Refugees Welcome!!! – The Necessary but Missing Dimensions
The number of people who sought asylum in Germany between January 2015 and December 2016 showed an impressive intake of refugees in Germany compared to many other wealthy countries in the EU e. g. the UK. While the motives of the temporary government policy of open borders which facilitated the entrance of most of these refugees into Germany remains debatable, what is now clear is that, that policy does not represent a change in government immigration politics and policies. If anything, it graphically puts to bed in the most vivid way possible, the oft-stated but yet bogus and erroneous idea by anti-immigrant groups and individuals that the “Boat is Full”. Evidently, the Boat is far from full. Moreover, the personal contact that the successive governments have long sought to avoid between refugees and Germans by its deliberate policy of isolation of refugees has fully collapsed. The contact that is now established will not be easily wiped away.
However, as various aspects of the asylum processes have shown in the last couple of years, a cogent argument can be safely made that the government was ill prepared for the challenges posed by these new intakes, hence the evident chaos and confusion. This lack of preparedness is rooted first; in the age-long denial by successive governments that Germany is a migration country, which in turn, robs the polity of the opportunity to formulate genuine and progressive immigration and integration policies. Second, is the contradictory – to open borders, and the knee-jerk reaction to the intake that resulted in the series of harsh changes to the asylum laws and processes. The laws already deliberately weakened, are now simply a mockery of the concept of international protection guaranteed by the Geneva Convention and the protection offered by the German constitution. This is because; rather than examine each individual asylum case on its merits, a political decision is now applied to several groups of people in the form of “safe countries of origin”. This arbitrary declaration, often in contrast to compelling evidence and the reality on the ground, automatically undermines and overrides the veracity or merit of the individual asylum cases.
In the background of this chaos and confusion emerged the fanfare popularly known as the “Welcome Culture”. This emergent culture speaks to a Germany that is ‘changed’ from the past and ‘open’ to immigrants and in particular, refugees fleeing wars to seek safety. Iconic images of Germans ‘welcoming’ new arrivals at train stations in the South of Germany with snacks and bottles of water will ensure that this representation is forever etched in our collective memories. As the government felt the burden to deal with the new arrivals amidst the unrelenting criticism of coalition partners and right wing politicians, many felt inspired by Chancellor Merkel’s retort of “wir schaffen das”, in defense of her refugee policy that has become a lightening rod.
Government institutions, NGOs, civil society groups and countless initiatives were formed or expanded to give a ‘helping hand’ in what was being described as a refugee ‘crisis’. What was not clear however was, what exactly the crisis was about. Was the crisis about the fate of thousands or millions who have been forced to leave their homelands as a result of wars that are perpetuated by foreign interests and insatiable greed? Was it about the suffering of refugees en-route to seeking safety as many were stranded at the militarized Frontiers of the EU overseen by Frontex? Was the crisis about the countless refugees that were drowning daily in the Sea while European Naval ships watch idly by? Or was it about the crude and brutal human rights violation that these refugees suffered while already in mainland Europe like in Greece, Hungary etc.? Or in more practical terms, was the crisis about the self-constructed chaos whereby there were countless empty buildings (some of them for years like in Bremen) and yet refugees were forced into sport halls and tents even in the winter? In any case, the ‘crisis’ seemed to have had much less to do with the individuals who were actually suffering and more with German and European powers’ preoccupation with their failure to effectively provide for and deal with a problem that they are partly responsible for.
Nevertheless, Germans who have never had anything to do with refugees before joined various initiatives to offer different services to refugees; from donating and collecting second hand clothes and shoes (whether needed or not), cooking, giving German lessons, to accompanying them to different offices, knitting, Bike repairs amongst others, under the banner of ‘Refugees Welcome’. While many may have genuinely and heartily offered such help, one could not help but notice the patronizing, paternalistic and know-it-all attitude that underlined such help and services and the wholehearted gratitude that was expected of the refugees – not only for the help they are receiving, but also for living in safety in Germany. On the other hand, for many refugees with their experiences, irrecoverable loss and trauma, it is not surprising that such attitude bred resentment and discontent; a situation that has become increasingly contentious in some cases that it continues to require professional intervention and assistance in conflict management. Any wonder then that some ‘helpers’ have been politely asked by some refugees that they be left alone?
Much as the emergent Welcome culture seems to represent a generally friendlier atmosphere that is relatively more open to refugees, the foregoing alludes to two necessary and important dimensions that are missing in this ‘changed’ Germany. First, there is a serious lack of self-reflection in this so-called Welcome culture as these help and services to refugees and the expectant gratitude are based on the philosophy of charity and philanthropy instead of solidarity and justice. Their engagement with refugees is devoid of the understanding that it is a matter of justice and hence a right for these refugees to be treated as equal human beings with dignity and not by dint of individual or collective well wishes and kindness, particularly given their reasons of flight that are traceable to Western economic interests.
Many of these ‘helpers’ are not reflecting on their privileges and prejudices, biases and beliefs, and their long-held assumptions. As a result, in their contact with refugees they automatically subscribe to the application of the stigma and the clichés that the label refugee imposes and enforces. Therefore not only are many of these ‘helpers’ not able to recognize (and be critical of) the power relations in their contact with refugees, they are hardly able to see these refugees as normal human beings other than refugees – poor, hungry, from corrupt and underdeveloped countries, and who needs to be ‘taught and civilized’ in Germany. More often than not, they are either talking down to refugees or at best just talking to refugees but certainly not listening to refugees. This attitude is so pervasive that it not only pertains to volunteers and people who hold official positions in various organisations dealing with refugees, but also in the business sector. The recent and highly acclaimed Exhibition “Helfen und Verdienen?” by the Flüchtlingsrat Bremen clearly demonstrated this uncanny cynicism in the business sector with the various ridiculous and insane offers for refugee accommodation and sleeping bags amongst others. It was simply mind-boggling and really beggars belief to see what these companies felt were suitable for refugee accommodation and of course, branded as ‘help’. But let me briefly recount one of my experiences from my last position to drive home this point with respect to those in refugee management.
About a year ago, I worked in a sport hall in Bremen Vahr where many Syrians and a few Afghani refugees were housed. It was managed by one of the big three refugee accommodation agencies in Bremen. Just before Christmas, the Manager was able to secure some funding to get sport shoes for adults in the Camp from a particular shop and I was responsible for organising this. I accompanied ten refugees at a time to the shop where they were to get their shoes. After the second trip, the shop attendant called my Manager twice to complain that there were too many refugees coming to his shop at the same time. Instead of standing up to the shop attendant for what was obviously a discriminatory and racist position, the Manager sided with the shop attendant against the refugees. Now, if ten young German men and women went into a shop to buy shoes, would the shop attendant be calling somebody to complain about their number in his shop? I don’t think so. But simply because they were refugees, these individuals could not be treated as normal human beings and regular customers even though they were not getting the shoes free from the shop. This is why it is important to disengage with the refugee label and its connotations in dealing with refugees.
But that was not even the worse part of this saga. In my discussion with the Manager about this issue, I defended the refugees that they had a right to go into the shop in that number and that they were adults who I could not just order out of the shop as the Manager recommended. The Manager responded and asked me to understand that although these refugees may be of adult age, they were not really adults. In her words, “you have to understand that these are people from different universum(!) and they first have to be brought from there to here and be taught how to live here”. Many of the refugees in question were older and more educated than her yet; she could not see them as adults and normal human beings because they were refugees. I am not at liberty to reproduce the unprintable expletives she used in reference to these refugees at different times simply because they dare demand to live in private apartments. Nor her habit of continuously smoking in the container that served as her office where she attended to refugees; children and adults. Were these peculiar or isolated instances? I’m afraid not because, there are many other examples I could easily recollect from my short time there. This is a notably pervasive attitude and pattern of behaviour in the refugee field.
Or consider this: I once visited a Tent housing about 400 refugees in Bremen to invite the refugees to join a demonstration that was organized to demand private apartments for refugees. On learning why I was there, the Tent Manager said: “No, refugees are not allowed to demonstrate”. When I asked why not? He replied, “Refugees don’t need demonstrations, they are all happy here because everything they want, they get here”. It was an astonishing statement from someone who manages a Tent where none of the children attended school, with no privacy for adults and there was an endless buzz from the massive generator for heating the Tent, not to mention the poor sanitary conditions. Here is a Tent Manager who in all likelihood was living in a private apartment and was gleefully and gratuitously making the judgment for refugees that they are happy to live in a Tent where their basic rights were being denied and their human dignity being damaged. It is very condescending but I have only recounted these here to show the dangerous effect of the lack of self-reflection, and its prevalence in the Welcome culture.
The second necessary but missing dimension in the Welcome culture is the dearth of critical voices and political activism of protests and demonstrations. At a time when there has never been a greater and more devastating attack by the government on the concept of international protection, most critical voices have simply become silent. The majority is basically now engaged in one form or another of ‘helping’ refugees at the expense of the political, in spite of its importance. The political dimension of engaging with refugees on the basis of solidarity and justice, and analyses of the ever increasing multiple reasons of flight that are inextricably tied to Western economic interests have all but disappeared.
The danger of this absence of the political dimension in the Welcome culture is that for most of those ‘helping’ refugees, they are unlikely to understand, let alone acknowledge the co-responsibility of their government in the very reasons for which refugees flee their countries, particularly when their engagement with refugees is devoid of critical self-reflection. The problem is when the political is taken out of the equation of engagement with refugees; the likelihood is that, that relationship can easily become quite hollow in the face of government’s arbitrary intervention like the declaration of “safe countries”. The point here is, while many ‘helpers’ may feel the self-gratification and pat themselves on the back for helping refugees – with their time and resources (while frustrated with insufficient gratitude from refugees), without solidarity and justice as the basis of that relationship, the refugees they are helping could easily be snatched and deported because the government has determined their country to be safe. And because the relationship is based on philanthropy, it becomes too late to assert as a matter of justice, the right of the refugee to remain where she or he wants and not be deported. In that case, these helpers could only attempt to seek out the next refugee who needs to be helped, to continue the circle. However, I do concede there is a debate to be had about what is more productive or more meaningful? To attempt to make a change or a difference from ‘inside’ by the presence of critical voices within the structure or to continue to invest more energy to mobilise and protest, to put pressure on the authorities to change their politics and policies? While these may not be mutually exclusive, this is a debate beyond this piece and one for another time.
Bremen Open Monday Plenary (BOMP)
It is precisely for the above reasons that the original ‘Refugees Welcome’ group in Bremen decided to change its name to “Equal Rights for All” with the Bremen Open Monday Plenary (BOMP) which holds every week. In fairness, the group was never in the mode of the regular refugees welcome initiative as the name was only used for the lack of a better alternative at the time. However, after the vibrant early months following the 3rd October Demo in 2015, which saw a couple of demonstrations for housing, schooling and mobility amongst others, the energy seemed to have dissipated. Therefore the group experimented a few times with the Assemblea. This was an open plenary that served as a forum for refugees to air their voice about their experiences and difficulties of living in Bremen, and together, brainstorm and plan possible actions to improve the situation. Amongst others, the Assemblea aimed to provide the platform for refugee self-organisation. Each session attracted an average of 100 refugees and Germans.
Juxtaposed, the Assemblea and the regular Monday plenary unwittingly developed into a sort of double structure. Two main points were notable in this development. First, the Assemblea provided the forum for refugees to engage with each other and the Germans who were there to show their solidarity and not just ‘help’ and it availed them the opportunity to publicly discuss some of their experiences and problems in Germany. Second, while it was a very effective forum for hearing from refugees – for which many expressed deep appreciation, it could not provide solutions to most of the problems the forum identified and did not offer a structure for focused and continued planning and campaigning together on these problems. Therefore, it could not meet the expectations of some refugees and at the same time, there was the impression that some people were ‘doing’ something for refugees but not really organising and planning together as many refugees were yet to assume responsibility for organising the event.
Consequently, a series of consultation and intensive discussion was initiated between the different stakeholders on the way forward. Drawing on similar experiences in other cities and the support of Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung, the decision was made to amalgamate the Assemblea and the Monday plenary and rename the group, and make its political engagement more pronounced. In concert with the Flüchtlingsinitiative and the Kommunikationszentrum Paradox, the new format included cooking and dining together, holding the regular Monday plenary while the Flüchtlingsinitiative offers legal advice within the period of each plenary.
The new format commenced about two months ago and so far, all has gone as planned with regular intensive political discussions in the plenary, cooking and dining, and legal advice in full swing, with 30-40 people in each Plenary. The first public event of BOMP was a presentation on Afghanistan by an Afghani refugee on the question of whether Afghanistan is a safe country. This event drew about 50 participants. This was swiftly followed by a spontaneous rally for Alleppo as the bombardment increased in the last couple of weeks and on 10 December 2016, the group staged its first demonstration to denounce the EU Deportation Agreement with Afghanistan and the planned deportation across the EU to Afghanistan. According to the police, 750 people participated in the demonstration. Finally, there was a presentation on the situation in Syria by a Syrian refugee, which attracted 80 participants.
While there is still a lot of work to be done to broaden and stabilize the group, there is no doubt that this is a sharp departure from the understanding of the regular refugee welcome initiative and it is a group that is developing well in light of the observations and criticisms discussed above. As more refugees continue to take responsibilities for running the group with major contributions to its content, it is our hope that even more refugees would be inspired to engage politically and continue to highlight their reasons of flight in relation to the destruction wrecked on their countries by foreign powers. At the same time, we also hope that other refugee supporting groups would be motivated to broaden their contact and engagement with refugees to include these necessary but missing dimensions in the so-called welcome culture.
Dr. Sunny Omwenyeke is a long time activist of The VOICE Refugee Forum and the Caravan-for the rights of refugees and migrants. He was formerly the Coordinator of the Regional Asylum Activism, West midlands/UK and currently, a Networker for the Flüchtlingsrat Bremen.