‘Talking about the displaced as people changes perceptions’

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The unlit corridors of Centro Astalli camp in Sicily. Pic: Hsiao-Hung Pai

Socialist Review spoke to Hsiao-Hung Pai about her new book, Bordered Lives, which exposes the failings of the refugee system in Europe.

Why do you begin Bordered Lives by questioning the term “refugee crisis”?

I think the media language that we have accepted (and often adopted as our own) has in many ways shaped the way we understand issues relating to refugees. “Refugee crisis” has been the media term by which we’re made to think about displaced people in the world. My biggest problem with the term is that it suggests “us” and “them”, refugees being the “problem” for “us” to find solutions to. That seems to be the way many in this country look at migration and movement of people.

The reality is that people become displaced as a result of war, conflict, poverty and degradation, all creations of our unequal world. Imperialism and the inequality and instability that come with it often lie behind the conflict and destruction that push people to leave home.

What we need to inject into the language we use is the fact that the system in which we live has created the need for people to flee from their circumstances.

Your book gives voice to people who are generally presented as simply victims, being shuffled around by authorities or charities. In fact, many of the young people you meet are incredibly active and always pushing to achieve their aims — either of finding family, or getting a job, or settling in a particular country.

Yes, a lot of the personal stories are about people’s resilience and battle against the state. They are not passive victims who accept for things to happen to them. They do something to try to turn their life around; they’re always fighting back.
Jahid, Saeed and Asif, who were all under 18, ran away from their camp in southern Sicily and used family networks to get them transported through to France.

Amat, a young Gambian boy who was living in a camp in Corleone for two years, protested, although in vain, against the poor conditions there. He recently boarded a northbound train and eventually arrived in Switzerland, although very quickly was caught and sent back to the camp.

Hamid, an Iranian young man who lived in the Grande Synthe camp in Dunkirk for two years, finally arrived in Britain following more than a hundred attempts to cross the border.

Many of the refugees are traumatised by experiences they’ve had on the way to Europe. Is there any help for them?

Many of the people I met had experienced slave labour during their time in Libya. Some had been beaten and tortured. Given that Libya is the last country where the majority of migrants spent time before entering Italy, it’s puzzling to see that there’s so little help migrants are given in terms of therapy and advice when they arrive.

Currently, there are so few support structures in place in EU countries where they could seek counselling and help. Specialist support structures for refugees suffering trauma are quite absent in shelters and camps in Sicily — and this is where people need it most as it’s their first point of arrival.

As a result of the lack of support, some people rely on religion for consolation; others find counselling with fellow migrants. In Europe they’re left to their own devices dealing with trauma. In fact, the misery that continues only refreshes their painful past.

As you follow the trail from Lampedusa through Europe you expose many examples of a small industry built on the refugee “crisis”, such as how the church in Sicily makes money out of housing refugees. Is this a new phenomenon?

Some churches profiting from housing refugees is part of the profiteering in the asylum reception system there that has been going on for several years. The system has created many entrepreneurs who see refugees and asylum seekers as their source of income. You find the traditionally respectable church leaders becoming managers of asylum shelters.

In the name of skill training and “integration”, some put migrants out to do unpaid work in fields. No one questions it in the open, but it’s an open secret among those involved in the reception enterprise.

The role of the church as a profiteer is really part of a bigger picture — of Europe’s privatised and business-driven asylum system that puts people last. When the resources of the state are up for grabs among the private bidders, asylum seekers’ needs and welfare are not the concerns of the operators.

It’s this nightmarish situation that allowed the shooting of a Gambian asylum seeker, Alagiee Bobb. Alagiee was shot by the manager of the camp he’d been staying in near Naples, following protests against living conditions there.

The book shows an asylum system that fails at every level. It is noticeable how often young refugees you talk to think it is their fault if they have answered questions “wrongly” or filled out the forms with the “wrong” answers and so missed an opportunity for better housing. Is the system deliberately set up to make things harder?

Yes. It is a system that works to “de-incentivise” rather than offering protection. In France, where many unaccompanied children have ended up (on their journey from Italy to northern European countries), the authorities are legally bound to offer protection to minors but in fact work to deter them from coming in.

The deterrence is the series of obstacles that are in place to keep children away from being accepted and given regular status — the harsh interview process, dehumanising age assessment mechanisms, and if you do get placed in the shelter, the lengthy waiting time and the lack of care in the shelters. Currently the obstacles are such that children often find themselves in limbo — and the likely outcome when they reach 18 years of age is that the protection will legally cease and they’ll be out the door.

Under French president Emmanuel Macron’s new asylum policy that aims to further tighten controls and reduce numbers of refugees, things will no doubt get tougher for refugee children and youths.

Who do you hope your book will reach?

I’d like the book to reach the general readers, not just the “converted”. I think a lot of the reason why many people in Britain hold negative views towards refugees is because they don’t know what kind of life people are leading. In the popular media, refugees are portrayed as victims and are considered to be different from “economic migrants”. The distinction between “those who flee from persecution and conflict” and “those who want a better life” is a false one. By talking about the displaced as people, I hope this book can do something to change popular misperceptions.

You end the book by talking about the rise of Donald Trump and Theresa May’s ascendancy from the Home Office to No 10, and all this at a time when the far-right and racism are on the rise across Europe. There is clearly a lot of passive and some active support for refugees, but do you think we are losing the argument? If so, how can we turn it around?

I don’t think we’re losing the argument but we need to work on challenging prejudices at a more fundamental level. It’s difficult because anti-refugee, anti-migrant sentiments are deep-seated in society. Some find it easier to present the argument halfway, leaving basic racism unchallenged. For instance, do we simply talk about defending refugee children’s rights, or do we give a good argument about why all refugees should be welcome?

Do we argue for migrants to be here on the basis that they’re “good for the economy”, or do we give a good case about why they have every right to be here, regardless of their economic value to Britain?

My experience tells me that we should go further. When we limit our own argument, we tend to end up gaining less ground.

Bordered Lives: How Europe Fails Refugees and Migrants by Hsiao-Hung Pai is out now, published by New Internationalist, £9.99