Let them drown – the (not so new) default option of EU refugee policy?

At documenta 14, the contemporary art exhibition hosted every five years in Kassel, Germany, a key installation in the main hall are the remains of wooden rafts that carried refugees and migrants to the Greek island of Lesbos.

documenta 2017

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

The artist Guillermo Galindo has made them into a musical instrument, and at certain times plays them as such. Fluchtzieleuropahavarieschallkörper this piece of art is called, which can loosely be interpreted as the remaining resonances of failed dreams to reach Europe. Guillermo found these boat wrecks on Lesbos, and we do not known what might have happened to those who once set to sea in them – did they make it, maybe rescued by one of the NGOs who have made it their mission to prevent more death in the Mediterranean and beyond?

A few months ago I attended the public presentation of a photographer friend in Berlin who had been on one of those NGO boats in the Mediterranean, partly doing his job as a photographer, but also, as are the general rules for all crew, doing his daily shifts in all things that needed doing. His talk was accompanied by powerful pictures of the experience – as this was his profession, and multiple tales of horror and joy: Joy when people safely sank onto the planks of the rescue boat, even if shivering and dehydrated, with something in their face giving way to relieve and the wry smile when the realisation they had made it sank in. Horror when their boat was on collision with Libyan coastguards, when in some tense moments it was unclear which way the confrontation would go – it remained a minor skirmish in the end. What remained most visible in my memory from his presentation where the different approaches to rescue by the NGO boat and the larger vessels of the Italian coastguard that took the people ‘saved’ by NGO boats on board and brought them to Sicily or other parts of Italy – as was the chain of rescue then.

The NGO helpers provided those rescued as best as they could with water, food, a place to rest and above all, respect and empathy, a hug here, a toy for a child there – even if of course, in a situation as stressful and traumatic, skirmishes did also occur. Once the Italian coastguard arrived, orders were barked at often traumatised people, and little visible compassion or empathy was on display. And still, it were those same Italian coastguards who did an in many ways heroic job, making sure people arrived safely in Italy, and were not sent back to places like Libya. It was Italy that was largely left alone on this frontline of the movement of refugees and migrants, as was Greece – and European solidarity was hard to come by beyond words. After all it was Italy that had once started rescue missions in the Mediterranean through the Mare Nostrum operation – and the NGO rescue boats only stepped in after Italy was left alone then as well and saw no alternative to ending Mare Nostrum.

One can thus partly understand that Italy had enough, and installed a new code of conduct for NGO rescue missions that brought more people to its shore – a code of conduct that most NGOs rightly could or would not sign, as it would undermine their key mandate and ethics. An old argument was rehearsed in this controversy again: that rescue NGOs are in fact responsible for increasing death in the Mediterranean, because their presence would encourage people to leave the shores of Libya in the first place. This already in 2014 was the UK government’s argument in rejecting to support Mare Nostrum, and thus washing its hands of any form of European solidarity (at least now it can point to the fact that it has actively decided on a hard break with Europe). Little has changed in 2017, a year that has already seen around 2200 death in the western and central Mediterranean Sea. A detailed report, Blaming the Rescuers, released in June 2017 and based on meticulously compiled evidence, refutes the claim that rescue missions, be they carried out by states as was the case with Mare Nostrum, or by NGOs, encourage refugee and migration movements. Increased obstacles to travel by land and desperate conditions in countries like Lybia are the forces that let people board unseaworthy boats like the one Guillermo Galindo found at the beaches of Lesbos.

The latest development, including more active involvement of Libyan coastguards in returning refugees and migrants to Lybia, have resulted in some of the major NGO actors suspending their rescue activities, as they feel their own security is being compromised. They did so with a heavy heart but felt they had no other choice. We all know what will happen: deaths will increase, as was the case when Mare Nostrum was ended.

More urgently than ever, Europe as a whole needs a proper policy on refugees and migrants, and a system that allows for journeys to be safe. But while much has been made about recent initiatives like the G20 Compact with Africa, as long as such initiatives are mainly seen as migration-prevention strategies that are accompanied by stricter border controls in the name of ill-conceived sovereignty, a journey on unseaworthy boats will remain the best bet for many in their quest to achieve a life in dignity. Even if all that remains of that dream might be a sound installation at a contemporary art exhibition.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

A generous offer or more smoke and mirrors? Brexit one year on

I really do not a want to write or think about Brexit again and again and again. But of course that will not be possible for a while to come. So a year ago today, I reflected on the ‘day of the shock’ as it appeared to me then. A lot has happened since, and like many of my colleagues and friends I have come to terms with the new reality, carefully considering my options.

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

I reflected on Brexit again this February, after the triggering of article 50, from a personal perspective as a European academic working in the UK – reflections that chime with what others from within academia have written on the subject. Only today a new blog in The Conversation had at its theme how academics are feeling about life in post-Brexit Britain. I fully agree with its nuanced analysis but in all this, one group that I happen to belong to and that I know a lot of others in as well, is missing: those of us who work in the UK, are residents here for tax purposes, as the jargon goes, but have their main residence or emotional life centre outside in a European country – and within academia in particualr, this groups is comparatively large.

The whole debate about the rights of EU citizens in the UK is strangely focused in terms of nation state dynamcis: you are either in or out. The supposedly ‘fair and serious’ offer of ‘settled status’ is promised to give those EU citizens who qualify the same rights as British citizens, at least in some respect. Thus it is an offer to come in. And in that it reflects the whole logic of UK policy and attitudes towards the EU, and the faulty language that has always been used: In the migration figures peddled by consecutive government, so-called ‘economic migrants’ from the EU were always included – but that is not what we are, in fact: We are EU citizens making use of our right of the free movement of labour, and have very complex identities and emotional and material attachments that transcend often multiple national boundaries. We do not want to be forced back into a straightjacket of allegiance to a narrowly conceived version of citizenship by a politician who believes that being a citizen of the world means being a citizen of nowhere, thus somebody unable or unwilling to comprehend the ways in which lives often unfold in the 21st century.

But once the logic of either in or out takes hold, a dangerous game of qualifications starts that in fact strips many of us of all our rights. Looking at the PM’s initial offer to reassure EU citizens’ future after Brexit in the UK, should set many alarm bells ringing: Firstly, it includes the phrase that the offer is valid for those who have been lawfully in the UK at the yet to be specified cut-off date. That sounds maybe reasonable on paper. But once you know, like I do, people who had to proof (and initially failed) that their now adult son, born and having lived on the UK all his life, was in fact not here lawfully because his mother could not prove with bank statements going back 20 years that she was lawfully here then, it does not sound so generous at all. The second contentious point is how can one claim those rights, if an incompetent or wilfully mean bureaucrat somewhere decides that one does not actually qualify to have them? There might be means to fight for one’s rights in a British court system, but that in itself is not very reassuring in an increasingly anti-foreigner climate where sovereignty partly seems to mean to be as nasty as possible to non-British citizens. Probably one of the saddest consequences of Brexit and the way it has come about has been a loss of trust in some of the institutions of the British state, thus having to rely on those is less than reassuring. There are many other uncertainties about what the PM’s proposal may actually mean on the ground that need to be studied carefully, and they can surely not be more than a vague starting point that in fact obscures more than it reveals – a game of smoke and mirrors.

Thus for now, it is wait and see what the small print actually says. There is probably little hope that the debate will change from being in or out, being granted ‘settled status’ or asked to leave, towards retaining the right to be a European in-between citizen – even if ‘settled status’ might mean one can (continue to) live the lifestyle now available to EU citizens (even though key questions about e.g. the right to social services in all EU countries remain open even then).

Looking at my own life trajectory, Brexit still leaves me sad rather than anything else. I first came to the UK as a mature PhD student, as somebody who had a successful previous career but now wanted to return to further studies and a different analytical understanding of the world. The UK then, in the late 1990s, was a perfect and inspiring place to do so, much more so than many other EU countries. Post-PhD, and after a couple of year at a university on the European continent, I returned to work at an academic institution here – and to a department full of international staff from the EU and beyond. On the way I have met many fellow travellers with similar trajectories, and most of us are keenly aware that such biographies will in all likelihood not be possible in the future. A colleague summed it up like this recently when saying: ‘this used to be a great country with some crap people, now it is a crap country with some great people’. Ditto – but let’s see what may lie behind the smoke and mirrors.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , ,

My personal election day as a citizen without a vote – and its aftermath

The day of the election on 8 June I had to travel to Leeds. I thus passed ‘my’ polling station early in the morning, feeling reassured that some voters already went in and came out. As this is only theoretically ‘my ‘ polling station, as I am only allowed to vote in local elections, I passed it with as sense of regret for being denied a vote in the country where I pay my taxes and whose politics are about to decide the boundaries of my European citizenship. But then, I did not even have a vote in the referendum that (indirectly) triggered this latest round of going to the polls. ‘We will vote for you as well’ a friend tweeted me on the this occasion – and to be honest, I am lucky to live in a constituency where my non-vote would not have made a difference, as the capable local Labour MP won on overall majority easily (and Remain also carried the day then, when my future was more directly at stake).

When I returned from Leeds in the early evening I was exhausted – as one is on these occasions when one sits in windowless rooms and has meetings the whole day. I thought I check the news at ten, the exit pools, results will be clear by then, and go to sleep, as a two-day workshop would start early the next day. Well, at four in the morning I still found myself sitting on the sofa wide awake, glued to the TV, even if a bit jaded by then – admiring the BBC election night team and in particualr Laura Kuenssberg who all looked as fresh as when they started the broadcast and where able to provide analysis on the hoof as if sleep was an invention they simply did not need.

It has been a long time since I sat with such excitement in front of an election broadcast – and concerning an election that I had no direct stake in, in a country that may not allow me to be here in the future. Exchanging tweets and texts with friends near and afar whenever another blue seat turned red, often in the most unlikely geographical settings, we were all a united and happy bunch for a few hours. Of course there was the Scottish vote which left many of us slightly concerned, but still.

It all felt great for a night and half a day – that one could enthuse young people into politics, that one could campaign for a politics ‘by the many not the few’ and actually win, at least in theory. A sense of hope and protest against a ‘truth’ propagated by an elite that used ‘the people’ as a projection of their own phantasies of power, an elite that was not likely to pay the prize for the disastrous direction it was about to take the country into.

But two days later, the hangover set in. Yes, Labour did fantastically well and its campaign based on people’s real concerns was vindicated. But Teresa May is still the PM, and her leadership based on autocratic control coupled with incompetence in many areas is bound to be augmented by her new bedfellows from the DUP. Yes, Labour did fantastically well, but it still lost the election. Maybe it is true what some commentators have said, that a movement is in the making, a movement of people newly engaged with politics. And maybe it will be enough next time to take control of the country and change its direction. But the momentum could also simply ebb away, we shall have to wait and see. It might also well be true that Labour would have carried the vote on the day had the campaigns been a few weeks longer – certainly a sense of almost inevitable momentum was observed on the campaign trail – even though many on canvassing duties who saw this momentum first hand still did not quite believe they would run the Tories so close this time, which in itself tells a story.

Looking at where the reality of a hung parliament has left us, maybe a second turn to Scotland can give us some hope. While still being slightly perplexed about how so many Scottish voters turned to the Tories to voice their discontent, Ruth Davidson referred to something that I always felt should be behind a decision to go into politics, a spirit of public service. She stated that there are interests bigger than the party, such as the country, and LGBT rights in her case. Whatever she may mean by the interest of the country – things could have been very different if her own party would not have put its internal divisions and power battles before the interest of the country and its people, from the Brexit referendum to the snap elections and the dynamcis in between.

And that is not the end of it by any means. A possible deal of any kind with the DUP just continues a story bound to end in disaster – but many in the Tory elite could not care less it seems. A minority government being held hostage by a fundamentalist fringe party is bad enough. But in the process potentially jeopardizing much of the progress that has been made in Northern Ireland is criminal. I lived in Dublin in the early 1990s, and often crossed the heavily guarded border into the North then. One occasion in particular has stuck in my mind: On a rainy Friday afternoon, I arrived at a British checkpoint on my way to Donegal, having taken the route that partly passes through Northern Ireland. In front was a (Southern) Irish car already waiting, the British soldiers manning the checkpoint sat there drinking tea and making jokes, but not attempting to check the car and let it through. It turned out the Irish family in the car was on the way to a wedding in Donegal – and they had the bridal dress with them. The soldiers enjoyed making them wait – for no reason, simply because they had the power to do so. It was appalling – they even offered to let me trough, having a car with German number plates – but I refused, deciding to show solidarity with the increasingly anxious Irish family. We sat there for about two hours in the rain, and were then allowed to pass without even a glimpse into our cars. That was how bad things were then, not that long ago in history.

When I was back in Belfast a few years ago for the first time again, by then the Good Friday agreement in place for a number of years, I was thrilled what a vibrant and ‘normal’ city it had become. In the early 1990s it was common to walk out of a pub facing the machine gun of a British soldiers pointing at you – just in case and to show who was in charge. Now it did not feel different from Manchester or any other UK city on a Friday night out, and a joy to visit, even with some of the ‘peace walls’ still in place and restricted crossings in some parts of the city at night.

The potentially imminent deal with the DUP reminds me of how contingent political progress can be – it takes the UK government as an independent arbiter in Northern Ireland politics out of the equation, a role that has been crucial in setting up a devolved government in the first place. The last words thus fittingly shall be with Fintan O’Toole, the Irish columnist, who wrote one of the best pieces on the British elections I have come across thus far for the New York Review of Books. Under the title ‘The end of a Fantasy’ he analyses it as a process where phony populism collided with the real thing – leaving everybody in limbo. A highly recommended read found here.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , ,

Solidarity in times of the Trump presidency: ways of telling counter-narratives and practice solidarity

The two days during which the G-7 leaders held a summit in Sicily, Italy, on the second day joined by the leaders of a number of African countries, I was in York at the inaugural conference of the University of York Migration Network organised by Maggie O’Neill and Simon Parker. Italy’s prime minister Paolo Gentiloni, the host of the G-7 summit, had deliberately chosen Sicily as the location for the summit: Sicily, through its proximity to the African continent, is one of the places where the fact that the movement of people is perhaps the key issue of our times that requires imaginative solutions to avoid more unnecessary deaths on stingy boats is there for everybody to see. Well, almost everybody – with the person obviously oblivious being US President Trump, who apparently chose not even to listen to the simultaneous translation when Italy’s prime minister spoke about the need to address the migration issue and developments on the African continent in different ways than hitherto done (Trumps spokesperson later tweeted he had a small earplug in his right ear). In the end, his inability to recognise compromise as the art of politics prevented the final communiqué from pointing out the positive contributions of migrants, supported in this allegedly (and unsurprisingly for a politician totally obsessed with migration targets, however far removed from reality) only by British PM May.

Thus the final statement of the summit talks about borders and the right to protect those, not as Italy had hoped stresses the positive impact of migration nor calls on industrialised nations to create more legal channels for migration as one effort in reducing the journeys of people on flimsy boats. Not that the EU itself is a shining example of a more human and solidaristic approach to those stranded at its shore – as I have written about elsewhere. But countries like Italy (and many others) have also been brave at the forefront for a more humane solution, through their coastguards and in encounters of everyday assistance.

While those events unfolded in Sicily, making it clear to everybody who after the first initial shock about the Trump presidency thought four years will pass and things will not be that bad after all, that things indeed will be that bad and much worse is likely to come, I was in York at this conference with the pertinent title: Ways of Telling: Methods, Narratives and Solidarities in Migration Studies. For two days we discussed, listened, watched and read about multiple ways in which the voices of those who are on the move, who claim citizenship and belonging, enact it or are denied it, make themselves heard and visible, with us, against us, facilitated by us. We engaged with the potentials and pitfalls involved in participatory methods, and their potential and limitations when it comes to challenge or even change power structures and contest (il)legalities.

My personal highlight of the two days was the performance of The Tin Ring by Jane Arnfield, a performance that tells and acts out two versions of parts of the life story of Zdenka Fantlová, one of the very few survivors of the Holocaust still alive. So many more versions would be possible to tell the story of Zdenka, and Jane’s brilliant performance brings the power of storytelling in all its facets superbly out in the open. Every person who comes by land or sea to the Europe they imagine as a save heaven also has those multiple stories in them, often they remain hidden and at other times something sparks them to life. A photograph maybe, a piece of theatre, or the wish to perform one’s own story for others, be it through film, literary works or in any other form of artistic and creative engagement. The York conference was so rich in the manningfold ways in which such encounters can happen and reminded all involved that behind each migrant journey often is the single simple wish to lead a life in dignity.

The final communiqué of the G-7 was, had the Italian hosts had their way, to be a step in that direction – but now prolongs a conceptualisation that sees migrants predominately as a threat to security and national interest (whatever that term actually means). And while in relation to the other pertinent issue of our times, climate change, the G-7 in reality mutated to the G-6 against one, with only the US not making a commitment to stay in the Paris accord, on the issue of refugees and migrants no such split occurred: the praise for human mobility and ingenuity, and a praise of our differences as rich instead of a threat, is nowhere to be found.

Counter-narratives and counterpoint-artistic engagement as demonstrated by another initiative participating in the conference are thus so important, at all levels. Solidarities are called for – through activist art, but also in academic research. It is important to help explain the world and defend the values that should bind us togetehr, and academics are after all trained to do so. But it is equally important to change the world and counter the injustices and oppressions that the contemporary global order creates. In times like these more than ever. And the meeting in York was such a timely and in many ways uplifting occasion to think through how doing so better.

The University of York Migration Network has a website where people interested can subscribe to its newsletter. I attended the conference as the convenor of the Manchester Migration Lab that also has a newsletter and we hope to develop a longer term partnership between both networks and others. The next big event in Manchester is the International Conference World on the Move in late October 2017.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Political space in Eritrea and beyond or: ethical dilemmas in antagonistic settings

With the publication of my latest article on Eritrean issues, a piece of research I commented on in an earlier blog that reflected on it being rejected as a paper to be presented at the 2016 International Conference on Eritrean Studies in Asmara, it seems timely to reflect on the conference where I did present an earlier version of the published article. Under the title: Eritrea at Silver Jubilee: Stocktaking on the nation-building experience of a ‘newly’ independent African country it solicited papers on Eritrea’s independence trajectory for a conference in May 2016 based on the assumption that in fact Eritrea at this moment in time had the worst government in its entire history. Thus it seemed clear from the outset that this conference was meant to be a forum that discussed the slide into oppression and potentially had an advocacy function – not least due to being held in Geneva, the city where a few weeks later the second report of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea (COI) that would pronounce Eritrea guilty of having committed crimes against humanity was to be launched.

I, in retrospect rather naïvely, thought this conference provided the perfect opportunity to put into practice one of my ambitions in relation to Eritrean Studies: to contribute to bridging some of the divide between those who unquestioning support a government that has a lot to answer for in relation to curtailing freedoms of any kind, and those who vehemently oppose it and in doing so make use of questionable propaganda and intimidation tactics that are in essence similar to such deplorable tactics used by the Eritrean government and its supporters.

I thus submitted an abstract to the Geneva conference and did not expect to hear back, as in my submission I had also questioned the dictum in the call for papers that already knew the answer to 25 years of stocktaking: namely that Eritrea’s trajectory was one of disaster. But then it came, the invitation to Geneva, and with it a programme that on the face of it seemed full of interesting contributions.

The final programme included valued colleagues and friends, even if we might have ended up on different sides of the deep divide within Eritrean Studies. Throughout the two-day event debates and discussions were topical and civilized, something not often the case in Eritrean Studies circles. Social parts of the event were in addition joyful and amicable, and for any outsider the group that sat together at the dinner table in a Geneva restaurant would have looked like old friends having a good time. It in many ways not only looked but also felt like that, which made it even harder for me at an emotional level to accept that some of the people I shared food, wine and laughter with at night showed a ruthless determination to demolish any nuanced analysis of Eritrea with all rhetorical means at their disposal.

During the formal conference proceedings it became quickly obvious that the event was made up of a group of carefully-selected, broadly like-minded people with a clear agenda on one side, plus myself on the other. The conference was a small event of never more than around 30 people at any one time, opened by a Swiss parliamentarian who basically repeated the major allegations of the COI report. No mention was made of how deeply methodologically flawed the report is, but its too often unsubstantiated claims were taken for granted and set the tone for things to come – a quite worrying sign for a conference that claimed to be based on academic rigour.

I was asked very last minute to join a general discussion panel of three on day one. I was the dissenting voice, not only questioning the general assumption behind the conference but also in favour of for example renewed EU engagement with Eritrea that had been heavily critiqued by said Swiss parliamentarian, and the abolition of UN sanctions as the rationale on which those were imposed did not exist any longer, according to the UN’s own findings. The way the panel worked and was moderated by the conference convenor diluted what I had to say and misinterpreted it in multiple ways without leaving me room to object – and I increasingly realized that I was part of a stage-managed process whose purpose was geared towards some of the other invited listeners, few of whom were actually introduced.

A telling encounter came in one of the breaks on day two, when somebody who had not heard my presentation introduced herself as working for the COI-team. She asked if the COI-team had not interviewed me. But when I answered I had never been contacted by the COI-team and would have been surprised if that had indeed been the case – as the COI-team did only interview people who were part of a known group of human rights advocates in line with its message, and did actively not engage with those known to have divergent views. When she saw her mistake she even blushed slightly.

Thus here I was at an event where I was officially introduced as a valuable participant in order to ‘present a range of opinions’, but to invited listeners it was made clear in a subtle manner that in fact the ‘truth’ about Eritrea as a vicious dictatorship was there for all to be seen, even though I might not have fully grasped it yet. Very skilfully staged and I only have my own naïvety to blame if I expected something else one could say, but it is not as easy as that. I do value much of the work that some of my fellow presenters spoke to, and of course there are multiple serious human rights issues that need addressing in Eritrea. I also like most of them as people. I thus found myself in an increasingly paranoid place, being instrumentialized by a group of people with whom I otherwise share common interests and analysis, up to a point at least. It almost felt like in Eritrea itself, when in conversations with government officials one can be told off as knowing nothing in the same breath as one can be commended on one’s engagement with and good work on Eritrea. But while such conversations might be the norm with government officials or others in power anywhere in the world, here I was among a group of people who in many ways were my peers.

I thus left the Geneva event with very mixed feelings. When I embraced a former Eritrean colleague who now lives in enforced exile and we departed with the words ‘maybe next time in Asmara’, I felt the sadness of the whole situation descend upon me. ‘Next time in Asmara’ would, realistically, only come about with regime change. I have over the years known too many people who for one reason or another cannot return to Eritrea while longing to do so, among whom very few would actually see in regime change per se a solution to their predicament. I have never been an advocate for regime change as brought about by outside forces with little accountability, not least because I have come to know and highly respect many Eritreans who carry out their mandate in government ministries or as party functionaries with courage and dedication. Now I wondered whether I had in fact been instrumentialized for such an agenda, at least partly and indirectly? Had attending the conference put me on the wrong side of the fence once and for all, made me an accomplice in an ‘opposition agenda’ I had little sympathy for? Most importantly, as ultimately I see my main ethical responsibility towards those whose life stories populate my research, and who engage with me because I refuse to take sides but ‘write what your research tells you’ as one of them put it, what would those who participated in my research say if that would happen? Would they feel betrayed in that I had indirectly used our encounters to foster a political agenda?

I needed not to have worried too much about being suddenly embraced by facets of the opposition. Shortly after the Geneva conference, I received a phone-call from a Swiss journalist with a genuine interest in Eritrea who wanted to understand what was happening from all sides. I was recommended to him as a quasi ‘government spokesperson’ – a phrase we both laughed off in a subsequent background conversation about Eritrea, and that – apart from myself – nobody would probably object more to than the Eritrean government itself. And, I should add, those who organised the Geneva conference did at least accept the presentation of my paper – unlike the Asmara conference roughly two months later, whose organisers felt to speak about personal aspirations and political space in Eritrea was too sensitive a topic and rejected it. ‘Next time in Asmara’ then, for perhaps a follow-up conference that proves the statement on the call for papers for the Geneva conference wrong, that a conference with an open and critical stance can only be held outside Eritrea? Wishful thinking? For the time being, certainly, but I am not prepared yet to give up hope.

I write this on World Press Freedom Day and the day before an event in London to honour detained Eritrean-Swedish journalist Dawit Isaak, who has been awarded the 2017 UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize. His destiny can serve as a reminder of what is wrong in Eritrea, as well as a call for engagement with the complexity of Eritrean history and politics.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , ,

The politics of academic smear campaigns: reflections on a recent article about Eritrean trafficking networks in a Dutch newspaper

A few weeks ago I was asked by a journalist from the Volkskrant, a highly respected Dutch newspaper that I used to read when living in the Netherlands myself, to provide comments on the then still embargoed study on Eritrean refugees and the role of the Eritrean government in ‘trading’ those.

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

The main gist of my comments was that the overall theme of digital technology in relation to trafficking was a timely topic – even if the case of Eritrea did not provide the best example to explore it, for many reason. In addition, I pointed out that the broad sweep of conclusions could not be drawn from the methodology employed, and some issues presented as facts were actually wrong or incomplete.

The main author of the work, or rather, the co-editor but in the way the work was advertised the focus centred on her, is Mirjam van Reisen. I know of and have cited parts of her past work, as the Eritrean Studies community is rather small, but I have never met her in person. I was not the only person asked by the Volkskrant to comment, and my co-commentator, Jon Abbink from the University of Leiden, made some very similar comments to mine. He in addition stressed that much of the information provided by members of the Eritrean community abroad is done so with a clear purpose, thus needs to be properly interrogated and analysed.

Those who know van Reisen’s previous work are aware that her views on Eritrea are black and white: there is the truth, provided by refugees from Eritrea whose narratives have a higher moral authority than other accounts – and then there are the manipulative narratives of those close to and supportive of the government. Don’t get me wrong, organisations like the Young PFDJ employ quite nasty tactics to disturb open discussion and debate on Eritrean issues in multiple diaspora settings. But the same is true for those who critique the regime, only that the latter are often more subtle. This battle about who ‘owns’ the truth about Eritrea always extended to the academic community as well – as I have argued in a previous blog.

I first heard that the article in the Volkskrant on van Reisen et al.’s latest work had come out when I received an email from a friend, saying jokingly ‘I was not aware that you go to bed with the Eritrean regime’. It’s writer shortly after also sent me, as promised, a copy of the piece that was published in the paper’s 31 March print edition (a different online version is available here), and I was astonished to read van Reisen’s claim that I had ‘warm relationships’ with the Eritrean regime and thus could not be regarded as an independent researcher.

As a former journalist myself, I do not actually believe in allowing people to authorise interviews or give them the right to adjust what they may have said afterwards – and certainly in my own country this is not common. So I had no objections to not having seen the piece before it was published. But neither would I have expected that van Reisen was apparently allowed to intervene in that way.

For the record, I do not have ‘warm relationships’ with any regime, including Eritrea’s. I have relations of friendship and respect with Eritreans from all wakes of the political divide who I have often known for decades. Some are inside Eritrea, some work in various ministries or for the party. Others are inside Eritrea’s prisons and have not be seen or heard of for decades – and to one of them I dedicated a book on Eritrea in 2005. I also know the feeling to sit in the office of an Eritrean official and be lectured on the ‘truth’ about Eritrea while feeling a shiver going down my spine. And, simply due to the fact that I have worked in and on Eritrea for more than two decades, I know many families and friends torn apart by its politics, inside Eritrea, in the diaspora and among the swelling population of refugees.

People have different ethical beliefs and motivations. I fully respect those of my colleagues who refuse to travel to Eritrea, and have great sympathy for those who aim to do so but are denied the opportunity. I have chosen to continue to engage and while one never knows if a visa is forthcoming, if it is I never saw a reason not to go. I talk to everybody who will talk to me, and it is the job of a social science researcher to analyse and interpret those conversations, to the best of their ability – at least that is how I see it. I might get it wrong, as we all do at times, and would expect scrutiny of my work – not an attack on my integrity.

A friend urged me to make a formal complaint to the Volkskrant and insist on a correction or apology, as the article can be read as an attack on my academic reputation. I decided not to do so, as I have no intention of joining this personalised battle of who has the right to the truth on Eritrea fought by regime supporters and the human rights lobby that claims the moral high ground but in essence uses human rights as a political tool.

But I am still puzzled that van Reisen out of all people goes down the route of the smear campaign, refuting any critique of her work with personal insults – as she has been on the receiving end of such tactics by Eritrean regime supporters herself. But then, she is on the side where the moral high ground rests, or so she styles herself, thus those who do not agree with her must almost by definition be rightful targets – or so it seems.

In a final twist, the journalist who wrote the article gave me the last word. She ended her article with two quotes from my comments stating that the main battle in relation to Eritrea seems to be about ‘who has the right to the truth’. And this, rather tragically ‘will not help in any way to solve the problems of Eritrean politics and contribute to a better future for Eritrean wherever they live’. Ditto.

My latest article on Eritrean affairs, Post-liberation politics and political space in Eritrea: Interrogating aspirations among educated youth, has just come out in the Journal of Development Studies. If interested please ask me for a copy.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , ,