Taxi to Tel Aviv: Precarious lives, contested freedoms – laying claim to asylum in cities of the Global North

In Germany, it is pre-election time. And the leader of the main opposition party, Social Democratic (SPD) candidate Martin Schulz, has finally found what he believes to be the most potent weapon to dent the popularity of incumbent Chancellor Angela Merkel: Lashing out at her policy towards refugees and migrants.

Rally of Jewish nationalists against foreign immigrants from Africa

African business owner argues with hostile protesters in Tel Aviv. photo: Stefan Boness, http://www.iponphoto.com

We could very soon, Schulz claims, be in a similar situation again as in the summer of 2015. Then, refugees and migrants were stranded at the borders of various countries in mainly eastern Europe, and Chancellor Merkel – in an act most then regarded as gracious and compassionate, others as stupid and naïve – decided to do what was needed and morally right (if one believes in a common humanity): welcoming them to Germany under the slogan wir schaffen das (we will manage).

And indeed, Germany has managed by and large, in spite of some initial chaos, and the fact that processing and social welfare institutions were overwhelmed at times, in spite of the fact that a newish right wing party gained votes in various local and state elections. For every act of resentment, one could observe manningfold acts of welcome and compassion. Many of those who arrived in 2015 have settled, found work, their children go to school. Others are living somewhere below the official radar, often in Germany’s bigger cities, get by in different ways in their attempts to rebuild lives –while others have been sent back to countries deemed safe enough to return to, a decision that is always contentious, as what does ‘safe enough’ really mean in practice?

Now, Schulz claims, a situation comparable to 2015 could arise again soon, as more and more refugees and migrants arrive in Italy again. EU mechanisms to share that ‘burden’ are not working, as in particular countries in Eastern Europe refuse to participate, and Italy itself is feeling left alone and overwhelmed. Its reception centres are full – even as many of their inhabitants have made their way to Rome or other urban settings given the chance, living an often precarious life but also happy to have made it, in contrast to so many others who have perished on their journeys.

These recurring dynamics in the countries of Southern Europe in particular, those with a shoreline facing the African continent, had a precedent in a perhaps unlikely country, Israel. Here many of the dynamcis later to be observed in Europe were played out in quasi laboratory circumstances from around 2005 onwards: Israel then experienced its first and unprecedented movement of non-Jewish refugees – mainly from Eritrea and Sudan. Those refugees had previously resided in Egypt and Libya, and wider political circumstances made both countries unsafe to continue to stay there. Israel was perceived by those who then 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 arrives at their shores. Thus Israel provides a good example to explore in a quasi-laboratory setting the range of responses along the whole scale we subsequently saw in Europe, from alienation to solidarity – and their limitations.

Initially, the first refugees who arrived, while described as ‘infiltrators’ in official discourse, were at the same time regarded as useful additions to the labour force, replacing former Palestinian workers in the course of the second Palestinian intifada. But with increasing numbers and increasingly hostile political propaganda, the official Israeli response become harsher nad harsher over time. A quasi-dentation facility was built in the Negev desert to which some of those who previously lived more or less unhindered in Tel Aviv and other cities were forced to report and stay, financial ‘incentives’ (often accompanied by threats) were given to some to leave for a third country often with serious consequences for their safety and well-being, and of late those who still work and have built new lives in Israeli cities have been hit by a new withholding tax (to be paid only once they have left the country).

But that is only one side of the story – bureaucratic hurdles, prohibitive laws, be it in Israel, Europe or other settings in the Global North who in any case only receive a small slice of those seeking refuge and asylum globally. Many of the modern day sans papiers – whether they have actually lodged an official asylum application that might one day be decided positively or not, find ways to live meaningful lives in the cities where they have been stranded by accident or arrived by planning. A taxi to Tel Aviv can mean hardship or the fulfilment of a dream, the beginning of a journey and an experience of freedom many might not have enjoyed for a long time – even if overall their lives often remain in a state of limbo. Yes, hostile receptions, sometimes outright hostility and a culture of un-welcoming are part of the bigger picture – and were so equally in Germany behind some of the refugees-welcome banners of the summer of 2015. But so are warm welcomes, contestations of hostility and speaking out with and on behalf of the stranger. Contestations create a space, however small, for conviviality and a solidaristic way of being with others.

Refugees were welcome in Germany in 2015 – not by all but by enough to make a difference, and they were equally welcome in Tel Aviv and Rome and multiple other cities – not by all, but by some, and each welcome can make a great difference for the individual at least, if not always the wider political scene.

Large population groups in many of our cities may lack formal rights – but they still manage to occupy a political space where they live some of the rights they formally lack in daily encounters – even if often life may feel like a daily struggle. Some of those struggles in Tel Aviv are being told in my latest publication – and I hope will remind the reader of the role we can all play in making our cities – bit by bit and in small steps – more convivial.

The publication is question is Tanja R. Müller, 2017. Realising rights within the Israeli asylum regime: a case study among Eritrean refugees in Tel Aviv, African Geographical Review, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/19376812.2017.1354309

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