By Amelie Harbisch
While there is an extensive literature analyzing the depiction of refugees (in the media and in government-issued documents), the refugees’ own agency in their self-representations remains a blind spot. The following analysis of an artistic street performance by a Berlin refugee theater group shows how the refugee actors performatively react to mainstream discourses about them.
Performing (Against) the Wall
The topic of the street theater performance is “the wall”. The performance does not have a title, it was performed only this one time. It is inspired by a scene in an entire theater play that was shown a total of six times, three times already half a year before this street performance and another three times a month after it. The four performers are dressed in overalls painted with bricks, as if they were a wall themselves. The bodily expression of the performers underlines this concept of “person as a wall”, as they are moving pressed against the wall and pretending to be held back by a wall around their bodies. Through this combination of kinesic code and contact code (movement and relation to the surroundings, Jaworski/Thurlow 2011), they seem to be trapped in a wall and at the same time forming it. The different parts impersonated are, firstly, a businessman, who wears a tie, holds a bundle of fake money and talks into a phone, repeating stock market lingo like “sell now!”; secondly, a border police officer wearing a police helmet; thirdly, a soldier wearing a helmet and holding a fake machine gun; and, fourthly, a public office servant, who holds a stamp and mimics a stamping movement while repeating such phrases as “Declined!” and “We only need skilled workers”. These roles refer to the dominant depictions of refugees in the media: refugees are criminals that have to be controlled by the police, and they are only acceptable as useful labor force.
The theatric performance refers to the discourse surrounding bordering, walls and refugees. The connection between “wall” and “refugee” has become famous in the context of Donald Trump’s plans for a border wall between the US and Mexico, but also in the visual media discourse on the erection of border fences and walls in various countries on the Balkan route during the European “refugee crisis”. Further associations are sparked by the famous photos of (attempted) fence-crossings by refugees in Melilla.
“Nobody Gives Us a Voice, We Take It”
The group I have researched is part of a theater in Berlin that is built on the idea of a community theater (anonymized to protect my sources). The proclaimed aim is to have no hierarchy. Based on direct democratic and bottom-up processes, employees and youth players decide together. The mission statement is to address social and political issues from the perspective of marginalized youths. The group consists of refugees and non-refugees working together under the motto, “Nobody gives us a voice, we take it!”, as stated on the group’s website. The concept is that of a self-organized collective with the purpose of self-expression and resistance to sexism and racism, among other things. In this context, the “ideal refugee” is a person that is proactive, political and uses art to express his/her political resistance. This ideal in itself is regularly re-negotiated and challenged by participants in weekly group meetings. Important points of discussion are the inability to fulfil this ideal because of limited German language skills and the need to avoid confrontations with the police.
Setting the Scene: Walls Past and Present
The broader historical context of the theater performance derives from two overlapping stories. First, the historical depiction of refugees in relation to walls: refugees have regularly been shown either behind walls and fences, or in the process of crossing them. This portrayal creates a greater distance between the viewer and the depicted people, highlights the perceived “irregular” character of the forced migrant, and creates an undertone of suspicion towards people who cross well-established (b)orders.
Second, Topography of Terror in Berlin and Checkpoint Charlie are the performance sites, and they have a story to tell. The group chose the Located at the longest extant segment of the outer Berlin Wall, The Topography of Terror is an indoor and outdoor history museum located on the former site of Nazi regime office buildings. Checkpoint Charlie is the best-known former crossing point between East and West Berlin and a tourist attraction today. Both sites tell stories of walls and dictatorships that have already been overcome. As tourist sites, they serve both as a place of political education and a source of revenue through folklorist displays of the past: at Checkpoint Charlie, tourists pay to be photographed with people dressed up as former border soldiers.
Conclusion: Challenging the Borders of the Political
We see here an instance of a conscious form of agency under the preconditions (scope conditions) described by Hopf (2018): A group of “liminars” are not socialized into seeing the touristic sites as places to talk about the walls that have been overcome. In that sense, they enter the field of tourism “from the outside”. The performance uses resources and implicit rules of street theater along with resources from the “refugee experience”. They display the duality of the wall: It is an object with the agency of keeping people out, defining inside and outside and establishing distance. In the performance it is also deconstructed as something created by the people on the inside.
The performers create a new understanding of “what a refugee is” by making themselves visible as explicitly political subjects. ln this manner, they counter the understanding that political participation is the exclusive prerogative of citizens. This perception is fostered in particular by the humanitarian discourse, which defines “refugees as being incapable of autonomous decision” (Schiocchet 2019), constructs bureaucratic and humanitarian agents as the only conceivable political actors (Malkki 1996), and defines refugees as “bare life” stripped of political agency (Agamben 1998).
The theater performers “reconfigure the materiality of public space, and produce, or reproduce the public [and political] character of the material environment” (Butler 2011). The aim is not to change a depoliticized place created by the historicization and marketization of the history of walls into a political place. Instead, they show that the attempt to depoliticize the question of walls is political in itself. As these results were not the explicit conscious goal of the group, there is unconscious agency attached to it (see Hopf 2018 for the fact that one cannot know all the consequences of one’s subversive acts).
What is more, the performance ironically juxtaposes the nexus of tourism, political education, and the narrative of walls long since overcome on the one hand with the experience of the majority of people that walls are very much alive on the other.
Such street performances show how refugees gain agency in resignifying the great medias’ image of “the refugee” by challenging and ironically recoining characteristics assigned to it. Because state borders and the concept of citizenship remain barriers to the official institutions of political participation, the performance also points out that “politics” are not only enacted in state-centered (international) organizations and institutions, but in the streets as well.
Agamben, Giorgio (1998): Homo sacer. Sovereign power and bare life. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press (Meridian : crossing aesthetics).
Butler, Judith (2011): Bodies in Alliance and the Politics of the Street. Available online: http://eipcp.net/transversal/1011/butler/en.
Hopf, Ted (2018): Change in international practices. In European Journal of International Relations 24 (3), pp. 687-711.
Jaworski, Adam; Thurlow, Crispin (2011). Gesture and Movement in Tourist Spaces. In Jewitt, Carey (Ed.), The Routledge handbook of multimodal analysis (pp. 253-262). London: Routledge.
Malkki, Liisa H. (1996): Speechless Emissaries. Refugees, Humanitarianism, and
Dehistoricization. In Cultural Anthropology 11 (3), pp. 377–404.
Schiocchet, Leonardo (2019): Palestinian Refugees in Brazil between Nations and Humanitarian Tutelage [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://www.ror-n.org/-blog/palestian-refugees-in-brazil-between-nations-and-humanitarian-tutelage1.
By Leonardo Schiocchet
* This post is based on Schiocchet, Leonardo. 2019. "Outcasts among Undesirables: 117 Palestinian Refugees in Brazil in-between Humanitarianism and Nationalism". Latin American Perspectives, 46(3), pp. 84-101. The full article can be found here. A slightly different version of this post has also been published at The Maydan.
In 2007, a group of 117 Palestinian refugees moved from Iraq to Brazil following a resettlement plan involving the UNHCR, the Brazilian government, and the civil society, including international NGOs. In what follows, I highlight some of the experiences of Palestinian refugees and established diaspora in relation to this plan. This, in turn, enables us to access the way the Brazilian nation-state navigated its political meanders and question broad assumptions about humanitarianism.
The Brazilian Political Context
Since 2003 and until President Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment in 2016, the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) party’s government in Brazil had striven to diminish Brazil’s enormous class, gender, and economic inequalities with varying success. From a 2019 perspective, and in the light of the ongoing systematic dismantling, it may be said that social policies of inclusion reached their apex during the PT (Workers Party) era.
An important component of the Brazilian developmental project during the PT years had been to increase visibility in international politics. This new international orientation, in turn, demanded humanitarian action. The resettlement plan discussed here unfolded within this larger context, and more specifically, that of Brazil’s interest in securing a permanent seat in the UN Security Council, which calls for dealing with the world’s refugees.
While there is a heated debate in Brazil about the country’s indigenous minority policies, much less is known about Brazil’s policies regarding non-indigenous minorities, particularly refugees. I will argue that it treated the refugees as migrants, and expected them to integrate just as previous Arab migrants had in the early 20th Century. In the following, I will examine refugee policies during the PT government and relate them to the migrant assumption as a broader national myth influencing state practices.
Michel Agier has noted that the world’s refugees are “undesirable”. He states: “They are at the end of the day undesirable, kept apart from the world, far from the city. (…) They are the very figure of a detestable liminality” (2008, 62). Yet, the following story concerns a slightly different category of people, for the group coming from Iraq was branded outcast among such undesirables. The resettled Palestinians were a group of 117 refugees who left Iraq for Brazil in 2007 due to the war. Among them were men, women, and children of all ages. Many of the adults worked for the Iraqi government bureaucracy at least at some point. Prior to coming to Brazil, almost all of them were temporarily lodged in Rwayshed, a refugee camp in the Jordanian desert close to the border with Iraq. There, they had already developed a reputation for being “undesirable” and unfit for refuge elsewhere, even in comparison to other local refugees. They were among the last to find refuge prior to the camp’s closure. Once in Brazil, they were again deemed undesirable, only this time due primarily to a mythical national narrative. This double rejection of being outcasts among “undesirables” has worked against these Palestinians’ perceived “integration”. Through the lens of this double rejection, I discuss the principles of integration and tutelage, putting the supposed apolitical character of humanitarianism into perspective and showing how mythical-ideological notions of Brazilianness also helped to reinforce and reproduce stereotypes associated with Palestinians.
After the fall of Saddam Hussein, many refugee camps started to form in Iraq. These camps received refugee groups of diverse ethnicities and religions, and vulnerable due to various political reasons – all of which were connected to the demise of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003. The refugees were Sunni, Shi’a and Christian Iraqis. They were also Iranians, Kurds, Sudanese, and Palestinians, among other minorities historically living in Iraq at the time of the war. Rwayshed was located in the Jordanian desert, close to the Iraqi border, and thus under Jordanian jurisdiction. The camp there was created in 2003 specifically to receive refugees from all other camps, and to serve as a transitional point between Iraq and the resettlement countries.
In 2007, the UNHCR aimed at closing Rwayshed and resettling all of its population. For the institution, “resettlement” entails permanent residency in a country other than that of the refugee (UNHCR, 2014). The group of originally 117 Palestinians who landed in Brazil was the last to leave Rwayshed before the camp was deactivated.
The humanitarian agents frequently spoke to me of the resettlement project as a “favor”. The benefit was not inclusion through national citizenship at first, but protraction through tutelage, which in turn implies the non-recognition of the autonomy of the subjected, who become then objects of the humanitarian policies. In this model, there are those who are eternally recipients, and those who are eternally “givers”. Consequently, the relationship between these terms is always unilinearly asymmetrical, as the recipients are always bound to the givers’ favor. Accordingly, once in Brazil, the Rwayshed group discovered that Brazilian citizenship was not unconditional, automatic, and uninterested. It was rather something that they would have to “deserve” in the eyes of the Brazilian government. Far from a gift, the logic was closer to the Weberian protestant ethics: a prize given only to those who were able to demonstrate their successful efforts to “integrate”, overcoming inherent difficulties. What “integration” meant, however, was elusive.
In theory, integration loosely meant to be able to “fit” Brazilian society, and almost every resettlement agent had an opinion on the matter. In practice, CONARE officially decided who would become integrated – and thus who deserved to gain permanent status in Brazil – on an individual basis grounded on relative criteria, such as personal sympathies and especially the display of non-confrontational behavior towards the ressettlement agents, the project itself, and all levels of Brazilian authority.
Nevertheless, a discourse recognizing the authoritative character of the tutelage did not always accompany the tutelary intervention. In fact, tutelage often came bound to a critical discourse against the vulnerability of the refugees. The group of Palestinian refugees in question were constructed by CONARE as objects of tutelage because they are restricted not only by extrinsic war impositions (for instance, territorial mobility), but also because they were supposedly incapable of understanding – and thus choosing – what was best for them. Accordingly, what the refugees were incapable of conceiving of in first place is the Brazilian state’s heroic act of saving them from the catastrophe that undercut their lives. These Palestinians were thus incapable of judging that their coming to Brazil was a unique opportunity, given the multicultural tradition of the Brazilian nation, and the competence of the state in its treatment of “immigrants”. In a interview with one of CONARE’s top representatives, I also heard that “in Brazil those who do not integrate are only those who choose not to”. Such integration was related to the Brazilian “long tradition” of “receiving immigrants” and, therefore, the non-integration of the Palestinians was an abnormality associated with limitations (social, political, ethnic, religious, or cultural) intrinsic to them and dissociated from the resettlement program or the Brazilian context.
However, the concept of “integration” proved to be very elusive. The criteria could not be found in any text of law, or even in any of the institutions’ brochures, websites, or other forms of official discourse. They were not evident or transparent, and the decision was on an individual basis and dependent on a CONARE commissary’s judgment. Rwayshed refugees constantly reiterated their unawareness of the conditional character of their Brazilian citizenship. The very move to Brazil and the subsequent “integration” into the Brazilian nation were imposed upon the Rwayshed group. Once in Brazil, each refugee had to tackle the Brazilian context in one way or another, either by trying exile or seeking “integration”. By conditioning citizenship on integration, and by informally associating integration with both civic duties and cultural expectations, the Brazilian state’s integration efforts were instead often perceived by the refugees as “assimilation” and/or “obedience” to all forms of authority to which they were subjected.
Nations and Humanitarianism
These “undesirables” went to Brazil because no other country accepted them, and they only went there because that decision was imposed on them. The humanitarian discourse not only qualified these refugees as being incapable of autonomous decision, but also denied them the right to desire (to be sent to another country) and to resent the humanitarian agents (for sending them to Brazil). In practice, the refugees could not even choose to remain in Rwayshed, as a few supposedly had preferred. The refugees’ ideas about Brazil contrasted greatly with the state’s official narrative, which was based on a mythical-heroic description of the nation, of its potentialities, and its natural and social riches.
Among all the promises made and not granted by UNHCR and Brazil, the refugees placed one above all the others: citizenship, which, in this sense, represented more than just a simple chart of common rights and duties. It represented belonging to the Brazilian nation.
Nationality via citizenship is the only possibility of becoming a subject in the contemporary “national order” of the World – to use Liisa Malkki’s words (1992; 1995a; 1995b). In practice, even the humanitarian agents presuppose that the “human” (in the plenitude of its rights and duties, thus beyond tutelage) is only imaginable within the parameters of the nation-state. This view assumes the ineluctable political condition of the subject. However, this is also precisely what the humanitarian discourse denies by upholding the assumption that it is beyond politics and, thus, beyond ideology. Most commonly, the humanitarian discourse is thought of in terms of an ideological liberal notion of universal human rights associated with a politics of commitment to the just protection of those rights. However, the claim to transcend politics, or the particular interests of nation-states and other political actors, constitutes the very substance of humanitarian politics. By claiming universality, the humanitarian discourse also claims to be beyond ideology. This universal pretension serves to legitimize humanitarianism in both ideological and political terms.
The perlocutionary effects of this denial of particularism (politics and ideology) are vast and manifest. For instance, it precludes the possibility of self-criticism and of being put in perspective: being beyond politics and ideology essentially entails an ontological, out-of-the-world position beyond perspectives. Consequently, “problems” – whenever they exist – are always located elsewhere, usually in the object of tutelage or in the not-so-partial host institutions.
National Mythologies through an Asymmetrical Encounter
While the resettlement agents took for granted that the locals closest to the refugees would be other Palestinians and Arabs, the relationship between these groups proved to be less than harmonious. In addition, the UNHCR entrusted its responsibility to local humanitarian NGOs, who responded directly to Brazilian laws and shared nationalistic myths about the country’s cosmopolitan potential. Such myths suggested that any difficulty of integration should be justified as resulting from a collective limitation of the ward – and not of the state or nation. The resettlement agents often found such limitations in the “Palestinian culture” – also commonly referred to as the “Arab culture” – in general, but also in the “problematic” condition of these “undesirables”, and usually in the confluence between these two factors. Authorities involved in the resettlement argued that since history had shown that everyone else integrated well in Brazil, the unruliness of the Palestinian group had to be attributed to their “culture” and problematic character. The latter characteristic was part of a narrative that had been transmitted from the UNHCR to the NGOs they hired in Brazil, and to the Brazilian government which was aware that they were outcasts among undesirables.
The Brazilian official discourse about the refugees borrowed elements from the humanitarian vernacular, investing the government with morality as it omitted the political character of the decision to receive the refugees, of the resettlement process, and of the actual legal and symbolic status bestowed upon the refugees vis-à-vis the Brazilian nation. Such supposed (apolitical) morality, besides yielding corporality to the nation, in turn justifies a civilizatory mission – as stated by Hamid (2013). In my opinion, it is this civilizatory mission that motivates a priori the disposition and the disciplinary practices the resettlement projects’ agents bring to bear upon the objects of tutelage.
The Rawayshed refugees resettled in Brazil were affected by scenarios as diverse as those of war-torn Iraq, the ideology of global humanitarianism, and Brazilian developmentalist policies. Legitimized through the tutelary regime, the resettlement agents re-incorporated and in part unconsciously managed disciplinary practices upon the refugees.
The shortcommings of humanitarian tutelage are hardly ever problematized beyond the accepted consensus. In the case presented, tutelage assumed the refugees’ temporary incapacity to govern their lives on their own, evoking the transference of biopower (Foucault, 1988), or the power over subjects’ lives, from the refugees to the UN and then to the Brazilian state. Tutelage was supposed to be transitory, ending upon complete integration. It was thus a counterpart to integration. While integration mobilized a mythical-ideological view of the host (Brazilian) nation, tutelage mobilized a bureaucratic regulatory apparatus in line with this view.
The mythical-ideological view of the Brazilian nation was based on the assumption that Brazil is a prejudice-free melting-pot, evidenced especially by how all immigrants there had supposedly “integrated” to form one coherent Brazilian nation, beyond ethnic, racial, religious, and cultural differences (Lesser, 2000: 130-133; Karam, 2007: 157). As such, the Brazilian government expected that the refugees should emulate the supposed behavior of the immigrants of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, generational, contextual, and legal gaps notwithstanding. The conceptual place of the immigrant, and thus of the refugee, was in turn supported by heroic narratives and representations about the history of the immigrants in Brazil, upheld by the state as much as by the immigrants themselves and their descendants. Moreover, it was by dealing with undesirable refugees that the nation maintained its ideals about the Brazilian citizen. Failure to properly “integrate” was then to be solely attributed to the refugees themselves, rather than to the resettlement progam or any of its actors. Thus, when these refugees’ integration proved difficult, the rhetoric of the outcasts among undesirables evoked stereotypes of Palestinians as bellicose, unruly, and backward, this being the sole cause of the resettlement plan’s faililures.
Neither the Brazilian government nor the UN and its NGOs acknowledged the contradiction between humanitarianism and the nation, which I suggest are tacit counterparts. Yet, the disciplinary practices of the resettlement project departed from representations of the Palestinian and especially the Brazilian nation, and about the place of the refugee in what Malkki (1995b) calls the national order of the world. Thus, a humanitarian vernacular was embedded in the Brazilian rhetoric and policies towards the refugees, informing expectations about the refugees’ so-called integration. Refugees are not simply immigrants. Yet, on the one hand, in the case presented here, they were expected to conform to an idealized view of those who left their countries voluntarily to live in Brazil many decades ago. On the other hand, they were kept under tutelary control, their voices rarely heard. Rather than treating the refugees as active subjects of their own lives, the resettlement process muted the refugees’ voices. While this paradox was evidenced by the Brazilian case, it is by no means solely a Brazilian problem. Rather, it is a broader issue relating to the encounter between the national order of the world and humanitarianism at large.
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 CONARE, Comitê Nacional para os Refugiados [National committee for Refugees], is an interministerial commission under the Brazilian Ministry of Justice.