Mind the gap (year)! – in defence of the travelling explorer or: my first encounter with Asmara

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

It has become all the rage: visit a slum to find yourself. Hug orphans in some poor African country – and you do something good and have fun at the same time. Oh, and it should not be forgotten – you pay a hefty sum to the organisation that has arranged your good-doing, with only a tiny amount going to those you are keen to help. Three weeks to help out in an orphanage in Argentina? That would be Euro 890 (without your flights and cost of living). No lack of takers, and the organisations that offer such services have mushroomed over the last few years.

The gap year culture has been critiqued from various sides – not least by organisations who claim to do serious development work and only send those out who have relevant skills and experiences, and I do not wish to add to those critiques here. Nor do I want to repeat the well rehearsed argument that many gap-yearers behave like a new brand of colonialists – which is true in many cases but not what I aim to engage with here.

And already before the current gap-year-wave it was the case that orphanages in particular were a magnet for do-gooders. I remember in Rwanda in late 1994, how American church based organisations descended on various orphanages in the country, thus creating a demand for the latter leading to a situation where children with parents or close relatives still alive were put into orphanages for a while. Such tendencies seem to have increased all over the globe with the gap-year culture, as demand for cuddling orphan children is bound to produce the needed supply.

What I want to do here is to advocate for a tradition that is much older than the ‘gap-year’, and encourage youngsters who just finished high school or other forms of school-leaving age activities to explore the world on their terms, to follow their curiosity and do so in a way that does less harm to the planet and its people, in particular those regarded as ‘vulnerable’.

Such a way of travelling and exploring, not with its value for a future CV in mind where ‘international volunteering’ seems to have become one pre-condition for a successful career, is bound to prove valuable for any future life trajectory even if in often roundabout ways. I was reminded of this when I was asked to contribute a chapter to a book on Asmara, the capital of Eritrea. It prompted me to rethink how I became involved in Eritrean affairs in the first place.

It were the early 1980s, I had just finished the German equivalent to A-levels, and set off travelling, initially with a friend, with little money but a lot of curiosity. Setting of by train and through hitch-hiking, a very common way of getting around then, I eventually found myself living in Cairo, partly working as an extra for an Egyptian cinema production that needed European-looking people for some disco scenes. At some point I ran out of money, and did what many fellow explorers in a similar situation did back then: took the bus to Eilat in Israel to work in one of its hotels for a few weeks. In need of accommodation, I ended up renting a room in the flat of an Eritrean who, like many of his fellow countrymen, worked in the construction industry.

Mike, as he shall be called, had fled the Eritrean liberation war that was then in full swing, as he was reluctant to get involved in politics of any kind, and wanted to join his sister who was living in Italy. At the time, his UN-issued laissez-passer papers allowed him to go as far as Israel. Israel then was the dead end of a long journey, and quite a community of Eritreans in similar situations had gathered in Eilat. Mike, during the three months I came to share a flat with him, instilled in me vivid imaginations of a beautiful city in the Abyssinian highlands, Asmara, and when we eventually parted company it was with the words then common among Eritreans dispersed throughout the world: ‘Until next time in Asmara’, an expression of hope that one day Eritrea would be free and we could all gather there. In relation to Mike, who over the coming decade I lost touch with, next time never came – even if during my first visits to Asmara in the 1990s I kept looking our for his tall figure, and always expected him to somehow show up on the passeggiata, the routine evening walk on Asmara’s main street, one of those Italian traditions that have survived in post-liberation Eritrea.

Thus, while it took me about a decade to eventually set foot into Eritrea, it was the time I spent with Mike and his friends that left a profound imprint on my future life, even if I did not anticipate this during the time we spent together. When I returned from my travelling explorations to study in Berlin, I became involved with the Eritrean diaspora community there, and eventually, and after quite a few detours, I would become a scholar of Eritrea and the wider Horn.

And while I never met Mike again, our encounter in 1984 made me return to Israel to conduct research among new cohorts of Eritrean refugees there between 2010-2013. Coming full circle one could say – even if I never anticipated that my vagabond years would become such a meaningful guide to my life as first a journalist and then a researcher.

My book chapter that inspired this blog, ‘Until next time in Asmara: A City of Aspiration, Despair and Ambition’, has been published in the book Architecture in Asmara: Colonial Origin and Postcolonial Experiences. Volgger, P. & Graf, S. (eds.). DOM Publishers, p. 432-439.

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Reflections on the Effectiveness of UN Peacekeeping Missions: local encounters in Darfur

UNMEE mission in Eritrea
Photo: Stefan Boness, http://www.iponphoto.com

On 13 Jan 08 at approximately 18:30 hrs a UN WFP driver was shot and wounded in an attempted carjacking. The UN WFP driver picked up a UN WFP radio operator to commence night shift in the Hai Elmitidad area in Geneina town. Four unknown bandits, three armed in military uniform, one unarmed in civilian clothing, approached the vehicle and one of the unknown armed bandits fired without warning a single shot into the vehicle. The bullet went through the side window and injured the upper arm of the UN WFP driver. The driver accelerated to leave the location and communicated the incident to the UN WFP radio room. UN WFP security assistant advised that the driver sought medical treatment immediately at the nearby El Geneina hospital. After initial treatment, the staff member was taken to the UNAMID clinic by UN WFP Security/UNDSS. The staff member suffered a non life-treating gun shot wound without fracture to his upper arm and was admitted to the UNAMID clinic for observation.

The above is a slightly abbreviated entry in the UNAMID Joint Mission Analysis Centre (JMAC) dataset from 13 January 2008. The dataset describes security incidents of any kind at the micro level in Darfur, the area of operation for the UN-African Union hybrid mission in Darfur, UNAMID.

The driver in question described in this incident report has possibly many roles: as a local who has secured a good employment position, as working for any UN organisation – in this incident the World Food Programme (WFP) – usually pays well. He – it as a safe bet to assume it is a man, as women do not usually occupy jobs as drivers for any UN entity in the context of Darfur – might be a member of an ethnic group regarded as rebellious by the central government in Khartoum (and thus deliberately targeted). He might simply have been targeted because those who attacked him wanted to carjack the vehicle, a very common occurrence in UNAMID’s deployment environment. Or he might simply have been at the wrong time in the wrong place. Maybe he was targeted within a broader scheme to make work difficult for any UN entity, eventually forcing them to leave or at least put enough pressure on them to abstain from certain activities. Indeed, a former employee of UNAMID’s human rights section told me in February 2016 that at some point during his employment with UNAMID, patrols to check reports on human rights abuses had largely ceased – due to fear of cars and equipment being hijacked (he showed me pictures of a huge car-park full of white landcruisers at Nyala supercamp in Darfur that he said were not moved sometimes for weeks)

The driver on this occasion can be considered lucky, as he had no life-threatening wounds. But attacks like this raise a number of wider questions, not only about the protection of civilian mandates that is at the centre of most peacekeeping missions. It also raises profound questions about the actual conflict missions like UNAMID intervene in, and questions about what drives local populations to behave in particular ways: to either seek employment with the UN, to stay put and carry on with their lives as if UNAMID was not there, to move to an IDP camp within the region, or to up sticks and go on the well-travelled track to neighbouring Chad (or somewhere else).

It also raises important questions about the encounters that happen between UNAMID and the populations that are to be protected. Datasets like those in the JMAC database depend on forms of interaction between local communities and UN missions, UNAMID in this case, but how do such encounters happen? Evidence suggests that most encounters with UNAMID are highly choreographed and mostly either with people who themselves are sheikhs or organized through sheikhs, and in addition complicated by the language issue.

As a Darfuri interviewee in a Chadian refugee camp said in May 2015, representative of wider perceptions in this regard: ‘They [UNAMID] met the sheiks and when people see them at the sheikh’s house everybody can come [ … ] if somebody is good in English they can talk to them directly.’ This distance from normal civilians and their grievances is only one facet of a wider story of incomprehension, not necessarily from lack of trying, but partly caused by the wider parameters behind the deployment of UN peacekeeping missions. As one of the sheikhs who had frequent encounters with UNAMID said in Chad: ‘Their [UNAMID’s] questions were naïve and came too late […] sometimes they carried out investigations two weeks after an incident.’

And then there are incidents like the one described from the JMAC dataset in the vignette above, even if in this case we saw not a direct attack on UNAMID but on another UN entity – but for many locals this difference is rather peripheral. In reflection on the wider usefulness of UNAMID in terms of bringing security violations out in the open and potentially address those, another Darfurian interviewee in Chad said: ‘They [UNAMID] were unable to protect people, but when informed about an incident they come to investigate and report it. [ … ] Sometimes they were unable to protect themselves. It is good to provide them [UNAMID] with information because they have the means to report to the outside world and put pressure on the government. I trust UNAMID more than the police in Sudan’.

In fact, many of those interviewed in Chad in 2015 who had fled Darfur around the time the above vignette was recorded, around 2008, had a number of concrete experiences when they witnessed attacks on UNAMID. One such attack that featured in a number of accounts was in broad daylight at the market of Furbaranga. A UNAMID vehicle with five staff inside was attacked according to those eye- witnesses, one military officer shot and the others ran away and the vehicle was ultimately carjacked. Many thus came to a conclusion along the lines of this farmer from Mokjar who said: ‘UNAMID were unable to protect their own staff and property. UNAMID staff were killed and their vehicles were looted all the time’.

What room for manoeuvre do those dynamics leave for a mission like UNAMID that finds itself between the proverbial rock and a hard place? In a recent article in International Peacekeeping from which some of the above data is drawn I argue that local knowledge and awareness of the ways in which insecurities are experienced in concrete in everyday encounters add an important and vital dimension to the protection of civilian component of every peacekeeping mission. In addition, rethinking more direct engagement with local population groups that allows systematic inclusion of conflict narratives from all sides into UN reporting would not only contribute to the creation of trust between UN peacekeeping forces and local populations, but also has the potential to contribute to long- term conflict resolution strategies and mediation efforts grounded in local realities.

Please feel free to email me for a copy of the article.

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A seismic break in German political consensus – why one should not underestimate the rise of a right-wing party

Maybe one day our grandchildren will ask us: what did you do when a Nazi party returned to the German parliament? A modified question of this version was asked by my generation to their grandparents and parents: what did you do when ‘Auschwitz’ happened, ‘Auschwitz’ having become the metaphor for the barbarity of the ‘Third Reich’, including not only the extermination of the Jewish and other populations but also the extermination war in the East and much else.

AfD election poster: ‘Stop islamisation – vote AfD’ Photo: Stefan Boness, http://www.iponphoto.com

Hopefully it will not get that far, and the ‘Nazi-party’ will disappear again before future grandchildren are born, but the result of the recent German general election, where it came third in the overall popular vote, even if not unexpected, still came as a seismic shock to many. Those who ever went to an rally by the Alternative für Deutschland, the Alternative for Germany or AfD, saw the writing on the wall. And those who went to a pre-election rally by chancellor Angela Merkel saw it even more: Bussed in cohorts of AfD supporters voiced their hate and anger, demanding Merkel be put into jail or into a mental asylum for destroying the German race – not least through the brief period of open-door refugee policy in the summer of 2015, when otherwise a humanitarian crisis would have unfolded on Germany’s borders. The fact that since then, German asylum policy has actually become much more restrictive, that it did a deal with Turkey to keep refugees out, and that Germany is a strong advocate for EU policies that destroy the boats of people smugglers, securitize the Mediterranean and support questionable regimes on the African continent to keep refugees there does not feature.

But the AfD is not a party concerned with evidence, nor does it actually want to be in a position of power and having to take responsibility. It already sits in a number of regional parliaments, and little is seen from its engagement in day-to-day politics. But that is precisely what makes it so dangerous: It gets its adrenalin from demagogy and hatred – and thus appeals to all those who have some axe to grind. And it blames all that is wrong with Germany on the fact that it has lost its racial character – ‘we want our nation back’ (Volk in the original, a term with very specific race-based connotations in the German language).

While the party claims to be a perfectly normal political party that is incorrectly put into the far-right corner and ‘insulted’ as being a ‘Nazi-party’, a look behind the scenes provides ample evidence of its racial ideology and its longing for re-evaluation of German history – in some ways a version of Trump’s ‘Make America great again’, even if such a choice of words would not be acceptable in Germany precisely because of its history – not yet, anyway. No, the AfD is more subtle than that. One of its leading members simply calls for stopping to atone for Germany’s past – while in the same breath praising the Wehrmacht (Hitler’s army) for its bravery. Berlin’s holocaust memorial he calls a national monument of shame that no other nation would allow – and combines this with a promise to re-write German history books if the AfD came to power. But coming to power is not what the AfD is about, at least at present – it is, rather more dangerously, trying to dilute a political consensus that has served Germany and the whole of Europe (and the world) so well since the end of WWII.

The AfD is not simply made up of older, white men with reactionary understandings of the past. One of the lead candidates of the AfD in this election was a 38 year old Lesbian woman who formerly was a member of the Liberal party FDP. She can express her views eloquently and in perfect English – having in the past for example worked for investment bank Goldman Sachs, and uses the fact that she raises two children with her female partner as proof of the tolerance of the AfD to different lifestyles. She thus appears to be one of the respectable faces of the AfD, far removed from the hatred shouting crowds on the streets. But underneath her views are as full of contempt as those of her colleagues. She has referred to the German government under Angela Merkel as ‘pigs’ who were nothing more than puppets of the allied powers, aimed at destroying the German race through Überfremdung, a term from the Nazi era that roughly translates as foreign infiltration. She and others like her, in particular some of the high profile women in the AfD, repeat again and again that they are not right wing or a ‘Nazi-party’, but simply formulating common sense – and the more this mantra is being repeated, the more it becomes part of normal political discourse – and here is where the real danger lies.

Already in Saxony, the AfD became the biggest party with about one third of the vote. Of course, not all people who voted for it, in Saxony or elsewhere, are Nazis or subscribe to Nazi-ideology, and we are not in the 1930s again. But to make the discourse of racial politics that is built on the exclusion of everything non-German become mainstream is an ominous sign.

It remains to be seen how the AfD will take up its role in the federal German parliament. After the first exit polls came in, one of its main candidates, to the roaring applause of AfD supporters, proclaimed that the AfD will chase and hunt down the new government, however it may look (likely to be a coalition made up of three parties under the leadership of Angela Merkel). This proved too much for one of the AfDs important members Frauke Petry, who won a direct mandate in her own right and not through the party list. The day after the election she made it known that she would sit in parliament not as a member of the AfD parliamentary group but an independent, because she wanted to make politics and not engage in insulting rhetoric. But then this is the same person who, together with another of the female and on the face of it more ‘respectable’ party colleagues, not so long ago said if needed, the German army should shot at refugees, including children, at the German border, rather than simply let them in. What a ‘moderate’ AfD politican may be is thus open to question.

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Writing about Africa – in defence of more journalistic inspiration for academic writing

In a contribution for a book on Africa’s media image in the 21st century, Michela Wrong provides a strong defence of Western journalists writing about Africa. One of her expertly made arguments concerns the different roles academics and journalists may have – one concerned with all possible nuances, the other to sum up those complexities in a shorthand headline or story that readers without that nuanced knowledge can understand. Some complexity might get lost in the latter, but that does not necessarily mean a simplistic picture (certainly not when the journalist is skilled in his or her profession).

Get out, anti-Merkel demonstration Brandenburg Photo: Stefan Boness, http://www.iponphoto.com

Yes, there is also the commercial pressure to see stories of suffering and horror in particular out of Africa published, but journalists like Michela and, it should be emphasised, many of the local journalists on the African continent, at least if they live in countries with a lively media scene, do an excellent job in combining what I will call ‘good-enough nuance and detail’.

When reading Michela’s piece, something else crossed my mind – and as a former journalist turned academic (albeit of feature stories and working with a freedom then that would let me starve today), this is something I feel I am in a unique position to comment on: Often, when taking a ‘journalistic approach’ to academic inquiry, at least in the social sciences, one gets it right. This may start with uncovering a story or a theme by accident, and as an academic one might in this day and age write a preliminary blog on it. The next step might then be to conduct more in-depth research, maybe apply for a research grant big or small, depending on what the issue in question may be. Three years or so later, a nuanced piece of research might have emerged that not only comprehensively engages with all that was written before, but provides new empirical evidence and/or theoretical insights . A number of articles will be published in so-called high impact academic journals usually behind a pay-wall – unless ‘gold-access’ can be paid for with said research grant, and new blogs will be written in order to advertise those and communicate at least some of main findings to the wider world (not least to those without access to academic journals).

It would be an interesting exercise to investigate how different the arguments in the post-research blog are from those that got one interested in the first place. Yes, there is now more thoroughness behind one’s claims that replaces the initial anecdote, but so what? Wait a minute, the academic might say, we need thoroughness, proper methodology, clear theoretical underpinnings to explain the world to those who do not have the luxury to spend their days thinking about how the world works – and yes, I would fully agree, up to a point. But at the same time it would benefit us all to recognise that methodological rigour is often treated too easily as of value in itself, and often does not provide deeper explanations or helps to make the world a better place.

Thus I could end here, agreeing with Michela that to attack Western media as one-dimensional and lacking nuance and depth when coming to ‘Africa’ has become an almost obligatory and rather unhelpful trope. It might also be a way to justify a rather plush academic existence.

But then I was reminded of the other side of the coin, at en event of the initiative of the German Business sector to integrate refugees into Germany. At the event, a number of representatives of various companies spoke frankly about their efforts, the successes but also the failures – and Germany did indeed do remarkably well as a whole in its efforts to integrate the around 1.3 million refugees who arrived in the country in 2015/16.

In one part of the programme the question was raised if that was the end of the contemporary movement of refugees and migrants in such large numbers, or if we were simply witnessing a pause in a movement that would gather pace again. One of the people to whom this question was addressed was the Africa-correspondent of a major German business newspaper, who joined from his duty station in Cape Town.

I could not quite believe what I was hearing when this correspondent described how dramatic the situation in ‘Africa’ was (Africa is a continent, remember?), characterised by ‘pure poverty’ that would drive Africans to ‘stream in hordes across the Mediterranean’ in the years to come, and a German chancellor stupid enough to take selfies with refugees, not understanding that ‘the African needs a figure of authority’ (‘Führer’ was the original word used) and wanted to be close to such a figure, thus sending the message that in Germany you can look the leader personally in the eye, inviting indirectly all to come. I was left speechless by the fact that the audience applauded that presentation – as this was an audience of knowledgeable people who engaged with refugees and were driven by the quest to make a positive difference – not part of the mob that in the German election campaign is bussed around by a new right-wing party to shout out its hatred against anything non-German and against Angela Merkel in particular, largely based on her decision to open the German borders to refugees in 2015.

This racist attitude of a leading journalist maybe part of an emerging zeitgeist more generally, for example visible in a recent comment piece in TWQ on the defence of colonialism. This brings me back to the start of these reflections, the different but also overlapping roles academics and journalists may have – and neither is by definition free from one-sided bigotry. Academics, if it is indeed their role to provide a framing that explains the world, need to do so in a way that not only dwells on nuance and methodological detail, but can be understood by the man or woman in the street with an interest in a topic but little care for those details. This does not make it worse or less rigorous – and to admit that often the gut feeling we have at the outset of a piece of research was right in many ways meets the readers where they are: at a point where they are gripped by an issue, but might feel they know too little to counteract a seemingly easy explanation, even if the latter is profoundly un-emancipatory. It sends the message: trust your gut feeling for now, even if you feel you do not know enough (yet) to properly justify it! Even without being aware of each detail in the argument – there are multiple ways to state that colonialism was and is in essence contemptuous and  inhuman (instead of simply demanding the withdrawal of a piece that celebrates it, as that denies the potential for antagonistic debate that is necessary for emancipatory politics).

Good research and good journalism complement each other, in an ideal world – and should speak in a joint voice much more than is often the case. One may hope that the ‘impact’ agenda might facilitate more joint engagement with the general public – even if too often ‘impact’ seems to be geared towards speaking to ’decision-makers’ or people with policy influence, who more often than not live in their own bubble – a bubble far removed from the reality of those who see no other option as shouting out their hatred in the street, be it in relation to migration policies or Brexit.

This post has been re-posted as a Global Development Institute blog: http://blog.gdi.manchester.ac.uk/writing-africa-defence-journalistic-inspiration-academic-writing/

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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.

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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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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.

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