From Self-Denial to Politics of Visibility: Palestinians in Germany and Switzerland from the 1960s to 2015
By Sarah El-Bulbeisi
Does violence (symbolic and physical) produced through forced displacement end upon resettlement or citizenship? In what follows, I aim to address this question through the case of Palestinian refugees who have resided in Germany and Switzerland for more than two generations. I show how violence has continued, albeit taking different shapes, from the Israeli state violence – the destruction of Palestinian society and identity – to forced migration in Central Europe. I also show how Palestinians have been dealing with this violence, how this violence shapes conceptions of the self and the world over the course of two generations – mainly those of the first generation, primarily men, who migrated to Germany and Switzerland in the 1960s and their children – and how this violence was inscribed into the relationships between this first and second generation. The argument I present here is based on a book I recently published in German, “Taboo, Trauma and Identity: Subject Constructions of Palestinians in Germany and Switzerland, 1960–2015” (El Bulbeisi 2020).
My study draws on forty life stories and conversations as well as on participant-observation, which I conducted with first and second generation Palestinians between 2010 and 2015, in Germany and Switzerland. Because I am also a second-generation Palestinian living in Switzerland, I incorporated an autoethnographic, self-reflexive approach. Theoretically, I started from the premise that analysis of my interlocutor's speech must take into account: a. discourse, which provides the symbolic structures underlying meaning and expression; and b. the unconscious, which arises in the ruptures of the speech, in slips of the tongue, etc. For data collection and analysis, I combined ethnographic methods (especially participant-observation) with discourse and psychoanalytical conceptualization, particularly (counter-)transference and free association. This back-and-forth movement of taking perspective trough ethnography and self-reflection through psychoanalytical approaches, crisscrossed one another in the of course of five years, allowed me to learn in depth about the experiences of others and about my own.
I argue that a crucial part of the violence Palestinians experienced in Germany and Switzerland was (and still is) exerted by discourses, representations and narratives that established moral norms, which in turn legitimized the violence they suffered from the outset of their exile. Not only the public spheres of Central European societies generally did not recognize the original Israeli state violence enacted upon them, but also Palestinians were themselves largely blamed for it. The figure of the Palestinian Anti-Semite and terrorist embodies the threatening and evil counterpart to the North-Atlantic–European moral order. As a result, violence exerted against Palestinians becomes legitimized and is perceived as deserved. Furthermore, this regime of representation resulted in practices such as surveillance, censorship, expulsions (particularly in 1972), bans on meetings, dissolution of student unions and workers’ groups.
I claim that this discursive violence – as I call it – together with the corresponding practices of criminalization de-subjectified my Palestinian interlocutors. To sum up the psychic wound inflicted upon them, I refer to Frantz Fanon’s concept of “trauma of race” (1952). That is, Palestinian de-subjectivation manifested in fear of visibility and political activism, but also of expressing rage and mourning. It also resulted in shame, guilt, melancholia and isolation from society, families, and fellow Palestinians. This violence led many to identity denial, as a mechanism to avoid the pain of being socially stigmatized.
Many members of the first generation had desperately wanted to be a revolutionary subject. They had often migrated for educational purposes and to acquire knowledge for the liberation movement, bringing with them their revolutionary subjectivity to Europe, where they were stranded, since after the 1967 Israeli occupation many became refugees sur place, not being allowed to return. In the very act of preparing oneself for liberation, they repeated their parents’ experience of displacement in 1948, for which they had despised them, and whose situation they deeply wanted to reverse. As described above, the revolutionary subject position was the foundation for the widespread subversive identity of the first generation, which they were unable to embody due to displacement and/or self-denial. While rejecting their Palestinianness outwardly, they cultivated it instead as a devotion that transcended the body and – in an act of self-ethnicization – also encompasses the soul above all else; a collective body incarnated within the individual. Pursuing an enduring inner attachment to the collective trauma became an attempt to assert their place in time and space.
The creation of Palestinianness as a resulting moral identity can be interpreted as a “technology of the self” (Michel Foucault 1986), i.e. as an attempt to produce agency and control in a situation of powerlessness by submitting to a specific feeling and consciousness of commitment. As such, it constitutes a densification of different layers of guilt: it also is an attempt to transform the shame and guilt associated with the vilification of Palestinianness and of the Palestinian experience of Israeli state violence in Western (and Arab) societies into a positive affect such as pride; or, more important, into feelings of guilt towards “one’s own kind”.
However, as a consequence of discursive violence, Palestinians in Germany and Switzerland could no longer fall back on the collective systems of meaning and interpretation (Summerfield 1999) I presented above – the revolutionary subject – provided by the community of experience to overcome the colonial trauma of being ripped out of time and space. Palestinians could not assimilate these symbolic systems into their daily lives, as it can be seen from the widening gap between how individuals imagine themselves to be and how they act in their everyday lives. Not only could they no longer draw on the ideals of the liberation movement and the resistance struggle as a resource for coping with their experience of violence, but also they felt guilty because they were incapable of living up to their ego ideal (Freud 1914).
The way Central European societies deal with their National Socialist past and imagine themselves in the present largely drives them to situate the Palestinian experience of Israeli state violence outside of truth (Foucault 1999) where it remains repressed and denied. Thus, my Palestinian interlocutors feel that their experience of violence was denied and perceived as shameful in the societies in which they live, a feeling that they subsequently largely embodied themselves. The dispossession of their experience of Israeli state violence left a much greater mark on them than the dispossession of their right to return to their country. Palestinianness as a moral identity thus crystallizes the melancholia (Freud 1918) of unprocessed, non-discharged loss and pain. It contains remnants and traces of a lived, but socially rejected violence, and thus hope of rehabilitation and recognition. By “dedicating” one’s life to it, a loss is preserved which could be neither dismissed nor mourned. By forming a subversive subjectivation as a response to colonial obliteration and replacement, Palestinianness as a moral identity functions as a resource for dealing with what I described through Fanon’s concept of trauma of race.
The interwoven nature of the Israeli state violence Palestinians experienced, and the established moral norms in Central Europe legitimizing them, produced a socially accepted form of violence that not only marginalized the members of the first generation but was also a factor in their relations with their children. The second generation of Palestinians in Germany and Switzerland was marked by their parents’ derealization (Butler 2004), melancholia and emotional absence, and these played a considerable role in how the experience of trauma of race was passed down to them. In order to establish a relationship, they had to overturn their de-subjectivation and establish them as subjects. This resulted in the inversion of social roles between parents and children (parentification).
The second generation is influenced by the reverberations of their parents’ past and of the lack of social acknowledgment about their predicament in Germany and Switzerland. In addition, their parents’ experiences match their own everyday experiences of discursive violence. The 2014 Israeli offensive in Gaza represented a turning point for many members of the second generation. Not only had the first generation denied and hid its Palestinianness in public sphere, it often also had imposed this concealment on their children. The parents’ repression of Palestinian identity on the surface and their cultivation of Palestinianness as a moral identity in its place was now being replaced by a visible, outward Palestinianness among the second generation. Reasons for this include the increasing violence in historical Palestine and the accompanying intensification of discursive violence in Germany and Switzerland. The intense experience that Palestinianness was taboo, reaching its highpoint in the Israeli offensive in Gaza 2014, drove members of the second generation to the conclusion that visibility alone was a necessary act of emancipation and resistance, despite their often fundamentally critical attitude towards any form of nationalism. I suggest that this, in turn, can be understood as strategic essentialism (Spivak 1988): the self is conceived of through essentialist identity categories at the expense of other identity-specific ascriptions in order to pursue a political goal. Even though self-ethnicization became a resource for dealing with the experience of racialization for the second generation as well, they came to interpret Palestinianness as an identity of anti-colonial and anti-racist resistance in the struggle for equality and self-determination, and identify with movements of other subordinated social groups like Black Lives Matter in the United States.
Through the process described above, the second generation has jettisoned the desire for recognition and, to a certain extent, no longer identifies with dominant European discourses on Palestinianness. Members of this generation break with the self-denial that was passed on to them by their parents and imposed on them by society. The second generation is overcoming the fear of visibility and political activism as well as of isolation. They are developing a national and transnational socio-cultural network, countering fragmentation and discovering the anger that was denied to their parents. They are beginning to understand their parents as an affected group and tell their story in film and through literature and science, appropriating the previous generation’s story as part of their own. Telling their parents’ stories involves writing a comprehensive story of the Nakba and adding the marginalized history of indirect expulsion (perceived as self-inflicted) to the dominant narrative of the mass expulsions of 1947-48 within the Palestinian canon. Through the addition of the history of the continuous indirect displacement ever since, the Nakba is no longer interpreted as a traumatic rift but as a traumatic process. Telling their parents’ stories also involves translating the fragmented telling – and, more often, the non-telling – of traumatic experiences into the narrative forms of film and literature. In this process, discourse-defying pain becomes storytelling. And, in doing so, family members not only reconfigure their parents’ stories, they live them. The effects of parentification is patent in the second generation’s desire to merge with their parents and to keep their parents’ unrecognised trauma alive hoping for social acknowledgement. Through their campaign and primarily the recognition they are obtaining for the fathers they are succeeding in part in repositioning fathers as subjects, retrieving them from their emotional absence and making them visible again. Parents who have hitherto attempted to keep their children away from political activism, passing on their own fear of visibility, are beginning to make their Palestinianness visible.
Even though the second generation`s capacity to convert guilt and shame into agency offers real grounds for optimism, one cannot but see that the boundaries they come up against in their increasing desire for visibility and resistance – for instance, in their restricted scope for action and the limits of what can be said – intensify their sense of living in exile in the country where they grew up. They increasingly see themselves as being exposed to a similar level of violence as Palestinians in historical Palestine, with the recurring metaphor of imprisonment (a feeling of suffocating and being under surveillance) representing a mental form of preoccupation. The violence the second generation experiences itself allows them to connect their situation in Germany and Switzerland with the colonial context of the Palestinians in historical Palestine, to incorporate their experience within Palestinians’ experience in historical Palestine, and to establish not only a transnational identity but also a normative counternarrative of transnational repression. Since self-ethnicization remains even for the second generation a resource for dealing with the experience of racialization – despite their interpretation of Palestinianness as an identity of anti-racist resistance, the resulting question is therefore: How can one resist without re-enacting violence?
Butler, J. (2004). Precarious life: the powers of mourning and violence. London:
El Bulbeisi, Sarah. Tabu, Trauma and Identität: Subjektkonstruktionen von PalästinenserInnen in Deutschland und der Schweiz, 1960–2015. Bielefeld: Transcript.
Fanon, F. (1952). Peau noire, masques blancs. Paris: Seuil.
Freud, S. (1914). Zur Einführung des Narzißmus. Jahrbuch für psychoanalytische
und psychopathologische Forschung, 6(1), 1-24.
Freud, S. (1918). Trauer und Melancholie. Berlin: Verlag Volk und Welt.
Miller, A. (1983) Das Drama des begabten Kindes und die Suche nach dem wahren Selbst. Suhrkampf: Frankfurt am Main.
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 Nakba means catastrophe in Arabic. This designation is predominantly used to refer to the extent of the violence to which Palestinian society has been subjected in 1947-48: the displacement of at least 700,000 Palestinians – around half of the overall population in historic Palestine – and the destruction of their community at that time, a violence that continues to this day.
Sarah El Bulbeisi joined the Orient-Institut Beirut (OIB) as research associate in November 2019 after completing her PhD Thesis “Taboo, Trauma and Identity: Subject Constructions of Palestinians in Germany and Switzerland, 1960 to 2015” at the Institute for Near and Middle East Studies at the LMU Munich, Germany. Before joining the OIB, she coordinated the DAAD project “Violence, Forced Migration and Exile: Trauma in the Arab World and in Germany”, a Higher Education Dialogue between Palestinian and Lebanese universities as well as with the LMU Munich. Prior to that, she worked as a lecturer and research associate at the Institute for Near and Middle East Studies at the LMU Munich. She had graduated with an MA from the University of Zurich.
By Nina Egger
Multiple refugee regulatory regimes exist around the globe. Sometimes local Refugee regimes in the Middle Eastern region coordinate their actions with the international refugee regime, sometimes they overlap, sometimes they stand in contradiction to one another. The various refugee regimes govern the lives of refugees in different ways (Bauer-Amin, Schiocchet and Six-Hohenbalken et al. in press). If international actors such as UNHCR that promote secular values in the refugee governance want to operate in the Middle East region, they need the approval of local governments. Therefore, the local authorities’ policy priorities play into the management* of refugees there.
The administration of refugees within a humanitarian setting may comprise such factors as housing allocation, access to food aid, de-politicization, repatriation, stereotypes etc. (Zetter, 1991). However, fewer scholars of forced migration have discussed the importance of religion as a factor for refugee management (Horstmann and Jung, 2015). In what follows, I demonstrate how religion is important, if not essential, for refugee management in the Middle East.
My first argument is that depending on the political parties in power or the institutional arrangement of a nation-state, religion continues to structure the political life in many Post-Ottoman states officially or unofficially. In various Middle Eastern states, the whole concept of minorities is still based on the millet system, a law introduced in the time of the Ottoman Empire. This legal system was formulated in the contracts Islamic conquerors made with the leaders of the non-Muslim religious groups of the territories they conquered. This legal system based on religion still lays the base for politics and minority politics in many but not all Middle Eastern States (Braude and Lewis, 1982).
In Israel and the Palestinian Occupied Territories, the millet system lays the base for the country’s politics of exclusion of non-Jews and their categorization into different ethno-religious groups. In other words, Israeli authorities have adapted and appropriated it to achieve the preservation of Israeli Jewish identity and the differentiation of non-Jewish identities. Thus, the country’s ruling elites use the millet system for their politics to exclude non-Jewish groups from power and equal citizenship in their country (Sezgin, 2010).
A second example of an ME country in which the millet system influences political and social life is Lebanon. In this country, the millet system has even been institutionalized in consociational political power-sharing agreements, and sectarianism continues to structure societal life on the ground (Bauer, 2012). A further example is Jordan, where a re-configured version of the millet system still influences political life, at least on the level of formal politics. The political life on the ground, particularly in the peripheral regions, is structured more strongly by tribalism and such criteria as group numbers (Maggiolini, 2021). But on the whole, due to the influence of the League of Nations and the British Mandate for Palestine on the level of formal politics, millets have been re-framed as religious minorities with particular cultural and religious rights since the foundation of the Jordanian nation-state. Owing to these administrative amendments, the members of the former millets have been integrated into the state as equal citizens and have ceased to be bound to the authorities of their faith.
My second argument is that the continued strength of identity and power politics in the Middle East has a great bearing on refugee policies. Local governments are not keen to accept displaced people that do not demonstrate the preferred religious or ethnic identity features and do not fit the prescribed vision of community. For this reason, as refugees, they are often marginalized within the polities’ and societies. In Turkey, since 2014, Arab- Sunni Muslim Syrian refugees have received preferential treatment when it comes to access to political advantages and humanitarian assistance as compared with refugee groups of other religious backgrounds. Afeef-Fathimath (2009) provides further evidence for Israel, where refugees from countries considered enemy states, that is, almost all majority Muslim states, are not allowed to claim asylum. However, the question is not only religious even in Sunni-majority countries, but also in many cases ethnic, for example, concerning the Kurds in Syria and Turkey.
The third argument supporting my claim that religion is relevant for refugee management in the Middle East is that many governments of the region equate religion, ethnicity, and nationhood with the political loyalties of individual subjects. Israel, for example, considers all refugees from so-called enemy states (Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Joran, Iraq and Yemen, Iran, and Afghanistan) as not eligible for seeking asylum in their country (Afeef-Fathimath 2009). In Turkey, only Syrian refugees are allowed to apply for temporary protection, which entails that nationhood is in practice still a vital factor for refugee management. Through nationhood, the Turkish refugee regime is purposely determining access to humanitarian services on the grounds of religion and ethnicity. This point is further illustrated by Danis (2011), who has demonstrated that Kurdish refugees from Iraq in 1988 and Kurds and Shia refugees from Iraq in 1991 have been ignored by Turkish authorities and have no access to any humanitarian support. I have illustrated elsewhere how Ezidi refugees were provided with adequate access to humanitarian services in Tukey in 2014 and afterwards, owing in large part to ethnicity and religion as the Turkish refugee regime’ policy criteria (Egger 2016).
My fourth argument is that authorities worry that the presence of religious minorities may allow the international community to interfere with their domestic political affairs. A case in point is the Vatican involvement on behalf of the Christians in Iraq (Pullela, 2014). Furthermore, there is the angst that non-Muslim faith groups and Muslim minority confessional groups may organize politically and form political opposition in countries that are mostly governed by Sunni Muslim autocratic leaders and religious clans. The Ezidis and Syriacs in Turkey joining the opposition party HDP may be considered one such example (Toksabay, 2015).
My fifth and final argument is that Civil Society Organisations (CSO) as well as Civil Society and International Organisations such as UNHCR have very limited influence when it comes to challenging the power of governments regarding their criteria for refugee management in all Middle Eastern countries. For this reason, exclusive criteria such as religion and ethnicity continue to be important for refugee management. There are several reasons for this.
First, many civil society organizations in the Middle East are not secular but religious. Hence, in the ME, religion is often an essential component within CS, which in turn affects the management of forced migrants.
Second, CSOs are considered as a threat by many ME governments. This particularly applies to those that are secular and offer services beyond humanitarianism. CSOs often have different interpretations of political problems and of how to solve them. Consequently, some ME countries design legal frameworks to restrict their influence, for example by monitoring their operations and funding (Kuzmanovic, 2012). Therefore, even secular CSOs are often not capable of maintaining their standards of ethnic and religious neutrality in the field of refugee assistance.
Third, because of the sheer power and often brutality of regional governments, CS is not capable of challenging them regarding the criteria they apply for refugee management, including religion, ethnicity, and race. Aware of the risks involved, many Middle Easterners do not actively speak out on exclusionary refugee politics.
Fourth, international organizations such as the UNHCR have limited influence on the criteria according to which local governments implement the administration of refugees. They need to collaborate with local governments and respect national legislations. Hence, even though the UNHCR is conducting Refugee Status Determination Procedures in some Middle Eastern countries according to mandate definition, its influence is still limited. It can only provide RSD services to a limited number of refugees considered eligible for resettlement by local governments and governments around the globe that are willing to take them in. In Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq, UNHCR was and is conducting RSD services only for people of Syrian nationality and a few other refugee groups considered eligible (UNHCR Lebanon 2018; Oktay, D and Tumer, Ö and Veysel, E 2015; UNHCR Iraq 2015). In other countries such as Jordan, by contrast, UNHCR can only provide humanitarian protection services to refugees (UNHCR, 2006). Thus, despite UNHCR’s presence in the Middle East, its overall ability to challenge local criteria for refugee management remains minimal.
In many but not all Middle Eastern countries, long established traditional institutions such as the millet system, which is based on religion, continue to structure political and often social life. Religion is associated with political loyalties and is therefore still vital for the governments in most of these states. For this reason, religion, along with ethnicity, remains relevant for the administration of displaced people in the region. I have also demonstrated that citizen-led political organizations and non-organized civil society and international organizations operating in the field of refugee management such as UNHCR only have very limited influence on government and their handling of challenges relating to refugees. They have hardly any impact on local governments' policy priorities regarding refugee administration.
Governments in the ME are very protective of their sovereignty and their own political sensitivities. Hence, even if not the sole relevant factor, religion continues to play a relevant role in refugee management. What I have argued here paves the way for further relevant questions, for example, of the impact of the long-term instability in the region and its correlation with the relevance of religion for refugee management. One also needs to probe into the question of what other factors in addition to religion and ethnicity, such as race, poverty, illness, visions of community, traditions, etc., are relevant for refugee management in the region.
Afeef-Fathimath, Karin 2009, ‘New Issues in Refugee Research: A promised land for refugees? Asylum and Migration in Israel, EPAU Working Papers [New Issues in Refugee Research], 183, Geneva, viewed September 2021 https://www.prio.org/Publications/Publication/?x=4362.
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Al Hindy, E et.al. 2019, Religion and Civil Society in the Arab World: In the Vortex of Globalization and Tradition, New York, Routledge.
Bauer, SM 2012, Alterität und Identität im Libanon: Eine Generation zwischen Bürgerkrieg und arabischem Frühling, Hamburg, Disserta Verlag.
Bauer-Amin, S and Schiocchet, L and Six-Hohenbalken, M 2022, Embodied Violence and Agency in Refugee Regimes: Anthropological Perspectives (in press.), Bielefeld, transcript Verlag.
Braude, B and Lewis, B, 1982, Christian and Jews in the Ottoman Empire: the functioning of plural society:1: the central lands, New York, Holmes & Meier.
Danis, D 2011, ‘Changing fortunes: Iraqi refugees in Turkey’ International Journal of Contemporary Iraqi Studies Vol (5):2, pp.199-213.
Egger, N 2016, ‘A political science analysis of the Turkish state political system and UNHCR’s response toward the Yezidi refugees, in the Republic of Turkey’ [Unpublished Manuscript] Master-thesis, Copenhagen University, Copenhagen.
Fiddian- Qasmiyeh, E 2015, Conflicting Missions? The Politics of Evangelical Humanitarianism in the Sahrawi and Palestinian Protracted Refugee Situation, in in Horstmann, A and Jung, JH (ed[s]) Building Noah’s Ark for Migrants, refugees, and religious communities, Palgrave Mc Millan, New York, United States.
Kuzmanovic, D 2012, Refractions of Civil Society in Turkey, New York, Palgrave McMillan.
Maggiolini, P 2021, ‘Christians of the Emirate: The Citizenship Process, Confessionalisation and Minoritization, in Maggiolini, P and Ouahes, I (ed.) Minorities and State Building in the Middle East: The Case of Jordan, Cham, Springer and MacMillan.
Oktay, D and Tumer, Ö and Veysel, E 2015, AIDA Asylum Information Database-Country Report Turkey, AIDA Asylum Information Database, viewed October 2016 < https://asylumineurope.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/report- download_aida_tr_update.i.pdf>.
Pullella, P 2021, ‘ Pope’s risky trip to Iraq defies sceptics’ Reuters, viewed on 10 September 2021 <https: //www.google.it/amp/s/mobile.reuters.com/article/amp/idUSKCN2AT1Gl >.
Sezgin, Y 2010, ‘The Israeli Millet System: Examining Legal Pluralism through the Lenses of Nation Building and Human Rights’ Israeli Law Review Vol (43):3, pp.631-654.
Toksabay, E 2015. ‘Women, ethnic, religious minorities change face of Turkish parliament` Reuters, viewed on 12.September 2021 <https://www.google.it/amp/s/mobile.reuters.com/article.amp/idUSKBN0OP1ZZ20150609>.
UNHCR 2006, The Middle East: Recent Developments, viewed on 29 September 2021, <https://www.unhcr.org/4371d1970.pdf>.
UNHCR Iraq 2015, ‘Iraq Situation-Emergency Response’, viewed on 16.September 2021 > https://www.unhcr.org/54f8592ef93.pdf >.
UNHCR Lebanon 2018,’ Who we are and what we do?’ viewed on 13.September 2021 https://www.unhrc.org/lb/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2018/04/Who-we-are-and-what-we-do_apr18_EN.pdf>.
Zetter, R 1991, ‘Labelling Refugees: Forming and Transforming a Bureaucratic Identity’, Journal of Refugee Studies Vol (4):1, pp.39-62.
[*] By “refugee management,” I refer to institutionalized refugee management.
 Among the exceptions are Leonardo Schiocchet, Janet Hoskins, Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, and Elisabeth Mac Allister. Overall, Building Noah’s Ark for Migrants, Refugees, and Religious Communities sheds light on the insipient topic of the centrality of religion for navigating the internal and external worlds of people in displacement.
 This does not mean at all that Arab-Sunni Muslim Syrian refugees are not marginalized and disenfranchised in Turkey, only that other groups are even more marginalized.
 Afeef-Fathimath also speaks of strong ideological preferences for Jewish immigration and reveals that the authorities in Israel distinguish between Jewish and non-Jewish immigration and only encourage the latter. Moreover, she shows that non-Jews are not encouraged to enter the state, as their presence is perceived to challenge and undermine the state’s ethno-national foundation. Non-ethnics are considered a serious threat to the survival and integrity of the nation state due to demographic and other reasons.
 They fled to Turkey due to the chemical weapon attack targeting Iraqi Kurds, especially in Halabja in 1998 under the government of Saddam Hussein.
 They entered Turkey as refugees due to the Iraqi Gulf War.
 Funds are especially monitored by governments in this region if they originate from abroad.
 UNHCR is obviously not the only international organisation operating in the field of refugee legal and humanitarian assistance in the region. Nevertheless, it remains the only international organisation conducting RSD procedures for non-Palestinian refugees.
 Meaning, according to religious and ethnic secular criteria.
By Ruth Wodak
On 21 April 2021, The Guardian reported that “[N]early 17 child migrants a day vanished in Europe since 2018”. Of course, this fact as well as many other numbers and statistics are not new and not surprising. National governments, the European Union, politicians of all parties know that unaccompanied refugee children belong to the most vulnerable groups in our globalized societies as recent reports of the United Nations Global Study on Children Deprived of Liberty and of the Austrian Kindeswohlkommission (established in the spring of 2021) illustrate. Frequently under way for months or even years, they finally arrive – if they survive such highly dangerous and traumatizing journeys at all – at the borders of countries which do not want to host them and which either imprison them in camps, lock them into cages and separate them from their parents (like at the US-Mexican border), threaten to send them back immediately or – rarely – after many months or even years of waiting because of difficult bureaucratic procedures allow them to stay legally with foster families who receive monies from the respective state for their food, education, clothing, and so forth. NGOs, journalists, scholars, and international organizations have written a vast number of reports, proposals, articles, and books, documenting the plight of child and adult refugees; petitions are launched daily, asking for help; and symposia continue to discuss options for humanitarian policies.
In predictable cycles, pictures of drowning women, men, and children in the Mediterranean , - between 2014 and 2018, UNICEF assumes that at least 678 children have died when trying to reach the safe harbors of Italy or Spain by boat - or of fleeing women, men and children in Afghanistan, or of starving children in camps in an African camp or of children running around in bombed-out streets in a Syrian town shock the TV audience around the world. Since September 2021, quality broadsheets report almost daily that children, women, and men are freezing at the border of Belarus and Poland. In fact, these refugees have become instrumentalized as pinball between the autocratic regime in Belarus and the European Union, as sociologist Judith Kohlenberger poignantly argues in a recent commentary: “Poland as well as Belarus conduct violent pushbacks which clearly violate the Geneva Convention as well as European Charta of Human Rights”.
To date, the sanctions proposed by the European Union prove ineffective, as migration expert Gerald Knaus rightly maintains. On 18 October 2021, CBC radio reported that Polish volunteers were trying to help refugees to escape to Poland despite the danger of being caught by the Polish police. The Polish border is mainly protected by the Polish army. In fact, Catholic priests have brought collapsible prayer pulpits to pray – not for the refugees but for the soldiers, protecting Poland from refugees. The liberal broadsheet Gazeta Wyborcza reported that, “at a joint press conference aired on public television, Poland's Ministers of Interior and National Defense [both members of the Polish far-right national conservative Party PiS] presented a photo showing an alleged migrant having sexual intercourse with a cow. The presented material, it turns out, comes from an old pornographic video.” Obviously, such lies, xenophobic sentiments and related activities catch international attention and lead to scandalization. However, after a few days of intensive debates, other pressing news stories replace such reports, and daily routines prove more important.
At this point, I would like to stress the process of de-historization. It is worth asking ourselves how it is possible that refugees, women, men, and children, are turned away from borders? That they are pushed back into extreme danger? That they receive no visas to enter safe countries? Has a collective amnesia infected (some of) the member states of the European Union? Has the memory of the Conference of Evian-les-Bains 6-15 July 1938 been suppressed? A conference where delegates from thirty-two countries met to discuss the future of European Jews trying to escape Nazi atrocities.
During the nine-day meeting, much sympathy for the refugees was expressed; but most countries, including the United States and Britain, offered lame excuses for not taking in more refugees. Even efforts by some Americans to rescue children failed: the so-called “Wagner-Rogers bill”, an effort to admit 20,000 endangered Jewish refugee children, was not supported by the Senate in 1939 and 1940, probably due to widespread antisemitic prejudice.
On 27 January 2017, when former US President Donald Trump signed an executive order that would ban all refugees from settling in the US for 4 months and ban Syrian refugees indefinitely, journalist Dara Lind sarcastically states, “We’ve been here before,” and recounts the failure of the Wagner-Rogers bill in much detail. But – unfortunately – the past does not influence present decision-making. We are all experiencing a déjà-vu. In this way, historians Michal Frankl and Lidia Zessin-Jurek remind readers in an opinion piece in the broadsheet Der Standard on 13 November 2021 that the situation at the Polish-Belarusian border seems horrifyingly similar to the situation of Jewish refugees at this very border in 1939, caught in no-mans-land. Sadly, many powerful politicians seem not to have learnt from history!
Accordingly, the success of the so-called Kindertransport has been forgotten; the Kindertransport saved over 10,000 Austrian and German Jewish children in 1938 by allowing them to travel to the UK, escaping Nazi persecution. In fact, Lord Dubs, a British Labour politician, had to appeal to the British government and British Prime minister Boris Johnson to grant safety to stranded children by reminding MPs and readers of the Kindertransport. He stated that “I certainly never imagined that 81 years later, in the same country that gave homes to 10,000 lone refugee children like me, I’d be fighting for just a few hundred to be allowed to find their families here.” Historian Philipp Ther has traced the trajectory and persecution of refugees in Europe over many centuries. In one chapter, he specifically focuses on the plight of children. In the 1930s, apart from the Kindertransport, around 20,000 Spanish children were saved from being killed by Franco-fascists during the Spanish Civil War. These children were given shelter by French civilians in France, after having successfully crossed the borders to France.
Secure rich countries such as Austria seem to have forgotten a non-distant past, a past where many Austrians had to flee their homes because of the Nazi regime and the danger of being deported, tortured, and murdered – by Austrian perpetrators. The reason for such de-historization is the impact of realpolitik. National-conservative parties across Europe have shamelessly normalized the discriminatory body-politics of the far-right in order to attract the far-right electorate. The restrictive, exclusionary policies demanded by far-right populists seem to be on the rise: only specific individuals ‘deserve’ to be admitted – what political scientist Bastian Vollmer addresses as “moralization of borders”, while others are kept waiting outside or are denied entry, thus reinforcing borders and boundaries.
In fact, former Austrian Chancellor Kurz (ÖVP) denounced the saving of lives in the Mediterranean as “NGO madness”. On 18 January 2020, Kurz, during an interview with the German newspaper Bild, was asked whether Austria would help some of the children (‘You’ve mentioned migration. There is, again, a large crisis on the Greek island. Would you be willing to accept refugee children from Lesbos in Austria?’). His response was: “No, we are not willing to do that. Austria over the last few years made a disproportionate contribution. There were over 150,000 asylum applications in our country, in my opinion far too many for the small Austria. We are still processing those.” Legitimation by rationalization and the argument of numbers are used here in the attempt to justify Austria’s decision to close its borders to incoming refugees – obviously an instance of what Wilhelm Heitmeyer labels “coarse civility” [rohe Bürgerlichkeit].
When asked if Austria would open its borders for 100 unaccompanied minors stranded in the camps on Moria, then Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg answered in an interview from 10 September 2020 that “If we clear the Moria camp, it will be full again […] It is also sending the wrong signal, namely that there is hope to get to Europe. That would trigger a chain reaction and we would no longer be in control of the situation. […] This is a question of common sense". Appealing to common-sense without conveying facts is a typical populist strategy. The then foreign minister explicitly argues fallaciously that the situation would get out of control if one would even help a few children. A “chain reaction” would follow, a scenario of threat, without any facts to substantiate these claims. He framed his remarks as “shouting for [fair] distribution [of refugees] would not be the solution”; in this way, any humanitarian appeals were quickly denounced as unproductive and irrational “shouts”.
In a video message on 12 September 2020, Sebastian Kurz added a fallacious argument to justify the decision that no unaccompanied refugee children from Moria should be hosted in Austria: "This inhumane system from 2015, I cannot reconcile this with my conscience. […] At the European level, we will advocate a holistic approach. What we don't need is symbolic politics. [Instead] real sustainable support for affected areas, an economic perspective for the African continent, and an effective protection of our external borders [are needed].”
Why the policies of 2015 should be assessed as inhumane is not elaborated, no evidence is provided. On the contrary, civil society, NGOs, local, regional as well as a few national governments succeeded in saving many refugees; solidarity with the vulnerable became relevant. This changed after the terror attacks in Paris (November 2015) and New Year’s Eve 2015 in Cologne. However, latter actions were not committed by refugees who had just arrived; but these terrible events were quickly instrumentalized by many politicians as arguments for protecting the countries from refugees. Kurz explained that he could not reconcile with his conscience not being able to save all children; and he fallaciously concluded it would be better not to save even one. Moreover, he denounced the attempts to help refugee children as symbolic politics; and once again cynically emphasized that protecting the external borders was more important than protecting the children. Predictably, Kurz and his turquoise-green coalition government stated on 21 August 2021 that no refugees from Afghanistan would be granted visa from Austria – although the Viennese Major Michael Ludwig (from the Social-democratic Party), for example, immediately proposed to host at least 300 Afghan female judges and journalists in Vienna, after the victory of the Taliban.
The cynical rejection of the Charta of Human Rights and of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child substantiate de-historization and the normalization of exclusion. Far-right populism in all its varieties has become normalized as a mainstream political force in many European countries and beyond. It is possible, therefore, to claim that the far right has successfully launched and subsequently established an overall exclusionary, quasi “political-religious master frame” (@ Michael Minkenberg) with immense influence on discourses and material practices, far beyond the boundaries of the far right.