‘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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