Ibon Zubiaur

Ibon Zubiaur
Photo: Goethe-Institut Madrid

What does the term refugee mean to you?

I would designate refugee a person who has sought refuge outside his country because life in there has become impossible.

Is flight from poverty less legitimate than flight from war or political oppression?

I do not think it's a matter of legitimacy, and certainly not morality. When Thomas Jefferson postulated a universal and inalienable right to "the pursuit of happiness", he expressly did it for all men. The problem may be how to apply to each case the image (expressly regulated) of political asylum, or how much can offer a host country to those seeking refuge in it. But trying to restrict to political refugees the legitimacy of escape or any attempt to try their luck in another country seems to me simply indecent.

And what about flight as a result of environmental problems?

If all wells of a village have dried up, or the crops of a field have been insufficient for years, or some multinational oil company has ruined the rivers and seas of the environment, it is reasonable and human to emigrate. Migration is always an uncertain response to a vital problem: it does not solve the problem; it moves it to another place. I cannot see how can be denied its legitimacy.

When does one cease to be a refugee?

When he stops receiving refuge (and again becomes a fugitive, a displaced). Or when he no longer needs it, or when he can consider himself another human being in the host country.

Is there a natural right to asylum?

I am very skeptical about the idea of a natural right, and certainly am not a supporter of arguing in favor of a right by appealing to its naturalness. Rights are postulated, and in the best case they are recognized. The right to asylum has a long tradition from the ancient world and other cultures, and is also at the base of the image (traditionally sacred) of hospitality.

If yes: is this right unconditional, or can it be forfeited?

In The Valkyrie of Wagner, Hulding is anything but happy on finding out that his guest Siegmund is a member of the "savage race" that he himself persecutes, and he challenges him for the next morning. However, Hulding follows the sacred tradition of hospitality and allows him to spend the night at his home.

Do you think that the number of refugees a society can absorb is limited?

The belief that hosting large numbers of refugees raises many problems for the host country is obviously a triviality and a platitude. But the discussion about the limits of generosity should at least be in reasonable proportion to the dimensions of the drama from which the refugees run away.

If yes: where do you draw the line, and why?

While a country like Lebanon, with only four and a half million inhabitants, continues hosting a million Syrian refugees (and 650,000 Palestinians), the proposal of any limit lower than this (of more than one refugee for every three inhabitants) seems an act of cynicism.

Are there privileged refugees in your country, i.e. refugees that are more welcome than others? If yes: why?

In the case of Spain, it is a well-known fact that political refugees from countries whose regimes our government takes a dim view of (such as Cuba or Venezuela) obtain political asylum much more easily than refugees with other nationalities (although later they end up left on their own). In the case of Germany, expanding the number of countries considered "safe" has already exceeded the most elementary political and ethical limits of decency.

Do refugees in your country receive fair treatment?

Both in Spain and Germany, the increasing barriers to receiving refugees makes it impossible to speak of a "fair" treatment.

Would cuts in the social security system in your country be acceptable to you if they were to facilitate the absorption of more refugees?

I doubt that there is a direct connection between the two phenomena. The social security system is being questioned for years for political reasons. If something threatens the social security system is the declining tax revenue, which has little to do with the drama of refugees and a lot with the will to favor certain social actors.

What are the requirements for successful integration?

- on the part of the refugees?
- on the part of the citizens of the host country?

It seems essential to remember that integration is not equivalent to assimilation. All inhabitants of a territory are obliged to obey its laws and a series of standards of behavior: from the road traffic regulations to hygiene issues. That is the minimum integration requires. From there, the diversity of lifestyles that everyone chooses freely is guaranteed by democratic constitutions. Domestic abuse or theft are crimes. The language that one speaks at home or the religion that one has, are matters that should not be controlled.

Do you know any refugees personally?


Do you actively support any refugees?

Not in a personalized way, only through organizations.

How will the refugee situation in your country develop

a) over the next two years?
b) over the next two decades?

I do not know.

Can you imagine a world without refugees?

As long as persecution and extreme inequality exist, hard to believe.

Have you or your family ever been refugee?

My grandfather was one of the hundreds of thousands of refugees who crossed the Catalan border with France in the winter of 1939. He survived the concentration camps in which the French authorities detained them and eventually returned to Bilbao, where he could not return to his work.

Do you think you will ever be a one?

Although my personal decision to move to Germany was not directly linked to it, the climate of persecution in the Basque Country against non-nationalists pushed thousands of my compatriots into exile. Perhaps this is why I find particularly painful and disgusting the growing violence that has occurred in Germany against refugees and those who sympathize with them. Personally, from the beginning I sought for an environment conducive to intellectual work, to exchange and plurality.

How much “home” do you need?*

I need my fair amount of care, acceptance, encouragement. But I've never felt these are things tied to nationality.

*This question was taken from Max Frisch’s questionnaire concerning “heimat”.