Personal reflections on Brexit II on the day President Obama gave his farewell in Berlin

Barack Obama, Angela Merkel

Photo: Stefan Boness http://www.iponphoto.com

About a week after the second major political shock of the year 2016, first the Brexit vote in June that triggered my first personal reflection on the theme, followed by the election of Donald Trump as next US President, President Obama is on his farewell-tour to Europe. As I write this, he is in Berlin and holds a joint press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. I hardly ever listen to press conferences, but somehow today felt the need to do so.

A key theme that runs through President Obama’s statements is a theme, it turns out, that is core to some of my own teaching on Development as Historical Change: Political progress is never a given but always contentious, and can easily turn into political decay. In concrete, President Obama speaks about not taking the achievements of the EU as a force for peace and prosperity for granted. Those need to be nurtured and fought for, and progress is not inevitable, but the result of continuous hard work. Thinking back about the Brexit campaign, what always left a sour taste in my mouth was the fact that almost nobody (in particular on the remain side) did actually fight for those achievements, or even mentioned them – the campaign was either fought as an economic doomsday scenario or as a claim for ‘sovereignty’ (as if sovereignty would be compromised by alliances based on key core values), in addition to promises that even those who made them never believed in.

At the moment, sovereignty seems to be expressed mainly through the right to erect borders and boundaries, on both sides of the Atlantic. I got a small taste of this when I entered the UK after Brexit for the first time, a couple of months after the actual vote. I arrived by plane at Stanstead airport in London. I travelled with my German ID card, as I usually do, and faced a kind of interrogation that I never experienced when entering the UK ever before. I was asked rather suspiciously if I had no passport, followed by questions on what I was doing here, how long I would stay – well, the usual stuff as some of my friends who undergo such procedures routinely as they have the ‘wrong’ passport would say. Trying to be polite enough but also firm in proclaiming my right to enter as a EU citizen, I still felt distinctly uncomfortable. It subsequently turned out that during a number of subsequent travels between the UK and the European continent, I could not check in for flights using my ID card, and was always stopped at the boarding gate. Airline staff were usually apologetic and I always made it onto the plane, but was never exactly told what the problem was, but got some vague answers about ‘irregularities’. I could of course have travelled using my passport instead, but that felt deeply wrong, a sort of obedience or giving in – even in small matters, I said to myself, one needs to fight for what one believes is right! And today it seems President Obama sided with me – even if he surely had more important issues in mind when he stressed repeatedly that one needed to ascertain the values that one holds dear.

More generally, my daily life as a ‘EU migrant’ has not changed much thus far, not least because, as an academic, I seem surrounded by people who feel similarly about Brexit. Or at least most of them do – I have meanwhile become aware of academic colleagues who did in fact vote Brexit – and then wondered why their European colleagues feel somehow rejected by that vote – how do they think we would feel? In many ways I am like the UK government, I do not have a Brexit strategy (yet) – even though I do not see myself staying in a country that might insist on work permits and other bureaucratic nonsense in the future, and make me pay for those demands.

Turning back to President Obama’s words in Berlin, he cautioned listeners not to take for granted the system of government and the prosperous lives we have, but invoked the need to fight for those – by all of us. This makes me think of a recent extended family gathering. One person present was an aunt in her 80s, who vividly remembers her childhood in Berlin during WW II. She and her parents and siblings lived in a house near the little Tiergarten, a green space near the location (until recently) of the LaGeSo, the present-day refugee reception centre. When their block of flats stood in flames caused by an allied bombing raid, the family gathered on that green space, in a similar way as Syrian and other refugees gathered there in the summer of 2015, waiting their turn to be processed as asylum seekers. The aunt in question waited to be evacuated to what is now Poland, where she, her mother and the siblings stayed until the end of the war. Then they were given the choice to stay and become Polish, or walk back to Berlin, a journey of a number of weeks on foot. They decided on the latter option and arrived exhausted back into a bombed out city. The same city that has become the focal point of hope for a better life among today’s refugees and migrants, as well as for many children or grandchildren of former Jewish refugees who came to the UK during WWII – and who now, post-Brexit, perhaps rather ironically, apply for German citizenship to stay ‘European’.

President Obama is right in many ways when he says that Germany in general and Berlin in particular tell a story of achievement, a story of what is possible when one follows one’s convictions and does the right thing for humanity as a whole, even if not politically convenient. History does mostly not travel in a straight line, President Obama adds, but it does move into the direction of social justice if we fight for it. The last part of that sentence seems crucial to me: if we fight for it, and engage in acts of citizenship continuously in our daily lives.

One of the main issues to engage in progressive politics in the contemporary world is in relation to welcoming those who flee their homes and uproot their lives for multiple reasons. The University of Manchester is hoping to become a focal point in engagement with those issues. It is in the process of establishing a migration lab (jointly led by HCRI and GDI) that will hold a first exploratory workshop on 5 December.

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Habitat III and Aspirations for a just city? – Some reflections on welcoming refugees in a neighbourhood in Berlin

This post was reposted as a policy@manchester blog: http://blog.policy.manchester.ac.uk/posts/2016/10/the-right-to-have-rights-aspirations-for-a-just-city/

One part of the New Urban Agenda that Habitat III aspires to includes support of refugees for a just city that ends social exclusion. That sounds, like many of these international aspirations usually proclaimed by UN conferences and the like, a rather lofty ambition. Who would really object to a just city where social exclusion would be a thing of the past? In reality, though, social exclusions exits – and in all likelihood always will – at all levels, but probably nothing puts the quest for a just and inclusive city to the test quite as much as large numbers of new population groups arriving in the city.

Asylum seeker in front of the LaGeSo with his waiting number. Photo: Stefan Boness, www.iponphoto.com

Asylum seeker in front of the LaGeSo with his waiting number.
Photo: Stefan Boness, http://www.iponphoto.com

This was the case in many cities in Germany during the summer of 2015, when Chancellor Angela Merkel decided spontaneously to open the border for refugees stranded in Europe for a brief period in time. One of the cities at the centre of what subsequently has been described as a state of great chaos was Berlin. I happen to live just down the road from the then main refugee reception centre, the so-called LaGeSo. The LaGeSo was in the news then for weeks on end as the place at the centre of Berlin’s Humanitarian Crisis, due to its inability to cope with the large numbers of refugees who simply awaited registration, the very first step in a long process towards eventually becoming residents of the city – or so they hoped.

Refugees camped in the parks and streets outside the LaGeSo often for weeks, the young and the old, the sick and the healthy, simply to obtain a waiting number that with some luck would ensure an appointment, registration, and transferral to proper accommodation eventually. But while official authorities seemed overwhelmed – the verdict is still out whether this was really the case, or whether there was a deliberate policy of making refugees as unwelcome as possible to entice them to reconsider their decision to have come to Germany in the first place – citizens of Berlin at large, and of Moabit in particular, the part of town where the LaGeSo was located, stepped in. People who often had never engaged with ‘politics’ or civil engagement of any kind suddenly appeared in front of the LaGeSo. They brought food and medicine, they started German lessons, and many who had a spare room at home simply took some of the refugees with them.

There were also those who tried to boycott or resist this practical attempt to show solidarity, but by and large, and without any political incentive, people responded as people, as fellow human beings, to the crisis on their doorstep. Many stories have since been told on how taking in refugees has challenged and often changed people’s lives. One of the initiatives based in Berlin that subsequently facilitated matching refugees with hosts, the group Refugees Welcome, soon received requests from other citizens in cities around the world – resulting for example in people as far away as Island to offer their homes and lives to share with refugees, and appealing to their government to let more of them in.

But that is only one-side of a complex story, the side that may give us hope that solidarity can be created by recognising the stranger not as the other, but as connected to our own lives through a common band of humanity. A year later, important questions remain not only about how welcome refugees really are, once they behave in ways that do not comply with the image of the grateful recipient of benevolence – not only since the so-called ‘sexmob’ attacks on New Year’s Eve.

Some of those who last year camped in front of the LaGeSo have found work and a place to live in Berlin or somewhere else. Others were so frustrated by their un-welcome into Germany that they returned to their country of origin, some with monetary incentives, others just by themselves. A new refugee reception centre has since opened and proceedings are allegedly more efficient and smooth – but that may largely be due to the comparatively low number of new arrivals these days. The latter is partly a result of the deal Angela Merkel has meanwhile struck with Turkey to keep refugees in camps there, a deal that is envisaged to eventually extend to a number of countries in North Africa.

But more than 40,000 refugees who arrived last summer are estimated to still live in emergency accommodation. Such accommodation might in theory be quite nice and fit for purpose, but often it is not. Around the corner from the former LaGeSo is a stark reminder that often the latter is the case: A refugee accommodation camp built in form of an air-inflated tent, where entry is through a compressed air lock that allows neither fresh air in nor daylight of any kind, houses mainly Syrian and other Middle Eastern men and families. It offers no real privacy, a particular problem for women who come from a culture where spaces for men and women are often distinct in everyday live and this distinctiveness a prerequisite for a sense of comfort and safety. Recently, one of its inhabitants, an Iraqi refugee, was shot dead by German police – while trying to kill a fellow camp-inmate with a knife who had allegedly raped his young daughter. While a police investigation is now under way to ascertain what really happened, violence in this type of refugee camps, and sexual violence in particular, has long been recognised as a problem on the rise. Yet the camps do persist.

Those dynamics, coupled with the recent ascent in Germany of a new political party that has as its main policy the exclusion of foreigners of any kind, but in particular those of Muslim faith, leave one with lingering doubts about lofty promises at international gatherings such as Habitat III: If a city in one of the most wealthy Western nations cannot cope in a more humane way with a comparatively low number of refugees – low in particular compared to the cities in the Global South that bear the brunt of refugee arrivals – what realistic hope is there to overcome social exclusions and live up to the promise of a just city that includes all its inhabitants, whether formal citizens or not? One is reminded here of Hannah Arendt’s dictum in relation to refugee movements in the 1930s, that the right to have rights relies on being a citizen of a particular state, thus there is no solid footing of universal rights in concrete political space, neither in the city nor beyond. I have my doubts that Habitat III will do much to change that.

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‘The Infiltrator’ versus ‘The Refugee’: exploring new forms of solidarity and their limitations

This blog is part of a presentation I will give at the Development Studies Association Conference, Tuesday, 13 September 2016, 14:00 to 15:30, Magdalen College, University of Oxford. The presentation will expand on the themes below and relate them to contemporary dynamics in Germany.  

The day after a German regional election in which a new party, the Alternative for Germany (AfD), whose political programme is largely based on a rejection of Angela Merkel’s open door policy towards refugees and a generally racist ideology, became the second strongest party in the German State of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, is as good as any to reflect again on the theme of refugees and solidarity.

Photo: Stefan Boness, iponphoto.com

Photo: Stefan Boness, iponphoto.com

My entry point to the contemporary refugee crisis in Europe goes back to 2010, when many of the dynamics that could be observed in Europe later (or rather main-land Europe, as the UK even before Brexit was rather on the fringes as long as holidays in France were not threatened) were played out in Israel: Israel then experienced its first unprecedented movement of non-Jewish refugees – mainly from Eritrea and Sudan. Those refugees had previously resided predominately in Egypt and Libya, but wider political circumstances had made both countries unsafe to continue to stay there. Israel was perceived by those who now came to it as ‘the Europe we can walk to’ – and Israeli authorities were in many ways as unprepared as most European countries were in the course of 2015, when movements of refugees and migrants perceived as unprecedented arrived at their shores. Thus it provides a good example to explore in a quasi-laboratory setting a range of responses, and interrogate the potential for new forms of solidarity – and their limitations.

At the time, the arrival of this comparatively large number of African refugees with legitimate claims for asylum in Israel, put into sharp focus one of the central problems of the 21st century: the lack of solid footing of universal human rights in actual political space. Perhaps most famously Hannah Arendt has commented in relation to refugee populations in the 1930s that the very right to have rights is connected to being a citizen of a particular state. This then raises the question if through concrete acts of solidarity at different levels, quasi-citizenship rights can be secured for those who lack such rights formally.

I find it useful to interrogate those dynamics using Engin Isin’s concept ‘acts of citizenship’. It is based on an understanding of citizenship beyond legal status, but focuses on concrete acts in everyday encounters. Citizenship thus becomes a practice in which people constitute themselves as citizens. Such a relational definition of citizenship focuses on ways of being with others in the same geographical space, and acts of citizenship that emerge from those encounters can, often simultaneously, produce strangers, aliens, outcasts or, indeed, citizens.  Through a focus on such acts it is possible to analyse and interrogate citizenship as agonistic, alienating or solidaristic ways of being in the world.

The official response of the Israeli state to the arrival of African refugees was on the face of it based on hostility: In official discourse and much of the media, these recent arrivals were not recognised as potential refugees but described as infiltrators – a term that originally referred to armed Palestinian resistance groups who illegally entered Israel from Arab countries. At the same time, many refugees themselves spoke positively about the hospitality they received from the Israeli soldiers who processed their illegal entry to the country, not only providing them with water, food and blankets but often showing real compassion to their plight. In addition, in a short time a refugee sector established itself, partly made up of long-term NGOs that extended their mandate, but also a number of new civil society organisations and an influx of volunteers, many young Jewish people from abroad in a sort of gap year. This was complemented by daily interactions with refugees in neighbourhoods and workplaces.

But to what extend did these different types of engagement transcend boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’? One example of a joint project between refugees and Israeli civil society volunteers that aimed to challenge public discourse away from the infiltrator narrative was the newspaper Refugee Voice, on paper jointly created by refugees and volunteers. It was introduced to the wider public by the left leaning newspaper Haaretz on 15 April 2011 in an editorial in its weekend magazine under the title ‘let my people stay’ (a word play on ‘let my people go’, referring to biblical history when Moses led the Israeli people back from enslavement in Egypt).

At the launch event for the Refugee Voice newspaper at a popular nightclub in Tel Aviv on 2 April 2011, some interesting dynamics could be observed. Firstly, very few refugees attended the event, which felt more like a party for the Israeli volunteers. Those who did attend stayed among themselves, and when speaking to them told me they preferred to go out to different bars that were not only cheaper but where they could talk to each other quietly. At some point the newspaper was being presented and the person who gave the speech was an Israeli female volunteer. She started by thanking everybody for their input, as ‘I could not have done this without the help of …’ (at which point everybody who contributed an article to the newspaper, refugees and Israelis alike, were mentioned by name). Thus, the newspaper was not presented as a truly joint enterprise in which ‘we’ (Israelis and refugees alike) came together on an equal footing, but as something that was instigated by Israelis concerned with refugee rights quasi on their behalf. In a rather paradoxical way, the claim for universal rights was enacted in this patronizing fashion that indirectly upholds unequal status between refugees and those who advocate on their behalf. This perception was confirmed by some of the refugees who did engage with Refugee Voice as an organ to give visibility to their cause. ‘Berhe’ for example remarked that ‘the newspaper is too timid, it does not really address the important issues we face, just gives some stories of suffering’.

But looking at Refugee Voice from the perspective of the majority of refugees who in fact had no desire to be overtly politically engaged but were concerned with social entitlements and an opportunity to work, even if ‘illegally’, its humanitarian angle addressed their main concerns. Thus even when taking into account the unequal relationship between the different parties involved in its creation, the newspaper was a magnanimous act of citizenship inspired by conceptions of solidarity – however flawed those may have been.

Other acts of solidarity were demonstrations for refugee rights jointly organised by Israelis and refugees. At the same time, antagonistic counter-demonstrations took place on a regular basis in the neighbourhoods of Tel Aviv where most refugees live. I happened to witness one of these demonstrations in April 2011. Demonstrators waved prefabricated placards with slogan likes ‘Expel the 200.000 infiltrators now, if we remain silent, we will become foreigners in our own neighbourhood’. In fact, most demonstrators were bussed in by political parties who helped stage those public rallies to support the discourse that the African refugees were in fact infiltrators who should be deported. But even such antagonistic expressions of anti-solidarity can trigger a response that publicly transforms refugees into people ‘capable of acting like citizens’, as has happened on this occasion. A Sudanese business owner came out of his mobile phone and electronics shop and started arguing with the protesters in fluent Hebrew. He was visibly disturbed by the antagonism and explained at length how his business was in fact providing a much-needed service to the wider neighbourhood.

While such encounters may do little to change perceptions or politics on a larger scale, they are nevertheless acts that disrupt common stereotypes not least because the refugee-business owner enacted his right to speak out and challenge the protesters, and in doing so claimed equal status to voice his opinion as a resident of the same neighbourhood.

Such small acts of claim-making in localised encounters can play an important role in the way in which refugees constitute themselves as political subjects. These on the face of it minor acts are especially important for individual actors in a wider political climate in which representatives of almost all political parties advocated for the African refugees to not be allowed to live freely in Israel’s major cities.

For a more in-depth analysis of the issues discussed above see my article in Citizenship Studies.

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From ‘international scholar’ to ‘so-called expert’? – Reflections on the second International Conference on Eritrean Studies in Asmara

A few days ago, a little after midnight, once everybody had finished their work-shift, a group of young women and a few men gathered for an elaborated coffee ceremony in the Eritrean capital Asmara. They were joyful, giggled, showed around pictures of one of their close friends. The ceremony was in fact held to celebrate this friend, let’s call her Asmeret (not her real name), and her safe arrival in Germany after a three months journey on the usual, often dangerous, migrant-track. A photo of Asmeret, smiling into the smartphone camera, was passed around, and the ceremony in her honour was photographed and the pictures sent back to her.

photo: Stefan Boness, http://www.iponphoto.com

I don’t know how many celebrations like this happen in Asmara or other parts of Eritrea every day, but what struck me about this one was the fact that it took place a few days after a major International Eritrean Studies Conference in Asmara that I attended. The conference was a major event not least for young Eritrean students and recent graduates, as it was the first big international conference of its kind since the Eritrean Studies Conference in July 2001 that at the time ended with so much promise for a new area of open debate and discussion – only to be radically curtailed in the following crackdown of September 2001. The 2016 conference was exceptionally well organised and provided ample opportunity to (re-)connect with Eritrean and international scholars in an atmosphere characterized by excitement and a real buzz.

Whereas the 2001 conference – and I belong to the smallish group of scholars who has attended both conferences – was characterised by critical debate and intense discussions not only about developmental issues in a broad sense but also the political situation in Eritrea, the framing of the 2016 conference was clear: the ‘truth’ about Eritrea was to be discussed here in order to counter those scholars who do not pay enough attention to the particular conditions of Eritrea. One could also say it was meant to be a public relations exercise to counter the negative narratives about Eritrea, but do so in a way that left little room for critical debate, as the ‘truth’ about Eritrea can ultimately only be grasped by Eritreans themselves. The main trope in this framing was the ‘so-called expert’ – an academic from outside who makes a claim to knowledge that only an Eritrean could have, but whose work is seen as expertise on Eritrea more broadly. The line between welcomed ‘international scholar’ and ‘so-called expert’ is thin, and one can easily mutate from one to the other. Thus almost by definition, if one questioned the tightly framed boundaries of allowable critique set ultimately not by the academic committee that was the visible face of the conference organisation, but by government and party rationale, one was in danger of being put into the ‘so-called expert’ group.

Many positives can be said about the 2016 conference, not least that it tried to bridge the gap between academic research and its potential applications for developmental benefits and included a large amount of government personnel, foreign diplomats and UN personnel among its participants. It also gave young (and not so young) Eritrean researchers a platform to present their often excellent work – at least the work that dealt with uncontroversial, development centred topics that outlined achievements and future challenges. That was as far as critique was welcomed: as an analysis why progress had not quite occurred as planned for (yet).

Thus the two issues that are at the core of life for many Eritreans, national service and/or the fact that too many Eritreans do not see any prospects for their future in Eritrea, were astonishingly absent or discussed away as aberrations of little significance. People like Asmeret, who have lost faith in a viable future within Eritrea, are a small aberration in a country whose youth in its majority is committed to support national development – or so the narrative goes. A nuanced understanding of the struggles to combine often overbearing national obligations with people’s aspirations, and the different ways in which those are being enacted, had no place at the conference (in fact, I had intended to present a paper exactly on those issues, but this was rejected).

To somebody who does believe in development alternatives and who has always been supportive of and sympathetic to the Eritrean government’s developmental agenda, this is a rather despairing state of affairs. I have repeatedly made the case in the past that narratives about Eritrea are one-sided and partly underpinned by geopolitical dynamics, but the same is true of the overarching narrative that the conference tried to enforce, and that was repeated with vehemence at its closing session: all is well in Eritrea and the reason it is being ‘demonised’ by ‘the West’ is due to its focus on self-reliance. Those researchers who fail to grasp this are denigrated as ‘so-called experts’ and can be ignored. Both discourses will do little to advance Eritrean Studies as a critical discipline, nor will they transform the mind-set of too many of Eritrea’s young people who see little alternative to either inward resignation or outward migration.

The paper I wanted to present would have engaged with those dynamics based on 20 years of research in Eritrea. It would have outlined the balancing act between an overbearing state and peoples’ aspirations and analysed those in relation to concrete life histories of graduates from the former University of Asmara, who are all committed to contribute to national development. Some are still in Eritrea, others have left, and their life trajectories show in concrete detail what it may mean to be Eritrean and navigate global society at the same time. I have never claimed to be an ‘expert’ on Eritrea, I am a social scientist who over a long time-period has engaged in predominately qualitative research on various aspects of Eritrean Studies. When government or party officials end private discussions (which are as everywhere more frank than public ones) with a version of the dictum ‘but there are things that you do not know, thus you have to trust me that what you say is wrong’ – of course they are right, at least with the first part of the statement. But social science research is not about trust or indeed about treating official statements as truth, it is about interrogation, debate and analysis. And when I compare narratives of ordinary Eritreans with how their lives are being presented in official discourse, there might be things that I can comment on from a unique vantage point.

This year’s conference is meant to be the start of such gatherings on a regular basis. Maybe or rather hopefully its most enduring legacy are the many young Eritrean scholars and students who in private showed their appreciating for the sparks of critical debate on controversial issues that scholars mainly from outside Eritrea tried to encourage, and the panel on foreign policy in the Horn that I co-organised and presented on was a small step in that direction. Hopefully these Eritrean scholars will take up such debates, and a future conference will critically engage with the issues that dominate Eritrean perceptions globally: migration, human rights, and national service and citizenship obligations.

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The day after the day of the shock: Personal reflections of a EU citizen (still) working in the (still) UK (England) on Brexit

When you get an email from the vice chancellor of the academic institution where you work not to panic (not the exact words but the tenor) something seems to be seriously wrong. When you get the same email from another vice chancellor – from the institution where you obtained your PhD more than a decade ago and with which you actually have had no links since then, something seems to be even more seriously wrong. And when you hear from colleagues at other academic institutions in little England and across the wider UK that they got similar emails, you really start thinking if you have time to jump on the next boat before the déluge.

Manchester, England

© Stefan Boness, iponphoto.com

Lucky for me, I was on that boat a while ago, as I am currently on sabbatical that I spend partly on the European continent – bound to return in September to a country whose majority apparently does not want me to return. Having been away on referendum day also saves me of a direct reminder of the fact that I was not even allowed to vote on my own future. The EU might be remote from its citizens in many ways and driven by narrow elite agendas, but in my case it are the British elites who welcome my tax payments and other contributions, but feel I have no right to decide on my own future among them. So much for ‘the people’ taking back decisions over their lives, one of the battle cries of the Brexit campaign that exposes its narrowly conceived nationalist and xenophobic underbelly.

Still, as a perennial optimist, I have always felt certain things will not happen in my lifetime: the possible collapse of the EU, or a demagogue like Trump becoming president of one of the major democracies in the Western world are among those. The first might just have started, the second does not seem too far off – maybe it is actually time to panic!

As with many of my colleagues and friends in the UK, my first reaction when it became clear that Brexit would happen was a sense of shock followed by a debilitating inability to do anything useful on the day. I was joined in that state by a number colleagues from within the UK via social media, and we exchanged views on what to do on such a day, ranging from cleaning windows or doing one’s tax returns, to simply going to the pub and have a drink. The latter was what apparently the staff of the German diplomatic corps in Brussels did, according to a twitter feed that went viral: ‘We are off now to an Irish pub to get decently drunk. And from tomorrow on we will again work for a better #Europe! Promised!’.

On the day after the day of the Brexit-shock, as the state of disbelief slowly subsides and the many messages from friends in the UK who speak of how aghast and ashamed they feel makes me feel partly reassured, I also wonder why I did not see it coming, why did I always feel in the end it would be OK?

After all, Britain now had a majority government run by a party that had a long history of cheap anti-EU propaganda, not least to put the blame for its own failings firmly unto distant ‘foreign’ institutions in Brussels, as if Britain was actually not a vital partner in shaping these institutions. In his reaction to the Brexit vote, in a speech that also became his resignation speech, PM Cameron said that he has ‘always believed that we have to confront big decisions, not duck them’. This alone showed how removed from reality he is: He was for many years one of those in the Tory elite who put the blame for unpopular decisions on ‘Europe’, so how could he now convincingly campaign in favour of remain? To hold a referendum in the first place was in fact his way to get rid of inner-party rivals and the destructive force of the hard-core anti-European contingent. His bet was, in holding a referendum and winning it, he would lay those ghosts to rest for good. That this bet would not necessarily come off became clear when he made the perhaps most stupid mistake of his premiership: to allow even ministers in his own government, a government that he declared as pro-EU, not only a free vote but free campaign rights. If you are unable to unite your own government behind its own policy, how can you expect to unite the electorate or even encourage a grown-up, nuanced debate?

I was briefly back in the UK during the weeks before the referendum date, and I was taken aback by the almost hatred with which the campaign was fought – certainly not a good omen, but also by its personalised character. A campaign where one of the main arguments in a TV panel by leading people in the remain camp deteriorates to personal attacks on Boris Johnson, accusing him of occupying the leave position out of personal power calculations, is in a sad state. Don’t get me wrong, Johnson might have been driven by those exact motivations and I would regard it as a complete disaster were he to become the next PM, but surely a campaign that seeks to motivate people needs a different strategy. The biggest flop here was the Labour Party, or at least its current leadership, for whom going back in history should have provided important lessons.

The last EU referendum in 1975 was called by a dis-united labour government whose members were, equally as was the case now, free to campaign on either side. Then, it was a highly efficient pro-EU campaign by the then Tory opposition under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher that carried much of the vote, campaigning then under the slogan ‘support your local continent’ among others, and making famous a Thatcher pro-EU jumper (that has actually been reproduced again during the current referendum). Lesson to be learned: if the governing party is too disunited it depends on the opposition to carry through the vote that it says it supports. Most of the labour campaign was lukewarm rather than engaged, and what was largely absent was the defence of the EU as a post-war project based on important values.

Of course there is much to critique about how the EU has developed in practice, its bureaucracy, its almost exclusive focus on neoliberal doctrine, corporate entities and the free exchange of goods and services – and the neglect of its vision as a community of values, as a promise for the future, as an entity who managed to overcome nationalist rivalries and in spite of everything united the people of Europe as citizens of more than small nationalist enclaves. Also the feeling by too many, that Europe has turned from a promise for a better future for all to a threat for some could have provided much room for constructive engagement and debate. But that debate remained largely absent and a labour party, some of whose members were inept enough to say that Brexit was wrong now, as it would lead to an even more right-wing alternative project, but would be fine if only the Left had a majority, can not wash its hands off a result that many now lament. And that among the few who did actually raise issues about the EU as a community of values, one the most prominent was past PM Tony Blair, highly controversial within his own party and righty so, together with John Major, should be a source of great embarrassment for the current Labour party leadership. Instead, what we hear are continued accusations against the Tories for dividing Britain, and statements that imply it was rally the task of the government to win the referendum for remain.

Looking back, 23 June was thus a sad day for Europe in many ways, and only the next few weeks and months will show whether it translates into the rise of more nationalist xenophobic agendas elsewhere, or whether solidarity in a real sense gains ground (again). The EU certainly is at a turning point, and if the Brexit vote is the start of a process that makes the EU as a whole remember its core values and become a place focused primarily on its citizens – instead of predominately on markets and companies, it might actually have done all of us a favour – well, almost all of us, excluding the citizens of England and Wales (unless a petition to re-think the referendum result is successful) – and about Scotland and Northern Ireland we will see.

I will end with these words from an English friend who grew up in an area that voted Leave, but for decades has lived in Manchester that voted Remain (and I am proud to be a resident, even if not a citizen in the full sense of the word, of Manchester for that reason). In her response to Brexit she wrote to me: You are lucky, you are still a citizen of Europe, whereas I’m now a citizen of a crappy little island of small-minded fools.

Yes, I am lucky indeed – for now. And hope to remain so for the rest of my lifetime and for future generations beyond.

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Human rights as a political tool: Eritrea and the ‘crimes against humanity’ narrative

For those who follow the politics of Eritrea and the Horn of Africa, the verdict of the second report by the Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Human Rights in Eritrea (COI), that Eritrea has indeed committed crimes against humanity in a widespread and systematic way, was a foregone conclusion. The COI, established by the Human Rights Council (HRC) in June 2014, presented its first Report in June 2015 and received a revised HRC mandate until June 2016 in order to further investigate violations of human rights in Eritrea, including where these violations may amount to crimes against humanity.

The verdict was announced, or maybe staged is the better way of describing the process, at a press conference held on 8 June in Geneva, followed by a press conference from the Permanent Mission of the State of Eritrea at the same location challenging its findings. I have no intention to enter the acrimonious debate that followed via social media on who can prove or disprove which findings – even though in order to make such a grave accusation and demand the referral of Eritrea to the International Criminal Court (ICC), one would expect a comprehensive investigation, and not an in essence one-sided document whose authors did not include experts who do not share their views.

A few words about the methodology of the report as a whole seem in order here: While not allowed access to Eritrea itself, the report is predominately based on interviewees with self-nominated participants in the diaspora. Their testimony is indeed disturbing and at times heart breaking. But it remains the testimony of a number of individuals, the main core made up of 550 witness statements. They in different ways left Eritrea, often experiencing abuse on their journeys, and have learned to navigate international refugee law and asylum systems. This does not make their testimonies wrong, but would call for a nuanced understanding or interpretation in any social science discipline. Human rights advocacy might not be social science, but one would at least expect inconsistencies to be followed up. A prime example of those has travelled the internet widely, when a representative of Canadian mining company Nevsun, accused in the 2015 COI report to use slave labour to dig underground tunnels at Bisha mine in Eritrea, made the point that Bisha is in fact an open-pit mine.

For the new report, a high number of other self-nominated Eritreans came forward in order to contest the first report’s findings. The authors refused to engage with those and partly explained it by the fact that they had been actively recruited by the Eritrean government who also put pressure on some to give this testimony. This may be the case, and maybe actually interviewing some of them would have provided more clarity. It may equally be the case that some of those whose testimony made it into the report were recruited by human rights activists who have their own means of advocacy and persistence, and for example hire public lobbying companies in order to spread their narrative of Eritrea (I was for a while bombarded by emails from such a company with sensational news until I contacted them and asked to be removed from their list). One can also make the case that an inquiry into human rights abuses has no obligation to consult those who reject that such violations are taking place. Fair point.

What is harder to justify and exemplifies the flaws in the COI report is the fact that all additional experts that were consulted came from the spectrum of human rights advocates in a broad sense, and included hardly anybody with recent first-hand experience of Eritrea. Chairperson of the COI, Mike Smith, explained at the press conference that one did not see the torture and other violations when visiting Asmara. That is of course true, but many people exist who live, have lived or continue to visit Eritrea, have multiple connections within the country and could have contributed to the COI’s understanding. They were deliberately ignored, and the result is a document that describes a country many Eritreans do not recognise.

Perhaps most problematic in the COI report is the claim that those crimes against humanity were in fact committed since Eritrean independence in 1991. This claim brings, perhaps in unintended ways, the highly political character of this exercise premised on absolute prioritisation of human rights, regardless of history or context but in line with wider geopolitical agendas, clearly out into the open, as it shows complete disregard for (or ignorance of?) Eritrea’s post-liberation history.

In essence, the new report updates but adds little of substance to last year’s report, but in removing the ‘potential’ preceding the crimes against humanity dictum opens the door to refer Eritrea to the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the United Nations Security Council. In that, it has many similarities with the discourse around human rights violations and in that case ‘genocide’ in relation to Sudan and Darfur in particular. The eventual indictment of Sudanese president Bashir by the ICC and its aftermath should make one pause for a moment: Not only was the arrest warrant highly political, but more critically a sustained political solution to the various conflicts and fault lines in Sudan is as far away as ever.

As a side, the way the numbers game is being played in such performances is also quite interesting: In relation to Darfur, numbers were always contested and at the time of Bashir’s indictment the ‘fantastical’ claim of 5000 people dying every months was made and used as ‘proof’ for genocide. The figure 5000 has also made the rounds in relation to Eritrea in the claim that 5000 people per months are escaping the country – with little evidence of what time period we are talking about and how those exact figures can be obtained, other than through indirect means. Maybe 5000 has become a magic figure in relation to when to trigger a ‘crimes against humanity’ claim? In Eritrea this is now being supplemented by the widely repeated claim of 400.000 people being ‘enslaved’ in the country – and as some mud always sticks, the benchmark for substantiating that figure gets lower and lower.

COI chairperson Mike Smith had also indicated in his press conference that Eritreans would not cross borders freely, but under danger and often dependent on people smugglers. I have always advocated to give all Eritreans exit visas once they completed 18 months of national service, but even if that were the case, they would in all likelihood still employ people smugglers, as few (if any) European countries would give them entry visas thus they still needed to come as refugees. In contrast to citizens from a different African country, the Gambia, who top the list of those having entered Italy illegally this year, Eritreans are predominately given asylum and thus it pays to be Eritrean or rather pose as such. There are multiple reasons to leave Eritrea – or any other African country for that matter, and many reason why people actually return, including to Eritrea.

In an ideal world, everybody who has committed human rights abuses would be held to account eventually. Looking at the Horn of Africa as a region, grave human rights violations persist in all countries, and are committed by all sides, governments and opposition groups alike. The Horn is also a region where mutual interferences into each other’s affairs and proxy wars are an important part of foreign policy conduct. Eritrea itself has a long history of its own rights being violated by international bodies and the UN, not least in being denied independence – even if the Eritrean government uses past grievances too easily as an excuse for repressive policies.

A potential referral to the ICC, or the alternative suggestion to set up an African Union tribunal like the one that recently convicted former Chadian president Hissène Habré, would not only and unjustly continue a politics of ostracizing Eritrea. It would also do little to either release political prisoners or give them a fair trial, nor to stop the exodus out of Eritrea.

Mary Harper in a recent BBC report from within Eritrea sums it up nicely when she says it might be high time to look at the country afresh, and that Eritrean reality is far more complex than the picture painted by both sides of the divide. A useful next step of the COI would be to acknowledge that the picture painted in its report is by necessity one-sided – and with it step back from the moral high ground human rights campaigners too often seem to take by definition of their mandate. Chances for such a move are slim. But any progress for the future of Eritrea and its people will ultimately depend on a more balanced and creative policy approach that moves beyond the vilification and isolation of Eritrea, and acknowledges the deeper fault lines of politics in the Horn.

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Forgotten Humanitarians – reflections on the death of Rupert Neudeck, founder of the German humanitarian organisation Cap Anamur

Many called him naïve, and he certainly showed little interest in the structural conditions or the violence that caused people to flee their countries of origin, nor in wider geopolitical dynamics that often determine the concrete parameters of humanitarian action. He was moved by individual destinies, the bare life of people who suffered and needed to be helped, full-stop. And in 1979, the people in dire need of such help were people drowning on un-seaworthy boats while trying to flee Vietnam.

Rupert Neudeck thus became famous for the rescue of these so-called Vietnamese boat-people when in 1979 he, together with German writer Heinrich Böll and some friends, started the organisation ‘a ship for Vietnam’ that rescued more than 10.000 of destitute Vietnamese most of whom would in all likelihood have drowned otherwise. It later mutated into the humanitarian organisation Cap Anamur with the general goal to help refugees and displaced people worldwide. The Vietnamese boat-people were then seen – not by him, he did not care for such labels – as refugees from communist dictatorship and most were settled in Europe or the US, Canada and Australia.

Little such luck for most of the contemporary ‘boat-people’ in the Mediterranean, 700 of whom are feared dead in one of the deadliest weeks of late, the week before Neudeck’s death. They increasingly meet barbed wire, fences and walls instead of a warm welcome, a hug, or a dry place to sleep. And one can rightly question – as I myself have done often enough– the symbolism of the picture of a dead baby or toddler that also accompanied the latest tragic deaths, causing short-lived outrage combined with ‘business as usual’ and the refusal to search for sustainable solutions. At the same time, what Neudeck, however infuriating he could be, propagated, was that human tragedies of any proportion were ultimately felt at the level of simple, individual human beings. Those fellow humans needed immediate help – his credo was the humanitarian impulse in its purest form. This made him successful in explaining to plumber Jo why a Vietnamese boat-person needed his help– not always, but often enough. He got a great many people to believe that the stranger about to drown had more in common with them than they might have ever imagined. He was, a rare quality in this rather cynical world, authentic.

Neudeck was also highly controversial, not least within humanitarian circles, and arguably with good reason. People who worked for him were supposed to live on good will and enthusiasm in order not to use resources for themselves that could be used for those who suffered. And while his own lifestyle was reportedly Spartan, much is to be said for a proper meal, a bed for the night and a good rest for those at the humanitarian forefront, things he felt were unnecessary luxuries. In many ways, he was the antidote to the increasing professionalization of humanitarian action – and as such people like him might have a lot of value in some ways, but also create a lot of problems further down the line.

He also did not trust technology and surveillance in the humanitarian field, as in his view one could only understand how people really lived and suffered when one engaged with them, on the ground and on their terrain. He thus went, was touched and tried to help as best as he could. One cannot run the international humanitarian system on such impulses – but more immersion and less simulation, as Mark Duffield points out in a recent article, might indeed have a lot of value. A reflection on the life and death of Rupert Neudeck and his legacy in the German publication die tageszeitung says it well: One does not need to agree in any way with his views or actions to mourn his death as a loss to humanity.

This is particularly true at a time when the contemporary ‘boat-people’, the refugees and migrants that see no other way into Europe as to embark on similar rickety boats as the boat-people of Vietnam in the 1970s, start drowning again in increasing numbers. Another German organisation, Sea-Watch, founded and driven by similar personal concerns for the suffering of others, feels like a fitting tribute.

About: Sea-Watch e.V. – Secure maritime escape routes

Since the year 2000 more than 23.000 people died trying to reach Europe’s shores. After the end of Mare Nostrum operation in the Mediterranean Sea three business partners from Germany decided to found the non-profit NGO Sea-Watch e.V. The organisation is acting politically, economically and religiously independent and has two boats that patrol the Mediterranean. For more information see: http://sea-watch.org/en/

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