Tag Archives Moria

The asylum procedure as a hope-generating machine

Over the past few years, the European Union has used deterrence as its main strategy to prevent an influx of refugees, becoming more hard-handed as the number of refugees has increased. A faulty asylum procedure creates false hope to those who are then met by an untimely death or horrific conditions upon reaching Europe instead of ‘making it’ as a handful of refugees before them did. This hope-generating machine divides instead of unites, diminishing the collective power of refugees to challenge the EU’s migration policy.

Eu refugee policy migrant
Activists have taken to the streets in Amsterdam and Utrecht in the Netherlands to protest conditions in refugee camps, particularly Moria, and the EUs migration policy. Pictured here are protesters at Neude Utrecht. Photo: Dorothea Hilhorst.

Some days ago I reread Power, Community and the State[1], a book by former colleague at Wageningen University Monique Nuijten, to contribute to a publication celebrating the author’s work on the occasion of her retirement. Back in 2003, Nuijten described how the Mexican state acted as hope-generating machine that disciplined and divided poor peasant communities. While rereading the book 17 years after it first appeared, I was reminded how much the world has changed in the last two decades. I also realized how appropriately the idea of a hope-generating machine describes the asylum system in Europe.

Power, Community and the State is written in a time when arguments that we had entered a deterritorialized and transnationalized world seemed compelling. The book quotes Hardt and Negri’s view[2] that ‘sovereignty has taken a new form, composed of a series of national and supranational organisms united under a single logic of rule’.

How dreamily naïve such a quotation sounds today. In contrast to what was then hoped would be a move toward greater global unity, today’s world manifests itself as reterritorialized and renationalized, especially when seen through the eyes of migrants. Most passports in the world do not travel far. Borders that seemed to have disappeared have been reinstated as real physical borders, paper borders, iron borders, or even—when we read about the plans for barriers miles away from coastlines or hear of surveillant ships shooting at migrant boats at open sea—borders of death[3]. As Linda Polman accurately remarked, ‘[t]he Human Rights Commission of the United Nations stated in 2018 that Europe has developed a refugee policy that implicitly and explicitly accepts death as an effective anti-migration instrument.’[4]

Yet the core idea of Nuijten’s book about the state as a hope-generating machine is more relevant than ever —certainly for the millions of migrants seeking entry into inaccessible states. Oliver Bakewell noted how prospective migrants in East Africa are completely devoted to collecting papers and building a portfolio for an envisioned migration. During his presentation at the Forced Migration Studies Association Conference in Thessaloniki in 2018, Bakewell echoed Monique Nuijten, who said that ‘[t]he culture of the state is central to the operation of the bureaucracy as a hope-generating machine. The hope-generating bureaucratic machine gives the message that everything is possible, that cases are never closed […]’ (p. 196). With reference to the migration policy in East Africa, Bakewell seemed to expand on her argument that ‘[s]tate intervention in Mexico tends to have a divisive effect on the population, and to frustrate independent collective organising efforts “from below”’ (p. 198).

What the example of East Africa shows is that, rather than seeking out their brothers in fate and rising to protest, migrants are driven by the hope of becoming one of the lucky chosen few, doing everything in their power to mould their individual behaviour and attitudes to the requirements imposed or favoured by the migration machines. The annual lottery that hands out 55,000 Green Cards to hopefuls wishing to enter the United States—with a 1.33% chance of people in the most eligible countries getting one—is indeed the ultimate hope-generating machine, steering millions of people away from engaging in protests and activism in their own countries against conditions they are fleeing from, and instead motivating them to be left at the hands of ‘fate’ in the form of a lottery, as in the US Green Card Lottery, and to maintain immaculate track records and build their individual case files to be considered ‘good citizens’.

Stories of refugees ‘slipping through the cracks’ of Europe’s asylum system and starting afresh continue to fire the continent’s hope-generating machine.

It is widely acknowledged that Europe’s policies towards migration can be summarized by the word ‘deterrence’. The European Union as well as its individual member states, perhaps with the exception of Germany, seem united in their determined aggression in seeking to expose and render as visible as possible the cases of failed migration that result in tragic and horrifying death by drowning when crossing the Mediterranean Sea or being stuck in a horrific limbo in refugee camps such as Moria. In these camps, refugees seem to have the same function as the shrivelled human heads on stakes that used to decorate the walls of medieval European cities to deter vagabonds from passing through the gates. The purpose of these efforts is similarly to deter would-be migrants from trying to reach Europe. Nonetheless, there are always a number of people who manage to slip through the cracks of the system and are granted asylum, and so the hope-generating machine continues to churn out hope, fed by ‘success stories’.

For a long time, I thought maintaining the appearance of a just system of asylum was a concession to the many Europeans who are supportive of refugees. In the Netherlands, for example, the government insists that there is no social support base for migrants. This, however, is far from the truth. Recent research[5] from the University of Groningen found that, although the support base for migration is shrinking in the Netherlands, 45% of the population still supports government assistance to refugees. Another 25% of the population is willing to support such assistance to refugees provided that strict measures are taken to protect society from asylum seekers who ‘misbehave’. Thirty Dutch municipalities have declared their willingness to receive refugees from Moria.

The bold statement of the right-wing Dutch government that there is no support base for refugees is no more than a malicious manipulation of the truth by a government that plays to the populist far right, where it fears it is losing votes. I always assumed that the small numbers of successful asylum cases in Europe were a triumph of the countless refugee-friendly lawyers, volunteers, and left-wing politicians making noise on behalf of refugees. I assumed that they occasionally managed to beat the system.

Upon closer inspection, and after rereading Power, Community and the State, I realize more clearly that those asylum seekers who successfully slip through the system are not a mistake or a failure of the deterrence machine. It is much more likely that the machine is built in such a way that, once in a while, a lucky individual comes out with a residence permit. Thus, refugees that slip through the cracks, and are granted a residence permit to continue their life in Europe—are also the symbols of hope that keep inspiring migrants to bet on obtaining a residence permit. .

It may very well be that the machine is designed in this way to discipline the migrants in Moria and other places where they are living a non-life.

When stuck in these camps, they continue to hope that they can eventually ‘move on’ and start the asylum procedure, and so they continue to wait, and to hope. And those that reach a country where their asylum procedures are started are told by their friendly lawyers to keep their heads down, behave well, and do whatever they can to enhance their chances of being granted a residence permit. Knowing one or two people who succeeded before you further feeds that hope. And as long as migrants have this hope, they are prevented from being united to fight the cruel reception they get in Europe.


[1] Nuijten, M. C. M. (2003). Power, Community and the State: The Political Anthropology of Organisation in Mexico. London, UK and Sterling, VA: Pluto Press.

[2] Hardt, M., and Negri, A. (2000). Empire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

[3] Henk van Houtum & Rodrigo Bueno Lacy (2020) The Autoimmunity of the EU’s Deadly B/ordering Regime; Overcoming its Paradoxical Paper, Iron and Camp Borders, Geopolitics, 25:3, 706-733, DOI: 10.1080/14650045.2020.1728743

[4] Linda Polman Tegen Elke Prijs. Essay Vluchtelingen en Europa. Groene Amsterdammer, 01-10-2020.

[5] Toon Kuppens et al. (2019). Ongenoegen, migratie, gastvrijheid en maatschappelijke onrust. Onderzoek Rijksuniversiteit Groningen, in opdracht van het Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek- en Documentatiecentrum. https://www.wodc.nl/binaries/2742%20Volledige%20Tekst_tcm28-425017.pdf

About the author:

 

Thea Hilhorst

Dorothea Hilhorst is Professor of Humanitarian Aid and Reconstruction at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam.

This article is based on a contribution of the author to the Liber Amicorum for Monique Nuijten of Wageningen University.

Are you looking for more content about Global Development and Social Justice? Subscribe to Bliss, the official blog of the International Institute of Social Studies, and stay updated about interesting topics our researchers are working on.

Germany is a deeply racist country―stop pretending otherwise

While Germany has been lauded for agreeing to take in 1,700 refugees from refugee camp Moria that recently burned to the ground, the country has been cited as a role model for its rational, yet humane stance toward refugees ever since it took in more than one million people in a single year during Europe’s so-called ‘refugee crisis’. However, within the country a different type of crisis is brewing—one characterized by deep structural and societal racism. Only if Germany and international observers shake the deceptive perception of the country as ‘welcoming’, change can finally happen, writes Josephine Valeske.

Antirassismus Demo Berlin
Anti-racism demonstration in Berlin, September 2018. The banner reads 'Refugees welcome! Against racism and right-wing violence'. Credit: Uwe Hiksch on Flickr

Two weeks ago, only days after a ring of right-wing extremists was discovered in the German police force in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, the police in what can be seen as a PR campaign asked Twitter users to use the hashtag #dankepolizei (‘thank you, police’) to tweet why they are grateful to the German police. The campaign backfired spectacularly. Within hours, there were hundreds of tweets using the hashtag to recount horrific instances of police violence, racial profiling, and verbal and physical abuse, many of them with an explicit focus on racism.

These instances are likely just the tip of the iceberg. Since the Black Lives Matter movement has put racism and police brutality on the public agenda in the USA, police violence has become a hotly debated topic also in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. Left-leaning voices argue that racism in the German police force consists not, as leading police officials and politicians insist, of ‘Einzelfälle’ ―individual cases, exceptions to the rule―but that it is a structural problem. Despite mounting pressure on the ministry for interior affairs to gauge the extent and urgency of the problem, the German home minister, seen as one of the most right-leaning figures in Merkel’s cabinet, has repeatedly refused to conduct a study enabling a better understanding.

Meanwhile, the ‘Einzelfälle’ keep piling up. As far back as 2011, it became known that a right-wing group calling itself ‘NSU’ (National Socialist Underground) had murdered 10 people between 2000 and 2007, nine of them with Turkish roots. The crimes had been covered up for years by regional police forces and German secret services, partially by blaming the murders on the victims’ families while making use of racist stereotypes. The extent of the state’s involvement in the NSU and the cover up is yet unknown. Last year saw at least 1,664 attacks on refugees or refugee shelters in Germany, as visualised on this map. And on 20 February this year, a right-wing extremist gunman murdered nine people with a migration background and his mother in the town of Hanau.

This is just one form of direct violence driven by racism. Several less visible forms of racism plague Germany society. The question then arises: How come such multi-dimensional racism that has persisted throughout Germany has not been in the spotlight until now?

In White Innocence, Gloria Wekker in a fascinating dissection of racism in the Netherlands argues that the Dutch self-perception as an open, tolerant culture has led to many Dutch people ignoring racism even if it is staring them in the face. In a societal equivalent of “I have a black friend, so I cannot be racist”, instances of day-to-day racism are written off by referring to the Netherlands’ multicultural society. Although Germany’s culture and history are quite different, this observation struck a chord with me. Germany is often praised for how it remembers and deals with the crimes committed under Nazi rule, and a large share of the population likes to believe that it is anti-fascist. We all spent at least a year in high school studying and condemning the Holocaust, reading Anne Frank’s diary, and visiting former concentration camps―so we are obviously enlightened and anti-racist Germans!

This self-perception is wrong and incredibly dangerous. It takes the knowledge about a historical period and its atrocities as proof of a general ‘immunity’ to racist thought and behaviour. Because we know very well what happened in the past, we surely won’t repeat this, this logic goes. But while German education and commemorative culture emphasizes this historical period, others are completely erased. Perhaps only a few German students are aware of Germany’s colonial past and the genocide of the Herero and Nama in what was once German South West Africa (today’s Namibia), for example. This intentional forgetting has been labelled ‘colonial amnesia’. The German government has yet to answer to Namibia’s call for an official apology and reparations. The point is that Germany is selectively anti-racist and that racism in fact pervades everyday life, rooted in a ‘colonial amnesia’ and denial of structural racism and islamophobia that has persisted, albeit less visibly, after the Second World War.

When it comes to Germany’s supposedly humane refugee policy, Merkel is either lauded or hated for temporarily suspending the Dublin Agreement in 2015 and granting around one million refugees the possibility to apply for asylum in Germany. Whether her decision was indeed fuelled by humanitarian motives or simply a calculated move to combat Germany’s skilled worker shortage, we will never know. The Guardian recently called this Merkel’s “great migrant gamble”, as if the lives of a million people were no more than stakes in a game that could yield positive returns.

German government officials have time and time again emphasised they want to “fight the causes of flight”, leading to dubious development assistance deals that typically benefit the German economy more than the receiving countries – and to the death of thousands. In March 2016, Germany was the driving force behind a deal with Turkey in which the latter country gets paid to keep refugees out of Europe, after which the number of refugees entering Germany decreased considerably. Several such deals have since been made with North African countries like Libya even after full awareness that refugees are being tortured in Libyan detention camps financed with German and EU money. Germany is also a major contributor to Frontex, the European border ‘protection’ and coast guard agency that forces refugees to rely on ever-harder routes to Europe and has reportedly pushed back refugees, which makes it indirectly responsible for the deaths of thousands of people every year in the Mediterranean Sea.

Ironically, if Germany was serious about “fighting the causes of flight”, it should probably shut down its ministry of foreign affairs and its many weapons manufacturing companies first. Looking at the number of persons driven from their homes by wars in which the US and its allies, including Germany, are involved, and at the havoc Germany’s economic policies are wreaking in the Global South, the handful of refugees Germany has ‘accepted’ from Moria seem to be no more than a tool to keep up the country’s appearance as humanitarian and welcoming. Finally, it must be acknowledged that Germany is profiting from and supporting the global division of labour that is at the root cause of systemic poverty and thus causes many forms of migration in the first place.

The first step we can take as Germans is to stop pretending that we’re doing enough and that we’re doing it well, and to critically look at and address the myriad forms of racism originating in the country. We are failing spectacularly at making Germany a safe haven for those who need safety most―and we have the moral obligation to change that.

Josephine Valeske
About the author:

Josephine Valeske holds a MA degree in Development Studies from the ISS and a BA degree in Philosophy and Economics. She currently works for the Transnational Institute and is the manager of the ISS Blog Bliss. She can be found on Twitter @josephine_on_tw.

Are you looking for more content about Global Development and Social Justice? Subscribe to Bliss, the official blog of the International Institute of Social Studies, and stay updated about interesting topics our researchers are working on.

Moria’s male refugees need help just as much as anyone else

The recent fire that razed refugee camp Moria in Greece has left around 13,000 refugees homeless and fleeing once again—this time to an unknown destination where they hope to find safety at most, or temporary shelter at the least. While humanitarian aid organizations have scrambled to provide aid to the destitute refugees and Europe’s leaders have assumed a cold and calculating approach, it seems that refugee men are being forgotten. Dorothea Hilhorst argues that all refugees, regardless of age or gender, should be helped and that the plight of young men, who are often not considered ‘real’ refugees, should also be highlighted.

Camp Moria, housing 13,000 refugees mainly from Afghanistan, burnt down on 8 September. The tragedy has been long in the making—Europe has failed the migrants in Moria for years, forsaking them to a sub-human non-life in overcrowded refugee camps. Those of us who hoped that the dramatic fire would act as a wake-up call have seen little progress this past week in the wake of the fire. Europe, except for Germany, has so far responded in a cold and calculating way.

The little response we have seen has mainly focused on unaccompanied children and to a lesser extent on families. The Netherlands, for example, has offered to receive a few hundred families from Moria. The ‘offer’ is even less generous than it appears, as their number will be deducted from the total number of vulnerable refugees to be received by the Netherlands on the basis of a standing agreement with UN refugee agency UNHCR, much to the dismay of the agency.

The focus on unaccompanied children plays into the primary feelings of sympathy of many Europeans. A Dutch woman who started a campaign to collect sleeping bags for Lesbos told a reporter from the national news agency in the Netherlands: “I am a mother. When I see children sleep on the streets, I must do something, no matter what”. It may be natural for people to respond more to suffering children than to adolescents and adults, but surely politics should not only be dictated by motherly instincts alone?

It remains important to unpack the thin policy response to the fire in Moria. The focus on children and families makes a false distinction among refugees that makes it seem as if only children are vulnerable. It is a cheap, yet effective trick that puts 400 child refugees in the spotlight to distract the attention from the almost 13,000 others that live in similar squalid conditions.

Unfortunately, we have landed ourselves in a time where official politics are not guided by cherished and shared institutions like the refugee convention, which stipulates that people fleeing from war are entitled to be heard in an asylum procedure and, while the procedure is pending, received in dignified circumstances. Instead, policies seem cynically oriented towards one goal only: deterrence. The underlying idea of policy comes across as something along the lines of “[l]et 13,000 people suffer in front of as many cameras as possible so that desperate people will refrain from crossing the Mediterranean to seek shelter and asylum in the affluent countries of Europe”.

While 13,000 people suffer, the gaze of Europe singles out several hundred children for our solidarity. The distinction between these children and the other refugees rests on two equally weak arguments.

Firstly, it is implied that children are more vulnerable than other refugees. Whereas this is true in some respects, the level of despair and hopelessness experienced by all people in Moria is shocking. During my visit to Lesbos last year, aid workers told me that many refugees in Moria—children, adolescents and adults—suffer from a triple trauma. The first one was caused by the violence that triggered their escape, the second by the long passage to Europe and the crossing of the sea, and, finally, new trauma arising from the dismal conditions in the camp, the permanent state of insecurity, and the lack of future prospects. A vast majority of the people in Moria qualify to be seriously considered in asylum procedures because they fled from the violence of war and are extremely vulnerable.

Secondly, the focus on children leans on an idea of ‘deserving’ versus ‘undeserving’ refugees. Children cannot be blamed for their situation and are presumed innocent. The same applies to women in the eyes of most people. Adult men, and especially single (young) men, on the other hand, are looked at with a multitude of suspicions. Men are associated with violence and often suspected to be culprits rather than victims of war. They are also distrusted as they may be associated with sexual violence against women that is indeed widespread, but certainly does not hold true for all men. Finally, they don’t solicit feelings of sympathy because they are considered strong and capable of managing their own survival. Or worse, they are considered fortune seekers instead of bare survivors of war.

However, it is a myth that men should not deserve our sympathy! In situations of war, men are more likely than women to be exposed to violence – killing, torture, arbitrary arrest, or forced subscription in a regular or rebel army. Traumatized and destitute, they find themselves in a situation where they do not qualify for many of the aid programmes that are based on the same gender biases and reserve their resources for women and children. Quite a lot of young men see no other option than to prostitute themselves in order to survive.

Singling out unaccompanied children therefore is delusional. It seems to be designed to placate the large numbers of Europeans who want to act in solidarity with refugees. Our politicians keep telling us that social support for refugees has dried up, but while they listen in fear to right-wing populists, they are blind to the wish of equally large constituencies that want to welcome refugees.

As we are left in anger and shame, let us not step into the false dichotomy of deserving/undeserving refugees. Policy should be guided by legislation, not by false distinctions that are based on and reinforce popular sentiments. All refugees in Moria, irrespective of their gender or age, should be able to tell their story while being sheltered in dignity. All these stories need to be heard in proper asylum procedures—without prejudice.

About the author:

Dorothea HilhorstDorothea Hilhorst is Professor of Humanitarian Aid and Reconstruction at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam. She is a regular author for Bliss. Read all her posts here.

Are you looking for more content about Global Development and Social Justice? Subscribe to Bliss, the official blog of the International Institute of Social Studies, and stay updated about interesting topics our researchers are working on.