Foreigners Out!

This is the title of a documentary I just saw at the `docaviv´, a fantastic documentary film festival, here in Tel Aviv-Jaffa. The film (watch a trailer here) documents Christoph Schlingensief´s performance art, paired with an installation and moments of acting in Vienna in 2001. This was done on the occasion of the involvement of the far right in Austria´s government in February 2000, initiated by the conservative people’s party. Referring to the format of `Big Brother´, Schlingensief put up containers and created a temporary home for asylum seekers, obvservable 24/7 online, in course of the annual Vienna Festival. His idea was to publicly orchestrate the deportation of these people and by doing so holding a mirror up to ‘Western’ societies, certainly mainly to xenophobic Austria. Twelve actual asylum seekers from Nigeria to China were brought into the containers and everyday, people could vote on the web who has to leave them and therefore being deported from the country. On top of the little container-village, a banner restated the main message from the election campaign of the FPÖ (Freedom Party of Austria), “Ausländer Raus!” (Foreigners Out!).

auslaender-raus-schlingensiefs-container

Source: filmgalerie 451 – http://www.filmgalerie451.de/media/thumbnails/films/auslaender-raus-schlingensiefs-container.jpg.540x290_q95_box-0%2C0%2C540%2C290_crop_detail_upscale.jpg

Although this action art was intriguing and raised strong reactions, it was just one mosaic in the huge picture of migration. An unprecedented number of people are leaving their homes out of desperation these times in search for a better life. Despite different patterns of transnational migration, the tendency is clearly that people follow opportunities to participate in the wealth of the so called Global North. In North America, for instance, the Mexican/US border is one such hotspot of international migration. Although extensive parts of the US are depending on (cheap) Mexican or other Latin American labour, at the same time the country is maintaining a hostile border-regime. This fact mirrors the hypocrisy Western states are dealing with the issue, celebrating free markets of goods and capital but leaving the movement of people in a grey zone. This uncertainty is exploited by unscrupulous agencies and individuals and places migrants in precarious and dangerous situations.

The Mediterranean, as the natural boundary between Africa and Europe, constitutes another section in the Global North-Global South threshold and therefore also a hotspot in international migration. The obvious routes from Africa towards Europe are via the Canary Islands, Gibraltar, and the Malta/Sicily `bridge´. The European Union is putting up several mechanisms through a body called Frontex, such as camps in the North African states along the Mediterranean, to prevent people from actually reaching the Europe. The organisation´s website confirms that “[a]s an integral part of its mission, Frontex builds cooperation with countries outside the EU. These relationships represent a valuable tool for effectively tackling irregular migration and cross-border crime […]”.[1] This outsourcing of border-zones beyond the actual territory is one intriguing aspect of the concept of borderland.

main migration routes into eu - frontex

Source: Frontex – http://frontex.europa.eu/trends-and-routes/migratory-routes-map

Besides the western and central routes to Europe through the Mediterranean, there has been a third option to reach a relatively wealthy state, especially for war stricken East Africans from Sudan and Eritrea. Also hosting migrants from countries like Nigeria, refugees from these two are especially present in Israel and the southern part of Tel Aviv, the crossover zone to Jaffa. Taking off from their homes, refugees used to enter Israel via Egypt and the Sinai on foot. Israel´s role in migration from Africa is special because of two reasons: First it is in relatively good reach without crossing the sea; and second, compared to significantly lower economic standards in the region’s other countries, its GDP and overall standards of life reaches average European standards. See this arte documentary from the year 2011 (German).

migration routes - sudan/eritrea to israel

Source: borderlandlevant – based on: http://www.lib.utexas.edu/maps/middle_east_and_asia/txu-oclc-192062619-middle_east_pol_2008.jpg

When it comes to statistics and numbers, there are no clear and accurate data available. According to the World Bank, there were around 41.000 refugees in Israel in 2011.[2] The British Guardian reports approximately 65.000 migrants, mainly from Eritrea and Sudan, have entered Israel between 2006 and 2012.[3] The Jerusalem Post, citing numbers from the Interior Ministry, comes up with 55.000 illegal immigrants as of January 2012.[4] Referring to a UNHCR official, however, JPost speaks about 8.500 Eritreans and 5.000 to 6.000 Sudanese in Israel as of April 2013,[5] leaving a rest of over 40.000, even if they claim the Eritreans represent the biggest group. Next to the unclear numbers, the different designations unveil the unwillingness (of the Israeli government) to officially recognise people as refugees. The list goes from “infiltrators”,[6] which is the most prominent denomination, to “illegal immigrants”,[7] “illegal workers”,[8] which I found especially cynical, “foreign workers”,[9] “non-Jewish workers”[10], and so on.

african asylum seekers in tel aviv´s levinsky park

African regugees in south Tel Aviv´s Levinsky park

Source: borderlandlevant

As representatives from NGOs which support the refugees report, the usual procedure at the beginning was that the refugees walked across the border from Egypt to Israel. There most of them got caught and put in detention in camps in the Negev desert. Once the camps were full, the refugees wer carried to Tel Aviv-Jaffa in busses and released; a common practice also in Europe. Because of the high numbers, last year, Israel decided to build a 240 km long fence along its border to Egypt, which dropped the number of refugees to zero by the end of 2012, according to the Guardian.[11] Out of the refugees, who came in the years before, many ended up in the neighbourhood of Neve Sha´anan in south Tel Aviv. As a consequence, around two thirds of the neighbourhood´s population of about 20.000 people are immigrants.[12]

As we learn from history, this area has long been one of immigration and transit; the location of the poor, of drugs and prostitution, and the arrival of the refugees from Africa just added another chapter and dimension. But there is an important difference. Now there is a visible group of people who can be blamed for all the misery in the quarter, although even the Police confirm that the crime rate among the Africans is actually lower than of the average population.[13] Despite this fact, hostile protests, partly violent, took place in south Tel Aviv in recent years, mainly targeting Africans.

street scene in south tel aviv´s neve sha´anan streetStreet scene Neve Sha´anan Street, south Tel Aviv

tv-bar, neve sha´anan“TV-bar” in the Neve Sha´anan quarter

Source: borderlandlevant

So what is Israel doing, given the situation? It is in any case a vague approach that leaves both immigrants and natives in uncertainty. Ha´aretz shows Israel´s ambiguity as “on the one hand, it states that employers who break the law by hiring asylum seekers will not face prosecution or be fined, and on the other, it refuses to issue work permits to the asylum seekers.” Don Futterman highlights that “Israel grants refugee status to almost nobody and does not even examine the cases of Sudanese and Eritreans.[14] The Guardian reports that “Israel approved one out of 4,603 applications for asylum in 2011” and that “[m]ore than 9,000 migrants were deported in 2012, including almost 4,000 from African countries.[15]These deportations took place in a hostile environment, fuelled by politicians like Miri Regev, who said Sudanese refugees were a “cancer in our body”.[16] An even more insane note slipped out of Prof. Arnon Soffer and his team at University of Haifa´s Geography Department. Facing massive waves of migration into Israel, they assert the country should fence itself completely off. However, “[w]hile the fences around Israel are necessary, […] so too are corridors to allow the free passage of animals. Such passages could be monitored by soldiers for days at a time to allow the animals, such as snakes, to cross both ways.”[17] So while Israel has to fence itself off completely and particularly against refugees, it has to make sure animals like snakes are free to enter the country. Such a degree of inhumanity is hard to beat.

tents in levinsky parkTents as living spaces for refugees in south Tel Aviv´s Levnisky park

Source: borderlandlevant

Despite undeniable difficulties resulting from immigration to Israel, particularly for the city of Tel Aviv-Jaffa, or more precisely the neighbourhoods in between them, two aspects seem to be very problematic. First, there is a great degree of hypocrisy in (ab)using migrant workers for poorly paid jobs, nobody else is willing to do, on the one hand, and threatening to, or actually deport them on the other. This reminds me of Balibar´s notion of a “politics of fear”,[18] used against both migrants and the native population for gaining political capital. Second, the language used is more than inappropriate and unworthy of a state calling itself civilised and a democracy.

Returning to Austria´s shameful attitude towards a far right mindset, we have to take these primitive reflexes serious, no matter where they appear. Moreover, looking at the measurements taken by the US and the EU, Israel is certainly not an exception. Since the pressure resulting from migration will continue all over the world, we should ask ourselves about the reasons why it is happening and solutions to what we are going to do about it. Raising inequality and injustice on all levels is certainly not helping to stop people from demanding their share of well-being. Acknowledging that our wealth, the wealth of the “West” or the “Global North” is founded on the ruins of the lives of others, who then, no wonder, want to escape their misery, would be a first step.

The reasons might therefore be closer to us than we are willing to admit, and we are challenged to react but in a human way, even in our own interest. Solidarity not because of mere benevolence but out of our own will to sustain our lives. Fencing ourselves off – be it in the form of gated communities, state borders or intricate mechanisms on a supranational level – might help temporarily, but every engineer knows that even the strongest retaining wall collapses if the pressure from one side becomes too high. Continuing with business as usual, this pressure will eventually reverse the `balance of power´. It will first demand an ever growing amount of money to maintain our fortresses, and finally collapse them.

Many thanks to Dr. Eva Stiermayr for pointing me to the JPost article on fences and snakes and to Mag. Tobias Hagleitner for the link to the arte film!

I also want to thank the Austrian Embassy and Cultural Forum in Israel, for bringing fascinating and critical Austrian films to the docaviv-festival!

 

Bibliography

Balibar, E 2009, Europe as borderland, in: Environment and Planning D-Society & Space 27(2), 190-215

Fenster, T, Yacobi, H 2005, Whose City is it? On Urban Planning and Local Knowledge in Globalizing Tel Aviv-Jaffa, in: Planning Theory & Practice 6, 191-211


[10] Fenster & Yacobi 2005

[12] Fenster & Yacobi 2005, p 210

[13] Brett Kline, Down and out in south Tel Aviv, Ha´aretz, May 30, 2012

[18] Balibar 2009, p 203

 

© All rights reserved: Sigi Atteneder, 2013