Refugees & the Future of Europe
In 1992 WSCF organized jointly with Evangelischen StudentInnengemeinden (ESG) a conference that was related to some aspects of migration: “The Europe of the Future in the Century of Refugees”. As you can see, more than 20 years ago Europe was dealing with a very different reality than today.
The asylum policy of the various European governments stands at the centre of the current public debate going on in this continent. In the now united Germany, it seems to be hottest issue of the moment. Slogans like “Foreigners out!” versus “No expulsion of refugees!” decorate almost every street in the main German cities and are indicative of the controversy surrounding the issue. Thus there was every reason for the central organisation of the (East) German ESG to devote its annual international autumn conference to “The Europe of the Future in the Century of the Refugees”.
Some 25 participants representing seven different countries had come to Berlin to learn about and discuss the following sub-topics: the reasons for people to leave their country, the legal constraints regarding immigration in Europe, the tension between segregation and assimilation, and the way we approach foreigners ourselves.
Causes of the refugee problem
As the first guest speaker, Mr. Robin Schneider of the Berlin Institute for Comparative Social Research gave a very informative introduction on the refugee issue. The 1951 UN Refugee Convention defines a refugee as a person who, as a result of a well-founded fear of persecution because of his race, religion, nationality, his membership of a certain social group, or his political opinion, finds himself outside the country of which he possesses the nationality. As a social anthropologist, however, Mr Schneider adopted a less restrictive view towards the term ‘refugee’. In addition to human rights violations, the main reasons for people to take to flight have been bad economic prospects, environmental degradation, and wars.
Since 1945, most wars have taken place in the so-called Third World. It is also there that the largest numbers of refugees can be found. According to Mr Schneider, the most fundamental cause of these wars is the present system of nation-states. This system has forced the indigenous people of Asia and Africa to live together within artificially created boundaries. They have been subjected to the authority of a state, which is usually dominated by a particular ethnic or religious group. The non-recognition of this dominance by other groups has already given rise to many a bloody war, and has thus caused many people to leave their native region. What is needed is a system of prevention, rather than cure, such as the new UN ‘early warning system’. They aim to detect as soon as possible if and where the conditions arise that will cause people to flee. It appears to be a very welcome document as it is based on prevention; legal instruments such as the refugee convention are concerned with people that have already fled.
What about Europe? How hospitable are we vis-à-vis refugees? Since World War II, Europe has developed from an emigration towards an immigration continent. But are we really ‘overflown’ by ‘enormous numbers’ of refugees, as the extreme and also the not-so-extreme Right want us to believe? In 1990, the FRG hosted some 150,000 refugees; by contrast, a Third World country like Pakistan had more than 3 million refugees within its borders! Though I do not intend to deny the recent growth in the number of people seeking asylum in the EC, these figures indicate that the situation in Europe is not as dramatic as many newspapers and politicians pretend. Yet, why are Europeans so unwilling to admit more foreigners into their countries?
In her lecture, psychologist Mrs. Ute Osterkamp of the Free University in Berlin strongly rejected the idea that hostility towards foreigners is a natural, innate characteristic of German/European people. She reproached the main political parties for fostering this idea. By restraining admission and locking refugees up in asylum centres, politicians are rewarding the violent anti-refugee activities of the neo-nazis. According to Mrs. Osterkamp, however, the real cause of the hostility is the existential uncertainty confronting many Europeans. There is a psychological mechanism which means that people do not put the reason – and thus the solution – for this uncertainty with themselves, but with others, with foreigners. The government should use this insight and try to reduce the existential uncertainty of the citizens. If the hostility against foreigners is to be eliminated, it will be more fruitful to create jobs than to create tightly closed asylum centres, Mrs. Osterkamp explained.
Exchanging thoughts and experiences
In addition to lectures and discussions, the conference also included a thematic tour through Berlin. We visited the Technical University, where volunteers provided refuge to a group of fifty foreigners who had been mistreated by neo-nazis in the town of Hoyerswerda. In Kreuzberg, a Berlin district where one third of the population has a Turkish background, a visit was paid to a multi-cultural café for refugees. We also attended a solidarity party in a centre run by Turkish immigrants. There we had a chance to make contact with refugees themselves. This experience was not only very instructive, everybody really enjoyed it as well!
The ‘refugee problem’ appears to be quite encompassing and complex; three days of conferring are far too short to obtain a thorough insight. And yet, in addition to the luxury of having spent several days together in a remarkably good atmosphere, the conference has at least provided us with a greater awareness of the importance of the issue and the questions raised; for it is on the answers to these questions that the face of the Europe of the 21st Century will largely depend.
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