“This is not a Migration Crisis. This is a Political Crisis.” 4/2/2016

In the opening scene of “We Are Here” widely shared perceptions are shattered. The activist can be a refugee. A refugee can be an activist. Not just an “illegal” criminal or a helpless victim. The Refugee Hackathon, organized by Hacks/Hackers Amsterdam, A-Lab, ISOC.nl, and the University of Amsterdam Media Studies Department kicked off with the screening of “We are Here” by documentary filmmaker Alexandra Jansse, along with a panel discussion. The aim of the hackathon was to brainstorm and develop practical tools, websites and resources to help refugees in the Netherlands. It was this idea of the migration or refugee “crisis” that the refugee hackathon was responding to. The event was intended to bring hackers, journalists, activists and migrants together to come up with helpful solutions. The theme for the evening centered on the portrayal of refugees and the “migration crisis” in mainstream media. Before the documentary began, it was noted that no mainstream media channel had agreed to air this particular documentary. Jansse regularly makes documentaries for Dutch media, but this one in particular had not been picked up.

The opening scene of “We are Here” is a protest along the popular tourist attraction “I Amsterdam” letters on Museumplein. The protestors, many of whom are refugees, are heard chanting, “Freedom of Movement is Everybody’s Right.” The signs they held up read, “No Borders” and “March for Freedom.” The documentary tracks the ongoing struggle that a group of refugees and their Dutch supporters, the “We Are Here” movement, face as they attempt to legally attain refugee status and remain in the Netherlands. They are forced to relocate from abandoned building to detention center, to peoples’ homes. Forced to pack up, unpack, but never fully settle. Some of the refugees describe it as a constant state of limbo, neither dead nor living, starting over everyday to try and stay alive. While we witness the uncertainty and anguish, we also see refugees acting as political agents, organizing themselves, and fighting for their rights.

The idea of attaining ones’ rights features strongly in the documentary, as it seems to be a core driving force of the We Are Here movement. If there is one thing that remains unclear about the call for human rights, it is exactly what is meant by human rights. Is it the right to cross borders without legal papers? The right to not be considered “illegal” because no human being is illegal? Do basic human rights refer to the “Bread, Bath, and Bed” minimum that the Dutch government, specifically the city government of Amsterdam was so unwilling to provide? Does the call for human rights come down to the bare material essentials, or is it something more? Is it the bare essentials first because that’s what is needed for survival? Would the protestors have something to protest once these basic rights were granted? It’s not clear from the documentary because so much of it focuses on the daily struggle for a place to sleep, along with the legal struggle. Perhaps the refugees do not even know themselves. Something that was discussed at the Civil Disobedience Beyond the State conference in Oxford was the idea that sometimes civil disobedience movements start off as strategic and then become principled in the process of conceptualization. Karuna Mantena explained that this is how Gandhi’s Satyagraha movement evolved.

Anne McNevin writes about undocumented migrants that take part in public protests in order to question the legitimacy of exclusive citizenship, bring forward the historical injustices and interconnectedness that facilitated the creation of the liberal democratic nation and the “illegal” migrant. In France, the Sans Papiers movement seeks to remind France of its own colonial history, and the intertwined past, present and futures of the French nationhood with its colonies. McNevin writes, “They implicitly question whether the privilege attending national (French) citizenship can ever be divorced conceptually or materially from the exploitation of the lives, labour, culture, territory, and identity of the state’s (colonial) others” (McNevin, 2009, 173). In this sense, perhaps one could even interpret this as a call for reparations for past grievances. The “migration crisis” is very much perceived as a humanitarian burden that needs to be solved instead of a political protest that draws attention to a continuation of global injustice. While “We Are Here” has some implicit moments of addressing a broader sense of injustice, it remains unclear if We Are Here aims for what Sans Papiers does, and precisely what type of interconnectedness it seeks to highlight.

At the end of the film there was a panel discussion. The panelists were: moderator Lara Staal from Frascati Theatre; Sinan Abdullah Rehman from We Are Here; Massimiliano Sfregola from We Are Here and +31Mag.nl; Eva Schram from OneWorld.nl and Karlijn Muiderman from The Broker. At the heart of the discussion was the contradiction between knowing or understanding the realities faced by refugees, and knowing what to do with that knowledge. What is the “right way to report about refugees?”, asked moderator Lara Staal. Rehman, who is featured in the documentary and also contributed to filming some of the scenes describes how the documentary more accurately portrays the conversations and struggles faced by the refugees. He explained that he does not speak about his life to journalists the way he speaks about his life with his fellow refugees, and the documentary captures these intimate conversations because he was one of the people filming. “ I want to share the truth…give the story clear and honest,” said Sinan.

It is in many ways a tale of different, parallel conversations and knowledge that are understood, misunderstood and circulated. One of Rehman’s main worries was how uninformed the journalists and Dutch public seemed with regards to the situations faced by refugees. He found that even university students he spoke with were ignorant of the realities faced by refugees. Rehman has moved eighteen times in three years, and said he is always surprised by some of the questions he is asked by reporters: “when will you go back to your country?” Sfregola pointed out that reporters often do not understand the dire situations that refugees are fleeing from, nor do they understand the complexities of the Dublin Regulation, which dictates the terms of seeking asylum in Europe. Many of the refugees interviewed in “We Are Here” refer to the violence and war that they are fleeing back in their countries. They never dreamed of going to Europe; they simply had nowhere else to go. The belief is that in Europe, ones rights are respected, “there is peace in the Netherlands,” one refugee is heard saying in the documentary.

Schram, a journalist, noted that one of the dominant narratives present in the media is the “they are the victims and we are the helpers” narrative, which is not helpful. She said that there are many things not being told, such as the fact that the Dutch government had started counting every refugee application as a separate application even if it was filed by the same person. So one refugee who has applied for refugee status eight times would be considered eight different applications. This distorts the public’s understanding of how many refugees are actually applying. Muiderman, a knowledge broker who works to connect policy makers to academia, noted that this is a “political crisis” and not a “migration crisis.”

This is a political crisis, and in many ways the documentary conveys that. We Are Here continues to act as a political movement that pressures the Dutch government to recognize the political crisis and to change its policies towards refugees. But how do we move beyond the “they are the victims and we the helpers” mentality? How do we fill the knowledge gap and what do we do about the parallel conversations that happen? What do we mean by human rights? These are important questions that were raised during the discussion; questions that the public is called to reflect upon.

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Civil Disobedience Beyond the State III

Civil Disobedience Beyond the State III: The Right of Resistance in A Globalized World
Nuffield College, Oxford University
November 25-26, 2015

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At the end of the first year of our project, the third installment of the Civil Disobedience Beyond the State workshop series took place at Oxford University. We convened at Nuffield College to discuss actions that could be considered forms of transnational and global civil disobedience. Among the themes that organizers Annette Zimmermann, Robin Celikates and Theresa Züger outlined were the “new agents, new practices, and new ends” of civil disobedience in the global realm. Some of the problems highlighted were the democratic boundary problem; knowing which institutions actually apply to us; whether engaging in civil disobedience can be seen as a right or duty and why; and the enduring value of paradigm cases such as those of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.

The first panel commenced with Simon Caney, who presented “Justice in Transition to a Better World: On the Relationship between Means and Ends”, and Ashwini Vasanthakumar’s presentation, “Exile Politics and Transnational Civil Disobedience.” Both presentations touched upon the complex relationship between means and ends in civil disobedience. Caney provided us with an overview of the debates surrounding the justifications for violent or non-violent means used to reach certain ends. Gandhi, for example, believed that only non-violent means could produce a peaceful end. Revolutionary politics, on the other hand, often calls for an “ends justify the means” type of approach. Caney sees a third way, a more pluralist approach that he calls “non-deal reflective equilibrium.” With this approach, it is important to revise ends and means, to weigh intuitions in light of the context or concrete situation. This method of “non ideal reflective equilibrium” is guided by the core commitments of deliberative democracy. Meanwhile Vasanthakumar argued for a conception of civil disobedience that is more in line with the traditional definition. Through her case study of the Tamil community in Canada using civil disobedience to protest the injustice of the civil war in Sri Lanka, she demonstrated how misplaced the use of civil disobedience can be in the transnational realm. She argued that blocking one of the busiest highways in Canada to protest what was going on in Sri Lanka was not an effective way to address the particular injustice that was occurring in Sri Lanka. The end has to be related to the political community that we are in. Still, she stated that exiles do have a duty to resist, a duty to publicize the injustices that they experience or know of, if not use civil disobedience.

After the first panel, Karuna Mantena gave the keynote lecture titled, “Individual versus Mass Civil Disobedience in Gandhian Satyagraha.” Through her historical analysis of the evolution of Gandhi’s Satyagraha, she shed new light on his philosophy. She described how by the time Gandhi led the successful Salt March of 1930 in India, he had experienced many failures with civil disobedience during his activism in South Africa. Mantena explained how Gandhi’s Satyagraha should not be understood merely as a spiritually motivated civil disobedience; instead it should be understood as stemming from Gandhi’s realism. Gandhi’s movement started off as tactical, aimed at changing racial segregation in British South Africa. The tactics he used were not spiritually motivated in the beginning; they were strategic moves that were meant to provoke the British. Eventually, Gandhi’s civil disobedience became principled in the process. What are the implications of understanding Gandhi’s Satyagraha from a realist standpoint? What lessons from the paradigmatic case can we take and apply to today’s global civil disobedience?

On the second day, we had three panel sessions. The first session started with Kimberley Brownlee’s talk, “Can there be Conscientious Disobedience on a Global Stage?” and Leslie Green’s talk, “Civil Disobedience and Political Protest.” In a continuum from our Berlin workshop, Brownlee engaged in a debate with Scheuerman’s work on whether Edward Snowden fits the Rawlsian definition of civil disobedience. While Scheuerman has argued that the actions of Snowden can be described as civil disobedience, Brownlee argued that he does not fit the Rawslian definition because his actions do not fulfill the publicity criteria or the fidelity to law criteria since he did not notify the public of his intent beforehand and refuses to accept the punishment. Instead, Brownlee claimed that Snowden can be seen as an example of conscientious disobedience on a global scale. Leslie Green discussed the idea of constructive civil disobedience, which contrasts with the more traditional “remedial” civil disobedience, which is directed at a domestic government with the aim of changing a law or policy. Constructive civil disobedience seeks to create a social contract where there was not one “in the first place”, e.g. on the global level.

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In the second panel of the day Temi Ogunye presented, “Global Justice and Transnational Civil Disobedience” and William Smith discussed “Civil Disobedience as Transnational Disruption.” Ogunye argued that as citizens of liberal democratic states, it is our duty to engage in civil disobedience on behalf of those who cannot. Smith, on the other hand was searching for normative global standards regarding global legitimacy in transnational protest movements, and legitimacy between states. He gave the example of indigenous communities that invite the international community to take a stand on a domestic issue.

The final panel included Javier Hidalgo on the “Duty to Resist Unjust Immigration Restrictions” and Luis Cabrera on “Global Civil Disobedience and the Averted Gaze: On Strict Legality vs. Leniency in the Context of Unauthorized Migration.” While both panelists discussed undocumented migration in relation to transnational civil disobedience, they approached the issue from distinct perspectives. Javier Hidalgo shifted the focus from the undocumented migrant to that of the citizen. He argued that as citizens in wealthy liberal democratic states, it is our duty to resist unjust immigration restrictions if the potential penalty for the citizen is not very high. This could include hiring or housing undocumented migrants, for example. Luis Cabrera, meanwhile, who has argued that undocumented migrants are acting like global citizens when they decide to cross borders, shifted his focus to the emerging global normative charter of cosmopolitan law or individual rights. We already have an international declaration of human rights. Given that we subscribe to these principles, how should states respond to principled border crossing? They can choose strict legality or leniency. Cabrera argues for leniency, explaining that the “averted gaze” is what happens when the government turns away from the humans involved in undocumented migration. Often the words used to describe migrants are “swarm” or “tsunami”, and this can be dehumanizing rhetoric. Cabrera argued that we have to refocus the “averted gaze” on to the humans and their needs.

In the end, we left with more questions than answers. During the concluding discussion, we discussed the importance of a continued effort to maintain diverse participation and include various viewpoints from around the globe in our workshops. Other points raised include: who are the duty bearers? Do those who have an epistemic privilege have a greater duty to disobey since they know of their injustice? Another point that we learned from cases such as Gandhi is that sometimes the civil disobedience movements start off as strategic and then become principled in the process of conceptualization. What are the implications of this process on how we interpret the potential of “illegal” migration as civil disobedience? As we concluded the third workshop in this series, as well as our first year of this project, we now move into the next year with a new sense of conceptual problems and empirical cases that raise questions and challenges for our project.