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Protests of the marginalised: an interview

A glimpse of refugee movements in Berlin and Los Angeles. From the Squares and Beyond partnership.

Fazila Bhimji
29 July 2015
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openDemocracy: Was there anything you heard in the seminar that surprised you as an academic researcher, something that maybe you didn’t expect to hear?

Fazila Bhimji (Fazila): I didn’t expect to hear the discussion around the need to be critical of the movements. I was expecting to hear more theorising, as we do in academic conferences. But this was a different format that allowed people to express what they found difficult with the movements - not so much going into the complexities of these movements, but simply the encouragement to think of movements not so euphorically and in a more critical light.

oD: Have you found that some of the movements you have tried to do research on have been quite suspicious of you as an academic?

Fazila: One of the things they always ask me first is ‘are you a journalist?’ and I have to explain to them that I am working for a university and then, actually, they are more at ease.

oD: Is there a problem with the slow pace of academic research?

Fazila: Yes, especially when it comes to hoping to impact policy because I think that by the time the publication is released perhaps there’s very little chance of policy coming into affect, or the policy has already changed. When the aim is to theorise and to understand a movement or to understand how it relates to other movements I don’t think there’s an issue because eventually it comes out and timing isn’t such a big factor.

oD: You were quite skeptical of the supposed horizontality of movements. You said that you found both patriarchy and more subtle forms of leadership within the movements?

Fazila: The movements I have studied were not devoid of hierarchy. There are always leaders and there will always be leaders. I think it’s important that when the leadership does emerge, this is recognised. People should acknowledge they are leaders within the movement and work with that, rather than claim that there is no hierarchy. Then it’s important to work in ways that include other people. 

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Refugees in Berlin march in solidarity with fellow refugee hunger strikers. Demotix/Thorsten Strasas. All rights reserved.

oD: Isn’t there a contradiction in hierarchies in a movement for marginalised undocumented people?

Fazila: Well there is the aim to be egalitarian and inclusive, but it doesn’t work because leaders always emerge and when there’s an articulate speaker, they will always speak to the press. In Los Angeles, for example, universities were always inviting the same activists and in that sense, leaders do emerge. Other activists who might have been just as effective, don’t come to the fore: they end up in the background. I feel there are social actors and activists who have always been there who are not always given the chance to speak, because the same activists and the same people are always in the foreground and giving press conferences, making speeches in demonstrations.

oD: Are there many tensions between refugee groups?

Fazila: Yes, I found this particularly in the case of Germany. Not so much in the US, which was far more homogenous with people coming mainly from Mexico or Guatemala or El Salvador and sharing a language. In Germany we had people from lots of different countries in Africa, people from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey, Kurdish people from Turkey. But their demands are very similar, despite the national status or the motivations. These demands include; to change the asylum policy and process because it takes so long and people are held for such a long time in limbo; to change the living situation because often they are housed in far-flung refugee shelters; to end the Dublin regulation, so that Europe as a whole should share the burden more equably.

Now, people are fingerprinted in the country in which they first land, so in southern Europe. Once they are fingerprinted there they are not allowed to claim asylum in northern European countries like Germany, Britain or France. They cannot possibly stay in Italy, Greece or Spain because those countries aren’t doing well and they don’t receive many state benefits there. So they have to move on. This is the Catch-22.

The catch is that when they come to Germany they can’t apply for asylum because they have already been fingerprinted, so they have to apply for refugee status in the country in which they first landed. So despite their different nationalities or differing reasons for leaving their home country, the key demands are very similar.

The rifts have arisen not because of nationality but more to do with the strategies they want to employ to pressure the politicians into meeting these demands; whether to work with German supporters or not; whether to take action themselves and then get the support; how should funds be raised; should the focus be in the occupation of spaces; whether to focus on anti-deportation campaigns? Obviously there are everyday tensions due to differences in culture and language, but the significant differences arise from the different ways that people think they should go about making these demands.

In Germany, there are also the divisions for example between the Syrians, for whom it is relatively speaking easier to claim asylum status, and the people from Pakistan, Sudan or Chad, Zimbabwe or Nigeria where it is altogether more blurred whether they are economic refugees or political refugees, and they are always required to have a very clear story to tell the German home office. But the fact is – little is clear about these distinctions.

oD:  There are good refugees and bad refugees and the bad refugees are those fleeing poverty…. How can they overcome this? Don’t they need to engage with the widest possible public, since so many politicians target the public’s fears, in all sorts of subtle and not so subtle ways?

Fazila: Building coalitions and building links is important for all movements generally. Refugees in Europe are often operating too much on their own. One good instance of this was the refugees who worked with the United Neighbours group which was an anti-gentrification movement in Berlin – they found some commonalities, since some of the refugees also saw their condition as brought about by capitalist economies and they worked very well together.

In Berlin, one way they are doing this is through cultural work – let's mention the theatre groups in particular.  They have been really active in giving refugees the chance to speak out about their issues and to explain their campaigns and their struggles. One group travels all over Germany presenting their own theatre alongside the refugees whom they invite in the local areas to join them in performing in universities, schools, churches. Another group helps the refugees themselves to act out their experiences. There was a discussion on Al Jazeera about them, and they performed for Angela Davis when she was visiting. But obviously it is not enough.

Ultimately it comes back to how does Europe envision itself in the next decade. Does it envision itself as a multicultural continent welcoming foreigners, or does it want to be composed of small nation states providing the best for their own 'National Us' however defined and shying away from the rest of the world? 

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