What does the term refugee mean to you?
Refugees are people who don’t even have the right to have rights anymore. Every refugee is a mirror of our failed policies, a sign that there is something deeply rotten in our contemporary world if such a thing as a refugee is still possible.
Is flight from poverty less legitimate than flight from war or political oppression?
The current battle around the difference between “economic migrants” and “refugees” is a purely ideological one. Although there is a difference between people fleeing from war and migrants searching for better jobs, we have to understand that even poverty is a result of a structural problem and the name of this problem is - capitalism. As long as there is capitalism, which is based on extortion and exploitation, there will be refugees. Nowadays, when mainly Syrian refugees are given the right to be called “refugees”, we are approaching cynical times in which we are turning a blind eye, once again, to all the other wars we have which the West has created, from Afghanistan to Iraq, from Lybia to Niger... are people trying to get out of these countries now “economic migrants”, or is it rather that the poverty existing in their countries is also a consequence of war and a brutal economic logic which in the first place led to wars?
Is there a natural right to asylum?
If someone knocks at your door in the middle of the night because his home has burned down, the only proper reaction is to open your doors. We truly live in dark times if Kant’s notion of “Universal Hospitality” today became Science Fiction which is even impossible to imagine, or if we have to answer questions whether there is a natural right to asylum. Imagine someone would ask you whether rape should be condemned? Of course it should be condemned and punished, but to have a discussion about it would already signal that there is something deeply wrong with our understanding of rape. The same goes for the natural right to asylum - the very fact that we are again discussing this as if it should be a matter of discussion just shows how deep the crisis of humanity is.
Do you know any refugees personally?
In the last months I have been traveling extensively and visiting refugees from the camps in Idomeni to Calais, from temporary shelters in Paris to Brussels, and I have met many refugees. These are people - from students to engineers, from mothers to uncles - who led a normal life before dirty political games leading to wars or destabilizations forced them to flee by boats, by foot, by trains, all over Europe, to reach a more or less safe place. Instead of it, they are now living in camps, in “jungles”, at metro-stations of our cities. After I met so many refugees I must admit I reached a certain limit of language. It is difficult to live in this world without having their fates in front of your eyes, but it becomes difficult to speak about it. It was in July 1940, when Stefan Zweig, who himself was a refugee, posed the question how can the old themes of literature still command our attention: “A man and a woman meet, fall in love, have an affair - that sort of thing was once a story. One day it will be a story again. But how can we bear to live amidst such triviality with a clear conscience now?” He was writing about the tragedies of the Second World War, but couldn’t the following words be applied to all the millions of refugees today? “On every ship, in every travel agency and at every consulate you can hear the tales of insignificant, anonymous people about adventures and oases that are no less dangerous and exciting than those of Ulysses. If someone, without altering a single word, were to print the documents of these refugees… it would yield hundreds of volumes of stories, each and every one of them more gripping and amazing than those of Jack London and Maupassant”.
What advice would you give a refugee?
What advice can we, who caused or participated in the bloody wars in Africa or the Middle East, and then concentrate them in camps all around Europe without the possibility of integration, what advice could we possibly be giving to the refugees? It would be cynical. They should be giving advice to us. While everyone seems to have abandoned the hope in Europe, it seems it is only the refugees today who still believe in the idea of Europe, a Europe based on solidarity and mutual co-existence. Isn’t that the biggest paradox and also a sign of our dark times? When I was at Idomeni, just above the railway where 15,000 refugees were camping for months, until they were removed because they caused a problem for free circulation of goods, there was - and still is - a big sign with the inscription HOPE. No, we don’t need optimism today, there is no reason for optimism - things will get even worse, from new walls and terrorism, to new austerity measures and rise of the extreme right, a new global war might even be around the corner, so we have to get rid of this naive version of optimism. But what we need is hope without optimism. And it is precisely the refugees - all these people who survived the worst tragedies and stayed human - who give me hope that there is still hope for humanity.
Can you imagine a world without refugees?
Unfortunately no. As long as there is global capitalism which is, on the one hand, based on free circulation and brutal accumulation of goods, and on the other, on restricted circulation of humans, there will be refugees. As long as there is a system in which capital is worth more than any human, there will be people who will on a daily basis be transformed into “human waste”.
Have you or your family ever been refugee?
In the 1980s, during the times of Yugoslavia, my father was forced to flee the country and he was lucky enough to get political asylum in Germany. I was raised there, went to kindergarten and primary school, if my father didn’t get that asylum it is a question whether I would be the person I am today.
Do you think you will ever be a one?
Everyone can become a refugee. It is not a matter of whether it is possible, but when. And this is precisely why we should see ourselves in the mirror of refugees - today it’s them, tomorrow it could already be us or our children.