Migration – Emigration – Fleeing
The refugee as an abstract figure?
Thank you for your thoughtful reply. These are all very important questions you raise; before I get to them let me share with you a story of musafir who travelled from Somaliland to Germany. It is a complicated story with many twists, but here I reproduce just a small section.
Let’s call him Abdul.
I met Abdul in 2012 at Berbera, a port along the Horn of Africa that also serves as Somaliland’s sole international airport. I was on assignment for my newspaper.
Abdul, who was working with a friend of mine in Hargeisa, picked me up at the airport. We got talking, and to my surprise, he spoke fluent Hindi.
Abdul also spoke fluent English, and German, and Arabic, and Telegu and Dutch and a smattering of Amharic. He had lived in Hargeisa, Mogadishu, Hyderabad, Mumbai, Addis Ababa, Tripoli, Basel and three different German towns.
He began wandering when he forged a Indian visa in the 1990s and made his way to the South Indian city of Hyderabad, where he worked as an enforcer in a local gang. After five years, he got bored of his life of crime and returned to Somaliland.
“But in a few months, I got bored of home and decided to go to Ethiopia,” he said, as we drove along the long straight highway that connects Berbera to Hargeisa.
He spent a few months in Ethiopia and then caught a bus from Bahir Dar to Khartoum, Sudan. From Sudan he made his way to Tripoli, and from Tripoli he crossed by boat into Italy where he said he was fleeing Somalia’s endless civil war and applied for refugee status.
His papers were processed and he was sent to Basel, Switzerland, where he was assigned refugee housing, given some financial assistance, but was not allowed to work.
“But what is the point of coming to Europe if you can’t work?” he said, “and so I started working illegally in an Indian restaurant. The owner really liked me because I could speak Hindi to all the Indian tourists who came to the restaurant, and of course because my salary was low.
“I would befriend the Indian tourists and offer to show them around the city. At the time many of the Indian tourists couldn’t speak good English – only Hindi – so they were very happy to find a Hindi speaking guide.”
Eventually the Swiss authorities found out that he had been working in violation of his refugee status and so Abdul decided to escape to Germany.
“Everyday I went to the Swiss-German border and I observed. The border police, they checked everyone and ask for papers – every car, every truck, every man, woman, child. They check everyone, except sportspeople.
“They don’t check the people who are on cycles, who wear cycling clothes, and a small bag on their back in which you can put maybe three pens. Every weekend, these people come cycling from Germany, they cycle all day in Switzerland and they go back in the evening.”
So Abdul buys a cycling costume in bright colors. He has no money to buy a bicycle so he buys a screwdriver. At night, he slips the shaft of the screwdriver through the shank of a bicycle-lock and steals the bike.
The next morning, he waits on the Swiss side of the border for the German cyclists and joins them soon after they cross the border.
Pedal, pedal, pedal pedal, along Basel’s picturesque streets; pedal, pedal, pedal, pedal, into the beautiful Swiss countryside. By afternoon, the cyclists loop back, the border looms, the policeman waves them through without checking for papers, and Abdul is in Germany.
In Germany he walks into restaurant, orders a beer and sips his beer till closing time when the owner asks him to leave.
“I tell the owner, I don’t know anyone here, I don’t have a place to stay. Will you help me? God will help you.”
Ok, says the German, you can stay here for just one night, and locks him into the restaurant.
“I don’t sleep. I clean everything: the windows, the floor. I cleaned all, I cleaned well, I wash, I dry. I clean the glasses, I clean everything.”
In the morning, the owner can’t believe his eyes.
“You are a worker,” the German says, “You stay with me from today and I will pay you money.”
Abdul stayed on in the restaurant, he married a German citizen, he had a son; he had marital problems, a divorce, and about five years after he left Tripoli, he came back to Somaliland.
“Why did you come back?” I asked
“It is a very complicated story, I had problems with everyone – my wife, Europe, the police, everything.”
A few months later, I was speaking with my friend from Hargeisa, Abdul’s boss, on the phone.
“How is Abdul?” I asked
“Abdul – the man who lived in India, and Germany and Sudan, and everywhere.”
“I don’t know. He is crazy. One day we had an argument and he left the job and vanished from Hargeisa. No one knows where he is.”
My reason for sharing this story is that I feel that the current writing about humanity’s march across Europe has produced the refugee as an abstract figure. In your email you write,
“The people who are coming, are reduced. They are no more than what they are. They have nothing more than what they have and if even their dignity were to be taken from them, they would be left with nothing more than a plastic bag with which they have been on the move for months. They are naked existence, devoid of all civilisation. And civilisation responds by pretending they don't exist.”
How have you produced this figure of the refugee? What do you mean when you say they are “naked existence, devoid of civilisation”? Is civilisation a gift of the nation state, that you lose the moment you leave your home?
And who, or what, is this “civilisation” that “responds by pretending they [the refugees] don’t exist”?
Is Abdul – the musafir from Somalia – a naked existence devoid of civilisation?
No, he is an intelligent, ambitious, thinking agent of free will who sees an international border as a puzzle to be decoded.
European governments are eager to produce the figure of the helpless and desperate refugee because it suits them. If you are helpless, desperate and fleeing a civil war then you must be grateful for everything that Europe gives you – you must be grateful for a winter-proof tent in a large field with three meals a day.
This is the narrative produced by Power across the world; don’t fall for this trap.
In India, it is used by successive governments to justify the acquisition of community lands and the displacement of millions of people in the name of progress and development. It is a simple strategy in which a way of life is first stripped off all meaning, joy and value in public discourse. Then the intervention of the state is projected as an act of “humanitarian rescue”, a collective civic sacrifice at great cost to the taxpayer.
This “sacrifice” then justifies everything that follows. Luckily, very few people in India actually expect the state to rescue them from its own depredations.
At this point Europe’s governments are still pretending that they can actually control the march of the musafirs; that they can “solve” this “problem”. But there is no solution to the march of history – we can only live through it and hope to alter its course.
You ask: “Here we have the question of whether time that runs backward processes all that went before. The modern in reverse – the results, forms and triumphs of the modern age change back into what was there before. However, what would this mean for democracy, human rights, individualism, secularism, nation and state?”
I feel we need to stop thinking like the state – these are state-driven categories. They put the state at the centre of the conversation and we are reduced to making appeals to our local representatives.
America’s upcoming election is a fascinating example of how even the language used in electoral processes is completely exhausted and devoid of meaning.
If you haven’t watched the debates, I urge you to do so – these debates offer us a surreal and hopeful moment to think harder, think better, think sharper.
To conclude this email, let me leave you with another image: don’t think of the musafir as a naked existence plodding through a cynical landscape under police escort – this is a figure that doesn’t challenge your view of the world; this figure only produces pity and hopes for rescue.
Instead, imagine a young, muscular Somali man kitted out in sleek lycra and spandex, speeding across the Swiss German border on a stolen 7-speed bicycle.
He doesn’t need Chancellor Merkel to find a place for him in Germany – he has found it himself. Now how are we going to respond to, think through, and celebrate, his actions, choices, and life?
New Delhi, 7th of November 2015