Restoring the future: thinking the refugee movements

Many people within the restorative justice movements have expressed their concern about the so-called refugee crisis, as they are trying to imagine ways to support the refugees and act together to counteract the societal or political reactions. In this piece I will highlight a few points and angles to consider, as we organize our collective efforts within the movement.

The role of semantics, narratives, frames, images, and metaphors

Frames regulate the affective and ethical dispositions through which phenomena are not only understood but also constituted. Frames matter in terms of what is problematized and in what manner. They also matter on the level of who and what gets recognized as a subject or as a life form that is worth protecting. Our capacity to respond to others depends on how the norm of the human is communicated through visual and discursive frames. There are ways of framing that will bring the human into view in its frailty and precariousness, that will allow us to stand for the value and dignity of human life, to react with outrage when lives are degraded or eviscerated without regard for their value as lives. We need to multiply frames that will show the humanity and dignity of the refugees, we have to tell the stories behind the numbers, show the faces behind the terms.

Narratives matter. The stories we tell, the words we use. These humans do not come to take our lives away, to occupy us, but rather running away from atrocities they come to construct a better life for their own children. The real parasites are the politicians that divide people into groups worthy and unworthy of living, protecting, supporting: the refugees are our fellow brothers and sisters. The narratives we telle, will mobilize affects and emotions, and they in turn will motivate actions. If the prevailing emotion is fear and hate, the politics that will prevail is a politics of suspicion and rejection. On the other hand if the prevailing emotions are compassion, curiosity, understanding, the politics will be one solidarity. Only circumstances make one a refugee and another a comfortable EU citizen. Let us then not turn our faces away too quickly from traumatic images of suffering, let them haunt us.

Semantics stir emotions, create expectations, and direct actions. We should refuse to circulate the same cluster of words without pondering on their meaning and implications: who is using them, for what reasons, and with what effects? It makes a difference whether we call it a refugee versus a migrant crisis, whether we call it a crisis or a movement and whether we call it a European crisis or not. What does the term crisis mean and imply, and whose crisis is this? If we cannot get rid of the term let us give it meaning, let us understand it, let us define it, let us create counter narratives about the European crisis. What are the implications of calling a person a refugee or a migrant? Let us think about the emotions stirred, legal frameworks involved, ethical implications involved with each usage of the term.

Images have been evoked in the last months. We have heard about the invading, ‘cockroach’, ‘swarms’, just as we have heard about the needy people, waiting to be rescued, protected, and competitive displays of suffering and charity. Not to downplay the importance of the security and of the humanitarian discourse, but their frames have to be counteracted with a political and legal frames. If we speak about security we have to tell the stories of the refuges who are pushed into the most insecure conditions humans can ever be pushed, and if we speak about humanitarian crisis, we have to speak in terms of precarity, how humans are made precarious and how this precarity if differently allocated, and of our own responsibility in answering their call. So changing or challenging the frames means asking other questions: What are the debts of Europe in the geopolitical crisis, what is its leading capitalist role in the world? What is the political and legal status, protections, rights and obligation of a refugee, what are the political and legal duties of states, what are the sanctions for failing to comply with these duties?

Metaphors are important. We should rethink the role of Europe in the current world constellation. Is the metaphor of a fortress Europe attainable, or should we accept that we are and have always been a crossroad. Is the image of a homogenous Europe useful any longer? Are we scared of others, or are we secure about our own existential identity and therefore unconditionally welcoming to others? Do we maintain the image of a man-beast to another man, or do we maintain the image of brotherhood of man? Which is the Europe we want to take along, a Europe to be proud of, or the one to be ashamed of, we know they both exist. What is happening today, far from being a threat, is one of our few chances for showing what Europe is truly made of, and it depends on us whether we will take or miss this chance.

Understanding facts, figures, interpretations, and history lessons

In the last months, weeks, days we have heard about the invasion of the continent, about precedents in European history. We need therefore to master the numbers, facts and figures and the interpretations given to them. While the ‘crisis’ is represented as a European crisis, Europe is not even in the top 10 list of the countries affected by refugee movements, those being Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Jordan, Ethiopia, etc. who are hosting millions of refugees. While the ‘crisis’ is called a migrant crisis, more than 75% of the refugees who have reached Europe by boat this year are from Syria, Eritrea, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, and Nigeria (according to UN figures), countries torn apart by war, dictatorial oppression, armed conflicts and insurgencies, religious extremism, and humanitarian crisis and poverty. Their citizens therefore are refugees, have the legal right to refuge in Europe and seek asylum. Numbers again are important to compare historically, it might be useful to remember that only WWII has produced 10 million displaced people, and even that the category of the refugee was created here in the European continent as a result of state-slicing which left millions of people stateless. Useful also to remember the millions of Palestinians, East Bengalis, and even about the 1 million Belgian refuges after the WWI.

History as usual has always lessons to teach. Looking at the Hungarian and Balkan countries’ reactions to the refugees I inevitably thought about the images and the stories of the hundred thousands Hungarian refugees after the 1956 revolution and the Yugoslavian refugees after 1991. Quickly forgotten? Certainly different stories, but yet all so similar. During the discussions about spreading refugees among states I also thought of the Evian conference of the 1938 (who remembers that conference today?). Representatives from 32 nations, 39 private organizations, 200 journalists, had gathered for 8 days of speeches, meetings, and grand displays of good will in the Evian of France to discuss the ‘problem’ of the Jewish refugees. Despite ‘the good will’ the Evian Conference went down in history as a complete failure, where most European states and USA shut their doors giving full hand to Adolf Hitler to launch his “Final Solution to the Jewish Question,” which we know killed six million Jews during World War II. There is no Hitler today in the continent, but his shadow is omnipresent in different countries, so we should be careful of the consequences of our actions. It is also helpful to remember other more positive facts that today in our incapacity to respond to the migrants’ mobility we forget: millions of Africans and Turks came to Europe between 1950 and 1975 and no one died and there was no smuggling.

If this is a crisis, it is political, and therefore we need mature reactions, sound predictions, and long-term and coherent plans

The uncoordinated reactions to the so-called ‘crisis’ have been impressively naïve for such a sophisticated and complex political community, including the reactions of the media and various European societies. Where are therefore the think-tanks of Europe that are not able to make realistic predictions about geopolitical events taking place, mature reactions that go beyond denial and naiveté, and strategic and coherent responses that show the political maturity of the continent? Media, politicians and NGOs should stop the panic in the societies and prepare the hosting people that the refuges are here to stay, and that they have to be welcomed, supported, and integrated the best way possible. The continent has all the means to support the small proportion of the world’s refugees reaching the continent.

Despite having a common asylum system in theory, the last months have shown in fact that this is more a lottery than a system. Different countries are more or less likely to accept different nationalities and with provisions for asylum seekers ranging from decent homes and training to support integration in some countries, to tent camps or detention centres, or being left to starve on the street, in others. Countries that bear the brunt of new waves of migration, such as Italy, Bulgaria or Greece, have found little solidarity from their richer neighbors. The crisis in fact was called a European crisis only when the refugees started appearing at the borders of Germany, before it was Italy’s problem. Furthermore the questionable principle of the ‘safe third country’, meaning that if a migrant passes through one of these territories on their way to the EU, they can now be returned to that country, since theoretically they could have lodged an asylum application there, indicates also how immature the European efforts are, and how states are constantly throwing the burden to each other, unjustly burdening in this case countries who differ largely on their socio-economic level from the northern countries. A fair shared responsibility between the states should be mandatory.

The EU spends far more on surveillance and deterrence than on improving reception conditions. Irresponsible strategies of closing borders or stopping maritime saving operations will not be the answer to the crisis and will only fuel more death, and more trafficking irregularities. European leaders have even made the calculated decision to allow the number of drownings to increase by scrapping Mare Nostrum (the search and rescue operation funded by EU member states and run by the Italian navy and coastguard). They claimed that the word would get back to the war zones of Syria, Somalia and Eritrea that search and rescue operations had been halted, making people think twice before attempting to cross the Mediterranean and seek refuge in Europe. Of course this was one instance of profound lack of understanding of how migration works. This decision also ignored the fact that the majority of the people making crossing the Mediterranean have a legitimate legal claim under international law to refugee status in Europe. The other extremely questionable part of the European strategy has been speedy return of people who have made the crossings, ignoring again the fact that most of them have a legal right to stay in Europe as refugees, a right that should be protected by international law, which also forbids exile, deportation and return of refugees, as this would make the European states criminal.

For as long as refugees are treated as a burden, they will be the target of racism and violence. States should find the courage and leadership to create a just asylum system where member states pull together to ensure that refugees are offered a basic standard of living wherever they arrive. It is extremely childish to think that if we keep repressing the problem it will disappear, rather on the opposite if we don’t provide official mechanism for refugees to travel, they will resort to smugglers, and continue dying. Rather than ad hoc and immature reactions we need a long-term commitment and a comprehensive plan of action where all the global Northern countries commit. There are certain facts we should not keep denying, first is that mobility is the name of the game we have all created, and there is no way to stop that, second that people will keep on moving around for better opportunities, and no one can ever stop that either, so either the globe becomes an equal place where staying gives the same opportunities as leaving, or the richer countries deal with the legacy of their wealth and open their doors. Europe cannot remain silent on the need of stability in the countries from which the refugees are fleeing of the role played by European governments in creating the instability people are fleeing.

To conclude, I would like to remind us that besides being a crossroad, Europe is also at a crossroad, and must therefore remember the duties of memory, hospitality, and responsibility. We need to be aware that the so called ‘refugee crisis’ will fuel right wing politics, will create breaks in the European unity, raising Eurocentrism skepticism, so we need to stand united and coherent on our reactions and visions. Restorative justice, having both a past (what has happened?) and future (what must be done?) orientation, is able to bridge the incommensurability of justice and security that becomes visible in the refugee movements. Its notion of Restoring the Future can be used as guiding slogan that answers some of the important questions asked currently in Europe. We need to move towards an idea of ‘deep security’, a notion that is less paranoiac, nourishes human relations through encounter and dialogue, is based on building relations and trust, and is always coupled with notions of justice and human rights. By focusing on human relations, on rebuilding and knitting together communities, with its contact and dialogue approach, restorative justice can ease fears and shatter the current immunitary tendencies that characterize the refugee talk in Europe.

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