The current exodus of thousands of asylum seekers from the Middle East and Africa into Europe has garnered sustained attention in western media since the summer of 2015. Often dubbed the largest displacement of people that the European continent has seen since World War II, this mobility shows no sign of abatement: upheaval persists in places like Syria and Afghanistan due to civil wars and interventions and policies by world superpowers, especially the United States and Russia. The International Organization for Migration estimates that between January and November 2016, approximately 348,664 people have arrived in Europe by sea. Compared to last year, journey-related casualties have risen sharply, bringing the total number of those who have perished in the Mediterranean Sea to 4,690.
Public and state reactions to the crisis vary throughout Europe and the United States—a fact evident in the adjectives used to describe it. It is sometimes called a “migrant” crisis and at other times a “refugee” crisis. Descriptors frequently slide and transform, revealing competing notions of the sort of welcome new arrivals deserve. At the core of these disagreements is whether these individuals come by “choice” or “force.” Moral legitimacy is conferred on those deemed to fall in the latter category, whereas “economic” migrants who leave of their own free will are labeled as undeserving. Yet realities on the ground are more complex than this stark dichotomy allows. Social scientists study how migration motivation can involve economic and political factors that are frequently intertwined.
The 2014 documentary film, Flucht und Heimat (Escape and Home), by Father Alfred Tönnis and Lukas Hoffmann, captures the vexed position of asylum seekers whose treatment oscillates between what anthropologist Didier Fassin calls a “politics of pity and policies of control” (366). The film chronicles the experiences of displaced Syrians, including a group who has been sequestered in a dusty refugee camp in Lebanon for years, where families endure the pain of separation, lack of work, and paltry medical care. Attention then shifts to another group living in Cairo, where, through the help of a charitable Catholic organization, they are able to open small businesses. However, when the political climate in that country changes with the ousting of President Morsi in 2013, the welcome they once enjoyed dissipates. Life is once again precarious.
The second half of the film is devoted to Germany’s decision to resettle 20,000 of these Syrians living in limbo in Lebanon and Egypt—an illustration of compassionate responses to asylum seekers. According to Father Tönnis, his foundation decided to take part in the effort out of a desire to help stabilize Syria. By providing sanctuary, he explains, displaced Syrians can begin to rebuild their lives and ultimately contribute to the reconstruction of their country.
Tönnis and Hoffmann depict how the foundation spearheads the resettlement effort in the small town of Oggelsberen in the state of Baden-Würrtemberg. By bringing together Catholic organizations, civil society groups, local government, and ordinary German citizens, they endeavor to create a culture of welcome. As one organizer explains, the project strives to provide “a home to people in need from a war-torn region, whatever their background, and whatever their religious beliefs, aiming to accommodate refugees in Bieberach in a caring way—not abandoning them, but genuinely supporting them, and helping them to integrate.”
It renders Syrians as mute receivers of western charity whose agency seems to dissipate once they arrive in Europe.
To achieve this, the Syrians are provided housing and services to help ease their transition into German society. They enroll in German language courses and receive assistance with obtaining social welfare payments and school placements for their children. The documentary also shows scenes from a press conference announcing the new arrivals, where project leaders reassure locals that Syrian integration is expected and possible. “This [to live in Germany] is what they want,” announces an official. “They are determined to work…People will need to understand that Germany is not Lebanon and Germany is not Syria.”
We learn later in the film about what motivates the many German volunteers to help with the project: to give to people in need and to make Oggelsberen a model for other towns and regions of what it means to be welcoming. What is distinctly missing, however, from the second half of the film are the voices of Syrians themselves. Close-up shots of children’s smiling faces point to perhaps a sense of contentment with their new surroundings—a German volunteer comments that they “look better rested” since arriving—but viewers are rarely given unfiltered insight into Syrian perspectives about their everyday experiences of resettlement. The film’s narrator, for example, explains that prior to their arrival in Germany, the Syrian newcomers had certain expectations of what their new lives would entail, but never reveals what these expectations were, much less how these expectations compared to what they encountered upon arrival.
Instead, we are only presented with one comment from a resettled refugee, who, during a press conference, briefly states that he feels welcomed. This omission is in stark contrast to the first half of the film, where Syrian children, mothers, and fathers speak on camera about the difficulty of displacement and their living conditions in Lebanon and Egypt, which brings to life some of the “push” factors leading to third country resettlement. The decision to exclude Syrian reflections on their resettlement in Germany is a missed opportunity that seriously compromises the film’s intellectual and emotional depth. A more nuanced, engaging account would have captured the complexity of refugee resettlement and reception through the presentation of multiple perspectives, including Syrian experiences and the views of Germans who may not have supported the project.
The sole focus on German humanitarians has multiple effects. First, it renders Syrians as mute receivers of western charity whose agency seems to dissipate once they arrive in Europe. Consequently, the tone of the second half of the film feels more like a promotional piece for the resettlement foundation rather than a serious documentary that aims to uncover the vicissitudes of the resettlement experience. Second, focusing only on German largesse has a flattening effect in that competing local understandings of what it means to “belong” go unexplored.
This is no trivial matter, as competing assessments of inclusion and exclusion impact the kinds of opportunities that are afforded to newcomers, which in turn shape how they are ultimately integrated into host communities. A particularly significant example: ethnographic case studies point to widespread public apprehension throughout Europe over the presence of Muslims due to perceptions that they represent incommensurable cultural and religious differences, as well as a threat to material resources. Yet it is not clear whether or not these sentiments are also present in Oggelsberen, nor does the film probe the ways in which these feelings might impact the tone, extent, and framing of assistance the Syrians receive. The consequences for local Syrian futures are unknown.
Despite this critique, Flucht und Heimat successfully portrays how some people have responded in a magnanimous way toward displaced Syrians. Although attitudes toward asylum seekers have hardened in Germany since the making of this film, Tönnis and Hoffmann illustrate how groups have and do come together to compassionately respond to displacement, especially when refugees come as part of a planned, organized arrival, and are hence seen as being “invited” into the national fold, as opposed to being “uninvited” guests who arrive at national borders on their own accord as asylum seekers.
Although developing countries host the vast majority of the world’s refugees, fear of “the other” “flooding” across national borders and “swamping” western countries is a palpable sentiment found across Europe and the United States.
Public and government responses to the resettlement of Syrians in the United States stand in sharp contrast to what took place in Oggelsberen. Whereas the citizens of the small German town rallied together to create a “culture of welcome,” the proposed resettlement of Syrians in this country has sparked outcry, especially among certain politicians. In particular, the Paris bombings in November 2015 set off debate in the US about refugees and their links to terrorism, with some politicians and political pundits calling for the curtailment of the resettlement program for displaced Syrians. The Migration Policy Institute reports that 31 U.S. governors stated opposition to resettling refugees from Iraq and Syria; some even ordered resettlement agencies to halt assistance. To date, no resettled refugees have been linked to terrorism in the United States.
In Texas, for instance, Governor Greg Abbott filed a lawsuit against the federal government and the International Rescue Committee (a government contracted resettlement agency), claiming that the government had failed to consult the state in advance of the placements and that the IRC had not provided proper background information on certain individuals. In response, the federal government countered that states lacked the power to block refugee resettlement and the IRC informed officials that it would move ahead with resettlement plans. In June 2015, the state’s case was dismissed in court and over 300 Syrians have since arrived in Texas.
But political wrangling over this issue isn’t finished—Texas state officials have decided to appeal the federal court’s decision. The broader issue of the acceptability of Muslims in America also remains a contentious topic. Comments like that of president-elect Donald Trump that link Syrian refugees to ISIS and other incidents, such as the gun-wielding protestors who recently stood outside of a mosque in Irving, Texas holding anti-Muslim signs, send clear messages to Syrians and other Muslim residents that some forms of religious diversity are not welcome in the United States, even if this rhetoric avoids explicit critique of religious difference in favor of discourses related to national security. Moreover, Trump’s ascendancy has further emboldened anti-Muslim behavior, evidenced in a sharp spike in hate crimes across the country against this population since the November 8 election.
Accounting for variations in how governments and publics receive refugees is complex and related to a host of factors, including how national and local identities are constructed; local historical memory and concerns; tensions over human rights obligations versus concerns over national sovereignty; economic and political factors; and moral assessments related to who “deserves” sanctuary and who does not. Although developing countries host the vast majority of the world’s refugees (86 percent, according to Amnesty International), fear of “the other” “flooding” across national borders and “swamping” western countries is a palpable sentiment found across Europe and the United States. Yet as Flucht und Heimat reminds us, alongside exclusionary notions of belonging there are often more expansive ones that compete for dominance in national discourse and practice. Ultimately, these two stances point to the precarious position of refugees—a population, who are variously constructed as either a group in need of humanitarian care or control.
Shay Cannedy is a visiting assistant professor at the Department of Anthropology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. Her research focuses on questions of forced migration, border securitization, and forms of migrant resistance. Her current project considers how Congolese migrants in Ireland strategize for refugee recognition in an era of tightened borders. It explores the implicit logics undergirding state and public perceptions of who does and does not deserve international protection and how these assumptions impact policy, discourse, practice, and migrant subjectivities.
Image from Flickr via European Parliament