We Refugees

In 1943 Hannah Arendt wrote an essay under this title describing the existential despair faced by those Jews that had managed to escape the persecution in their european homelands. It was before the great tragedy of the 20th century had found its end, that can only be described as happy in the sense that it was the end. Now, in these last years, Europe finds itself again in an acute crisis, this time with those in search of refuge from war, violence, and destruction trying to reach our shores. We’re not historically blameless in bringing about these circumstances nor have we behaved blamelessly in face of those who seek our protection. And in 2016, the 9th of November has once again proven itself to be a fateful date, the immediate impact of which is unlikely to improve matters.

The Illusion of Exception

Prosper is a diverse team of digital workers, direct aid providers, and others committed to migrant rights. So when we recently all came together in Paris, we also visited the informal encampments of Jaurès, and other areas around Stalingrad. Nothing strikes you about the camps as much as how intensely vulnerable life is here: a lack accommodation fit for humans, minimal to no sanitation and health care, an easy target for crime, and repeated police harassment. Nothing compares to the friendliness of the people who’d have every right to feel let down by us. Nothing prepares you for the sound of a baby crying from the inside of a tent pitched in the middle of a busy road in a European capital. An army of volunteers provides daily necessities and information consistently, every day, and with admirable dedication. Admirably above all for simply refusing to ignore the reality on their door step, for acknowledging humans as humans.

Across Europe, more camps are springing up - formal and informal. Informal camps are often ignored, criminalised, chased, their locations made inaccessible by authorities. Once they are cleared by force, they will soon reemerge in another location - as is now an established pattern for those we saw in Paris. In ‘official’ camps, managed by state authorities, UNHCR or other established NGOs, large non-cities are constructed and managed as non-societies. They are intentionally impermanent not because we have any reason to believe that the problem is temporary but because we want desperately to believe it is an anomaly. The camp is always, determinedly a state of exception. In fact, state of emergency laws were even explicitly invoked in the clearing of the Calais Jungle in October.

We treat these migrant camps as something that should not be and hence shall not be. This is explicit in the police harassment in Calais and the camps in Paris, in this politics of exhaustion. It is explicit in the UK’s strained attempt to ignore or delegitimise even the very few refugees that Parliament committed to accepting. It is present in the hostility and attacks on migrant homes in Germany. The refugee experience may vary significantly between one camped out in the now demolished Calais Jungle or one settled, processed, and accommodated elsewhere. But one thing remains the same: We treat as exceptional what is not in any way -- not the people, not the violence that forces them to flee, not the inequality that drives migration.

Outside of the law

Refugees, migrants, asylum seekers find themselves in a situation of legal absurdity and precarity. Despite the universal right to claim refuge, in Europe we put in place a number of legal constructs that obstruct them from exercising this right legally or safely. No plane, no ferry will take those without visas, no visa will be granted to those who can not convince that they intend to return. So everyday we force vulnerable people to pay the traffickers and smugglers. In the worst cases they pay the highest price that leave their families not just bankrupt, but also bereaved. Meanwhile, in a system that seeks to find reasons to deport, people have to fear that even a minor breach of law will be used as a reason to deny them the refuge they came here for. We criminalise the very means of their survival and hold ourselves less responsible for those who broke the laws that we made impossible to keep. The tragedy, in the truest sense of the word, is that by the very virtue of their intent to survive we may deem them ineligible. We may hear them called illegals, but ignore the reports of abuse by our own state forces, ignore that our countries themselves refuse to live up to their obligations of sheltering these people. But of course the law is controlled by the state. The old word outlaw might be more fitting: Refugees show us what it really means to be left outside the law. What we see opening up is a huge gulf between the legal protection that should be there, and the realities of bare life for those we have engineered out of the system.

But what are we really protecting ourselves against, by trying to keep this out of our lives - by segregating, chasing, closing down these camps? Or, in the case of the UK, choosing to barricade ourselves entirely, dragging our feet even over the few children we commited to accepting. You will hear people express their fear that these refugee communities harbour terrorists -- even though we seem to be perfectly able to raise our own far more successfully. But these refugees do bring violence into our midst, this is true. They bring it, because their very existence reminds us that that we are all vulnerable to it. That without the protections afforded to us by community, by the rules we established to protect ourselves, by a safe, functioning society - without these, the human condition is very fragile indeed.

We are the others

It’s not that long ago many tried to convince themselves that these people could not be “real refugees” with a smartphone in hand. I can’t help thinking that much of this fear is not of the “other” at all, but of the far more terrifying prospect that “they” may not be so different. That image was too familiar from our everyday life. Their vulnerability could too obviously be ours as well and that is far harder to bear.

Europe, with it’s history, can not believe to have cultural immunity to violence and barbarity. Nor should it still be possible to think that dehumanising others could end anywhere else. But as if we needed this warning emphasised, the last few months have seen one taboo broken after the other, echoing those darkest days. Fences have been built, walls planned, and shootings of fleeing civilians talked about in all seriousness. And ideas we’d hoped long buried since find resonance again, even in the US.

It was precisely in those times Hannah Arendt told the following of a Jewish refugee in the US, typically inclined to exaggerate his importance in his old life: “He learnt quickly that in this mad world it is much easier to be accepted as a “great man” than as a human being.” Because being stripped of recognition, stripped of citizenship leaves us with little beyond brute survival. And to be allowed to be human, it takes more than being alive.

We would be wise not to avert our eyes but make the most of the valuable reminder of the limits of much we take for granted: Not to lose faith because of this limited nature, but to shore up, build up, to strengthen what all hummans need; to understand that solidarity is the only true protection for all of us. Solving the geopolitical situation that has given us this european refugee crisis is not easy. However, reaching out, responding as humans to humans, is. We do it not just to guard “their” future, but at least as much our own.

Jenny Imhoff

Project Manager at Prosper


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