“A question about how we want to live”

How we receive refugees has much to do with the question of how we ourselves want to live
How we receive refugees has much to do with the question of how we ourselves want to live | Photo: © stockWERK/Fotolia

The idea of seeing refugees as victims or invaders strongly influences discourse in Germany. The social scientist Heidrun Friese has researched the phenomenon.

Mrs Friese, you travelled to Lima, Peru, in May 2017 at the invitation of the Goethe-Institut to exchange experiences with international experts about migration, migratory movements and hospitality. What can Germany learn from other countries?

The social scientist Heidrun Friese conducts research on hospitality and social imagination The social scientist Heidrun Friese conducts research on hospitality and social imagination | Photo: © Heidrun Friese/privat Germany and Europe always feel themselves so much at the centre of globalization and the so-called refugee crisis. But when we see how many people around the world are on the move, and what a negligible portion of them Europe receives, the European Union must significantly qualify its self-perception. In 2011 Tunisia accepted hundreds of thousands of refugees from Libya and is still much more relaxed about this than we are. Most of those on the move remain anyway in their respective region. At present, Pakistan accepts the largest percentage of people. Jordan, the inland migrations in Latin America – compared with these, the problems that Europe thinks it has are downright piddling. We live today in a trans-national world.
People have always been on the move and sought a better future elsewhere – right?

Yes, of course. We can’t even conceive of society without movement. To think that countries can barricade themselves against others, set upper limits for refugees and put up walls is absurd. If people want to move, there’s nothing that can stop them.
Is that a plea for opening all borders?

We scientists aren’t politicians. Our task is to warn and take a critical position. This applies, for instance, to a different European and international mobility policy. It’s a big myth that the entire African continent is sitting on packed suitcases. I like to recall the year that the Berlin Wall fell, 1989, when it was said that the whole Soviet Union was sitting on packed suitcases. And then after the collapse of the Soviet Union not so many people came over. But without freedom of travel there develops a kind of steam cooker, or East German phenomenon: myths and legends arise, the grass is always greener on the other side.

“People want to be free.”

How can Europe counteract this?

We Europeans so like to invoke our Judeo-Christian-European values. Perhaps we should first realize that, in the Bible, hospitality is third amongst the works of mercy. What is meant is an unrestricted hospitality, not bound up with questions like “Where do you come from and what use are you to me?” And which doesn’t imply that the guest should please leave again. The Arab Spring showed it’s not enough to have enough to eat. People want to be free and not disappear into prisons. Instead of investing billions in developmental aid, we should strengthen civil society in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, and support democratization.
In your book Flüchtlinge: Opfer – Bedrohung – Helden [Refugees: Victims – Threat – Heroes], you investigate how refugees are perceived in society. What approach do you choose to use?

My book is about “social imagination”, that is, how we imagine something without really thinking about it. In every introductory course on inter-cultural communication, I ask my students about their ideas of the Orient. Then comes the magic carpet, the 1001 Nights, Ali Baba; always the same images with which we first make others into the others. And these don’t correspond to the pictures I then show them of men driving SUVs and using smartphones.

“Ordinary people no longer appear in the discourse”

Why is the social imagination with regard to refugees so disastrous?

The ascriptions are now firmly anchored in political discourse. To see refugees as a threat, as invaders or parasites is currently part and parcel of populist discourse. The topos that treats the other as a potential enemy is very old. The imagination of the victim is just as misleading because it reduces human beings to helpless creatures without the power to act The message is conveyed by ever more drastic photographs of drowning people, for example. The discourse takes aim at our emotions and is deeply apolitical. The third imagination may be found in the discourse of leftist activists who feel themselves to be revolutionaries. Refugees are heroized. In these images, we think we know all about these people. But the perfectly ordinary people, the family fathers, the job seekers, don’t appear at all in this discourse. This is how they are deprived of their individuality and self-determination.
How can these imaginations be broken open?

It’s precisely this question that my book poses. It’s not a book of recipes; there’s no right and wrong. To address the subject at all and make some people reflect on it is the first step. The integrative effect is much more pronounced in sports or casting shows like Germany Seeks the Superstar than in everyday life. We also have to become more flexible, more informal institutionally, and come to grips with over-bureaucratization. In the end, hospitality concerns our whole life. It is the question about how we deal with each other ethically and politically, and how we want to live.

Heidrun Friese,

cultural and social anthropologist and Professor of Intercultural Communication at the Chemnitz Technical University, has conducted field research on refugee movement in Lampedusa and Tunisia. In her book Flüchtlinge: Opfer – Bedrohung – Helden [Refugees: Victims – Threat – Heroes], she discusses the images we have of refugees.