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.