18 September 2012

Chapter Five: Without any choice?

A Sicilian Diary of Nina Perkowski

Today is the 20th of June, the day the United Nations has declared as World Refugee Day. Every year, demonstrations, celebrations, and all sorts of actions are organised around the world to raise awareness for the plight of those displaced and to promote tolerance towards and support of them. In Catania, the day was used to present the results of a recent study on the integration of refugees in Italy, especially their (poor) access to housing and work. At the CARA of Mineo, World Refugee Day will be marked tomorrow by celebrations and concerts inside, and a press conference denouncing the conditions in the camp outside its fences.
As usual, the UNHCR released its Global Trends report shortly before this special date, providing updated numbers and statistics. According to this report, 2011 set a sad record: 4,3 million people were newly displaced, 800.000 of which fled across borders and thus qualify as refugees – the highest number of this century so far. Overall, the UNHCR counted 42,5 million displaced people in 2011. About 80% of those outside their own countries have fled to neighbouring states – including Pakistan, Iran, Kenya and Chad.

There as much as in Europe, the new arrival of refugees and asylum seekers is not always seen benevolently, but can trigger fear, resentment and rejection among the local population. To promote tolerance and understanding, the UNHCR started the “Dilemmas” campaign this year. The basic message is simple: “No one chooses to be a refugee.” Or alternatively “Refugees have no choice. You do.” In a number of images, the campaign portrays dilemmas, asking the recipient what s/he would do if they had to choose:

„Stay and risk your lives in the conflict?
Flee and risk kidnap, rape, torture or worse?“

This is one example. Another one:

„Face death in a war zone?
Escape, but leave loved ones behind?”

While the campaign aims to further understanding and compassion, I find it hugely problematic. As it counters persistent beliefs that refugees are ‘welfare abusers’ or seek to steal local people’s jobs, it simultaneously reinforces another, very prevalent image: that of the refugee as a helpless victim without agency, being forced to make an inevitable choice. Such a perspective risks to be demeaning, debasing, dehumanising – and given the tremendous amount of energy and initiative many refugees have taken to escape the threats they were facing and to reach a safe place, it is also often very inaccurate. With this, I don’t mean to say that refugees leave their country of origin voluntarily, but that they have an element of choice, of initiative in the process of doing so and en route to wherever they go.

Both in Germany and here in Italy, what I hear most often when talking to asylum seekers about their situation in Europe, their worries and concerns, is that they are not allowed to choose where they live, where they travel, whether to work and to provide for themselves. Instead, they are made dependent on the state, which supports their most basic needs by giving them a place to sleep and barely enough money to subside on. None of the people I spoke with however complained about the amount of money or services provided. Instead, they said what is most difficult to bear, what is driving them into despair, depression and hopelessness is their lack of freedom. The denial of choice. Being forced into the role of passive recipients of welfare, under terms and conditions dictated by the host state. Again and again, I hear the same sentences: “I have never begged, I have always worked for my food. I have two arms and I can work. I don’t want to be fed by the state.”

Barbara Harrell-Bond wrote an excellent article about the relationship between helpers and victims, its ugly consequences and underlying dynamics relating to refugee camps in the ‘Global South’, which is freely available online: http://repository.forcedmigration.org/show_metadata.jsp?pid=fmo:4941. In it, she argues that we need “a shift from seeing beneficiaries of humanitarian aid as “victims” to be pitied, to survivors of adversity—who often demonstrate unimaginable strength and dignity in the most adverse circumstance.” I could not agree more. While of course, refugees and asylum seekers are often vulnerable and merit support and protection, we should celebrate their agency, their strength and resilience. And above all, we should stop forcing them into the role of passive victims. As one of the lawyers I talked to recently said: “These people managed to travel thousands of miles, risking their lives and overcoming all sorts of difficulties. They don’t need to be taken by the hand and treated like children, just because they suddenly arrived in Italy. They need to welcomed, shown the way, and then be trusted to walk it.”

Nina Perkowski came to Sicily to research the living situation of immigrants from Africa in Sicily for her PhD. For borderline-europe, she reported the situation in Cassibile and Mineo, where there is a collective home for asylum seekers. Within ten chapters Nina wrote down her experiences and her monitorings.

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