communities but large sections of the population demonstrates, is how hybrid many identities in reality are, which makes bordering technologies a threat to everyday life, not only in far away places but more and more for large parts of the global population, in the Global North and the Global South. In the times of Corona, such technologies have already led to sometimes humorous, more often serious consequences for peoples’ personal relationships and work arrangements, like couples reduced to meet alongside border-fences for weeks, or even key staff unable to get to their workplaces on the other side of a border.

Perhaps the deepest legacy of the border regimes that start to emerge in the wake of Corona is the destruction of hybrid identities, not as an emotional state or an imagined form of belonging, but as a form of everyday life.

My article: Colonial borders and hybrid identities: Lessons from the case of Eritrea is freely available here.

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Travelling in the times of Corona: a personal story


On the ferry at Hull

I do not recall exactly when it first dawned on me that Corona was more than a beer that I usually do not drink. It must have been sometime during February, as then I was in the UK, the country that was always late in its reaction, but I will come to that again later. I was at the start of a research sabbatical, and I had planned to travel to Japan in March, with a brief stint at my ‘real home’, Berlin.

Even before I embarked on my flight from Manchester to Berlin mid-March, I had cancelled the Japan trip – at the time one could still travel to Tokyo easily and there were no restrictions on people from European countries entering Japan, as long as they were not from Northern Italy. But it felt wrong to travel when the world seemed to be falling of a cliff in a sort of slow motion, when the pictures from hospitals and overfilling morgues in Italy seemed so real and out of a different world at the same time.

Thus I simply went ‘home’ to Berlin, it was the time when the misnomer of ‘social distancing’ had already entered the vocabulary, and my flight was half empty and the overall atmosphere rather strange. Almost nobody wore face masks then, but travelling felt like an activity one was not entirely comfortable with – and for me, who lives her life between Berlin and Manchester and thus travels a lot between the two, this was a somewhat unsettling experience.

Once I arrived in Berlin, the German version of a lock-down – which was always quite gentle and common sensical in many ways, soon took hold. In addition, in the space of a week or so, all conferences, fieldwork, workshops in numerous locations around the world that I was to attend or participate in until the end of the year were cancelled or postponed, usually for one year. I, in the elite position I am in, thus hunkered down in my Berlin home office with a writing schedule, went out to exercise once or twice a day, went to the local market to buy food, sat on the balcony to enjoy nice weather, took part in (too many it felt) zoom meetings – but with no children to look after fell into a cosy and comfortable COVID-19 routine. Face masks for different occasions were organised – self-made cotton-ones from friends for going to the shops or on public transport – but the latter I never did as I usually cycle anywhere or walk, FFP2 ones if there was ever a need to wear them in settings where physical distancing was not possible – the latter can be bought in any German pharmacy at the normal price, as there is no shortage, and I opted for one that can be washed an re-used up to 30 times.

From this comfortable existence in a country with a relatively mild pandemic and a health system that was thus far never in any danger of being overwhelmed, I only had one problem: Some work things that I needed, not very urgently but eventually, plus my car, were still in Manchester – I had planned to get those and return by boat via the Hull-Rotterdam route in late April, after my trip to Japan. This was not possible then and I anticipated probably not before July. But then the British, in their typical getting to things too late fashion, started to talk about quarantine, and one thing I will not do, is to return to my lovely but lonely 1 bedroom apartment in Manchester and not be able to go out for two weeks. Thus, on a whim I decided: let’s get things done before this illogical policy takes hold, anticipated by the end of May – quarantine would have made sense early on, now one should test and trace, really.

Thus I booked one of the few flight-connections that existed between Berlin and Manchester last Saturday, and the ferry from Hull for Monday evening, a flying visit. Of course I checked the rules and regulations for all border crossings and travel beforehand, and was confident I was travelling within the Corona rules everywhere, even if an underlying unease was never far away. I had to think of something a colleague in Manchester said to me at the outset of the pandemic: ‘Corona is the curse of Brexit’, he said – and maybe this is a foretaste about the discomfort one will feel when travelling to the UK after 1 January 2021.

Thus even as I went, I was never entirely sure it was a good idea and how I would feel on my journey, and that in itself was strange enough: To be vary to embark on a journey that I had done so regularly over the last 14 years! My flight took me via Paris to Manchester. Masks had to be worn, and here my FFP2 mask came in handy – even if the middle seat was mostly empty on the plane. Flying felt fine I was relieved to observe.

I had a copy of my council tax bill with me, specifically demanded electronically from Manchester City Council, as I was certain I would be asked upon my arrival in Manchester what brought me here, so proof of residency I thought would be required. And the last few times when I had flown into Manchester, often the electronic passport gates not working, I had indeed been questioned what I was doing in the UK, even though as an EU citizen I still have the right to freedom of movement. But not so this time: No person at the border control, simply through the electronic gates and off I was. This felt really strange (and surprising). Or as a friend who I met a day later (in a park and 2 metres apart) said: ‘I do not believe you could just come in like this, but it is lovely to see you!’

When I came out of the only Terminal in operation, Terminal One, no black cabs and a cleaner informed me the only option was a private service – where I was told it would be a 50 minutes wait. I thus opted to take the tram, and was the only person with a face mask – as I was still wearing my FFP2 mask, and it would have felt strange not to, as in Germany like in many other places, masks have to be worn on public transport. Manchester was eerily quiet, people in general very polite and friendly about the distancing rules, and I continued my now engrained habit to wear a mask in shops – as for me now it would feel strange not to do so in a closed setting. Maybe having lived in Tokyo for years in the past, where in winter during flu season almost everybody wears a mask out of consideration for everybody else, made me more prone to go along with this recommendation in place in most of continental Europe, and it certainly made me feel better.

Monday came soon enough and I embarked on the drive to Hull, and the ferry was probably the strangest experience of my trip. Everything was closed on board – ‘the UK rules’ I was informed, often cordoned off with tape, including the appropriately named Corona sun-set bar on the Sun-deck (the self-service restaurant would open at 8 I was told, but luckily I had my own provisions with me). The very few non –freight drivers on board wandered around one-way systems along the empty corridors – but again, inside the cabin all was fine and at no time did I feel insecure. That came as a relief in many ways, as I am still trying to work out what COVID-19 will do in the long run to my own feelings of traveling with enjyoment rather than underlying fear.

Driving off the boat, again the immigration check was brief, polite and friendly, no questions asked – taken togetehr, probably the easiest set of border crossings that I had experienced for quite some time (the only proper checks were of my car on the UK side of the port in Hull, not sure what they were searching for with sophisticated gear, probably explosives by the look of it), which again seemed strangely at odds with the general atmosphere around Corona.

After a 7 hour drive I thus was back ‘home’ in Berlin, relieved but also astonished how easy it had been to do that trip after all – and laughing at all the considerations I had given to ‘should I stay or should I go’, and all the anxiety that partly came with those.

When waking up the next morning, restarting my Corona-exercise and home-office work routine, it all seemed like an unreal experience, maybe a dream I had, as if I had not really been on that trip at all – and only when I see my car parked outside I am certain that I indeed was on this journey in the times of Corona. It will probably have been my last journey for a while.

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COVID-19 and the phantasy of global development

COVID-19 has partly been discussed as a clear sign that we live in the times of global development: the world is interconnected and as a whole vulnerable, thus collective action is needed to overcome future challenges, including in the sphere of public health, and most visible perhaps in relation to climate change. I have never bought into the global development mantra as a potential new paradigm (rather than old wine in new bottles in the treadmill of ever increasing academic competition and re-branding), as I never found a convincing answer to the question: what’s new?

‘Tödlich – Deadly’: From the series Art and Protest – FridaysForFuture Stefan Boness, http://www.iponphoto.com

The world has been deeply interlinked at least since the age of empire and colonialism (and many historians would draw out much longer-ago linkages based on similar structural conditions even if not quite as global), interdependent not only related to commerce and trade, but bound together in different ways by political domination, power structures and violence, locally, nationally and globally. Thus, even if the term ‘development’ and its various different meanings is often associated with the post WWII world order – global development has been with us for a very long time, even if not by name. Its quasi re-invention as something new that connects the geographical imaginary of the Global North and the Global South in a different way, where global institutions can be truly global (and development is not something done by the Global North to the Global South, as the term International Development is said to suggest), seemed to me little more than a phantasy even before COVID-19, not least as its invention neglects the post-colonial structures that still underpin the global world order.

Equally its suggestion that somehow suddenly we realize that major challenges, not least climate change, can only be addressed together as humanity, globally so to speak, seems a little odd for somebody who in the 1980s was on the streets as a teenager and young adult advocating for similar issues as FridaysforFuture do now (and there was a generation before me doing the same as well). Arguably, at least since the Industrial Revolution, global development has been a key feature of life on Earth – and it was rather a de-politicising focus on poverty that lead to an international development ideology that ignored the global or interconnected dimension at its peril.

COVID-19 in many ways as brought the problematic claims about global development as something different, something more solidaristic, potentially, to the fore. One sign of the fact that we have moved from international to global development is said to be the move from the millennium development goals to the sustainable development goals, the SDGs. The latter, it has been argued, in relating to all countries and requiring action from all, not only recognise global connectedness, but provide means to implement policies that take this connectedness into account. It thus seems quite astonishing that the SDGs and their role in potentially shaping a post-COVID-19 world are largely absent from any discussion about the future. Now one can say that the SDGs were not agreed to respond to humanitarian or health emergencies, but still, not least with the experience of Ebola in mind, not to have a separate goal on health emergencies, as demanded by some, seems a dangerous oversight.

And the global health security index makes clear that those countries that lack fundamental capacity to respond to future epidemics are mainly among low- and middle income countries (in addition to countries in the Global North with dysfunctional policies, but that is a different state of affairs). A clear sign, arguably, that the SDGs could have been the key forum to address such issues, not least as here global development as propagated by its advocates could have come into clear focus: It was in often resource poor countries of the Global South that the Ebola epidemic was successfully targeted, with many ups and downs but still, and from where important lessons could have been learned in relation to global public health at the times of COVID-19.

Instead, the key body in tackling global health emergencies, the World Health Organisation (WHO), however critical one might be of it, has been hollowed out. It in essence has to rely on what SDG 17 describes as the multi-stakeholder partnership – with Bill Gates among one of its biggest donors, whose foundation already shapes health budgets and priorities in many African countries. More generally, much of the agenda and spending on global health has been ‘outsourced’ to billionaire philanthropists, including those from so-called emerging economies. This is, however, not best explained with a global development paradigm, but as the result of the fact that the winners of global capitalism that has created global inequalities on a large scale in the Global North and Global South combined, who in fact undermine development worth the name through for example tax avoidance, can then act as saviours of the mess they helped produce and sustain with their actions and ideologies.

The very claim that COVID-19 affects us all has to be qualified to important degrees, and much of that qualification arguably takes place in different ways for the Global North and the Global South (however contentious this categorization is in the first place). While COVID-19 may be with us for a long time, and the effectiveness of any response is thus far too early to judge, there is a clear expectation that countries in the Global North will manage to deal with it, eventually, in a way that makes it manageable. Contrast that with the expectations about for example Africa, where any outbreak will  – in the public imaginary as well as that of the WHO – lead simply to disaster, following long established colonial tropes and post-colonial imaginaries.

COVID-19 thus brought to the fore prism-like the ideologies that underpin global capitalism since its emergence, the boundaries and zones of exclusions it needs to function, which always transcended clear geographical markers of North and South, but also helped enforce them at the same time – nothing new to report here. The erection of new borders and boundaries, new zones of exclusion and categories of people – be they suddenly discovered key workers or migrants from near and afar  – workers whose essential function is to keep a system of long-established dominance in place.

As always, change is likely to come only through bottom up struggles, and the boundaries erceted by COVID-19 may make such change much harder to achieve, in particular on a global scale.

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Inequality and COVID-19: what might a new social contract in the post-Corona world look like?

I am writing this a few days after Emily Maitlis rightly won multiple praise for debunking some myth around COVID-19 in an introduction to BBC Newsnight, not least that it could be seen as a great leveller. The myth that COVID-19 affects us all somehow in the same way is, some have argued, visible in the infection of British PM Boris Johnson (and some other high-profile people). What seems forgotten here is that this is the Boris Johnson who bragged in early March about how he visited hospitals that were likely to have COVID-19 patients and shook hands all over, ignoring the social distancing rules of his own government.

Not acting as a responsible PM who leads by example, but as a normal member of a ruling class for whom different rules have always been the norm, and who of course receive first class hospital treatment once it is required. While police can stop anybody being outside without a good reason and a process of naming and shaming of those who break the new Corona-rules has reportedly started in some parts of UK society, the PM can flout the rules publicly and once he falls ill rely on best medical service and campaigns like #PrayForBoris. Should one, if one is drawn to prayer, not rather pray for NHS workers who lack protective gear due to government incompetence, or supermarket staff or all the other key workers who cannot afford home office? After his recovery, the PM praised the NHS-staff for owing his life to them, but if this will in future translate into sustained changes for the better remains to be seen at a time when NHS staff are warned not even to speak about the lack of protective kit and other resources.

Maitlis in her Newsnight coverage provided multiple examples of how COVID-19 does not impact everyone in the same way, neither economically nor socially. This is of course not a new argument, not least since the publication of Ulrich Beck’s Risk society. Beck was acutely aware that dealing with risk is fundamentally a political and ethical process. And while even those at the top, the rich, powerful and celebrated are not immune from risk, their status and resources lets them navigate risk in much better ways and often makes them actual winners. In the current crisis, the latter has been exemplified perhaps most chillingly in reports of ‘super normal returns’ of a firm of a certain government minister.

What would be needed in the times of COVID-19 more than ever would be an enlightened and competent government that understand these issues and is committed to work out a post-COVID-19 future that is more equitable and sustainable in that it offers better protection against future risks ‘for the many not the few’, to use a recent slogan of the Labour party. What we have in reality is a government where key ministers have not been given their jobs because of competence, but based on how hard their conviction for a Brexit at all cost is – yes, Brexit, the issue that the PM claims is now done and dusted is also still around, and would have hit the UK economy hard even without COVID-19 – or rather, it will hit those hardest who are already most affected by the economic fall-out of COVID-19.

But also in other ways unsustainable levels of inequality and the power structures that derive from these become more obvious and questionable. In a recent article in the Guardian the potential role of the super rich is being discussed in tackling the pandemic. Some of the usual suspects, like Bill Gates who has been donating to health-related causes for a long time but also others, already have pledged large sums, while others are encouraged to follow suit. Singled out here is Amazon boss Bezos for being too stingy – but is that really the point? Amazon as a company is amongst those to profit most from the Pandemic. At the same time, these profits are being made on the back of workers who without any adequate protection staff its warehouses and manage its deliveries – some of whom have protested against their working conditions but to what avail? With unemployment and underemployment on a steep rise, there will in all likelihood always be enough people around to guarantee Amazon’s super-natural profits (and to my own surprise, many of my otherwise anti-capitalist or critical social scientist colleagues and friends still use Amazon, even though mostly local alternatives that would also support local businesses are usually available). Thus we do not need bigger donations from owners of businesses like Amazon or other super-rich, but what would be needed now is a real politics of redistribution – not some hand-outs of the same billionaires who otherwise do everything not to pay tax and deprive the state of key resources to guarantee public services.

Thus whilst the idea of ‘giving back to society’ that is behind the self-proclaimed engagement of rich business owners and other celebrities may sound noble, it in actual fact does little to transcend the inequalities in all aspects of life upon which their profits and riches are based in the first place. What is needed is a different politics that puts redistribution at its heart, and as such addresses risk and precarious conditions that are the norm for too large a part of the global population, be it in the Global North or the Global South.

How will the post-corona world look like? Some ideas that have been around for a while have resurfaced as concrete policy solutions, like a universal basic income to be implemented in Spain, the first European country to do so even if concrete details remain vague at this stage. This move also has the backing of for example Nicolas Sturgeon in Scotland – if and how a Universal Basic Income is really an idea whose time has come more broadly will remain to be seen. The idea that people need a certain feeling of safety from life’s precariousness is a useful starting point when envisaging a post-Corona-time – and arguably here the Global North could learn a thing or two from social protection schemes in some countries of the Global South, but also from other ways of facing the challenges COVID-19 poses in towns and cities across the Global South. Key here are not grande new ideas, but established local networks and initiatives linking up with local and national authorities and perhaps beyond – even though if COVID-19 seems to have taught us something it is the turn away from the global and towards the local and national, for better or worse. Ultimately what is needed, in the UK as much as anywhere in the world, from Wuhan to Harare, is a new social contract, a social contract that has the potential to reduce inequality instead of increasing it, as thus far COVID-19 is in danger of doing.

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Solidarity in the times of COVID-19 or: the misnomer of ‘social distancing’ (when the issue is physical contact)

As a traveller who lives between the UK and mainland Europe, now being in a half-locked down Berlin, I can see the myriad ways in which the Corona virus will accelerate changes to lifestyle and biographies – changes that were about to come anyway with Brexit among other issues, changes that question our understanding of what solidarity many mean in numerous ways.

Distancing during air travel

I was still in Manchester when the virus started to accelerate in Europe, and listened with some horror to the theory that all that was needed was herd immunity, which may mean an awful lot of deaths but hey, the general population can be asked to suffer a bit for the benefit of all. Only. it is not the general population (whatever that may mean anyway), but it are those who live in precarious circumstances, those who cannot stay at home as they have no sick pay; those who for various reason feel they cannot afford to follow all the official health advise, who will suffer most and pay the price (well, not unlike in wars with which the Corona crisis is now often compared). Much has been written on how Corona will expose and widen inequalities in society – in contrast to what others have said about epidemics and likewise events, including wars, that they actually flatten inequality – a dynamic I speak about in a Masters course I teach on Global Inequalities and Social Development at the University of Manchester, I might have to rethink this message for the next academic year.

I was worried for a while that I would not make it out in time before some shut down was coming my way while still in the UK – but I needed not to have worried, as the UK response was too little too late, as many scientist who actually know something about epidemiology (instead of being behavioural economist or the like) now agree.

So here I am in Berlin, where a very different approach has taken hold. While one can endlessly debate the pros and cons of school closures and others shut-down measures, what seems striking to me is that Germany, a country with comparatively high confirmed infection rates (12327 at the time of writing, the 4th highest number) has a very low death rate (28 thus far), compared for example to the UK (2642 confirmed infections and 72 deaths) – I am not sure what the reasons are for this and how much they might be connected to bleeding the NHS dry over the last decades, but it is a puzzle to note. And reports that NHS staff lack protective equipment are not very reassuring.

But whatever the different political approaches across Europe – and it is, in many ways, disheartening to see they vary so much, as one would have hoped for a more general consensus, even if measures of course need to be tailored to individual countries in a way that respects how the pandemic has unfolded in them. Even though, countries like South Korea and Singapore among others, seem to teach us some general truth, not least in relation to wide-spread testing

A key element in Europe’s response, including the UK, is what is now almost everywhere called social distancing. I find this term very troubling indeed. In times of a global pandemic, it is solidarity what one would think is most needed, globally and locally, and at all levels in between.

What we really want is keeping a physical distance between people – be it 1.5 or 2 meters – I am not quite sure where the different ideal distance comes from and it seems puzzling that even here there is no universal agreement. Thus yes, physical distancing by all means, but social distancing is exactly the wrong thing to do. Social closeness does not need to involve being in the same physical space at all, and even if so does not need hugging or touching, even if in our cultures these are common expressions of affection.

But maybe there is more to the use of the misnomer of social distancing than meets the eye: In many ways, some of the measures of so-called social distancing are, well, elite issues. Not only in relation to those who work for example in the gig economy and can not afford such means (at least as long as businesses still operate), but also in creating the phantasy that the virus can be contained by keeping people separated and behind some form of a border. Actual border closures have now been put in place even between a number of Schengen countries and beyond – a sheer nonsense in many ways and unnecessary if people would head the sensible advise not to travel unnecessarily, and when travelling, in particular on public transport, it does not make a difference if one does so in one country or across a border.

And then there are communities on the European continent to whom the advise of social distancing and washing hands must sound like a bad and cruel joke: Those for example in the refugee camps on the Greek islands, like Moira on Lesbos, as well as on the European mainland, cramped into accommodation at close range and with too little water to go around at the best of times. Not to speak of refugees, migrants and other population groups in camps or informal settlements worldwide, where health and living conditions are often precarious over long periods of time.

What we needs is not social distancing but solidarity with those who struggle to adhere to even the most basic measures the epidemiologists and health professionals tell us to adhere to. Solidarity that provides the physical space needed to remain safe, the water and soap needed to wash hands, and a means to live a life with some dignity, in the times of Corona and beyond. We might have got a glimpse that this may be possible when some European countries, not least Germany, opened not only their borders but many people opened hearts and minds to the refugees who arrived in 2015 – even if that is now seen as a mere footnote in subsequent history where border closures, nationalism and a doggy deal with Turkey have taken to upper hand.

Crises may be devastating when they strike, but they are always opportunities as well, for better or worse, as Naomi Klein reminds us when talking about disaster (or corona-) capitalism: they can lead to an even more unequal world where those who are at the top can ignore the vast majority of humanity. There are reports of some of the very rich escaping to bunkers on remote islands, or in less extreme form go via private jet to a place perceived as a safe haven, or a remote second home – just avoid mingling with the rest of humanity, if you can afford it, seems to be the message. This is social distancing taken to the extreme.

But a pandemic like COVID-19 does also provide an opportunity to think again, to remember we are all humans and while the virus affects people differently, not only based on age and medical preconditions, but maybe more importantly based on class, wealth and status, it also is an equalizer in the sense that it changes everybody’s life, if we acknowledge it or not. This is where the phantasy that to control borders, those of nation states and those between people, will bring a lasting solution ends. At the end of the day, we need to survive as humanity on the planet, as humans who are first and foremost social beings. It is ultimately up to all of us if and how we show solidarity in the times of Corona (and hopefully in its aftermath when other more pertinent threats to humanity like the climate emergency dominate the headlines again) – and avoid falling for the trap of social distancing. Give physical space to everybody (and wash those hands) – but at the same time, keep your heart open, would make for so much better advise.

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Unhappy performatives of statehood: What we can learn from Austin about the disfunctionality of Eritrean politics

Sometimes things come back in circles in unexpected ways: I started my university career as a Masters student at the Freie Universität Berlin in West-Berlin in 1980s. The wall was still up and West-Berlin was a laboratory for alternative life-styles. It offered welcome respite from the conservative and distinctly boring reality of everyday life in then West-Germany, a reality in many ways mirrored by then East-Germany only based on a different ideology and state doctrine.

Eritrea Independence Celebration, photo: Stefan Boness, http://www.iponphoto.com

This was the time before the so-called Bologna-process that sliced university education in ever smaller parts that had to be measured and examined at every turn, and before the notion of ‘students as customers’, in Europe perhaps most prevalent in the UK higher education system with its unhealthy student fee structure. At the time when I entered the Freie Universität in 1985, you studied to come out with a Masters – Bachelor degrees did not exist in Germany then – and, more importantly, to develop your intellectual capacity and grow as a thinking person, at least in the Social Sciences and Humanities. Thus, it was up to you if you attended lectures or what essays you wrote – you were treated as a responsible adult and it was taken for granted that you joined university because of intellectual curiosity. If you would ever get a job in the exact field you studied was not the central point, and many of my fellow students who graduated successfully went on to do exciting things often unrelated to their actual subjects. But we all grew as thinking people and I would claim our time spent at university was a good foundation for our future lives.

I studied Socio-linguistics and philosophy, and was lucky enough that some of the great thinkers in analytical philosophy at the time were teaching at the Philosophy Institute in Berlin, including Michael Theunissen and Ernst Tugendhat, with whom I did my final oral exams on the thought of Gottlob Frege and John Searle. In retrospect, I owe you both a lot! Another thinker very influential to my study work and dissertation was John L. Austin, whose main contribution to bringing sociological study, language and philosophy together is summed up in his best known book ‘How to do things with words’.

When I graduated with a distinction masters from the Freie Universität in 1991, the wall had fallen and I went into the wider world, working first in language teaching and later as a journalist and educationalist. Belatedly I decided to return to formal academia, as a mature PhD student in 1999, and the critical thinking I had engaged with in my earlier Berlin life was present, but mainly as an undercurrent.

But once I started to work for what is now the Global Development Institute (GDI), I realised that the legacy of thinking I was brought up with, so to speak, is more relevant than usually acknowledged. In international development, but also in politics per se, performance and ‘doing things with words’ is omnipresent. In turn, a performance studies lend can add valuable analytical insights, and provide lessons for practical solutions and failures. Unfortunately, this aspect is too often either given short thrift or put to the background, in teaching and research. At GDI, for a few years we had a module, taught by my colleagues Uma Kothari and Dan Brockington, on Representations of Development – but that has not run for many years and would be hard to fit into the overly narrow parameters that now structure research and teaching. At the Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute, during the time I was its research director, we had a research stream on Humanitarian Performance – that was when James Thomson still had an active role at the Institute and sadly that has also fallen by the wayside.

Perhaps it is hard to demonstrate how understanding the performances of humanitarianism and development improves your job prospects and future income, measures that seem so much more important these days than the propensity for critical thinking and engagement. So maybe I am writing this from a luxury position, as somebody who has a permanent post and thus more freedom to think about quirky issues – and one could start an interesting analysis here on unhappy performances of universities, but that is for another day.

Why do I tell the reader all this? Because I did just publish an article in the main performance studies journal that not only brought me back in many ways to my intellectual beginnings in 1980s Berlin, but also, as I argue in the piece, offers important insights into how to address or not address real world dilemmas. The article deals with Eritrean politics and the opposition to it, and how in their different ways the way they perform their agendas will continue the unhealthy, unproductive and often vicious divides that dominate Eritrean politics and its diaspora. In my article I use the example of the staging of two academic conferences on the occasion of the Eritrea silver jubilee – but in the age of social media, performances of highly charged ideological discourses are everywhere. One only needs to for example look at the Brexit debate, or the reaction to refugees arriving at European shores – the way policy answers and solutions to these issues are being propagated and presented as serious policies are too often unhappy performatives. Thus to understand and analyse them as such can be a first step to engage with the real issues behind, and come to a solution that holds up what global development and humanitarianism should in essence be about – underneath the show that is often performed in its name.

My article ‘Unhappy Performatives of Statehood: Staging Incompatible Narratives of Eritrea through Academic Conferences’ can be accessed via Project Muse if your institution is a subscriber, and is also available Open Access here.

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